What does it mean to take account of one’s past?
Against the background of Cambridge University's Legacies of Enslavement Inquiry, Girton College embarked on a scoping exercise to clarify aspects of its own knowledge of itself. At its centre lay a commitment to investigate, analyse and reflect on the wealth it had inherited. The possible relationship of certain funds to the historic transatlantic trade in enslaved people provided the ground of the ensuing investigations.
The College invited a group of fellows, staff and alumni to look at donations and endowments that appeared -- after an initial survey -- to raise questions, and to address the issues arising. We, the group, embarked first on establishing the facts through detailed historical investigation, using on-line and archival sources in the UK and the United States. This involved engaging professional expertise, and demanded both patience and resolve. We needed to resist the temptation to make bold statements or overstated claims. We understood the dangers of laying blame on our antecedents as a means of bathing ourselves in the light of contemporary awareness. Such ‘virtue signalling’, we felt, would divide us from our past and, in effect, refuse the significance of a legacy, which is to take the past in hand, recognising it as a living presence in our lives.
The narratives that contribute to the current series of commentaries enable us to connect our present activity with our past. Telling these stories animates the facts and figures surfaced through historical inquiry. Indeed, the work of research, retention and dissemination of knowledge remains the lifeblood of College now as it was in former decades. Recounting stories surrounding figures such as the nineteenth-century heiress Jane Catherine Gamble will allow us to reveal entanglements between wealth and generosity, liberty and oppression. Analysis will allow us to set things in perspective – giving historical context not as a distancing mechanism but, conversely, as a way of bringing us closer to the past.
Tools of reflection
Ultimately, accountability works as a tool of reflection. Although investigation and analysis enable us to meet our obligations to seek truth wherever it may lead, they are not enough. Reflection is needed to help decide what to do with that truth. In such terms, it first demands acceptance: acceptance of our past and all it entails – the elisions, the refusals and the devaluing of those who have been forgotten. Secondly, it demands courage: courage to decide that we can go forward with our historic mission even though we acknowledge the shadows also there. The society-wide legacy of the period when Girton was founded includes racism and inequalities that have not gone away, which is why it is also a story for the present.
Written by Legacies of Enslavement Committee (dated: April 2023)