A memorial to Tobias Rustat, hung inside Jesus College Chapel at The University of Cambridge. (Photo by Chris Radburn / AFP)
Artillery Row

What is truth? The ethics of memorials

A poorly-researched rush to judgement in both Oxford and Cambridge may not have served campaigners well

“Have you heard the good news about Jesus?” was the naughty bit of waggery that did the rounds in certain circles recently, after the decision of His Honour Judge David Hodge — acting in his capacity as Deputy Chancellor of the Diocese of Ely — that the memorial to Tobias Rustat (16081694) in Jesus College, Cambridge, must stay where it is. It marked the end of the attempt by the college to have a monument to one of its most generous benefactors taken down from the walls of its chapel because of his associations with the Royal African Company.

Judge Hodge’s comments, in full and in summary, are easily found on the internet. Perhaps most remarkable is his conclusion that the case presented “an object lesson in the potential dangers of failing to undertake ‘robust, inclusive research to understand as much as possible about the heritage in question’ […] before reaching any decision on a proposed course of action”. Stingingly, he found that the college had “relied upon views expressed by student members of the College, and at least one of its fellows, that were founded upon [an] entirely false narrative”.

In the course of cross-examination, the Dean of Chapel, the Revd James Crockford, conceded “that he was not aware of any efforts to correct these misstatements”. By then the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, had also jumped in with both feet: “Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?” One might think that the Primate of All England might have a higher view of his own ecclesiastical courts, and perhaps also of sub judice due process — but then the Church of England is not in Kansas anymore, and has not been for a while.

All Souls absolved itself while keeping Codrington’s money

Lack of proper research and a rush to judgement may not be limited to Cambridge. Over in Oxford, Robert Jackson — a former MP for Wantage and a Quondam Fellow of All Souls — argues in a recently-published essay that a similar state of affairs pertains to Christopher Codrington (16681710). Unlike Rustat, Codrington actually owned slaves. After his death he endowed the first Church of England missionary college in the Americas, Codrington College, and one of the finest libraries in the world at All Souls.

Jackson contends that the nuances of Codrington’s bequests — which represent several million pounds at today’s rates — tell a different and more complicated narrative from that upon which All Souls chose to settle after discussions in what he calls “the atmosphere of a kangaroo court”. Since 2020 the library has no longer been referred to by the name of its donor. Instead, a memorial has been erected at its entrance to commemorate “those who worked in slavery on the Codrington plantations in the West Indies”.

The college also pledged to set aside £6 million to fund three scholarships for graduate students from the Caribbean, and to donate £100,000 to Codrington College, which continues to retain its original name. Jackson’s case, which he argues from documentary evidence, is that Codrington’s enormous benefactions to both institutions stemmed at least in part from a deeply troubled conscience about his estates. As such, he questions whether Codrington has in fact “been honourably or even fairly treated by All Souls”.

In this he channels Aristotle’s Ethics: “whoever is benefitted in purse or character must repay what he can, namely honour […] one ought to consider at the beginning from whom one is receiving the service, and on what terms, so that one may accept it on those terms or else decline it.” Even if All Souls has absolved itself from this lofty philosophical duty while keeping Codrington’s money, however, Jackson suggests that it should at least pay attention to the motives that inspired his benefactions. Codrington, he urges, wanted to improve the conditions of slaves across the British Empire, as he wrote in his will, by “doing good to men’s souls while taking care of their bodies”.

Codrington did the best he could within his limits

Codrington succeeded his father as Governor of the Leeward Islands in 1699; he also inherited his slaves. Jackson points out that had he set them free they would have inevitably been enslaved by others. He quotes a letter from the same year, in which Codrington wrote that “their condition has cost me many a mortifying reflection, and yet I know not how I shall be able to mend it in any respect but by feeding my slaves well. I shall certainly be opposed by all Planters in general if I should go about to secure their limbs and lives by a law, though I will certainly recommend something of the kind”. For Jackson, Codrington sought to do the best that he could within the limits of his capabilities.

In this he identifies as Codrington’s muse an Anglican clergyman named Thomas Bray (16581730), the founder of both the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (which aimed to establish Christian libraries across the empire) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (which concentrated on missionary work among black Africans and indigenous Americans in the New World). Both men, he believes, represent a first generation of Anglicans whose consciences were pricked by the sin of slavery. Their successors ensured that when Georgia was established in 1733, it was free of slavery. Abolition across the empire came a century later.

Jackson’s thesis is that the wakening of Christian conscience had its part to play in the abolition of slavery much earlier than is generally acknowledged. Although its first steps were necessarily small, they were nevertheless in the right direction. Codrington, he concludes, may be understood to have been in the vanguard of abolitionism and therefore undeserving of the damnatio memoriæ to which he has been subjected. Not everyone will agree with Jackson’s position; nevertheless his essay is well argued, and deserves careful attention and engagement.

I understand that he has already sent copies to the Warden of All Souls and to its Visitor — who just happens to be the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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