Cambridge dons revolt over ‘propagandist’ slavery conference criticising the late Queen

University of Cambridge
University of Cambridge

A “fanatical” slavery conference at the University of Cambridge has sparked a backlash from dons amid fears it will attack Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy.

Academics are gathering on campus for a three-day event on Wednesday titled “envisioning reparations: historical and comparative approaches”.

The forum says it aims to address the “increasingly prominent calls for slavery reparations”, and tackle “the myriad injustices of the post-emancipation experience”.

But insiders say the programme has been captured by “propagandist” activists, filled with radical scholars mainly from US universities who have condemned colonialism.

The front page of the conference website features a “distasteful” quote from the Kenyan activist Wambugu Wa Nyingi which “criticises” the late Queen.

It has been organised by Sabine Cadeau, who headed the contentious Cambridge Legacies of Enslavement inquiry which was eventually published last week, alongside Trinity College and Crassh, a cross-faculty research group at Cambridge.

The programme contains talks on “reparations movements in the age of Black Lives Matter”, “environmental racism”, “institutional dynamics of elite capture” and “the problem of value in the age of British emancipation”.

‘Distasteful’ undertones

An extensive section on universities and slavery includes a talk on the “legacies of enslavement at Oxbridge” by Nicholas Bell-Romero, a researcher whose own Cambridge slavery report sparked a major row with historians over alleged inaccuracies.

Also speaking is Nicholas Guyatt, a Cambridge academic who hit out at “the week’s imperial nostalgia” during the late Queen’s mourning period, and tweeted that his “thirteen-year-old [is] trolling me by demanding to watch the Queen’s funeral at the local cinema”.

New York Times writers are also on the programme, as well as Revd Dr Michael Banner, the first senior clergyman to call for the British government to pay reparations for the slave trade.

Prof David Abulafia, a leading historian at Gonville and Caius College, said he questioned whether “any of the speakers are taking a critical view of the argument that there should be reparations and restitution because it is vital there is a proper debate about this”.

He told The Telegraph: “It’s that sense that it’s going to be one-sided that concerns me. It’s very unfortunate that, at this moment, the Queen appears to be criticised.”

A Cambridge source said the conference was “propagandist” in its approach with “fanatical” speakers and a “distasteful” undertone about the late Queen.

Another leading Cambridge don, who wished to stay anonymous, was even more scathing.

‘Activism masquerading as academia’

“All too often the impact of Crassh on the humanities at Cambridge is exactly what the acronym implies it would be: a collision between ideology and serious intellectual inquiry,” he told The Telegraph.

“This conference seems to be yet one more example of how the university’s obsession with race is distorting a balanced approach to research. It is activism masquerading as academia.”

On Thursday, Cambridge’s pro-vice-chancellor Prof Kamal Munir wrote to all staff to defend the publication of its three-year inquiry, which found no evidence that the university directly owned slave plantations or slaves, though it had received “significant benefits”.

The email, obtained by The Telegraph, insisted that “Cambridge is better off knowing than not knowing about its past” as this will “make the Cambridge of tomorrow more self-reflective, more equitable and more open to all talent”.

Prof Doug Stokes, an expert in international relations at Exeter University, said the transatlantic slave trade made a “handful of aristocrats” rich, not Britain as a whole.

“It’s morally obscene to suggest that white Britons are collectively guilty and that today’s great-great-grandchildren of the coal miners or chimney sweeps should have their families’ money given over to appease the consciences of privileged academics,” he added.

A University of Cambridge spokesman said the conference was “open to questions and debate” and “brings together the broadest possible discussion of the histories of Black populations throughout the Americas and formerly colonised nations of Africa, with contributions from international experts in their fields”.