UK Church Court Says Slave Trader Memorial Must Stay

The Rustat memorial holds a prominent place in the chapel | Photo: Chris Loades, Jesus College website

By Mark Michael

A church court has denied Jesus College, Cambridge permission to remove from its chapel a marble monument to Tobias Rustat, a 17th-century benefactor who was also an investor in the slave trade.

On March 23, David Hodge QC, deputy chancellor of the Church of England’s Diocese of Ely, ruled that the case brought forward by Jesus’ master Sonita Alleyne, the first Black woman to lead an Oxbridge college, was based on a “false narrative” about the source of the benefactor’s wealth. Jesus College had requested permission to move the monument to Rustat, who is also buried in the chapel, to an exhibition hall elsewhere on the campus where it could more fully contextualized.

Hodge’s 103-page judgment ruled that removing the Grinling Gibbons carving would cause considerable harm to the chapel’s historical and architectural significance, and faulted those seeking its removal for spreading contested information that the substantial gifts Rustat made to the college came from slave trading.

Sonita Alleyne | Photo: Damian Paul Daniel

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, had argued for the relocation of the monument. “Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?” he asked, bemoaning that Alleyne must look at a memorial to a financer of slavery “every time she sits in her stall.”

“Why do they have to go through hearing how it ‘doesn’t really matter’ or it is ‘not strictly accurate’ and so on, but all they want to do is put it somewhere safer where they can comment on it, not to blow it up?”

Hodge said the memorial “may be employed as an appropriate vehicle to consider the imperfection of human beings and to recognize 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.”

He concluded, “I bear in mind also that 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.”

Rustat (1608-1694), a courtier to King Charles II, created the first fund for the purchase of books for the Cambridge University Library and made numerous gifts to Jesus College. In the 1660s, Rustat became an investor in the Royal African Company, which some historians say shipped more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any company in the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Alleyne, a former media producer born in Barbados, established a Legacy of Slavery Working Party shortly after her election as Jesus College’s master in 2019. The working party determined in 2020 that the monument’s celebration of Rustat was “incompatible with the chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing.”

The college took down a portrait of Rustat from a college reception room, canceled an annual feast held in his honor, and renamed a series of current-events roundtables previously called the “Rustat Conferences” in 2020. But removing the chapel monument, like any significant change to a preservation-listed Anglican Church, requires the permission of the diocesan consistory court.

College leaders testified before Hodge in support of the memorial’s removal at a series of hearings in early February. The Rev. James Crockford, dean of the chapel, said he believed the memorial’s retention “is incongruent with the message of the Christian gospel [and] frustrates the chapel’s ability to realize and host a credible Christian witness and ministry to all.” Crockford noted that a student who had previously been an active participant in chapel life had withdrawn after learning of Rustat’s connection to slave trading.

Alleyne said Rustat was “an integral part of the fabric of slavery,” which she said is “the antithesis of what the Gospels and teachings of Jesus Christ stand for.” She said the presence of the memorial has led her to minimize her engagement in chapel worship:

“Over the last two years, as I have grappled with my duties in the chapel as master and my personal position being descended from enslaved ancestors, I have found it harder to engage with the spirituality of the Chapel, or even to participate in college events, in a space dominated by a memorial that praises the ‘industry’ of slavery, with a clear mind.”

Martin Emmison, a Jesus alumnus and member of the “Rustat Memorial Group,” said the movement to remove the memorial was based on an inaccurate understanding of the source of Rustat’s wealth. He said Rustat’s profit from his involvement in the Royal Africa Company was relatively small, and was realized only 20 years after his benefactions to Jesus College.

Emmison added that the college’s current financial entanglements with Chinese companies and institutions are a sign of “double standards and apparent hypocrisy of the college, in its continuing to enjoy major funds from China, a country that is deeply engaged in modern slavery and genocide, while at the same time taking a sanctimonious and critical attitude to the perfectly legal investment activities of its major donor of 350 years ago.”

Roger Bowdler, an expert on 17th-century English church monuments, described the plaque as “one of the most important monuments of the late 17th century” and a work of “one of the greatest sculptor-craftsmen of his age.” Moving it was also inappropriate, he said, because it was commissioned as a funerary monument, and Rustat remains interred in the chapel.

Removing the monument would be neither “scholarly nor honest,” claimed Professor Lawrence Goldman, another alumnus. “Whenever historic monuments and artefacts are threatened with removal on ethical and political grounds, the same point must always be made; that it is intellectually and morally illegitimate to convict figures from the past for transgressing principles that we now uphold.”

The hearing attracted considerable attention in the British press, where many associated it with the alterations to memorials honoring Edward Colston, a roughly contemporaneous slave trader and generous benefactor, in Bristol. A public statue of Colston was toppled by a crowd protesting the death of George Floyd in June 2020.

The Church of England appointed a committee to review church monuments in response to the George Floyd protests. A June 2021 report outlined various options for evaluating art with controversial associations, and various mitigation strategies, including different kinds of removal.

A few days after the February hearings at Jesus College, Lord Boateng, a former cabinet minister who chairs the new Archbishops’ Commission on Racial Justice, announced the group’s plans to travel around the church to discuss progress on racial justice initiatives, saying that the lack of progress was “chilling.”

After the announcement of Hodge’s verdict, Alleyne said of the decision in an interview with The Guardian, “It’s a church which is saying to black people: you’ve got to put up and shut up and pray under a memorial to a slave trader… It’s very, very disappointing. How could they get to that decision?”

“This is not acceptable. It’s offensive. It’s like saying to Rosa Parks: you’ve had your fun. Now you get to the back of the bus. It’s nonsense.”

The college announced on April 12 that it did not plan to appeal Hodge’s decision to the Court of Arches, given the time and cost of the appeal process.

“We will take our time and consider what to do next,” Alleyne said. “The presence of the memorial in our chapel continues to be a serious issue for our increasingly diverse community. We strongly believe that our stance will place us on the right side of history.”

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