A representative from the Cambridge Legacies of Slavery Inquiry working group introduced the session, explaining that the group had established itself in part to ensure that the Inquiry is not merely an academic exercise and that the findings are used to bring about some form of reparative justice.
Three King’s students shared their experience of researching in the archives and the findings of their investigation into whether the College gained significant profit from benefactors who owned enslaved people or profited from their labour. They presented case studies of several donors with direct links to the slave trade, and College investment in the South Sea company.
They also investigated the College’s links to intellectual legacies of slavery, including academic contributions to scientific racism, the categorisation of human beings, the possession of human remains, the UK fascist movement, and eugenics. These works were often specially bound by the College Library and emblazoned with the College seal. They cautioned against an intellectual exceptionalism that assumes the academic elite were morally opposed to involvement in the slave trade and tends to exaggerate the University’s contribution to the abolition of slavery.
The students stressed the importance of keeping the labour and lives of enslaved people in mind throughout the process; there are significant records of slave owners, but very little information available about the stories of the people they enslaved.
When asked how Colleges could best support them in their work, the students stressed the importance of free accommodation and the necessity of mental health support to help them through distressing and emotionally-taxing research. They also reiterated their own lack of archival training and relative inexperience as undergraduates, suggesting that colleges should demonstrate their commitment to the Inquiry by funding a full-time academic position to redress the University’s lack of specialists in transatlantic history, and the underrepresentation of BAME academics.
The King’s Archivist then gave an introduction to archival work, presenting the potential barriers to easy access (such as restrictions on opening hours, writing equipment, handling, and photography) but encouraged students to persevere nonetheless in order to find unexpurgated primary source material and work with unique and irreplaceable documents. She recommended that they work directly with their archivists to find out more about relationships between individuals and the institution.
Finally, workshop participants were directed to a shared Google drive with a ‘Getting Started’ document to introduce useful databases and collate information together:
The databases available demonstrate that much of the research required for this Inquiry will take place before/outside/after archive appointments, and that librarians can help students to navigate these resources, hone their information literacy and critical thinking skills, purchase secondary material to support their study, provide space for group study, and teach them to cite primary source material.
Archive catalogue for many University and college records, but not all (check which catalogue your college uses)
Collates information about University alumni
Legacies of British Slave-Ownership
The information in this database is derived from the list of former slave owners who received compensation at the time of emancipation, so it is not exhaustive.
Includes demands for reparative justice.
Slave registers, 1813-34
Slavery and the African diaspora
Glasgow Runaway Slaves