New research reveals how clergy claimed compensation for slave ownership

New research reveals how clergy claimed compensation for slave ownership

There was an item on the Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning about UCL’s project to research the legacies of British Slave Ownership.

In 1833 Parliament finally abolished slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape. The slave trade had been abolished in 1807, but it took another 26 years to effect the emancipation of the enslaved.

However, in place of slavery the negotiated settlement established a system of apprenticeship, tying the newly freed men and women into another form of unfree labour for fixed terms. It also granted £20 million in compensation, to be paid by British taxpayers to the former slave-owners.

On the Radio 4 item this morning, it was mentioned that many clergy were among those who played a part in slave ownership, and received substantial amounts of compensation.

A search of the database (you can easily search by inserting 'clergy' in the 'occupation' section) reveals 143 clergy who applied for compensation, many successfully, often with regard to the ownership of several hundred slaves (some playing a part in ownership of as many as 700). A search by typing 'Church of England' in the 'religion' section of the database reveals 126 individuals.

Many of the claims were by individual clergy. But this inevitably puts the spotlight back on the involvement of the Church and raises questions once again about whether the Church should be seriously considering making reparations. Those advocating reparations - such as the Rev Jesse Jackson - point out that the impact of the slave trade is continuing and therefore contemporary. Trans-generational debt remains, and therefore must be addressed. There are also now practical suggestions for how reparations might be made.

In 2007, the BBC reported that the Church of England had begun to consider the payment of reparations for its role in the slave trade having just apologised. However, this was quickly followed by a press briefing from Lambeth Palace which poured cold water on the idea and suggested Synod had rejected it.

In the current financial climate, and with the Church's own finances so pressed, it looks unlikely that the Church will voluntarily reopen the debate. But the evidence of how the Church, and its clergy have profited, and indeed still benefiit from the legacy of slavery is becoming more identifiable. It will continue to do so. And the Church's apology will appear cheaper as a result.

Meanwhile those within the Church who consider the idea of reparations to be integral to their faith and Christian ideas of justice, will also be left wondering whether it will once again be left to those outside the Church to point the institution in the right direction.

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(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia.

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