Church of England sheds light on ‘shameful’ slave trade ties

Church of England sheds light on ‘shameful’ slave trade ties

Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but did not legislate to emancipate slaves in its territories until 1833.

LONDON (AP) — Three centuries ago, a slave in Virginia wrote to a Church of England leader, begging him to be freed from “this cruel bondage.” No response from the church which, at the time, was accumulating a nice profit from the transatlantic slave trade.

The 1723 handwritten letter – whose author says they must remain anonymous lest they ‘sway on the gallows shaft’ if exposed – was put on display in London as part of efforts of the Anglican Church to take account of its historical complicity in slavery.

The handwritten letter from 1723 – which the author says they remain anonymous for fear they will ‘sway on the gallows shaft’ if displayed, is on display at the Lambeth Palace Library , in London on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

“It is a very poignant document, and also extraordinarily rare,” Giles Mandelbrote, archivist at the church’s Lambeth Palace Library, said on Tuesday.

The letter is included in an exhibit at the library exploring the role of the church in the 18th century slave trade. This coincides with a new report laying out that role in hard facts and figures.

Church Commissioners, the body that administers the church’s 10 billion pound ($12.3 billion) investment fund, hired accountants in 2019 to dig into the church’s records. Church in Search of Evidence of Links to the Slave Trade. They spent two years poring over centuries-old records, and what they found is “shameful”, the church said.

The investment fund has its roots in Queen Anne’s Bounty, established in 1704 to help support impoverished clergy. He invested heavily in the South Sea Company, which had a monopoly on transporting slaves from Africa to Spanish-controlled ports in the Americas. Between 1714 and 1739, the company transported 34,000 people on at least 96 voyages.

The commissioners’ report says the church at the time knew what it was involved in.

“The South Sea Company investors would have known it was trading in slaves,” he said.

The fund has also received donations from people enriched by the slave trade, including Edward Colston, a British slave trader whose statue in his hometown of Bristol was toppled by anti-racism protesters in 2020.

These records recording the benefits of human servitude are now on display, alongside documents showing how views on slavery within the church ranged from justification to opposition.

Church Archivist Giles Mandelbrote presents the exhibit of documents exploring the institution’s role in the slave trade, at Lambeth Palace Library, in London, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Some Anglicans wanted to convert slaves to Christianity, while others saw it as a “slippery slope” that could lead to demands for freedom. The exhibit contains a version of the Bible intended for slaves, with no reference to freedom from bondage. This meant cutting out 90% of the Old Testament and half of the New Testament.

The exhibit includes tracts justifying slavery in religious terms, and others using faith to argue for abolition, including a 1680 book by Anglican clergyman Morgan Godwyn, who argued that those who approved of the slave trade slaves made a deal with the devil.

There is a speech in Parliament from 1789 by leading abolitionist William Wilberforce, who would campaign for 18 more years before Britain outlawed the slave trade. And there’s a letter to John Newton, the captain of a slave ship, from a trader that says “I sent you a slave boy aboard.” Newton later repented, became an abolitionist and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”.

“By the end of the 18th century, there was increasing publicity about the horrors of the slave trade and its inhumanity, and this helped generate a movement for abolition,” Mandelbrote said.

Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, but did not legislate to emancipate slaves in its territories until 1833.

When the commissioners’ report was published on January 10, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby promised to “take action to remedy our shameful past”.

This action includes a £100 million ($123 million) fund to support projects “focused on improving opportunities for communities affected by historic slavery.”

A book written in 1680 by Anglican clergyman Morgan Godwyn, which argued that endorsing the slave trade was tantamount to making a deal with the devil, is on display at Lambeth Palace Library, London, on Tuesday 31 January 2023. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

The pledge falls short of demands by some activists for institutions that profited from slavery to pay compensation to the descendants of slaves.

“It’s not about paying compensation to individuals, and it’s not really about money,” said Church Commissioners chief executive Gareth Mostyn. He said the new fund is part of the church’s “journey of repentance.”

“No amount of money will ever be enough to repair the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade,” he said. “But we hope our response will be a way to invest in a better future for all.”

“Enslavement: Voices from the Archives” runs until March 31. Free entry.

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