A DAY to commemorate the millions who died in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and an act of corporate repentance by the Church of England, were among the suggestions made at Emmanuel Church, Forest Gate, in London, on Saturday, where the baptism of Olaudah Equiano was celebrated.
After a presentation about the life and faith of Equiano (c.1745-97), a prominent abolitionist, delivered by the Vicar of Emmanuel, the Revd Dr Chigor Chike, participants discussed the lessons to be derived. Several drew attention to the frequency with which black history and contemporary black contributions to society were suppressed.
“Up until now, I always thought it was good, white Christians that fought against slavery,” one woman observed. “It’s really uplifting to find out that black people were involved in that fight as well.”
The director of the Equiano Society, Arthur Torrington, told participants that Equiano’s contribution is now part of the school curriculum — to cries of “finally!” from the audience. Noting a series of events planned in coming months, he described 2019 as “Equiano’s year”.
“Social media is such a blessing, because we are seeing so much about black history and the black community that mainstream white media would never tell us or show us,” one man observed. “There’s a lot of whitewashing going on.”
The suggestion that the Church of England had been ignorant of the nature of slavery was swiftly corrected. “They actually branded the slaves in the Caribbean,” one woman said.CHIGOR CHIKEDr Chike and the Revd Kingsley Akwasi-Yeboah, at the font, where prayers were said to commemorate Olaudah Equiano’s life
The Revd Professor Jeanette Meadway, an NSM at St Martin’s, Plaistow, had learned for the first time, she said, that the C of E not only invested in the slave trade but owned slaves.
“The Church of England should have a massive act of repentance for what it did and how it was involved in slavery,” she suggested. There should be a day to remember the victims, she suggested, comparable to Holocaust Memorial Day.
The discussion on Saturday revealed the tension between a desire to celebrate African history, a need to heal the past, and a wish to focus on modern slavery.
“The way forward would be to allow us to tell our story before slavery, because we were human beings: we were not animals or people to be enslaved,” observed one woman. “I think we need to have some kind of education where we know who we were before slavery rather than concentrate on slavery.”
Slavery was “not our complete history”, another woman agreed. “But I really do feel strongly that, before we start to get to modern-day slavery, which is so easily done, we have as a people to acknowledge what we have experienced, because we are not here by accident. . . We have to at least acknowledge what went on, so that we can heal as a people. . . We cannot keep on skipping over it, because it completely decimated our family.”
In 2006, the General Synod voted in favour of an apology for the part played by the C of E in the slave trade (News, 10 February 2006). The call for a formal, annual commemoration echoes that made by Canon Eve Pitts, who has noted that “many churches, many buildings, [were] built by money from my slave ancestors (News, 29 July 2016).” CHIGOR CHIKENairobi Thompson, poet-in-residence for the day
On Saturday, Equiano was honoured. Born in Nigeria, he had been kidnapped as a child before being bought and sold as a slave several times. He was baptised at St Margaret’s, Westminster, on 9 February 1759, and eventually saved enough money to buy his freedom.
He travelled all over the country to speak in the abolitionist cause, and published a best-selling autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, in 1789.
In his presentation, Dr Chike, who comes from the same Nigerian ethic group as Equiano, noted that there had been a tendency for Christians to justify slavery in the 18th century, not least because they owned or benefited financial from slaves.
The Assistant Curate of Emmanuel, the Revd Kingsley Akwasi-Yeboah, dressed in 18th-century clothes, read from Equiano’s writings, including his response to a slavery apologist: “I could not have believed any man in your office would have dared to come forth in public in these our days to vindicate the accursed Slave Trade on any ground; but least of all by the law of Moses, and by that of Christ in the Gospel.”
Dr Chike, who wrote Voices from Slavery (News, 4 May 2007) after being concerned that the voices of black people be heard in the commemorations of abolition, suggested: “We have to watch for times when the contribution of black and ethnic-minority people is being suppressed, and do what we can to see that that doesn’t happen.”
The “lasting message” that Equiano and his contemporaries might have wanted to leave was that racism was “a deception put forward by the Evil One”, he suggested. “It is one of his most effective. He uses that to make human beings turn against each other and so he could undermine what we can achieve through our collective effort.
“They would caution us against falling into the trap of bitterness because that would be playing into the hands of the Evil One. They would urge us to commit instead to fighting injustice wherever we see it and exposing the lie of dividing up human beings according to their physical features.”
The event began with a poem read by the poet-in-residence, Nairobi Thompson, entitled “Salvation” and inspired by Equiano:
“My country taught me kingship
Europeans taught me slaveship
God has taught me fellowship.”
Dr Chike recalled a Nigerian proverb: “If you eat plantain and throw its peel into the river, after some time, it will rise back up to the surface — it’s a way of saying that you cannot hold some things or some people down for ever.
“This seems to be the case with Olaudah Equiano. He is resurfacing, and his contribution to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery is getting known by more people in more places.”