Court to hear dispute over future of memorial to Cambridge college benefactor

Tobias Rustat, who invested in the Royal African Company, became one of Jesus College’s largest benefactors before the 20th Century.

Sam Russell
Monday 24 January 2022 11:18
Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne (PA)
Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne (PA)

An ecclesiastical court is to hear a dispute over whether a memorial to a 17th Century benefactor who invested in slave-trading companies can be moved from the chapel of a Cambridge University college.

Tobias Rustat, who invested in the Royal African Company, became one of Jesus College’s largest benefactors before the 20th Century.

The college last year submitted an application to the Diocese of Ely to relocate a memorial to Rustat from its chapel to a permanent exhibition space in the college.

A consistory court case, starting on February 2, is due to help decide the fate of the monument.

The chapel should offer a welcoming space accessible to every member of our community. This is the right solution for our college

Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne

College archivist Robert Athol said last year that the plan to move the monument to an exhibition setting will “allow for restoration and study of the monument, and it will enable people to engage with it as an artistic piece and as a vehicle for discussion about the history and legacy of enslavement”.

The marble memorial is on a wall within the college’s chapel and was commissioned by Rustat during his lifetime when he was already a major college donor.

Following recommendations made by the college’s Legacy of Slavery Working Party in 2019 and 2020, the college took the view that the memorial represents a celebration of Rustat which is “incompatible with the chapel as an inclusive community and a place of collective wellbeing”.

The Master of Jesus College Sonita Alleyne, said that the college’s proposal to relocate the monument to an educational exhibition space was “part of a process of critical self-reflection on the long-term legacies of enslavement and colonial violence”.

“The chapel should offer a welcoming space accessible to every member of our community,” she said last year.

“This is the right solution for our college.”

A number of college alumni have objected to the proposal to move the memorial.

A Jesus College spokesperson said on Monday: “It comes down to whether it’s appropriate for the celebratory monument to Rustat to be in a place of worship and reflection, our chapel, which is at the heart of our diverse community.

“The college is not seeking to cancel Rustat or erase him from the record – it is applying to have his memorial moved from a place of worship to a more suitable – but still prominent – place in the college.

“In addition to religious events, the chapel plays a central role in college life and hosts many historic and ceremonial occasions as well as concerts and recitals, welfare activities and student arts festivals.

“The memorial is an obstacle to some members of our community participating in all these college events.”

The consistory court case is listed for three days from February 2.

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