There is almost nothing Oxbridge people enjoy more than a really intense, no holds barred argument about themselves.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that the University of Cambridge’s decision to launch an inquiry into its links to the slave trade has prompted some soul searching. On the one hand is a student body increasingly vocal about the legacy of colonialism and academics arguing – as Prof Martin Millett, the archaeologist chairing a panel overseeing the work, does – that Cambridge must confront its own role in a shameful episode of history. On the other is a handful of academics grumbling about rewriting history and, no doubt, some unspoken fears about what all this is going to cost both financially and in curricular terms. After investigation invariably comes reparation.
Unless Cambridge turns out to have been magically unique among great British institutions of the 19th century in being a beacon of abolitionism with ethical practices a century ahead of its time, it is likely to find out that in the past it profited financially from the slave trade – via donations from plantation owners, perhaps. Even more woundingly, it is also likely to find that some of its leading lights propagated what would now be considered highly unsavoury views. (One key avenue of inquiry is how far academics may have “reinforced and validated race-based thinking” between the 18th and early 20th centuries).
Some gesture of contrition will surely be required. There might be demands for buildings to be renamed, key texts added or dropped, statues or paintings returned and reputations re-examined; there is already talk of new funds to help teenagers from African-Caribbean backgrounds study at Cambridge. It is all, in other words, going to be very awkward. And that is of course precisely why it needs to happen.
We have heard much from the right in recent years about “generation snowflake” and the threat it supposedly poses to free speech on campus; about students deemed incapable of hearing an argument they don’t like without insisting on no-platforming it. But you can’t ask 19-year-olds to engage with ideas that make them uncomfortable when adults twice their age seem reluctant to do so. Universities should be hotbeds of challenge and debate, pushing people out of their comfort zones, but that can’t just apply to students. The teaching body, too, should be drawn to the difficult and alive with intellectual curiosity.
There will always be those who don’t see why an institution, or indeed a nation, should apologise for something that happened hundreds of years ago – even if the descendants of those originally wronged still feel the consequences. Things were different then, runs the argument. You can’t just pluck beliefs or behaviours from their historical context and present them, flapping like fish out of water, in front of an appalled modern audience as evidence of moral turpitude.
But it shows a terrible lack of trust in historians to believe that those leading this inquiry aren’t aware of that risk. This shouldn’t be about imposing modern values on a time before those values existed, but gaining a deeper understanding via the university’s own archives of how closely entwined the slave trade was with British national life; tracing slave money through the system, following the evolution of thinking about slave rights, perhaps enriching a visceral sense of how people came to accept terrible things but also of how national prosperity was built.
It’s strange that some people who could find a timeless human characteristic to celebrate, or a modern parallel to draw, in virtually any moment of past national glory instantly lose that ability when facing a moment of past national shame. Yet both are part and parcel of our understanding of being human. If a university – especially one such as Cambridge, so intensely conscious of its role in shaping public opinion down the ages – can’t bear to contemplate that, it is hard to see who can.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist