This was the question posed by the Archbishop of Canterbury last week, in the context of the campaign to remove the memorial plaque to 17th-century courtier and philanthropist Tobias Rustat which is located in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge. Rustat once invested in the slave-trading Royal African Company, and now, despite being a considerable benefactor of the College, the presence of his wall memorial brings shame upon the sanctity of the space.
The matter has been considered by a consistory court in the Diocese of Ely, where Judge David Hodge QC heard that the memorial causes “pain and discomfort” to the Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, who is a black woman. The College has already removed the portrait of Rustat which used hang in the dining hall above high table; and the ‘Rustat Conferences’ have been rebranded the ‘Jesus College Conferences’.
“Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery that sits in front of the [Master] of a college, Jesus College, Cambridge, who has to look at it every time she sits in her stall?” the Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded. “Why is it so difficult to do that? Why do they have to go through hearing how it ‘doesn’t really matter’ or it is ‘not strictly accurate’ and so on, but all they want to do is put it somewhere safer where they can comment on it, not to blow it up?”
Those who want it removed find it “incompatible with the chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing”.
Those who want it to remain do so because it is part of their collective history, and have likened its removal to getting “rid of an elderly and unpopular relative, though one who has been hugely generous in the past”.
Historian Robert Tombs answers the Archbishop’s question directly:
..the College authorities seem throughout to have disregarded contrary views and taken little or no trouble to engage with them. The Archbishop, oddly, implies that even the Church’s own courts should have no say, asking: “Why do they have to go through hearing how it ‘doesn’t really matter’ or it is ‘not strictly accurate’ and so on?”
The simple answer is that some people think that being strictly accurate is important in a university. When the Archbishop calls the sculpture “a memorial to slavery” he himself is not being accurate. Those opposing its removal say that it was carved before Rustat profited from the slave trade. Moreover, the likelihood that the money he donated to the College came from that tainted source, they argue, is “vanishingly small”. But the College is not interested, and some of the testimony given on its behalf was scathingly described by the opposing barrister as “not frank” and “not truthful”.
If the case against Rustat is dubious, why the “agony” (as the Archbishop put it) gone through to remove it? Because the Master of the College, Sonita Alleyne, born in Barbados, has to “look at it every time she sits in her stall”, says the Archbishop, and this she finds painful. So, adds the College, do many of its students, one third of whom are from ethnic minorities.
Clearly, some members of Jesus College are people of exquisite sensitivity. Fortunately, most people are pretty stoical about historic crimes, or else life would become impossible. Volkswagen cars would have to be boycotted because the company used slave labour within living memory. Archbishop Welby’s own cathedral was built on the coerced labour of Anglo-Saxon serfs following the Norman Conquest; and there are studies showing that compared with the descendants of the Normans, people of Anglo-Saxon heritage still suffer economic disadvantage today. Furthermore, Jesus College accepts money from the People’s Republic of China, which lays its Master and Fellows open to the same condemnation they apply to Rustat.
But some historic wrongs are clearly more emotive than others. As the Bishop of Ely, Rt Rev Stephen Conway, put it in his testimony, the Reformation had destroyed a lot (including not a few Catholics, one might add) so why were we worrying about one memorial plaque? He answered his own question: at stake was “who owns our history”, what we “hold to be true”, and what in our history is for “celebration”.
So the Rustat plaque is one more skirmish in a campaign to recast our history as centred on slavery and colonial oppression. “How Slavery Built Modern Britain” is the sub-title of a recent academic monograph being discussed in Cambridge. Critical Race Theory – in reality neither critical nor a theory – builds on this to accuse our society of being systemically racist. As with the Rustat memorial, reason and evidence are swept aside by the imperious demands of victimhood and self-described emotion.
Who owns our history? All of us. Archbishop Welby lamented the fact that it has proved “so difficult” to remove Rustat. Yet Church law, however arcane, has in this case required all views to be listened to. I hope his comment that “we need to change our practices” will not be heeded.
Some of this is helpful, and some of it not. The existence of the VW Beetle may be tied up with Nazis, and Hitler might have driven one, but Jews aren’t forced to stare at them sporting swastikas as they drive along the road. And the fact that the Beetle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche is a further complexity. Do we abolishe Porsches because he benefitted from the Führer’s political patronage?
Where does this stop?
If you remove Rustat’s memorial today, why not open his grave and expel his body tomorrow?
Why should the Master of Jesus College be forced to look at the tomb of a slave-trader every time she enters the chapel?
What would Justin Welby be saying today if his Victorian archiepiscopal predecessors had called for the removal of all memorials to homosexuals? When conceptions of morality morph to the zeitgeist, and standards of ethical probity change with the times, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury to determine what aspects of our national history may be memorialised?
And why is the Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, offended by a centuries-old memorial to man who invested in a slave-trading company, but not remotely bothered by the Jesus College’s China Centre website which quotes Chairman Mao, the largest mass murderer in history?
Has Sonita Alleyne not heard of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward‘? It isn’t merely that 30 or 40 million people starved to death under his policies, but ‘Using the past to serve the present’ was invoked in the torture of millions more.
When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later.
The case of Wang Ziyou was reported to the central leadership: one of his ears was chopped off, his legs were tied with iron wire, a ten kilogram stone was dropped on his back and then he was branded with a sizzling tool – punishment for digging up a potato.
Why does the Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, have such a problem with Rustat, who is long dead, but no apparent problem at all with the Chinese Communist Party, which is very much alive and kicking (literally)? Why does she feel “pain and discomfort” when she sees a slab of marble in a private chapel, but not a tinge of unease when she views the very public College website which quotes a Chinese mass murderer?
“Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?”
Why is it so much easier for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, to agonise over a 17th-century marble memorial which is tangentially linked slavery, than over today’s living website monument which is directly linked to genocide and the enslaving of the Uyghurs?
Let the dead bury their dead.