Legacies of Enslavement research

Downing College is engaging with the University’s Legacies of Enslavement project and is conducting its own research, with the intention that findings will be shared once this work has been completed. Part of this research concerns the history of the family of the College’s founder, Sir George Downing, 3rd Baronet (1685-1749), but it will also encompass other major benefactors. The College was founded in 1800 and received as its endowment the estates of the Downing family in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.

The Downing family wealth

The vast majority of the family’s wealth was accumulated by Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet (1624/5-84) and derived from his governmental offices under Cromwell and Charles II. These offices included Scoutmaster-General, Teller of the Exchequer and ambassador to The Hague. The 1st Baronet used his wealth to acquire estates in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk.

The College is unaware of any evidence that the Downing family wealth derived from slavery, although further research is being undertaken.

Surviving records describe the passage of George Downing (later 1st Baronet) through the West Indies in 1645. After graduating in the first year from Harvard, he left New England at the age of 20 and “went in a ship to the West Indies to instruct the seamen. He went by Newfoundland, and so to Christophers, and Barbados, and Nevis, and being requested to preach in all these places, he gave them such contents, as he had large offers made to stay with them. But he continued in the ship to England”, where he went on to make his fortune in the service of Cromwell and, later, King Charles II.  Source: John Winthrop’s Journal, 10 December 1645, Massachusetts Historical Society

Research project timescale

The College’s Legacies of Enslavement research is continuing and has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, it is not envisaged that it will be possible to complete this research until later in the year at the earliest, but the College is committed to sharing its findings and will continue to engage with and assist the University’s research project.

Downing’s Early Black Cantabs project

The College Archivist carried out a research project in support of the student-led Black Cantabs Research Society in 2017. This project researched and identified the College’s early black students, dating back to 1917, and shared their life stories with a wider audience through an archive exhibition which ran from 2018 until 2020.

You can read more about the project and some of the College’s earliest black students here. 


Published 10 July 2020.