Student says he has been pressured to remove a reference to Antoinette Sandbach, a descendant of a slave merchant
The former Tory MP Antoinette Sandbach has threatened the University of Cambridge with legal action after a historian named her as a descendant of merchants who enslaved his ancestors.
Malik Al Nasir, a third-year PhD history student at St Catharine’s College, has spent the past 20 years exploring his family’s history of slavery and the wealth that was built from those who enslaved them.
He discovered his ancestors were enslaved in plantations in the former colony of British Guiana (now known as Guyana) during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Al Nasir claims a substantial amount of the wealth from plantation slavery was brought to Liverpool by Samuel Sandbach and his business partners – the same city Al Nasir grew up in.
Al Nasir claims he has been pressed to remove a reference in his work to Antoinette Sandbach, a former MP for Eddisbury in Cheshire, who is a descendant of Samuel Sandbach and beneficiary of his estate.
Sandbach has said she supports and appreciates the importance of Al Nasir’s work but raised concerns that she was being singled out in an online Ted talk given by him.
The Guardian understands Sandbach’s lawyers have threatened to sue the University of Cambridge over the Ted talk.
“My cultural identity has been obscured by slavery and colonialism,” said Al Nasir. “Searching for my roots, I uncovered the connection to these people.
“The fact that Antoinette Sandbach descends directly from Samuel Sandbach, one of the richest and most prolific slave merchants in Britain, in the 18th and 19th century, is a fact that emerged from the research.”
He added: “The fact that I mention that as a footnote to a talk that I gave online does not constitute an attack on the individual. It’s merely a statement of historical facts and a matter of public record.”
Al Nasir has yet to receive direct correspondence from Sandbach’s solicitors.
The Guardian understands Sandbach first messaged Al Nasir on Twitter about his research and the two had a cordial exchange.
Sandbach then emailed Al Nasir’s academic supervisor and asked that the reference of her be removed from his Ted talk, claiming there were inaccuracies and that she was being unfairly singled out for being an MP.
Al Nasir said he responded to the allegations of factual inaccuracies directly to his supervisor, who was satisfied they were unfounded.
Sandbach then made a complaint to the University of Cambridge, which had embedded the Ted talk video on its website, on the grounds it breached her right to privacy.
The Guardian understands Sandbach complained the Ted talk claimed she lived in Wales, when she no longer lived there. She also said she had a right to be forgotten as she was no longer a public figure.
After an investigation by the university’s information compliance office (ICO), Sandbach’s request to have her name removed was rejected on the grounds of academic freedom.
Sandbach informed Al Nasir she was in the process of instructing solicitors. She added that she was also thinking of making a formal complaint to the ICO.
As part of her correspondence, Sandbach noted her concern that Al Nasir’s research had ignored the legal position of British women in the 19th century.
She initially argued to Al Nasir and Cambridge’s data protection team, and later to her followers on Twitter, that a wife was the chattel of her husband and that marital rape was not abolished until 1991 because a woman was considered the property of her husband.
Al Nasir told the Guardian he was “flabbergasted” by the argument. “I am a historian of 18th- and 19th-century slavery, not a historian of women’s suffrage.”
Sandbach did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But in a statement later released on Twitter, Sandbach said she was supportive of Al Nasir’s research and “appalled” by the actions of her ancestors.
She added that she was not seeking to prevent free speech nor was she suppressing academic research but objected to what she described as “ongoing data breaches” by Cambridge University and Nasir.
She said she believed these breaches risked compromising her personal safety.
She added that though she had not been subject to racism, women’s oppression was the “closest prism” through which she could understand it, writing that “many of the racist tropes of the past were also used to suppress women’s rights”.
A spokesperson for St Catharine’s College said: “St Catharine’s is absolutely committed to upholding freedom of speech and ensuring all of our students, including Malik Al Nasir, are able to freely pursue their scholarly interests by providing access to academic, pastoral and – where possible – financial support throughout their studies.”
A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge said: “This is an ongoing legal matter and so we are unable to comment.”