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Slavery has cast a long shadow

03 March 2023

Facing up to past wrongs is a key part of the reconciliation process, argues Guy Hewitt


The so-called “Slave Bible” and, to its right, the 1723 letter from an unknown slave, in “Enslavement: Voices from the Archives” at Lambeth Palace Library

The so-called “Slave Bible” and, to its right, the 1723 letter from an unknown slave, in “Enslavement: Voices from the Archives” at Lambeth Palace Lib...

THE exhibition at Lambeth Palace Library, “Enslavement: Voices from the Archives”, spoke to me across the centuries. Viewing its exhibits, as a descendant of enslaved persons and as a Church of England priest, I felt a range of emotions, from sadness, horror, and revulsion to hope.

One of the exhibits, Select sections of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves, commonly called the “Slave Bible”, is a version of the Bible redacted by missionaries, which was published in 1808 for enslaved people to read. It contains only ten per cent of the Old Testament, and 50 per cent of the New Testament.

All references to freedom and escape from enslavement were removed, including the first 18 chapters of Exodus, which chronicle the journey from slavery in Egypt. Passages encouraging loyalty and submission were emphasised.

Another exhibit I found gut-wrenching is the 1723 letter from an unknown slave, in which an unschooled, yet obviously very learned, enslaved person in Virginia requests the Bishop of London’s help to be emancipated. Yet I was profoundly moved by the hope in the letter.

These exhibits form part of the Church’s telling the truth about its historic links to the transatlantic slave trade. They challenge me to put all possible distance between our generation and those who perverted the gospel, using the cross not to liberate, but to enslave.

SOME argue that, since slavery is long past, it is unnecessary to focus on issues of racial justice. Such arguments, however, overlook the reality that the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans cast a long shadow over all of humanity, and that, presently, owing to the perpetuation of institutional racism, many Black people from the Caribbean, the United States, and South America continue to live with the psychological and material legacies of enslavement.

The Church of England should be proud of the Church Commissioners’ commitment of £100-million funding in response to the findings of its investigation into historic links to the transatlantic slave trade (News, 13 January).

We are one of the first institutions to have accepted the principle of restorative justice, and to have acted on it. It has set the gold standard for others to follow. As someone said at the opening of the exhibition, the Church is “walking the talk”.

Racism was not the natural state of affairs between White and Black people. When Europeans first visited Africa, they encountered empires and cities as advanced as their own. With the “discovery” of the “New World”, however, the exploitation of these new colonial possessions required a workforce that neither the European nor the decimated Native American populations could supply.

The roots of modern Western racism are located in greed and a Eurocentric narcissism that gave Europeans a sense of dominion over the earth and all its resources. Through pseudo-science, social theory, and a colonialised version of Christianity, Europeans and their North American cousins divided humanity between the “civilised” and the “savages”.

They plundered the African continent and enslaved its inhabitants to toil in the Americas. Of the 12 million Africans kidnapped, enslaved, and transported to the Americas between 1500 and the early 1800s, it is estimated that about two million perished on route. For context, in 1801, Britain’s population was only nine million.

ONE of the objects on display in the exhibition is The Negro’s and Indians Advocate, by the Revd Morgan Godwyn, a cleric who had served in Virginia and Barbados. He disappeared after he published, in 1685, Trade preferred before Religion, in which he condemned the Crown for the slave trade. “We have exceeded the worst of infidels by our first enslaving and then murdering men’s souls,” he stated. “For how can it be endured that a Nation once so famous for zeal and piety . . . should prostrate herself to that foul idol mammon, and worship trade.”

The presence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, West Africa, and the West Indies at the opening of the exhibition, on 11 January, symbolised that reconciling of past colonial relations — historically, that odious “triangle-trade”.

Their presence was a focus for the hope of our ancestors that, touched by the better angels of our nature, we can, united in Christ, together usher in the Kingdom.

In The Tempest, Antonio asserts “Whereof what’s past is prologue”: that is, what happened in the past creates the context or is the catalyst for what occurs in the present. I subscribe to Archbishop Welby’s trust in the power of reconciliation: a transformation of conflict into, at the very least, healthy disagreement. While all conflicts may not be resolvable, people can still be reconciled.

Such a journey of reconciliation will be neither swift nor easy. Generations of injustice cannot be healed overnight. Rather than be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, however, we should go forward, keeping faith that God’s peace, justice, and love are with us. With God’s help and the many blessings offered to us by being true to the gospel, we shall overcome. Let’s keep hope alive.

The Revd Guy Hewitt, a former Barbadian High Commissioner in London, is the Church of England’s Racial Justice Director.

“Enslavement: Voices from the Archives” is at Lambeth Palace Library, 15 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1, admission free, until 31 March: Monday to Friday, 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., and Saturdays 4 March and 1 April, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.lambethpalacelibrary.org

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