‘Shambolic’ slavery report sparks fury from Cambridge dons

·3 min read
Cambridge University buildings - Nicholas T Ansell/PA
Cambridge University buildings - Nicholas T Ansell/PA

A Cambridge University college has been accused of hiring a “woke activist” with an agenda to produce a “shambolic” slavery report it is now being forced to correct.

Gonville and Caius college hired a junior researcher on a year-long fixed-term contract to investigate legacies of slavery and coerced labour.

However, it has descended into a furious row after a 50-page draft sparked a backlash from senior historians who condemned the “indefensible” attempt to tarnish the college’s history, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Now, in a quarrel that insiders said has “got completely out of hand”, Nicholas Bell-Romero, the postdoctoral researcher who was leading the report, has quit, accusing dons of “censorship” after the college ordered a series of clarifications.

In turn, dons have told The Telegraph that Mr Bell-Romero, who was hired between 2020 and September 2021 and stayed on afterwards, had produced a report with the “distortions of a politically motivated student”.

Report may be scrapped

The war of words has led college sources to speculate that the report, now severely delayed, may be scrapped altogether.

Gonville and Caius is Cambridge’s fourth-oldest college, and one of multiple university authorities to launch slavery inquiries since George Floyd’s murder.

The draft was circulated among college fellows in the spring, prompting one legal historian to send back what sources described as a 16-page “demolition job” identifying what they say are several major flaws with the research.

Sources said one error included an individual being wrongly named as having slave links to the college – but their identity was confused with someone else.

Incorrect monetary conversions between 18th century and modern-day currencies were also used, which produced “grossly inflated figures” around donations to the college, insiders said.

And another section allegedly claimed that the English “kidnapped” several million African slaves, when in fact many were sold by local despots to English traders.

‘Attempts to rewrite history’

One don, who wished not to be named, told The Telegraph that the blunders were “really typical of the situation we’re in where woke activists have got this big agenda and actually when it comes down to the details they make a complete mess of it – their attempts to rewrite history fall at the first hurdle”.

The don added: “The assumption which lay behind the report was that it could be proven that the college kept silent on slavery, which it didn’t because it made donations to the Society of Abolition as the report showed on occasions.

“So the whole tone of it was that we need to prove something – but that’s not how you conduct historical research.”

The report is said to have suggested that the profits from slave plantations helped spark the industrial revolution, which academics argued was “blown out of all proportion”.

Critics also pointed out that the college lived off agricultural land in Norfolk without accepting as many controversial investments as other Oxbridge colleges.

Inquiry concerns

Sources in the college said they were concerned that the broader University of Cambridge Legacies of Slavery Inquiry, which is due to report this year, may have poor research too.

Mr Bell-Romero did not respond to a request for comment, but said earlier this month that objections from fellows were “disproportionate” and expressed in a “distressing” way. He also criticised “censorship” and a “non-academic working environment”.

A Gonville and Caius college spokesman said it would publish the report “in full when it is complete”, adding: “There is open dialogue with the author of the report seeking some clarifications to ensure accuracy.

“The researcher was employed on a one-year fixed-term contract which ended in September 2021. The college’s working group on the Legacies of Slavery is still working on the report and its recommendations before bringing them to the college council.”