The head of a prestigious Cambridge University college at the center of a controversy over whether to keep a memorial to a benefactor involved in the slave trade has expressed shock at a recent church court ruling that it should remain in the college’s chapel.
Tobias Rustat, a 17th-century benefactor of Jesus College, had ties to slavery that are widely acknowledged. The college had applied to the Diocese of Ely to have the memorial removed and placed elsewhere on campus, stating that its presence was negatively affecting the church’s mission and ministry.
In the end, the college lost the case, which prompted Sonita Alleyne, the master of Jesus College, to say that the ruling was a critical moment for the Church of England, which has apologized for its connections to the transatlantic slave trade. "It’s the church’s first exam," she said, "a church that owned slaves in the 17th century."
Alleyne, the first black master of an Oxbridge college and the first woman to serve as master of Jesus College since its founding in 1496, was born in Barbados and grew up in east London.
She said she was surprised by the ruling, expressing her disappointment that the Church of England appeared to be telling black people to "put up and shut up and pray under a memorial to a slave trader."
"There is such a thing as racial dignity in worship," she added. "That’s something that has been ignored."
Alleyne also noted that the epitaph for Tobias Rustat neglected to mention his association with the slave trade and that the church should take this into account when deciding whether it should be allowed to remain.
Despite the controversy, Alleyne has overseen a significant increase in diversity at Jesus College, with the 2020 cohort being the most diverse in its history. She has also worked to promote better career opportunities for students while encouraging members of the college to make a difference in their community.
Although he attended meetings, he did not receive any dividends. Nonetheless, he was aware of the many lost lives and cargo associated with his investment in one of the most profitable transatlantic slave trading enterprises. The true cost of his investment was the exploitation, branding, rape, and death of thousands of people.
The recent judgment surprising many, even the Archbishop of Canterbury, who expressed his support for the removal of the memorial and urged the church to take corrective action. Alleyne, however, faces the prospect of continuing to worship in the shadow of a slave-trader’s memorial with a sense of anger and disappointment.
"This is a momentous time for the church’s reparation of its past role in the slave trade," said Alleyne. "But this is not appropriate, it is distasteful, it is as though one is telling Rosa Parks to ‘sit at the back of the bus.’ These thoughts are nonsensical."
Alleyne is disappointed with the decision and with people from outside the community making decisions based on old norms. "We can’t believe this is the outcome," she adds.
The college authorities are now considering their legal options, while Alleyne finds it impossible to enter the chapel. Any official ceremonies that might take place in the chapel will now be shifted to some other location.
"The church is supposed to care for everyone without any prejudices. Love must be demonstrated, not just spoken of. They cannot insist on us to put up and shut up and get on with it. It is unacceptable."
The judgment appears to say that if people do not want to attend the chapel, they should not bother.