Tobias Rustat (1608-1694) was one of Jesus College’s most significant benefactors. Rustat had financial and other involvement in the Royal African Company (RAC), a slave trading company, over a substantial period of time including at the time when he donated to the College.
The historian William Pettigrew describes the activities of the RAC clearly: "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. From its foundation in 1672 to the early 1720s, the African Company transported close to 150,000 enslaved Africans, mostly to the British Caribbean." This was a brutal and sustained trade in human life that exploited thousands of people: investors in the RAC were fully aware of its activities and intended to profit from its exploitation.
Jesus College acknowledges that involvement in enslavement, trafficking and exploitation is unambiguously wrong. Following the recommendations of our Legacy of Slavery Working Party (LSWP), the College has decided to critically address Tobias Rustat's role in our history in various ways, which will be implemented in the course of 2020.
Life and career
Tobias Rustat was the son of Robert Rustat (d.1637), who had been a student at Jesus in the 1580s and who had succeeded his own father as vicar of Barrow-on-Soar in Leicestershire.
Rustat was first apprenticed to a barber surgeon and then joined the household of Viscount Fielding, a Leicestershire landowner. There he showed himself “the most diligent attending servant in the whole family, early and late, exact and complete in his place”, spending the years 1634-39 in Venice while Fielding was English ambassador there. Soon after their return to England, Rustat left Fielding’s service for that of his relative, the young Duke of Buckingham. The Duke's father had been a favourite of Charles I and after he was murdered in 1628, the Duke was brought up with the King’s own children.
Rustat remained devoted to Prince Charles, later Charles II, for the rest of his life; the diarist John Evelyn described him as “a very simple, ignorant, but honest and loyal creature”. Once the Civil War broke out Rustat was one of the couriers of secret correspondence between the King in England and the Queen in Paris, and he served in the royal forces which were defeated at Kingston in July 1648. He joined Charles II in exile and soon became one of his favourite servants, accompanying him in his travels across France, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. When the King had to leave France in 1654 Rustat was a middle ranking officer whose pay was fixed at 40 guilders a month. In 1659 he was summoned from Bruges to Bordeaux to bring the King clean clothes, and in the autumn of that year he was for a time the King's only attendant.
Appointed Yeoman of the Robes in 1659, much of Rustat’s personal wealth came from this career as a courtier in the 1640s and afterwards. At this time, the line between public service and private enterprise was blurry, and courtiers holding office in the Royal household profited substantially from them.
His loyal service was well rewarded on the King’s return to England. His wages as Yeoman of the Robes were doubled by the grant of an annuity, then doubled again by a 'customary allowance' for looking after the King’s coronation and parliament robes, and yet again nearly doubled by his appointment as Under-Housekeeper at Hampton Court. All this came with free board, rent free official quarters, and a clothing allowance. Rustat remained Yeoman of the Robes until the death of Charles II in 1685, and retained his Hampton Court appointment until the arrival of William and Mary in 1689.
Rustat sought to further increase his wealth through investments in a series of trading companies: the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa, commonly called the Royal African Company, which was chartered in 1663 and reincorporated in 1672 as The Royal African Company (RAC). His name appears on the charter of both of these companies; he also seems to have been involved in another trading company, the Gambian Adventurers, into the early 1680s. Rustat’s investment in the RAC was £400 (the equivalent of £60,000 today). Many courtiers and others in Rustat’s circle invested, including the Duke of Buckingham and his private banker, Edward Backwell.
The RAC was not consistently profitable, but Rustat received dividends on his investment. He also took a role in running the RAC, being elected for a yearly term as an Assistant (the rough equivalent of a Director) in the years 1676, 1679, and 1680, although his direct involvement in the day-to-day management of the company was not great. Rustat thus had financial and other involvement in a slave trading company over a substantial period of time, including at the time when he donated to the College.
Rustat’s gift to Jesus, made in 1671, was part of a broader project of philanthropy that began in the mid–1660s.
Rustat’s charitable giving had a political and religious agenda: as an ardent royalist during the Civil Wars, he intended his bequests primarily to support the established Church and the universities (which, like most early modern people, he would have understood as politicised, religious institutions), and to relieve clergy and their families who had suffered as a result of the religious and political upheavals of the 1650s.
Between 1665 and 1686 Rustat thus gave away more than £11,000 in support of the Church of England and his King, as well as to victims of misfortune, widows, the sick and elderly, and orphans. He contributed to the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral, and to the establishment of funds for clergy widows and for poor clergy in Leicestershire, for example.
His devotion to the Stuarts can be seen in the statues he commissioned of Charles II for Windsor Castle and Chelsea Hospital and of James II, now in Trafalgar Square. He also began a tradition of speeches at Jesus College, Cambridge and at St John’s College, Oxford on the anniversaries of the battle of Edgehill, the execution of Charles I, and the restoration of Charles II.
In 1667 he gave Cambridge University Library its first endowment, to buy “the choicest and most useful” books. Four years later, in 1671, he made to Jesus, his father’s College, his largest single gift (of £2,000) for scholarships for orphan sons of Anglican clergymen. Clergy orphans were a group that had been left especially vulnerable by the Civil War, as he knew all too well: one of his parson brothers had been evicted from his parish and had died before the Restoration, leaving three children for his widow to bring up. It may not be coincidence that 1671 was the same year in which his former employer, the Duke of Buckingham, was elected the University’s Chancellor, and in which King Charles II paid his first visit to Cambridge.