St John’s was the first college in Oxford or Cambridge to fund research into its links with the colonial past, recruiting Dr Mishka Sinha who, working with Professor William Whyte, has lead a project uncovering benefactions to St John’s, the alumni who served in the empire, and those staff and students brought to Oxford by colonial connections. Now in its second year, it is investigating the monuments, objects, pictures, books, and buildings that evoke the colonial past.
An advisory board made up of experts in the field are supporting this project. In addition to Fellows of the College, its members include Professor Margot Finn (UCL), Professor Barbara D. Savage (University of Pennsylvania), Professor Amia Srinivasan (All Souls College, Oxford), Dr Nicholas Westcott (SOAS), and Professor Andrew Thompson (Nuffield College, Oxford). The project has also organised lectures, talks, workshops, and reading groups.
What St John’s and the colonial past has begun to reveal is just how various and surprising the college’s connections with empire actually were. Empire can be found in the minutes of the college debating society, the SCR betting book, the library’s collections, the careers of those who went into colonial service, and in the biographies of those alumni who fought for their country’s independence.
This project grew out of St John’s broader commitment to pursing its ideals of equality. It was one of the founding members of the Conference of College’s Equality and Diversity Forum. It appointed its first Fellow for Ethnic Minorities in 2017. Examining our past more generally, the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 have led St John’s to set up a working group to consider the issues of equality, diversity and inclusiveness that this movement has highlighted. Members of the Group are stakeholders from across the College: academic, professional and non-academic staff, students, and alumni, whose aim is to develop a robust action plan to ensure the eradication of racism, in any form, from our community. The Group will be consulted on how to address legacies from the past as they arise.