by Samuel Rubinstein
“He is a very simple, ignorant, but honest and loyal creature”, wrote John Evelyn of Tobias Rustat. Modern appraisals of the man are much less charitable. His portrait used to hang above Jesus College’s Senior Combination Room, peering on the fellows as they munched and chuntered, but no longer. The “Rustat Conferences”, established in 2009, were last year renamed, rather blandly, to the “Jesus College Conferences”.
At the heart of the controversy is an abominable fact about Rustat’s life: his involvement in the Royal African Company, as an investor and Assistant, profiting from its monopoly on the slave-trade. Now the College wishes to remove its most conspicuous remnant of Rustat-mania, the enormous monument that adorns the wall of its mediaeval chapel, but this is proving a trickier task.
It is quite understandable that Rustat’s involvement in slavery should, in the opinion of the College authorities, outweigh the philanthropy for which he is commemorated: a £2000 donation, which established a scholarship at Jesus for orphans. But two hurdles stand in their way: firstly, a horde of Jesus alumni, whose nostalgia for their undergraduate days appears to be bound up with this particular plaque in its particular location; and secondly, the diocese of Ely, which enjoys a measure of jurisdiction over the chapel. So the matter has been taken to consistory court.
If the College is permitted by the diocese to remove the monument, I won’t be sorry to see it go. As a Whig, I have no wish to celebrate men who spent their careers brownnosing Stuart kings. And as an opponent of moral relativism, especially on an issue as clear-cut as slavery, I have no problem applying my moral convictions to the past. The symbols of Jesus’ historic links to slavery shouldn’t be airbrushed or forgotten – but they also needn’t be venerated, kept in prize position in a communal space. The College’s wish to move the Rustat monument to a place ‘where it can be understood in its full context’ therefore seems eminently sensible.
But cases like these often smack of hollow sanctimony – especially when they risk presenting grave moral evil as the sole preserve of a benighted past. In our day, as in Rustat’s, ethical considerations can easily be swatted away when there’s money involved. In the last few years, amidst their racial reckoning, Jesus College has accepted £155,000 from Huawei, the company that supports China’s mass surveillance of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The College has also received £200,000 from the Chinese government. Jesus is home to Cambridge’s China Centre, a reputation-launderer for the Chinese Communist Party, whose director, Prof. Peter Nolan, is infamous for his attempts to shut down discussions about the cultural genocide of the Uyghurs.
The College has much to thank Rustat for – and not just his donation. The plaque that he vainly commissioned in his image has, in recent years, done the College a great service, functioning as a sponge to soak up student rage. The bigwigs can sleep sound at night: it’s far easier for them to do penance for the sins of their forebears than answer questions about how the College fills its coffers today. The Jesus alumni who are campaigning against the removal of the monument argue that “it should remain in its present position as a testament to the folly and evil of the past”; and whether it remains in the chapel or moves somewhere new, it stands to tell us something about the folly and evil of the present, as well.
And just as the Rustat debate has absorbed the energy of well-meaning students, so will it distract much of the right-wing media, who naturally rush to Rustat’s defence. The question of Jesus College’s finances in the present day is, ironically enough, one on which left-wing students and right-wing journalists could feasibly combine forces. These two camps seldom align, and when they do – as in their contempt for the Cambridge Union last term – it tends to be for radically different reasons. But here arises the possibility of real co-operation: picture Charles Moore and Zak Coleman campaigning together against China’s stranglehold over this University, entering into a holy alliance to exorcise its spectre. For now, however, the two camps fight, as ever they must, and as they will so long as Rustat remains at issue – so long as the debate turns on Jesus’s finances in the seventeenth century, instead of Jesus’s finances today. The College must be thrilled.
China's descent into fascism
But, for the time being, pity our poor Jesus don. He eats his sumptuous China-funded meal amidst the splendour of his China-funded temporary hall; and, while sipping his China-funded wine, his mind is suddenly and spontaneously towed across the vast expanse of Eurasia, all the way eastwards to Xinjiang and Tibet and Hong Kong. His conscience pricked, his appetite vanquished, he scurries for his College chapel, where he prostrates himself before his God. And then, as he kneels before the altar, he feels the gaze of Tobias Rustat piercing the back of his head. He turns around to meet this seventeenth-century glare with his own, and he stares into that doughy face, and into its blank marble eyes: eyes that know, all too well, what people will do in their pursuit of profit.
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