An Open Letter to Jesus College Cambridge | Georgia L. Gilholy

On November 9th MailOnline reported that Jesus College Cambridge would be removing its chapel’s memorial to a seventeenth benefactor Tobias Rustat. Rustat advised King Charles II and was a “major investor” in the Royal African Company, the English mercantile enterprise whose original purpose was to exploit the goldfields up the Gambia River, but which soon developed into a brutal and sustained slave trade. 

Historian William Pettigrew has stated that the RAC “shipped more enslaved African women, men and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade,” and that investors in the company were fully aware of its activities and intended to profit from this exploitation. 

Rustat’s posthumous defrocking is, after a summer of statue toppings across the western world, unexceptional. Whether a rococo relief flanked by two dusty cherubim is worryingly “celebratory” to the 2020 passerby might be a question better directed at art historians rather than a panel of college bureaucrats. I think it more likely that the plaque, among many others in the old chapel, goes quite unnoticed. By any measure, Rustat- and by extension, the college itself- knowingly profited from tyranny, and whether or not his plaque ought to be removed appears to me to be beside the question of confronting these uncomfortable legacies. 

What Jesus College Cambridge seems less able to confront is its present, which involves a hefty cash flow from the government of China via its associated corporations, or in the case of several notable donations, directly from regime figures themselves. For anyone who has been paying more attention to the seventeenth century than the twenty-first-century news cycle, first, I sympathise with you entirely, and second, since 2017, over 1 million Uyghurs have been detained and forced to work in ‘re-education’ camps in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. In other words, one of the foremost institutions of the United Kingdom is happy to receive funding from corporations directly profiting from modern slavery and all manner of other human rights abuses for which the Chinese government is responsible, but displaying a 300-year-old plaque of an investor in a historic slave trade is a step too far.

In August The Times reported that Jesus College accepted £155,000 from Chinese tech giant Huawei as well as £200,000 from an agency associated with the Chinese government. In 2014 The Telegraph– who this April came under fire for its own CCP-flavoured cash flows- criticised the College for accepting a £3.7m donation which was reportedly the culmination of several secret meetings between university representatives and the daughter of then Chinese Prime Minister. In 2012, The Cambridge Student reported that all mentions of the donation had been wiped from the internet.

Nor is this only a question of dirty money. Donations of this kind always involved strings attached, and it seems Cambridge is in no hurry to prove otherwise. In April 2020 the website of the China Centre at Jesus College, Cambridge read: ‘Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China since 1978, [China] has experienced an extraordinary transformation… China’s national rejuvenation is returning the country to the position within the global political economy that it occupied before the 19th century.’ This brief ode to a government responsible for all manner of ongoing tyrannies has since been removed, but does this mean that Jesus College & Cambridge writ large intends to push back against its powerful benefactors? More likely, it signals that the University wishes to keep its underhand dealings just that- underhand and away from the prying eyes of press attention.

It seems unfortunate that The Spectator remains one of the only mainstream publications that continue to publish on Jesus’ murky predicament; this serves to fuel the notion that anti-CCP sentiment is, or ought to be, exclusively a feature of a conspiratorial political Right, which it is not. The evidence of Jesus College, one of the most academically and financially endowed institutions in the United Kingdom, being linked to a genocidal despotism should be of interest to any well-meaning individual.

Jesus College is certainly not unique among British institutions for its questionable links with the Chinese government, nor for its progressive student body and administration baying for the removal of statues and plaques commemorating those whose lifetime exploits are now frowned up. It is, however, one of the most noteworthy. Jesus College has assets of approximately £344m making it Cambridge’s fourth-wealthiest college. Cambridge itself remains one of the most respected universities in the world, and Jesus College’s China Centre and UK-China Global Issues Dialogue Centre remain veritable sources of soft power- that is currently flowing in only one direction. Scandals like this not only threaten to compromise the fabric of student life but the international standing of one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious institutions.

Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University has repeatedly declined interviews on his university’s links with the regime. Toope has even suggested that the Chinese regime as it operates today, ought to be big in ‘multilateral governance solutions’. Toope’s office’s email is, and I encourage you, especially if you are a Cambridge student, to take a moment to forward your concerns to his office. They can’t ignore all of our emails. Why Cambridge deems it necessary to remove a centuries-old plaque while refusing to approach (nevermind confront) its trail of dirty money from a regime complicit in mass forced labour is a question beyond this article, but the relativisation of truth for the sake of political and financial gain is surely involved. 

Georgia is an Associate Writer for Foundation for Uyghur Freedom. Follow them on Instagram @foundation4uyghurfreedom & Twitter @uyghur_freedom.

Photo Credit.

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