The Church of England has admitted that it benefitted from the slave trade and has set up a fund to compensate for the harm done to those enslaved and their descendants. But questions continue to be asked about the size of the fund, its operation and the make-up of its administrators. Clayton Goodwin reports.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, spiritual head of the Church of England and also chair of the Church Commissioners, the board that oversees the Church’s assets and investments, has expressed his deep sorrow for the Church’s historic links with transatlantic slavery and the slave trade, as set out in a recently-published report by the Commissioners. The Commissioners announced a $100m fund to compensate for its historical benefit from the trade.
“It is now time to take action to address our shameful past,” Dr Welby declared and he quoted from the Bible: “Only by obeying the command in 1 John 1:6-7 and assessing our past transparently can we take the path that Jesus Christ calls us to walk and face our present and future with integrity.”
The general reaction has been that it is a good start, yet many questions remain to be answered. How did the Commissioners who manage the Church’s estimated £9bn endowment fund come up with that figure, which in present-day terms seems to be well below the sum considered appropriate? Whom did the Commissioners consult? Who determines who will be the beneficiaries? And why now? It isn’t as if we – and the Church – have only just become aware of this issue.
What exactly is that link? Does the Church have any direct responsibility? And, if so, to what level and degree?
The Church of England has been proud of the part played by its individual members, and those of other denominations, in the abolition of slavery – without being quite as clear in explaining how the institution came about in the first place.
The role the enslaved people and their descendants played in the process of abolition is mentioned less frequently. What is to my mind the most decisive factor – that the abolition of slavery was achieved only after the industrial revolution had shown that machinery was a more economic and less inconvenient form of labour – is hardly mentioned at all.
Compensation was paid at the time of abolition – but to the slave-owners, for their “loss of property”, and not to the freed slaves. In 1835, the British government took a loan of £20m (equivalent to £17bn today) to compensate the owners. It amounted to 40% of the national income and was the biggest loan in history. The country only finally managed to pay off the loan in 2015.
In the meantime, statues to some of the biggest slavers, such as Edward Colston, held pride of place in cities such as Bristol – until the monument to him was removed and thrown into the harbour in 2020 in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
There does seem to be something amiss with this current offer to pay reparations.
I grew up in the entirely White ambience of a rural village where the inhabitants had no personal animosity towards Africans and the Black people of the Caribbean and North America. After all, we did not know any individually and, being simple folk, were willing to give everybody the benefit of the doubt.
Yet there was no one that did not harbour the impression of Africans, slaves and their descendants as being childlike, lacking educational, artistic or scientific talent and accomplishment, and being dependent on White people for the judgement and decisions which guided their lives.
Not a few believed honestly that ex-slaves yearned to return to the certainty of their former servitude where, at least, “they knew where they were”.
A shameful legacy
Our one source of knowledge was the Church itself, and the elementary schools run by the Church of England, which taught stories of missionaries braving the ‘dark continent’ to bring an end to the slave trade and the ‘light of Christian civilisation to a savage, backward people’.
Many missionaries were sincere and unaware of their own church’s involvement in that very tyranny, but even they marched hand-in-hand with the slave-traders and colonialists who preceded or followed them. In so doing, the Church has great responsibility for forming a picture, which impressed on the innocent minds of childhood, has led to adult decisions of intolerance, injustice, and division.
Even so the Church of England, and all that it represents, has a more direct and specific link to slavery. It was at the very heart of the trading and owning of slaves – the shaming legacy to which the Archbishop has referred.
The Church Commissioners were substantial share-holders in the notorious South Sea Company which dealt in the trading of slaves, particularly at the start of the eighteenth century, when Britain fought wars for political, economic and commercial hegemony in Europe by exploiting ‘opportunities’ in the southern hemisphere.
The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave Britain permission to open slave-trading bases in the Caribbean and Latin America. Investment was provided through Queen Anne’s Bounty, which funded support for poor clergy, parishes and dioceses. Christian churches also owned slave plantations, such as that owned by the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Barbados.
The national conscience, if it was stirred at all, was soothed by readings from the Bible, which, due to the lack of universal education, was often the only reference book of information, and regarded as infallible. It suggested that differences in ethnicity came about as the result of sin (committed by the forebears of the darker races).
There was also a widespread feeling, as there is today, that those who ‘trust in the Lord’ prosper while those who do not perish. And the slave-traders were certainly profiting … in a commercial sense, if nothing else.
Exercise in social healing
The amount of reparation (some of which will be used to research into the cathedrals, dioceses and parishes which were linked to slavery), and how it will be spent, seems to have been determined without consulting the descendants of the slaves, either individually or through organisations such as the Caribcom Reparations Commission, which is backed by Caribbean governments, and has a 10-point action plan outlining the path to reconciliation, truth and justice for the victims of slavery and their descendants.
For the donation to be made in the spirit of contrition it is hardly sufficient for just the estimated amount of the debt to be met. Robert Beckford, Professor of Black Theology at the Queen’s Foundation, in speaking to Emily Buchanan on the BBC Radio 4 programme Sunday, cited the gospel example of Zacchaeus, a tax-collector and collaborator with the Roman imperial oppressors, stealing from his own people in the process, promising Jesus that he would repay four-fold.
Can the stain of slavery ever be erased by money alone? Is any amount sufficient to atone? The damage of slavery has been multi-faceted and demands that restitution should be made for the lifestyles ruined and the spiritual, psychological, cultural upheaval.
The Church, the country and the community are only just coming to terms with this shameful legacy. Everybody has to be involved because everybody has been affected. That includes the descendants of the enslaved, damaged societies in Africa, and those in this country to whom the lies were told.
It could become the greatest exercise in social healing that this country has experienced. A lasting legacy. For that to be achieved the process must be based on a foundation of truth and respect.
Why set up the fund now, at a time, incidentally, when membership of the Church of England, and other Christian denominations, has become predominantly Black? Is it an ongoing process allowing time for others to be consulted and brought in?
This summer’s 75th celebration of the arrival of the ship SS Empire Windrush in June 1948, which has been formalised as a landmark occasion for the arrival in the UK of a substantial number of the descendants of those enslaved, will be one of several reference points which will keep the issue at the forefront of the public mind. As will the coronation of King Charles III, in May – while the Archbishop of Canterbury is the church’s spiritual head, the British monarch is its Supreme Governor.
The report of the United Nations working group that people of African heritage in the UK continue to encounter racial discrimination and erosion of their fundamental rights, and the government’s seemingly cavalier approach to undertakings given in respect of the so-called “Windrush scandal”, will ensure that this is a story that continues to hold attention.
Yes, it has been a good start. But that is what it is – a start. The main story is yet to come.