Legacy of Slavery Working Party recommendations
Following interim recommendations from our Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP), Jesus College has decided that a Benin Bronze statue of a cockerel will be returned, and that we will acknowledge and contextualise Tobias Rustat’s role in our history.
The LSWP has researched the provenance of the statue and the legal and moral status of its ownership. There is no doubt that the statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin as part of the punitive expedition of 1897 and given to the College in 1905 by the father of a Jesus College student.
The recommendation to return the statue came from the LSWP and has been discussed by the Fellowship before being passed to College Council for a decision. Over the last three years, we have been in discussion with a member of the Benin Dialogue Group and that has led us to conclude that this royal ancestral heirloom belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin. We do not yet know the exact detail of when and how the statue will be returned.
Tobias Rustat was one of our College’s largest benefactors before the twentieth century. His initial personal wealth came from his career as a courtier in the mid-17th Century. Rustat added to his wealth when he became an investor in a series of trading companies including the Royal African Company. In his recent book about the Royal African Company, historian William Pettigrew states that it: “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.” This brutal and sustained trade exploited thousands of people. Investors were fully aware of its activities and intended to profit from this exploitation.
The College’s trajectory from a sleepy, rural College to a bastion of academic excellence was undeniably shaped by Rustat’s financial support. However, his involvement in the slave trade is not in doubt. The investigations of the LSWP and the decisions of the Fellowship to acknowledge and contextualise Tobias Rustat's contributions to the College, are not trying to delete this part of our history. We have an obligation to remember his legacy in College today with proper contextualisation.
Work began on the LSWP in early May 2019. The group brings together eight College academics including the Keeper of the Old Library, plus the College archivist, an external advisor, and two student union representatives. Jesus College announced the establishment of the Working Party and its plans earlier this year.
Chair of the LSWP, Dr Véronique Mottier, said: “The LSWP’s work runs separately but parallel to the University of Cambridge Legacy of Slavery Inquiry (LSI). While we are not due to publish our final findings until after the LSI’s report in 2022, our initial work identified two areas requiring immediate attention – ownership of the Benin Bronze statue and the ways in which we represent one of the College’s most significant benefactors. We will now support the necessary work to implement these decisions.”
The Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, said: “The work of the LSWP has been diligent and careful. These decisions have not been taken to erase history. We are an honest community, and after thorough investigation into the provenance of the Benin Bronze and Rustat’s investment in the slave trade, our job is to seek the best way forward.”