The Church of England commits Sh15 billion to address its 'shameful' role in slavery trade


Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby speaks at a past event on January 30, 2014. PHOTO | AFP

Britain’s past and historical links to slavery have been in the spotlight in recent years, with the toppling in 2020 of a 17th-century English slave trader’s statue in Bristol sparking a nationwide debate.

Countries including the United States have faced calls for slavery reparations over the years, with demands and estimations of compensation ranging between billions and trillions of dollars.

In an article published in The Guardian newspaper last week, the Church of England announced that it had committed Sh15 billion (£100 million) to a fund it is setting up to compensate for its historical benefit from the international slave trade.

A report published June 16, 2022, for the Church Commissioners, the body which manages the Church of England’s £10bn endowment fund, traced the origins of the fund partly to Queen Anne’s Bounty, a financial scheme established in 1704 based on transatlantic chattel slavery.

The report said that Queen Annes Bounty had invested significant sums in the South Sea Company, which transported 34,000 slaves to the Spanish Americas in the 18th century and had received benefactions from people with links to slavery, including Edward Colston.

“The trade that enslaved African people was responsible for inflicting much pain and misery on people of African descent in particular but also on other groups around the world who have experienced deep injustices. It contributed to both the racial and class divisions we experience today in our society and, regrettably, in our church. Churches and societies with such inequities and divisions do not flourish.”

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Queen Anne’s Bounty was established to augment the incomes of poorer clergy in the Church of England and by extension the organisation (“The Governors of the Bounty of Queen Anne for the Augmentation of the Maintenance of the Poor Clergy”) which administered the bounty (and eventually a number of other forms of assistance to the poor livings).

The bounty was originally funded by the “annates” monies: “first fruits” (the first year’s income of a cleric newly appointed to a benefice) and “tenths,” a tenth of the income in subsequent years traditionally paid by English clergy to the pope until the Reformation, and thereafter to the Crown.

To accelerate the augmentation of the fund, between 1809 and 1820 Parliament made annual grants to the bounty of £100,000.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said last Tuesday it was now time for the church to take action to address “our shameful past.”

Speaking to BBC last Wednesday, Garen Mostyn, Chief Executive of the Church Commissioners said, “There is no doubt that those who were making the investments knew that the South Sea Company was trading in enslaved people, and that’s now a source of real shame for us, and we apologise.”

“It’s an enormous step forward,” broadcaster and historian David Olusoga said of the church’s commitment. “For 200 years we’ve been in denial, brushing this history under the carpet. And the idea that you inherit wealth from this history, that along with that wealth you also inherit some responsibility, that idea has been dismissed for decades.”

As an immediate step, the Church of England said it would display items from its archives with links to slavery at an exhibition in London, including a petition written by an enslaved person in 1723 to the head of the church.

The Church Commissioners will use the money for a fund that will invest in communities affected by past slavery and conduct research and related activities tied to the church’s involvement in slavery over the next nine years.

The church was careful not to use the term “reparations” as that might invite an avalanche of individual claims for compensation, but they state that the purpose of the fund will be to support projects “focussed on improving opportunities for communities adversely affected by slavery.”

In September last year, Britain’s University of Cambridge also admitted that it had benefited from proceeds of slavery during its history and promised to expand scholarships for Black students and fund more research into the murderous trade.

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While the enormity of the slave trade and its effect on communities may be impossible to quantify, it is gratifying to note that the perpetrators are coming out of the denial stage.