BRITAIN | Slave Trader Memorial remains at Jesus College Chapel says Consistory Court

BRITAIN | Slave Trader Memorial remains at Jesus College Chapel says Consistory Court

CAMBRIDGE, England, March 23, 2022 - The monument to a 15th century slave trader, Tobias Rustat, which is prominently mounted on a wall in the Jesus College chapel of Cambridge University shall remain, following the decision of  the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Ely as handed down on March 23, 2022, by the Deputy Chancellor of the Dioceses of  Blackburn and Oxford, David R. Hodge, QC.

In his decision, Hodge said “I am not satisfied that the removal of the memorial is necessary to enable the Chapel to play its proper role in providing a credible Christian ministry and witness to the College community, or for it to act as a focus for secular activities and events in the wider life of the College.

“I am not satisfied that the relocation of the memorial to an exhibition space where it can be contextualised is the only, or, indeed, the most appropriate, means of addressing the difficulties which the presence of the Rustat memorial in the College Chapel presents.”

According to the Deputy Chancellor: “No-one disputes that slavery and the slave trade are now universally recognised to be evil, utterly abhorrent, and repugnant to all right-thinking people, wherever they live and whatever their ethnic origin and ancestry.

“They are entirely contrary to the doctrines, teaching and practices of the modern Church. However, on the evidence, I am satisfied that the parties opponent have demonstrated that the widespread opposition to the continued presence of the Rustat memorial within the College Chapel, is indeed the product of the false narrative that Rustat had amassed much of his wealth from the slave trade, and that it was moneys from this source that he used to benefit the College.

Tobias Rustat was a 17th century philanthropist with investments in the Royal African Company, which shipped more enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean during the transatlantic slave trade than any other corporation.Tobias Rustat was a 17th century philanthropist with investments in the Royal African Company, which shipped more enslaved people from Africa to the Caribbean during the transatlantic slave trade than any other corporation.Hodge argues that ”Rustat’s investments in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa (the Royal Adventurers) brought him no financial returns at all,” pointing out that “Rustat only realised his investments in the Royal African Company in May 1691, some 20 years after he had made his gifts to the College, and some five years after the completion of the Rustat memorial and its inscription.”

He said “any moneys Rustat did realise as a result of his involvement in the slave trade, comprised only a small part of his great wealth, and they made no contribution to his gifts to the College.”

Hodge argues that “I recognise that for some people it is Rustat’s willingness to invest in slave trading companies at all, and to participate in their direction, rather than the amount of money that he made from that odious trade, that makes the Rustat memorial such a problem.

“I recognise also that it does not excuse Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade, although it may help to explain it, that, in the words of L. P. Hartley (in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between), “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” 

“I also acknowledge that there is no evidence that Rustat ever repented for his involvement in the slave trade, unlike, for example, the reformed slave ship captain, the Reverend John Newton, whose hymn ‘How Sweet the name of Jesus Sounds’ was sung at the beginning of the service of Choral Evensong which I attended at the College Chapel.”

However, according to Hodge, “I would hope that, when Rustat’s life and career is fully, and properly, understood, and viewed as a whole, his memorial will cease to be seen as a monument to a slave trader.

Memorial located in the Jesus college Chapel of University of Cambridge, in honour of its most significant benefactor, Tobias RustatMemorial located in the Jesus college Chapel of University of Cambridge, in honour of its most significant benefactor, Tobias Rustat“Certainly, I do not consider that the removal of such a significant piece of contested heritage, representing a significant period in the historical development of the Chapel from its medieval beginnings to its Victorian re-ordering, has been sufficiently clearly justified on the basis of considerations of pastoral well-being and opportunities for mission in circumstances where these have been founded upon a mistaken understanding of the true facts.”

“I am also persuaded that the appropriate response to Rustat’s undoubted involvement in the abomination that was the enslavement and trade in black Africans is not to remove his memorial from the College Chapel to a physical space to which its monumentality is ill-suited, and where that involvement may conveniently be forgotten by many of those who attend the College Chapel, whether for worship or prayer, or for secular purposes, but to retain the memorial in the religious space for which it was always intended, and in which Rustat’s body was laid to rest (on 23 March 1694) and his human remains still lie, where, by appropriate interpretation and explanation, that involvement can be acknowledged and viewed in the context of his own time and his other undoubted qualities of duty and loyalty to his King, and his considerable charity and philanthropy.

“In this way, the Rustat memorial may be employed as an appropriate vehicle to consider the imperfection of human beings and to recognise that none of us is free from all sin; and to question our own lives, as well as Rustat’s, asking whether, by (for example) buying certain clothes or other consumer goods, or eating certain foods, or investing in the companies that produce them, we are ourselves contributing to, or supporting, conditions akin to modern slavery, or to the degradation and impoverishment of our planet. I acknowledge that this may take time, and that it may not prove easy; but it is a task that should be undertaken,” Hodge maintains.

He concludes by saying “ whilst any church building must be a ‘safe space’, in the sense of a place where one should be free from any risk of harm of whatever kind, that does not mean that it should be a place where one should always feel comfortable, or unchallenged by difficult, or painful, images, ideas or emotions, otherwise one would have to do away with the painful image of Christ on the cross, or images of the martyrdom of saints.

“ A church building is a place where God (not the people remembered on its walls) is worshipped and venerated, and where we recall and confess our sins, and pray for forgiveness. Whenever a Christian enters a church to pray, they will invariably utter the words our Lord taught us, which include asking forgiveness for our trespasses (or sins), “as we forgive them that trespass against us”. Such forgiveness encompasses the whole of humankind, past and present, for we are all sinners; and it extends even to slave traders. Jesus recognised that it would not be easy to be one of his followers; yet he led by his example.

“The first words Jesus uttered from the Cross, as he suffered in terrible agony caused by others, were not words of anger or vengeance; incredibly, he thought of others: the very people who were hurting him, and he begged God to pardon them: “Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.” (Luke 24, v. 34).”

Sonita Alleyne is the first female and Black Master of any Oxbridge CollegeSonita Alleyne is the first female and Black Master of any Oxbridge CollegeThe ancient Chapel of Jesus College is a major landmark which dates back to back to 1157. It is said to be  the oldest Cambridge University building still in use and 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.”

Rustat, who gave generously to Jesus College, commissioned master sculptor Grinling Gibbons to create the prominently displayed memorial in Jesus College's chapel, beneath which he was buried following his death in 1694.

In 1667 Rustat, a philanthropist and courtier to Charles II, gave the   Cambridge University Library its first endowment of £1,000 - equivalent to approximately £240,000 in today's money - to buy “the choicest and most useful” books. 

In 1671 Rustat (1608-1694), donated £2,000 - equivalent to approximately £480,000 in today's money- to Jesus College for scholarships for orphan sons of Anglican clergymen. Rustat dedications in Cambridge included a statue on the library building, and of course, the  funeral memorial inside the Grade 1 listed chapel at Jesus College where Rustat lies at rest – and Rustat Road near the rail station.

Jesus College made an application to relocate the memorial to Rustat who invested with the Royal African Company, which according to historian William Pettigrew, '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'.

Master of Jesus College and the first female head of an Oxbridge college in its 500 year old history, Barbadian Sonita Alleyne,  said the chapel should offer a welcoming space accessible to every member of our community . . . This is the right solution for our college.’

Alleyne said the college's proposal to relocate the monument to an educational exhibition space was "part of a process of critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of enslavement and colonial violence".

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