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.
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. She said that their should be a day to remember them, 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.
Slavery was “not our complete history”, one woman said. “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).
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.
The Assistant Curate of Emmanuel, the Revd Kingsley Akwasi-Yeboah, dressed in 18th-century clothes, read Equiano’s 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.”
For a longer account, see www.churchtimes.co.uk