One hundred years after Trinity alumnus David Louis Clemetson was killed on the Western Front, alumna Sarah Lusack returned to College to find out more about the Jamaican student and soldier, and to present a video about his extraordinary story.
David Clemetson came to Britain from Jamaica to study, initially at Clifton College in Bristol and from 1912 at Trinity. In the only photograph of him in the Wren Library, he is pictured with members of the First Trinity and Fifth Boat team, which rowed in the Lent Bumps of 1914.
David enlisted at the start of the war, in the Sportsmen’s Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, later joining the Pembroke Yeomanry. Despite military law at the time, he rose to the rank of Lieutenant – one of a handful of black officers in the British Army. Tragically, David was killed on 21 September 1918, less than two months before the end of the war.
Here Sarah talks about her enthusiasm for the video project.
What did you take part in the video?
By uncovering and shining a light on elements of the past, we learn more about Cambridge as well as how we are situated as black students at the University. Thanks to the Black Cantabs Project, we can see ourselves – current students and recent graduates – as part of a longer legacy of black students attending Cambridge. It is really inspiring.
David Clemeton’s experiences – studying at Trinity, going to war and ultimately dying on the battlefield – are so different from those of students today. What though can we learn from his life and his spirit?
I am particularly inspired by David’s boldness in insisting that he be identified as a black man, despite being light-skinned and able to ‘pass’ as white. Unfortunately we don’t know how active David was politically but I am impressed by his willingness to stand up for his beliefs even if that risked opprobrium at the time.
What does it mean to be black and British in twenty-first century Britain and beyond?
Progress still needs to be made in addressing the well-documented inequalities that arise from racism. However, we are experiencing a time where the positive impact black people are making across society is being rightly recognised and celebrated. It is an exciting cultural moment and I look forward to continuing to celebrate our collective successes.
What were the most important aspects of your undergraduate years at Trinity?
I really appreciated being around people which such diverse academic interests and intellectual views. This learning – informal conversation and debate – was valuable in helping me to develop my own views and I continue to seek people and environments like this today.
David Clemetson is the focus of the University of Cambridge video First black British Army Officer honoured in First World War Centenary and features in a new exhibition Black Cantabs: History Makers at the University Library, 1 October-22 December 2018.