In the wake of new work on Cambridge University’s historical links with the transatlantic slave trade, Girton is launching a programme of reflection and action following its own research into the legacies of enslavement embedded in the foundation and development of the College.
The College Council established a Legacies of Enslavement Working Group in Michaelmas Term 2020, received a report on activities and findings in May 2022 and agreed an initial set of responses on 22 July. As well as a precautionary audit of the College collections, the group conducted research into sources of wealth among its early founders and benefactors.
Girton was founded for women by women, and many of them – like their mothers before them – campaigned both for women’s emancipation and enfranchisement, and against slavery. Equally, founded on philanthropy, at a time and place where the proceeds of enslavement were integral to the whole economy, Girton’s growth and development also reflects the role that women’s prime source of independent wealth – inheritance – played in the institution of women’s higher education.
Large numbers of very small gifts, together with some significant and substantial bequests, were key to the success of the foundation. The provenance of some of these gifts may never be known, and others need more investigation. Arrayed along a spectrum, however, while a number almost certainly have no connection to enslaved labour, others should be regarded, directly or indirectly, as legacies of enslavement.
In response, the College intends to:
- Establish a research hub to enlarge Girton’s understanding of its history
- Recognise and commemorate the hidden figures of that history
- Create opportunities for students whose horizons may have been constrained by that history
- Engage in discussion and debate around key findings, which will be published separately from time to time
At the beginning of the academic year 2022-23, the Working Group was succeeded by a College standing committee (Legacies of Enslavement Committee). This committee was established to ensure that the work of enlarging the sense of Girton’s history, with its potential to better shape the future, is an ongoing commitment.