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By Harry Bartholomew – Library Graduate Trainee at Queens’ College

On Sunday 7 June 2020, the bronze statue of a governing member of the Royal African Society was toppled and rolled into Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matter protesters. Two days later, the University of Liverpool announced its plans to remove the name ‘Gladstone’ from one of its halls of residence, due to its association with slave ownership. The BLM movement has triggered a resurgence of concern and interest in Britain about our colonial heritage, and the legacy left by enslavement. At this time, the research at Queens’ into the college’s own links to slavery is especially needed.

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An illustration of a slave ship from a pamphlet by Thomas Clarkson entitled ‘The history of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of the African slave-trade by the British parliament’ (London, 1808), in a volume of pamphlets owned by Isaac Milner relating to the anti-slavery campaign.

This research project runs parallel to the university-wide investigation announced last year. Responding to the growing public interest in the association of British universities with slavery, two Research Fellows have been appointed to conduct research projects into the University of Cambridge’s involvement with both the commercial aspect of enslavement, as well as its contribution to the academic discourse supporting racism and colonialism. Following this, Queens’ alongside other colleges is developing similar, independent research into both the institution’s and its members’ connections to slavery.

Preliminary research has been carried out by the Queens’ staff in recent months, and, despite the lockdown, we have managed to uncover details of slave ownership by former Queens’ members using internet databases, such as Venn’s Alumni Cantabrigiensis, and UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership database. So far, we have uncovered 44 claims, made by either Queens’ members or their immediate families, to a share of the government’s £20 million for the emancipation of their slaves under the Slave Compensation Act 1837.

John Frederick Foster (1795-1858)

John Frederick Foster appears to be one of the largest beneficiaries of this compensation. A member of Queens’ college, he matriculated in Michaelmas 1813, received his BA in 1817, was called to the bar in 1821 and pursued his career in the legal field. He was also the son and nephew of slave-owning planters in Jamaica. His father made a compensation claim for his emancipated slaves on the Bogue Estate in St. Elizabeth parish, where 363 people were forced to work as slaves, but he died before the compensation was paid, and so John Frederick Foster received the largest share of the £7,467 paid out by the British government. He had also inherited a tenancy at his uncle’s Elim estate with 385 slaves, later receiving a share of £7,252. A third compensation case in Jamaica saw him pocket another share of £3,127 for the emancipation of 167 people.

Peter Moncrieffe

A Queens’ student matriculated in 1829. His father, Benjamin Scott Moncrieffe, was among the most wealthy of the Jamaican Northside gentry. As a free mixed-race man, Benjamin Scott was granted equal rights to white subjects in a public act of 1794, and as well as being a slave-owner himself, he received additional compensation as an attorney for executing wills and as a judgement creditor. Peter Moncrieffe, after graduating from Queens’, was called to the bar, and eventually joined the judiciary in Jamaica.

Claudius Buchanan

Claudius Buchanan received his BA from Queens’ in 1796. Upon the recommendation of then Queens’ president Isaac Milner, he was appointed to an evangelical chaplaincy in Bengal. Eventually becoming chaplain to the East India Company, he published works on the benefits of British rule to the Indian people and offered prizes for essays on the best means of ‘civilising’ Indians in the British Empire.

These examples are just three of many more, but they show us that the connection between Cambridge and colonialism was bidirectional: students from the West Indies come to Cambridge, whose wealth generated from slave labour has been contributed to the college through tuition fees; equally, there were graduates from Queens’ who then set out into parts of the British Empire and played their own part in upholding the colonial hierarchies. As an institution whose purpose was, and arguably still is, to shape and educate future citizens, the college has a degree of responsibility for the destination of its graduates.


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A letter in Queens’ Old Library from abolitionist William Wilberforce, a close friend of college president Isaac Milner.

One way in which we can assess the academic impact of the college on slavery and colonialism is to look within the library. Did Queens’ library provide access to and promote racist ideology and discourse? Searching what has already been catalogued in the Old Library reveals that there are 21 books from the bequest of former president Isaac Milner on the subject of slavery and the slave trade. Almost all of these are anti-slavery, and Milner was known to be an abolitionist, and was a close friend of the prominent abolition campaigner William Wilberforce. The library also hold 14 volumes by William Blackstone, the leading English jurist of the mid-eighteenth century, whose Commentaries on the laws of England rejected all major reasons for the existence and hereditary nature of slavery.  However, providing access to abolitionist literature does not absolve to college of playing a role in upholding colonial ideologies. Milner also left works to the library which encouraged plantation in the Caribbean and expansion of the empire, and there are also works from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which encouraged the ‘instruction of their negroes in the Christian faith’ to plantation-owners. When this is considered with Milner’s evangelical Christian beliefs and his recommendation of Claudius Buchanan to an evangelical chaplaincy, we can see that, at least to some extent, the college left a legacy of promoting colonialism through missionary work.

This is only the very beginning of this project, yet what we have thus far found shows an overview of Queens’ college’s relationship to slavery. Money linked to the slave trade comes into the college at matriculation, and certain graduates espousing colonial ideologies came out at the other end.  The LBS project estimates that somewhere between 10-20% of Britain’s wealthy can be identified as having had significant links to slavery, and with this project we can acknowledge the part played by British universities in shaping the citizens who forged these links.



‘Context | Legacies of British Slave-Ownership’ <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/project/context/&gt; [accessed 14 May 2020].

‘Buchanan, Claudius (1766–1815), East India Company Chaplain’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/3831&gt;.

‘Peter Moncrieffe’, Jamaica’s History – Always Something New to Find Out! <http://jamaica-history.weebly.com/peter-moncrieffe.html&gt; [accessed 10 June 2020].

Kenneth Morgan, Slavery and the British Empire from Africa to America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).