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

Published:Tuesday | January 31, 2023 | 2:34 PM
Church archivist Giles Mandelbrote introduces the exhibition of documents exploring the institution's role in the slave trade, at the Lambeth Palace Library, in London, Tuesday, January 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

LONDON (AP) — Three centuries ago, an enslaved person in Virginia wrote to a leader of the Church of England, begging to be released from “this cruel bondage.”

There was no reply from the church, which at the time was accumulating a tidy profit from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The handwritten letter from 1723 — whose author says they must remain anonymous for fear they will “swing upon the gallows tree” if exposed — has gone on display in London as part of efforts by the Anglican church to reckon with its historic complicity in slavery.

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

The letter is included in an exhibition at the library exploring the church's role in the 18th-cenury slave trade. It coincides with a new report setting out that role in hard facts and figures.

The Church Commissioners, the body that administers the church's 10 billion-pound (US$12.3 billion) investment fund, hired forensic accountants in 2019 to dig through the church's archives for evidence of slave trade links.

They spent two years poring over centuries-old ledgers, and what they found is “shaming,” the church said.

The investment fund has its roots in Queen Anne's Bounty, established in 1704 to help support impoverished clergy. It invested heavily in the South Sea Company, which held a monopoly on transporting enslaved people 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.

“Investors in the South Sea Company would have known that it was trading in enslaved people,” it said.

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

Those ledgers recording the profits of human bondage are now on display, alongside documents showing how views of slavery within the church ranged from justification to opposition.

Some Anglicans wanted to convert slaves to Christianity, while others saw that as a “slippery slope” that could lead to demands for freedom. The exhibition contains a version of the Bible intended for slaves, with all references to freedom from bondage removed. That meant cutting 90% of the Old Testament and half the New Testament.

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