Cass: Meet the merchant who lends his name to London’s campuses

With the celebration of Sir John Cass under review at several universities in London, we interrogate his wealth and its origins.

Today’s London is built upon over two millennia of maritime history: the Romans; the Hanseatic League; colonialism and the rise of the company. The debate around how we remember this history and celebrate these companies – Royal African and East India, say – in education needs little introduction. This debate, however, is now having real-life consequences, with Sir John Cass (slave trader and philanthropist) set to have his name removed from schools across London.

The process of denaming institutions linked to Cass has already begun. At London Metropolitan University, ‘The Cass’ has been renamed the School of Art, Architecture and Design. The university explained, “the use of his name is incompatible with our commitment to support the Black community and to actively oppose racism in all forms.”

A map of London shows the Thames and five locations linked to Sir John Cass.
Universities and schools across London dedicate buildings to Cass.

London Met is not the only university to have operated buildings named after Cass. City, University of London’s Cass Business School has carried the slave trader’s name since 2002. The University of East London (UEL) remembers him at its School of Education and Communities.

Over the course of his life (1661-1718), Cass became a major figure in the development of British slave trading, directly dealing with the agents who directed slaves through ports in Africa and America. Between 1705 and 1708, he sat on the “committee of correspondence” as a member of the Royal African Company’s Court of Assistants. He retained shares in the company until his death.

Many of the Royal African Society’s records are available to view at the National Archives. From these, we know that the company transported around 5000 slaves each year between 1680 and 1686. The company was granted a Royal Charter almost two decades beforehand in 1662, giving it a legal monopoly over the British-led slave trade. In return for its charter, the company oversaw forts in West Africa and recruited a large contingent of soldiers in the region. These forts were of little economic advantage to the company, instead intended to “show a British presence” in Africa during the development of modern colonialism. It is to this colonialism which contemporary racism – both overt and structural – is often traced.

Cass was also linked by family and acquaintances to colonial plantation interests in Virginia, North America.

The Royal African Company traded through forts in West Africa, including the Cape Coast Castle. Artefact: W. H. Rosser/British Library (1869).

Today, he is remembered not for his participation in establishing a British colonial presence in West Africa, nor for his participation in the enslavement and trading of human beings across the Atlantic. Instead, he is remembered for directing his profits into his London endeavours.

An alderman and later City of London MP, Cass established a school in the St Botolph’s Church grounds in 1709. In legend, it is said that he included in his will the gift of an orange and a bun for the school’s pupils each year. After his death in 1718, his wealth was contested by his family. It was only in 1748 that a settlement was reached, and that his profits would fund a foundation to promote education in London.

To write Cass’s slave trade involvement into the public narrative, universities, schools, and churches which uphold him as a charitable hero are reconsidering the use of his name. St Botolph’s Church in Aldgate removed his bust, apologising for “the years spent celebrating the legacy of a man without understanding the origin of his wealth, gained through slavery and human exploitation.”

Along a similar vein to London Met, UEL removed his on-campus statue, but noted that, since 2008, his foundation has “brought many benefits to [its] students over the years including a range of scholarships for those in hardship.”

UEL is developing a “new institutional naming policy,” reviewing “all sources of historic funding” as part of its Vision 2028 strategy.

City also says that it is reviewing its historical sources of funding.

The Sir John Cass Foundation has committed to a change of name, too: “We no longer consider the Sir John Cass name appropriate to represent us and the work that we do in this century or in the future.”

“We have also continued to celebrate Sir John Cass without explaining or acknowledging his connection to slavery and human exploitation, or the hurt and anger this has caused amongst our beneficiaries and our community. We recognise, acknowledge, seek to understand, and apologise for the public hurt and anger,” the Foundation concluded.

Feature image: The Wub/Wikimedia under license CC BY-SA 4.0.

Will is London Student's Features Editor. He has recently completed a BA History at SOAS, and you might find him hiding in a library around Bloomsbury.

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