Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne defends decision to fight legal case despite court defeat. She ponders, “The Church of England promised to tackle racial injustice. Why is it defending a slave trader’s memory?” Sally Weale reports for The Guardian. [Many thanks to Joan Anim-Addo (Emeritus Professor of Caribbean Literature and Culture (Goldsmiths, University of London) for bringing this item to our attention.]
A Cambridge University college spent £120,000 on its failed attempt to remove a memorial in its chapel to a 17th-century benefactor who had extensive involvement in the slave trade, it has emerged. Writing in the Guardian, Sonita Alleyne, the master of Jesus College, defended the decision to fight the case and criticised the “antiquated” church process that ended in defeat for the college.
The disputed memorial was the subject of a three-day consistory court hearing in February, where the college was required to seek permission from the diocese of Ely to remove the plaque from the chapel wall, where it was deterring members of the community from worship, and relocate it elsewhere in the college.
Alleyne, who is the first black master of an Oxbridge college, said that after research exposed the extent of Tobias Rustat’s 30-year involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, an overwhelming majority of fellows voted in favour of seeking permission to relocate the memorial. “This felt straightforward,” writes Alleyne. “From a moral point of view, Rustat’s activities helped finance the slave factories along the west African coast. It enabled ships to transport tens of thousands of enslaved women, children and men across the Middle Passage. And it led to these people being worked to death in the killing fields of the Caribbean and Americas.”
Last month, however, the consistory court decided that opposition to the memorial was based on “a false narrative” about the scale of the financial rewards Rustat gained from slavery and ordered that the memorial should remain in the chapel. Jesus College has since decided against an appeal, but has called on the Church of England to find a better way of addressing issues of racial injustice and contested heritage. “There was no question, we had to fight this case,” said Alleyne. “In doing so, the college will have spent around £120,000 on an antiquated process that it had little choice but to follow, dominated by lawyers, and which is ill-designed for resolving sensitive matters of racial justice and contested heritage. The church must develop something better than this.”
Throughout the process, Alleyne said, she felt Rustat’s memorial was given more weight than the 150,000 African people he helped traffic into slavery. “Having considered the judgment, I believe that this process is incapable of accounting for the lived experience of people of colour in Britain today.”
She compared the Rustat dispute with opposition to the admission of female students to the university. “Just two generations ago, women students were admitted for the first time,” she said. “Opponents cited 483 years of male-only access among other vehement criticisms. Their arguments were proved to be untenable. Buildings were repurposed and new arrangements and traditions created. As a consequence, the college is fairer and far more academically exciting today.”
She added: “I am proud to be master of an establishment like Jesus College. The quiet deliberation and conversation started by the fellows in May 2019 has not shied away from difficult subjects or this course of action. It is part of our walk towards fairness. It matters to Jesus College, and it ought to matter to the Church of England.”
Many senior figures in the Church of England, including the archbishop of Canterbury, have expressed their support for Alleyne and the relocation of the memorial.
[Photograph by David Levene/The Guardian: Sonita Alleyne. Master of Jesus College Cambridge.]