Jesus College

This is a preliminary report on the nature of Jesus College’s connection with enslavement and colonialism, drawn from research for the new College History to be published in 2021.


The College’s original mission

This was from the very beginning, in 1571, to provide higher education and offer a scholarly home for the Welsh in Oxford. This became even more explicit from the second foundation under Sir Leoline Jenkins, Principal from 1661 to 1673, who left the College much of his property in 1685. Fellowships and Scholarships were for those from Wales. Endowments came mainly from Welsh landowners, from bishops and from other senior clergy.


Colonisation and the first College century

Our foundress, Queen Elizabeth I, was a supporter of ventures in the Caribbean and elsewhere, provided they were suitably anti-Spanish and pursued at no cost to the royal purse. A few early alumni pursued clerical careers in Ireland, often seen as England’s first colony, and one, Sir James Perrot, was a military commander and ‘planter’ there under James I. William Vaughan, who studied in College in the 1590s, later funded a small  colony in Newfoundland, hoping to encourage Welsh emigration, a project that failed within three years.


Jenkins and his legacy

Leoline Jenkins was for many years judge in the Court of Admiralty, dealing in international maritime conflicts. His work there included the adjudication of disputes about prize goods taken at sea. Enslaved people were sometimes included among these ‘goods’. But Jenkins does not seem to have had more direct involvement with the transatlantic trade, or to have invested in the plantations. The wealth he passed to the College derived from careful accumulation during a lifetime of public service. However, one of Jenkins’s gifts later connected the College indirectly to colonialism: at the end of the nineteenth century part of the Lambeth estate was sold to the secretary of state for India for the building of a warehouse for imperial goods.


Jenkins did leave part of his endowment to fund two ‘missionary’ Fellows. He intended that after their Oxford years they should serve as chaplains in the navy or the colonies. Though the Fellows were appointed from 1702 onwards, many did not serve abroad. In the nineteenth century Canon John David Jenkins, whose portrait by Holman Hunt is owned by College, served in South Africa, and Frederic Henry de Winton, the last Fellow, became an Archdeacon in Ceylon.


The only alumnus who we are certain made a significant impact on the plantations in the centuries of slavery was Thomas Coke, one of the leaders of early Methodism. Coke developed the Methodist movement in the Americas in the 1780s and was an abolitionist. He visited the Caribbean several times and clashed with some of the slave owners, hostile to the establishment of mixed-race congregations. In the 1790s he also contributed to attempts to establish the mission in Sierra Leone, the African settlement for those freed from enslavement.


Jesus and Empire in the Twentieth Century

 The College continued principally to recruit and train men from Wales until after the First World War. Many of its students were drawn from the middle classes and its reputation remained somewhat unfashionable and socially modest. This environment attracted a small number of overseas students, including those from the empire. Norman Manley, a Rhodes Scholar and later the first chief minister of Jamaica, is the most famous. Less remarked is Pixley ka Isaka Seme, later founder of the African National Congress, who came to Jesus to read civil law in 1907. In that year there were students from New Zealand and India. Three years later two Egyptians started at Jesus, though neither could afford to graduate.

The best-known Jesus student of this period, T.E.Lawrence, acquired his interest In Arab identity partly from his undergraduate study of archaeology and the crusading movement. The College holds his undergraduate dissertation on crusader castles. He remains a controversial figure in the story of anti-colonialism.  


Missionaries and colonial officials were common among the alumni in the interwar period: in 1929 thirty-nine of the known Jesus graduates were in Africa, and fifty of them in India. The remaining strength of the Welsh connection is, however, underlined in the same set of figures: seventy-four alumni resided in the county of Glamorgan alone.

The team of contributors to the College History intend to continue to investigate the College’s links with empire.


Felicity Heal