Profile: Tobias Rustat

A Cambridge college tried to remove his memorial plaque and the Church branded him a “slave trader” but, in fact, this royal retainer was a philanthropist


This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Tobias Rustat (1608-1694) was a courtier. What he achieved in life he owed not to any spark of ingenuity or enterprise but to one simple human trait — he was devoted to his royal master when the House of Stuart’s fortunes were at their bleakest and was duly rewarded with the monarchy’s restoration. His career offers a valuable insight into the premium that could be placed on such loyalty in Restoration England and the charitable legacy that resulted. Instead, his is a life now misconstrued and contorted through the imposition of an entirely different narrative.

Tobias Rustat was a devoted follower-in-adversity of Charles Stuart who in 1660 returned from exile to his realm as King Charles II. Rustat came back to England with him and thereafter served in an office conferred upon him by the king, one of personal service as Yeoman of the Robes. He was the King’s valet.

Rustat was also a benefactor whose gifts primarily support the re-established Church, helping to relieve clergy and their families who had suffered through the disruptions of the Civil War period and the universities. 

In 1667 he donated to Cambridge University a cash sum of £1,000 generating £50 per year for expenditure on books for the University Library. In 1671 he conferred on Jesus College, Cambridge, (where his father had been educated), lands to a value of some £2,030 with which to endow eight scholarships benefitting impecunious sons of deceased Anglican clergymen. In 1672 he donated a further £1,200 that enabled the college to establish and manage a charity supporting six clergy widows. 

Later, in 1682, he donated £1,000 to the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, upon its foundation by Charles II. He also contributed to the costs of rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral following the Great Fire, and established a well-endowed charity to support the clergy of certain impoverished Leicestershire benefices. He was buried within the chapel of Jesus College, on the west wall of which his memorial plaque stands. The College has now placed a statement below the plaque justifying its thwarted attempt in 2021 to have the memorial removed from the chapel.  

An article in The Critic (“WHAT ARE YOUR LINKS TO SLAVERY? JUNE 2023) noted that recent entries in the ostensibly authoritative Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) purport to associate numerous subjects either with plantation slave-owning or trading in a manner that appears gratuitous and strained. 

In the case of Tobias Rustat, the first chipping away at his philanthropic reputation was made with the publication in 2004 of his entry in the ODNB in 2004 in which he was described as having been “a director of the Royal African Company”. 

That assertion was in fact not true; inevitably, however, presently it sufficed to invite the attentions of the readily censorious. Augmenting rather than re-evaluating the assertion, this section of text in Rustat’s ODNB entry was altered in 2021 to “he served on the board as a director (‘assistant’) in the years 1676 and 1679-80”; this is followed by accusations of “involvement in the slave trade”, and of his having apparently wilfully and knowingly “invested in the slave trade”. All of these contentions require critical appraisal.

The ODNB article cites solely in passing, slotted away inconspicuously at its beginning and end as if entirely inconsequential, material which in reality is central to a sound understanding of Rustat’s character and nature. These disclose him as having been in fact all but uneducated, and indeed of but meagre intellect. In his twenties a friend found him still so “very unlearned” and so little literate that he yet required help even with writing.  Age brought no ripening. A contemporary in 1680 perceived him not merely “ignorant” but “very simple”. 

He evidently had proved unable to profit by the opportunities for education manifestly laid open to his siblings (he had three elder brothers — one of whom became a major in the King’s army and the other two graduated from Cambridge University). He attended no university, practised no profession, learnt no trade. Indeed, at court he was to prove so naive and so readily gullible as to fall easy prey to one Richard Monke, a well-connected confidence trickster, in futile pursuit of whose false promises he haplessly squandered during 1661-62 a sum that had exceeded £500 before he could be made to understand that he was being duped.  

Such contemporary testimony is the best we have; it can never be disregarded as valueless or inconsequential. Manifestly, the real Tobias Rustat was of very limited intellect, and so can never have been any manner of valued and conscientious businessman. Indeed, as the king’s valet he never exercised any office cerebrally more demanding than that of helping Charles II decide what to wear. Least of all can one so simple ever have been sincerely invited to “serve on the board as a director” of such as the Royal African Company, a highly complex export/import business that was the second largest commercial enterprise in the entire kingdom. Of experience in commerce or business Tobias Rustat possessed none whatsoever. 

Rustat did find himself a small shareholder in two successive royal trading companies (the Company of Royal Adventurers trading into Africa, 1662-72; the Royal African Company, 1672-91). But this appears to have been not a business calculation but a desire to consolidate his position in the esteem of the master to whom he owed all that he possessed. Late in 1662 Charles II conferred upon Rustat the substantial income accruing from a sizable landed estate in Somerset (J. Manco, The Spirit of Care (1998), pp. 84-6), just as also he was soliciting from his courtiers and servants investment in his prospective Company of Royal Adventurers. 

Rustat’s offering to buy just one share (at £400) may thus be perceived as simply an act of deferential gratitude to the royal master to whom he owed all that he possessed, and whose continuing good opinion it was essential to foster. How better for this simple-minded man gratefully to acknowledge such favour than by committing the first £400 of his expected new income to an inaugural shareholding in the enterprise that was currently the king’s pet project? It was little matter that at this point he did not yet actually have the money, and eventually incurred a 3 per cent penalty for late payment. 

During 1663 he appears to have bought two more £400 shares but to have sold each immediately, presumably at profit to help fund the lawsuits in which the fraudster Richard Monke had begun to involve him. Barely significant in a company capitalised at over £100,000, the returns from comparatively so slight a subscription were correspondingly meagre. Rustat’s many benefactions were funded not at all by the trading companies, but by the proceeds of his Somerset estate, ably managed for him by his elder brother John.

Despite opportunity, Rustat evinced no interest whatever in participation in the management of either company. He entered no service as a director; indeed, in respect of both companies Rustat “had nothing to contribute to the management of a complicated commercial enterprise”, as was readily recognised by J.C.T. Oates, the sole historian yet to have published a substantial memoir (Oates, Cambridge University Library: A History, 2 vols (1986), i, p. 376).  

In fact, neither company had directors; rather, each was run by a Deputy Governor and a Court of thirty-six or twenty-four Assistants, which served not as a board but as a hands-on management committee meeting once or twice per week. The Royal African Company did indeed elect the elderly Rustat an “Assistant” for 1676, 1679 and 1680, but, as readily recognised by its historian K.G. Davies, “only a handful of Assistants came from outside the mercantile community. … Occasionally a courtier was elected, perhaps as a compliment to the Duke of York [the Royal African Company’s governor], but the company did not gain much thereby. Tobias Rustat, an Assistant for three years, attended only sixteen meetings” (K.G. Davies, The Royal African Company (1957), pp. 163, 65-6, 157-8). These were sixteen out of a total of no fewer than 240 meetings summoned by the Assistants during Rustat’s three years of membership. Patently he possessed no interest whatever in company management; gratuitously gifted the opportunity, his sole response was to spurn it. Moreover, his record as an Assistant of the preceding Company of Royal Adventurers had been no more involving or fruitful, and, in practice, equally nominal.   

When, with the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 ended the rule of his royal patrons Rustat thereupon chose in May 1691 to take this opportunity to sell up and dispose of his share, so relieving himself of a purchase which probably he had never much wanted in the first place. 

For a man so inconsequential (other than as an egregiously generous philanthropist), the surviving historical sources yield a portrayal of the character and nature of Tobias Rustat that is unusually illuminating. At the very least, therefore, the ODNB should better accommodate the existing scholarship to re-write its current entry and ensure a more accurate understanding of Rustat’s career and dispelling the pretence that Rustat was a dedicated businessman prosecuting the trade in slaves. 

Regrettably, such misapprehensions have lately waxed so potent that the University of Cambridge has even been drawn to imagine that he was “a leading figure as a director of the Royal African Company”, and that “as such he played an important institutional role in promoting and sustaining the slave trade”. Jesus College, Cambridge, has sought to relocate his memorial (which celebrates solely his philanthropy) away from its chapel. The Church of England has even branded him a “slave-trader”. Plainly, none of these reactions bears scrutiny. In reality, Rustat’s association with the trading companies was of a character both solely adventitious and wholly innocuous, and of a content so slight as historically to be barely detectable.

Ideally, the ODNB could now commission a wholly new article, since the career of Tobias Rustat, when fully researched and objectively perceived and understood, offers insights into aspects of the character of Charles II’s England that are both genuinely remarkable, and also sustainable.

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