Legacies of Enslavement: a Newnham research programme

Newnham’s Legacies of Enslavement research programme works to better understand our institution’s foundation within its historical setting, to recognise our responsibilities today, and to contribute to a deeper understanding of British and global history.

“Colonial slavery shaped modern Britain, and we all still live with its legacies.” [UCL, Legacies of British Slave-ownership project]

In 2019, the University of Cambridge announced an “in-depth academic study into ways in which it contributed to, benefited from or challenged the Atlantic slave trade and other forms of coerced labour during the colonial era”.

While Newnham was founded by a group of radical thinkers more than a generation after Parliament’s Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, the College will nonetheless have been shaped by the financial and intellectual landscape of the time.

As an institution dedicated to research, learning and education, we at Newnham must be ready to apply this to our own origins. We should reflect on the underpinnings of late-Victorian philanthropy, which built on the financial legacies of earlier generations.

Though Newnham relied on many small gifts from middle-class individuals who were passionate about women’s education, it is very possible that some of  our benefactors donated inherited money or items, where that inheritance ultimately derived from the Atlantic slave trade.

The legacy is not purely financial. The academics of Newnham and other Cambridge colleges will have shaped the intellectual landscape of their time and subsequently. Their scholarship may have reinforced and validated race-based thinking between the 19th and 20th centuries. Conversely, some of them will have challenged such thinking and taken forward the battle for equality.

As with so many of Britain’s museums, galleries and libraries, items that we now conserve for their scholarly value may have passed through the hands of people who profited from the slave trade, or have been acquired by exploitative means.

Newnham’s Legacies of Enslavement research programme works to better understand our institution’s foundation within its historical setting, to recognise our responsibilities today, and to contribute to a deeper understanding of British and global history.

Since 2020, Newnham Fellows, staff members and students have commenced a research programme, investigating what lies behind the foundation of today’s institution.

This includes a series of public lectures given by leading scholars, together with a reading and discussion group. Our inaugural Legacies of Enslavement lecture was given by Prof Theresa Singleton of Syracuse University. Our second speaker was Jake Subryan Richards, of LSE, who spoke on ‘Violent Abolition: Encounters and Authority at the End of the Trade in Enslaved Africans to Brazil’ in February 2021. Public talks will continue over the duration of the project.

Alongside research by Fellows and staff, we are funding two summer student research projects over the summer of 2021. As with the University’s project, we anticipate our students will have slightly different remits, perhaps focusing on economic/monetary ties to the Atlantic slave trade, perhaps focusing on cultural/intellectual ties. In addition to the value of the work, we expect the students will gain valuable experience of archival research.

This page will be updated as the research programme continues. The group currently anticipate sharing preliminary findings in Michaelmas Term 2021.


Our next public lecture will be given by Prof Catherine Hall, Principal Investigator of the ESRC/AHRC project ‘Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ (www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs).

Read about the University’s Legacies of Enslavement Initiative

Join Newnham’s own Legacies of Enslavement mailing list