02 May 2019
Reparations and Bunkum
By Robert Kilconner
About bloody time too. Under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope, a Canadian academic, Cambridge has at last decided to face up to its past and to run a project to identify whether, and if so by how much, the university gained from slavery. Not really news, you might think. Universities are about acquiring knowledge and the fact that Cambridge has chosen to use its own funding as a subject of research is hardly a surprise. Why wouldn’t it, indeed? Self-experimentation has long been a favourite of doctors, Dr Henry Jekyll for one and I don’t recall it doing him any particular harm.
No, another research project albeit rather a narcissistic one is just what you would expect, so what is the fuss all about? It is the suggestion of reparations, of course, that the University should repay any benefits from tainted money. That must come to billions of pounds. The slave trade lay behind many 18th century fortunes, particularly those associated with chocolate or sugar; then there are gifts from the US, many from institutions with culpable racial history. Back it must all go, together with interest and any other money which resulted from coerced labour, almost anything from Africa for example.
But it would be wrong to stop there. What about money which was simply nicked or taken by force? The enquiry should have a look at that, particularly where there was a racial element. Edward I expelled the Jews in 1290 largely because he owed them more money than he wanted to repay. That is just 60 years after the university was founded and it would be surprising if none of the money mulcted from the Jews had crept into the new institution. Clearly some reimbursement is needed there, and there must be an inquiry too as to whether any of the university’s money flowed from the dissolution of the monasteries. I expect the Catholic Church would be grateful for a cheque. Then there is the money contributed by swindlers and crooks, by thieves and by pirates. It is probably hard to find the victims now but maybe it could be paid to the police benevolent fund? What though about the spoils of illegal war? The nicking of Yorkist money by the Tudors themselves may have been cured by Henry VII marriage to Elizabeth of York but if the Wars of the Roses were all they are cracked up to be I’ll bet there was some swiping among the baronage. And what did you do to put it right with the Almighty on your deathbed? Why, endow some public work, of course. A chantry chapel or perhaps a university.
What a wonderful display Cambridge is going to treat us to. Pompous asses explaining that the small reparations they will make are an apology on behalf of people they never knew. Overpaid dons using other peoples’ money to build themselves reputations for political sensitivity. Accountants and genealogists working out how much should be paid to whom, and lawyers, lawyers, lawyers – well I am not sure what they will do, but no doubt they will get in on the act. Lots of people to pay for this splendid entertainment.
And then the difficult letters to future funders. “70% of your contribution will go to education. The rest to charities for Africans, Jews, Roman Catholics, the police, Yorkists, accountants, genealogists and lawyers”. How welcome those are going to be. But never mind, in academia it is not so much being right that matters as scoring over the Americans, and the University will have proved that at least in the area of reparations History is far from Bunk.