It sometimes seems that there is hardly any great movement or development in history that does not have at least some link with Oxford.
Only when it comes to the long and dark story of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade is Oxford unusually absent from the centre of events and untouched by forces that shaped the modern world.
On the face of it no one should be that surprised, given that the trade inevitably centred on the great ports of Liverpool, Bristol and London, with their creaking, foul-smelling slave ships and warehouses full of sugar, rum and cotton.
Similarly, Oxford has hardly figured in accounts of the crusade to abolish slavery.
William Wilberforce, the great social reformer credited with getting Parliament to outlaw the slave trade, was a Cambridge University man, who struck up his crucial friendship with with William Pitt the Younger at The Other Place.
But all this is about to change, if Anne Avery has her way.
For she is behind a major exhibition on Oxfordshire’s links to slavery and the slave trade, which has just opened at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock, where it will run until February 3.
And the 37-year-old researcher has also written a new book — Connections: Oxfordshire’s Links To Slavery — which she believes is the first serious study of Oxfordshire’s long-forgotten links to the slave trade.
The crucial link is rooted at Oxford University, she argues, where the intellectual elite were “largely responsible” for not only maintaining an ethical and theological framework that sanctioned slavery and the slave trade, but also actively participated in the buying and selling of human life.
“Oxfordshire’s prominent role in the slave trade is not well documented, with most people thinking that it was all centred on the port cities,” Ms Avery told me, as a smaller version of the exhibition was being packed away at the Museum of Oxford.
The links were certainly not limited to intellectual backing, with the county home to a wide range of people involved in the slave trade, including plantation owners, investors and both pro and anti campaigners.
And there is physical evidence of how Oxford benefited from the slave trade even in the loveliest parts of the historic city.
One of the university’s most famous libraries, the Codrington Library, housed in All Souls College, Oxford, was built on the proceeds of slavery and named after its benefactor Christopher Codrington, a former fellow and the scion of a long line of English sugar magnates, who owned slave plantations in Barbados and Antigua.
The Codrington will, famously found in one of his boots, instructed his executors to pay All Souls £10,000 with “six thousand pounds thereof be expended in building of a library”.
The will also directed that the plantations, where in the West Indies practices of branding, iron collaring and public whipping continued unchecked, were kept “intire”, maintaining at least 300 negroes to work the land.
Ms Avery, a former Oxford High School pupil who now lives in the Cotswolds town of Northleach, spent nearly a year researching the book.
It grew out of the work of the African-Caribbean and African Kultural Initiative, created to commemorate in Oxford the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2007.
The ACKHI was supported with grants from Oxford City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Superficially, there was little or no visible evidence of a link between Oxfordshire, slavery or slave trade, says Junie James, the driving force behind the ACKHI.
“But Oxford and Cambridge for centuries produced the majority of politicians who were fundamental to the maintenance of the system of slavery and its eventual abolition.”
In a foreword to Connections: Oxfordshire’s Links To Slavery, Ms James tells how a tentative examination linked slavery with colleges, streets and sites from pubs to stately homes, with records of slaves being baptised in Woodstock and kept at Broughton Castle.
The complexity of Oxford’s involvement is nowhere more vividly revealed than at Rhodes House.
It was endowed by the explorer and entrepreneur who made his wealth from diamond mining in what is now Zimbabwe.
But it is an institution that grants scholarships to people from the Commonwealth.
Beneficiaries have included Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago and author of Capitalism and Slavery, and Norman Washington Manley, prime minister of Jamaica.
One of the project’s key objectives has been to correct a misconception that people of African heritage or descent all arrived in Britain on SS Empire Windrush, in June 1948.
Ms James said: “Throughout this project, what became apparent is the extent to which Oxfordshire has played host to countless visitors, servants and enslaved Africans and later those who volunteered their services to aid the war effort.
“Our ambition for Connections is to add to the local history of Oxfordshire and to ensure that that the county had the documentary evidence so lacking in relation to its ‘black’ presence, which can be found in many of the major cities of England.”
Ms Avery, a specialist in African-American history, was invited to write the book having helped as a volunteer with the multi-donominational service Remembering Slavery, held at Christ Church, which was attended by more than 1,000 people and conducted by the Bishop of Dorchester, the Rt Rev Colin Fletcher.
On the way back from the Museum of Oxford exhibition, she had little difficulty in showing that the ghost of slavery can be uncovered even at the heart of local government.
Walking up the central staircase in Oxford Town Hall she gestured towards a stained glass window. It depicts the crest of the Lyttelton family, in honour of Alfred Lyttelton, the handsome sportsman who played in the 1876 FA Cup final, before becoming the Colonial Secretary, who allowed Chinese indentured labour into South Africa.
When the Town Hall was built, he happened to be recorder (part-time judge) of Oxford.
Sure enough, above the coat of arms is a black man’s head — apparently a reference to the family’s early association with slavery.
The exhibition in Woodstock will include paintings, documents and artefacts, including slave trade 'manilas' — iron or copper bracelets used as currency for the buying and selling of slaves.
It will tell the stories of early plantation owners, such as Sir Wiilliam Stapleton, and some of the elite black servants who ended up becoming minor celebrities themselves, and colonial administrators such as John Locke, the great Christ Church theorist of libertarianism, who nevertheless sought to justify slavery in his writings and like many Oxford figures invested in the Royal Africa Company, set up to give the rights to trade in Africa and the Americas Work on a more scholarly and in-depth book on Oxfordshire links with the slave trade is already under way.
“The aim is not to shame people or seek compensation from colleges,” said Ms Avery, who married her partner Steve Pratley, a music therapist, on Christmas Eve. It is to make sure the secret history of Oxford’s involvement is revealed and not brushed under the carpet.”
And among the impressive portraits of powerful figures, posing with their black pages, is a painting of the Oxford MP, Sir William Dolben, who, unlike his friend William Wilberforce, is not widely remembered as a hero of the abolitionist cause.
Sir William had determined to view the material evidence of the iniquitous trade with his own eyes, with the reek of a slave ship said to be so strong that it could be smelt a mile downwind.
The ship he saw was empty of captives, but the iron shackles were still there along with the suffocating stench.
He went on to deliver a powerful Commons speech, telling MPs that his university had instructed him to assist in attaining the goal of the abolition of the British slave trade.
But he focused on the miseries suffered in the transport of slaves from Africa to the West Indies, warning that inaction would result in 10,000 lost lives by the autumn.
A bill to regulate the shipping and carrying of slaves in British ships was carried in 1788, with the Oxford MP’s speech said to have produced “one universal feeling of pity, shame and indignation”.
At least any such feeling stirred in Oxonians visiting the slavery exhibition can justifiably be tempered with pride as well.