Image of Rustat memorial on the wall in Jesus College Chapel
Photo: Chris Loades

Legacy of Slavery Inquiry update: proposed relocation of Rustat’s memorial

Following new recommendations by our Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP), Jesus College has decided to make changes wherever Tobias Rustat is explicitly celebrated in College. In particular, the College has proposed to the Church of England authorities that his memorial should be removed from our Chapel.

Tobias Rustat was one of our College’s largest benefactors before the twentieth century. He had financial and other involvement in the Royal African Company, a slave trading company, over a substantial period including at the time he donated to the College. In his recent book, historian William Pettigrew states that the Royal African Company: "shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade." Investors were fully aware of the Company’s activities and intended to profit from this exploitation.

Rustat was also a benefactor of the University Library and a small stone statue of him stands at the University’s Old Schools, the original site of the Library. We are part of the Collegiate University and our decisions are in line with the outcomes of their similar review of Rustat, which was announced simultaneously on their website.

As a first step, the College Council will commission a plaque which critically acknowledges Rustat’s – and hence the College’s – links to the slave trade. It will be placed at the main College entrance.

Chair of the LSWP, Dr Véronique Mottier, said: “Our aim is not to erase Rustat from our history. We have taken a nuanced approach, considering where he is explicitly celebrated versus where he is mentioned in a factual manner. The LSWP will now support the work needed to carry out these decisions.”

The Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, said: “Following the LSWP’s latest recommendations, the College’s Council has considered all areas where Rustat is present in College and made a series of decisions in the honest spirit of acknowledging the past and shaping an inclusive future. I would like to thank the representatives of the Church of England for their time, engagement and insights, particularly as they are carrying out their own review of monuments linked to slavery. I’m pleased we are moving in step with the University of Cambridge.”

Geoffrey Hunter, Head of Church Buildings and Pastoral, Diocese of Ely, said: “This is a live issue for churches and chapels across the country.  The College has been both swift and very thorough in its approach to dealing with Rustat’s legacy, and sets a very helpful example for other places of worship.”

Rustat’s memorial in Chapel

Rustat’s large marble memorial dominates the wall as you enter our Chapel. Located directly opposite the altar and known to be the work of Grinling Gibbons’ atelier, Rustat commissioned the monument and celebratory inscription during his lifetime when he was already a major College donor.

Following a request in Rustat’s will, he was buried in Chapel and the monument installed, most probably in its current location. It was later moved at least twice before being moved back to its current location in 1922. The College Council has decided the memorial represents a celebration of Rustat, which is incompatible with the Chapel as an inclusive community and place of collective wellbeing, and has proposed it should be removed.

As a Grade I listed building, this change falls under Faculty Jurisdiction Rules operated by the Church of England. In June, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that the Church was “very carefully" reviewing statues at major places of worship to see "if they all should be there". Following constructive discussions with representatives from the Diocese of Ely about the LSWP’s recommendations, the outcomes of these conversations were considered by the College Council. The Church is very supportive of our considerations and will make a decision about our proposal over the next few months.

Following on from our proposal to remove it, our current intention is to relocate the memorial to an educational exhibition space.

Other decisions

We have made a series of decisions about the use of Rustat’s image and name in College, contextualising those which are celebratory and leaving factual representations unchanged.

  • The Rustat Feasts and Rustat Conferences – the latter founded in 2009 – were renamed in January 2020.
  • Rustat's portrait will be placed in our Works of Art storage; in future it may be displayed as part of educational exhibitions and with critical contextualisation.
  • A 19th-century window with many coats of arms and names, including Rustat’s, does not particularly celebrate him and will therefore remain.
  • The Rustat scholars’, widows’ and clergy children’s funds, created by the terms of his will, cannot easily be renamed or reallocated due to stringent charity law conditions. Potential recipients will be fully informed of its history.
  • Rustat’s name on our donor wall will remain unchanged, and his role will be contextualised by the nearby plaque at the entrance to the College.

Other work of the LSWP

In November 2019, we announced our plans to return a Benin Bronze and we remain committed to this decision. We are in correspondence with the current Oba in Benin and have made good progress with associated administrative tasks, despite the outbreak of COVID-19 slowing this process down. In October 2020 the Charity Commission agreed in principle that the College can transfer the Benin Bronze to the Royal Court of Benin. We will share further details as soon as possible.

We are funding an internship program for eight undergraduate and postgraduate students from Jesus College. Currently planned for spring 2021, the interns will collaborate with the academics of the LSWP for the second phase of research into the College archives and Old Library. This collaborative research phase will be organised around a number of projects, from studies which will further explore the College's links to slavery, colonial violence and racial science to the recovery of the history of BAME students, Fellows and staff at Jesus College.