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A short bicycle ride from the River Cam, where tourists go punting and generations of bleary-eyed students have leapt from bridges to celebrate the end of exams, is the ancient chapel of Jesus College.
Dating back to 1157, and famed for candlelit evensongs and an internationally respected choir, its well-worn pews have, over the years, cradled the backsides of such notable alumni as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic poet, and a young Prince Edward.
The chapel, purportedly the oldest Cambridge University building still in use, is quite a landmark. It boasts stained glass windows by Victorian designer William Morris, several priceless sculptures and oil paintings and no fewer than three vast organs, the most famous of which is adorned with golden panels decorated by Pugin.
Times change, however, and next week this tribute to Jesus College’s benefactor will be front and centre of the latest great scuffle in our never-ending culture wars. Jesus College is pictured above
Lost amid such splendour is a white marble plaque affixed to the wall of the west nave. Upon close inspection, it bears a portrait of Tobias Rustat, a bewigged 17th-century philanthropist and courtier to Charles II, who gave generously to Jesus College and was duly buried beneath the chapel following his death in 1694.
Until recently, this large but understated monument — the work of master sculptor Grinling Gibbons which celebrates its subject’s ‘faithfulness’ and ‘workes of charity’ — has tended to pass most visitors by.
Times change, however, and next week this tribute to Jesus College’s benefactor will be front and centre of the latest great scuffle in our never-ending culture wars.
On Wednesday, the Diocese of Ely will commandeer Tobias Rustat’s last resting place to stage a high-profile and bitterly contested court hearing to determine whether the College patron — who, in 1671, gave it £2,000 (some £500,000 today) to fund scholarships for the orphan children of Anglican clergyman — should, as the modern saying goes, be ‘cancelled’.
Scheduled to last at least three days, it will be heard in the chapel by His Honour Judge David Hodge QC, and revolves around an application by Jesus for the ‘Rustat Memorial’ to be removed from its lofty perch on the walls of the Grade I-listed building — and placed instead in a nearby basement that had been used as a wine cellar.
Behind this proposal lies an awkward fact: historical records suggest that, towards the end of his life, Rustat profited from the Transatlantic slave trade.
Although the sums concerned were comparatively small — it seems that perhaps 1.7 per cent of his fortune was connected to slavery — and despite the fact no tainted money actually found its way into the College coffers (his bequests pre-dated any of the now-controversial investments), Jesus chose to pursue the ecclesiastical court action in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, calling it ‘part of a process of critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of enslavement and colonial violence’.
Master of Jesus, Sonita Alleyne, declared last year: ‘The chapel should offer a welcoming space accessible to every member of our community . . . This is the right solution for our college.’
Not everyone agrees, however. Indeed, the removal of the monument is being vigorously opposed by a group of 65 former students calling themselves the Rustat Memorial Group. They have lodged a formal objection to the proposed relocation and will be represented at the hearing by a leading ecclesiastical barrister named Justin Gau.
Lost amid such splendour is a white marble plaque affixed to the wall of the west nave. Upon close inspection, it bears a portrait of Tobias Rustat, a bewigged 17th-century philanthropist and courtier to Charles II, who gave generously to Jesus College and was duly buried beneath the chapel following his death in 1694
‘This is a vindictive and misguided gesture by an institution that has completely lost its way,’ says one of them. ‘The money Rustat gave away is worth millions today, and generations of students have benefited from it.
‘He did endless good things, but they now want to drag him through the mud because of hysteria about something that was barely controversial until a century after he had died. It’s Orwellian and is quite wrong.’
At the centre of legal arguments — in which both sides will deploy an array of expert witnesses, including several eminent historians — will be a number of thorny and highly topical questions.
Among them: is it fair to hold long-dead historical figures to today’s ethical standards? Do places of worship have an enduring duty to respect the wishes of the deceased regarding their final resting place? And is our heritage compromised when cultural institutions decide to jettison architecturally significant memorials to once-eminent people whom it is now fashionable to hate?
The whole thing also represents a test case for the Church of England, which last May instructed the nation’s 12,500 parishes and 42 cathedrals to consider the removal, relocation or alteration of plaques or monuments connected to the slave trade. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby supports such gestures, saying that ‘some [monuments] will have to come down, some names will have to change’.
The fate of Rustat’s memorial, whose relocation is opposed by English Heritage on conservation grounds, may therefore establish an important precedent.
Coverage furthermore presents a danger to the reputation of Jesus College — and by extension Cambridge University.
Why? Well, despite its holier-than-thou approach to slavery carried out more than three centuries ago, Jesus appears to have a remarkably relaxed approach to equally reprehensible forms of slavery that continue to this day.
In recent years, the College has pursued an alarmingly close commercial relationship with the autocratic Chinese Communist Party, which stands accused of presiding over the enslavement and genocide of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims, not to mention the ongoing repression of millions of its own citizens.
Nicknamed ‘Xi-sus College’ after Chinese President Xi Jinping, the institution was revealed in 2020 to have accepted £200,000 from the Chinese state and £155,000 from Chinese telecoms firm Huawei.
One of its senior professors, Peter Nolan, runs a non-profit that has been paid tens of thousands of pounds to host training courses for executives from Chinese state-owned companies.
Nolan’s professorship is itself funded by a £3.7 million donation, made in 2009, by a trust said to be controlled by the daughter of a former Chinese prime minister.
Another don, professor of nuclear engineering Geoff Parks, has co-authored research funded by the People’s Liberation Army, according to an investigation by the Henry Jackson Society think-tank. This material included several highly sensitive papers co-authored by a senior Chinese military official.
Speaking in Parliament last summer, Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, accused the College of assisting China’s ‘distortion of academic ideas and academic freedoms’ in the UK, amid reports that its academics had shut down critical discussion of the Uighur genocide.
Jesus chose to pursue the ecclesiastical court action in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, calling it ‘part of a process of critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of enslavement and colonial violence’. Master of Jesus, Sonita Alleyne, pictured, declared last year: ‘The chapel should offer a welcoming space accessible to every member of our community . . . This is the right solution for our college’
‘We have a centre in Jesus College Cambridge which is refusing to talk about abuses of Uighur Muslims for fear of causing offence,’ said Mr Tugendhat.
‘Is this the first time Jesus himself has taken 30 pieces of silver? This is a deeply disappointing moment for all of us who believe in academic freedom in the UK.’
In a statement Jesus said: ‘This is about a memorial in our Chapel and not about China.’
It is, all told, a terrible mess. And to understand how things reached this point, we must wind the clock back to May 2019, when Alleyne, a former media executive and ex-member of the BBC Trust, was appointed Master of Jesus, becoming the first black leader of an Oxbridge college in the process.
Shortly after she arrived, it was decided to create a ‘Legacy of Slavery working party’ to explore the College’s potential links to that ugly trade and ‘address wider dynamics of institutional racism’.
Its 11 members comprised two historians, including Labour activist Nicholas Guyatt. When the ‘Colston Four’, who tore down the statue of Bristol benefactor Edward Colston in 2020 and threw it in the city’s harbour, were acquitted recently, Guyatt tweeted that he was ‘delighted that the Crown Prosecution Service has failed in its attempt to criminalise an iconic moment of protest and a long-overdue historical reckoning’.
Another member of Jesus’s slavery ‘working party’ is historian Elly Robson, who has opined: ‘The UK is racist. Its wealth was built on an exploitative system of race. The UKs institutions have been shown to be overwhelmingly racist. The UK’s borders are racist.’
Jesus describes the working party as ‘fair and balanced’.
However — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the world view exhibited above — members made no effort to probe the College’s modern paymasters in Communist China, and instead focused on two areas of historic controversy.
One involved a bronze cockerel that had been looted from the West African country of Benin during a British military expedition in the late 1800s and given to Jesus College. It was, largely uncontroversially, handed back to the country in a televised ceremony last October.
The other involved publicly renouncing Rustat, the son of a vicar and an ardent royalist during the English Civil War, who had helped Charles II escape from the Battle of Worcester, looked after him during subsequent exile, and became his Yeoman of the Robes after the Restoration in 1660. Thanks to his master’s patronage, the lifelong bachelor became a wealthy man in middle age, and with no heir, gave away much of his fortune to Jesus (where his father had been educated).
On the business front, in 1663 he bought a 1 per cent stake in a company called the Royal Adventurers, which seems to have traded slaves and minerals out of West Africa. The venture failed in 1672, and Rustat lost 90 per cent of the money he’d invested, but it subsequently reformed as the Royal African Company in 1676. Over the next 50 years, the firm transported about 150,000 enslaved Africans, mostly to the Caribbean.
Rustat, who was alive for about 15 years of the firm’s existence, appears to have sold his stake three years before his death in 1694, profiting to the tune of £200 or so (about £40,000 today).
He also seems to have taken a stake in a firm called the Gambian Adventurers, though the exact nature of its business is unclear. In light of these ventures, the ‘Legacy of Slavery working party’ decided his name ought to be erased from a number of College events.
The ‘Rustat feast’, a yearly dinner financed by one of his bequests, was renamed the ‘Summer Feast’. The ‘Rustat Conferences’, a series of annual talks he also funded, were changed to the ‘Jesus College Conferences’. And a portrait of him was removed from the College’s senior common room.
The ‘working party’ also called for the Rustat Memorial to be removed from the chapel, and in November 2020, the College Council decided to support the move.
But there was a snag. Because the chapel is an ecclesiastical building, such a change to its fabric could be made only by first securing authorisation from an ecclesiastical court. The following month, the College made a formal application to the Diocese of Ely.
By this point, the hackles of some Jesus alumni, many of whom are also benefactors of the College, had been firmly raised.
Many regarded the public shaming of Rustat as unfair, on the grounds that slavery was at the time almost entirely uncontroversial. Indeed, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade wasn’t founded until 1787, almost a century after Rustat’s death. Furthermore, they reasoned, what is the point of anyone giving money to a College that might in future decide simply to ‘cancel’ a historic donor?
‘No one today disputes the fact that slavery was abhorrent. But he was a man of his time,’ says one alumnus. ‘The way Jesus is treating him, you’d have thought he spent his life flogging plantation workers. In reality, he was a wealthy courtier in London who made business investments, probably because the King told him to. But because a tiny proportion of these involved slavery, his entire legacy is being shredded.
‘If this stands, where does it lead? Will people in 100 years be combing through donors to cancel people whose pensions were invested in oil or tobacco firms?’
Many alumni are understood to have cancelled monthly donations to the College in protest.
Meanwhile, the Rustat Memorial Group has lodged a formal objection to the College’s proposals.
In court next week, they are expected to argue, among other things, that Rustat’s investment in the slave trade was marginal in the context of his life, and that the College, which claimed on its website that he ‘derived great wealth’ from the Royal African Company, has misinterpreted the evidence.
The group’s expert witnesses include Nigel Biggar, a distinguished Oxford professor who once upset the forces of political correctness by describing the British Empire as ‘morally mixed’.
Also keeping a watchful eye on proceedings will be descendants of Rustat. One, former Chief Scientist at English Heritage Sebastian Payne — who is descended from Rustat’s brother, Robert — regards the removal of the monument as a sort of desecration of his ancestor’s grave, since it was his dying wish to be buried nearby.
High-profile figures within Cambridge have also criticised the case.
Prof David Abulafia, an emeritus professor of history at Cambridge, has described the shaming of Rustat as ‘virtue-signalling’. Dr Colin Kolbert, emeritus professor of law at Magdalene College, accuses Jesus of ‘entirely empty gestures’, telling me: ‘If the College really cared about having a clean conscience, they’d be giving back the money he gave them.’
In response, Jesus says that returning cash would breach charity law, and argues: ‘The College is not seeking to cancel Rustat. It is applying to have his memorial moved from a place of worship to a more suitable — but still prominent — place in the College.’
The fate of that ambition will soon rest in the hands of His Honour Judge David Hodge QC.
While the outcome is hard to predict, the whole thing will be expensive. Bringing the case will cost Jesus around £55,000, while relocating the memorial in a listed building could cost £30,000.
Even if Jesus wins, opponents are likely to appeal, pushing costs (which, since the college is a Charity, come from charitable funds) still higher.
Luckily, the College has deep pockets: it’s worth around £350 million, thanks to benefactors such as the late Tobias Rustat — not to mention some deep-pocketed Chinese Communists, too.