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Why links to the slave trade do matter

14 June 2024

The Church Commissioners stand by their research into the links between Queen Anne’s Bounty and chattel enslavement, writes Gareth Mostyn

Lambeth Palace Library

A short state of the accounts of the Governors of Queen Anne’s Bounty, 1708-84

A short state of the accounts of the Governors of Queen Anne’s Bounty, 1708-84

I KNEW very little about enslavement in late 2019, when the Church Commissioners first embarked on research into its history. In fact, I must admit to being somewhat reluctant when our Audit and Risk Committee, prompted by some other longstanding institutions’ and endowment funds’ asking similar questions, suggested that we should do some work to explore the origins of the endowment fund managed by the Commissioners. Didn’t we already have enough to do, facing current daily challenges?

But I am very grateful that the Audit and Risk Committee did ask that question. Our diligent library and archive staff identified some matters of concern in their original sift of the archives. This prompted me to appoint a firm of forensic accountants to do a thorough review of the handwritten 18th-century ledgers of Queen Anne’s Bounty, a predecessor fund of the Church Commissioners. They were supported by expert academic historians.

As a result, we learnt that the Commissioners, through its predecessor fund, did have significant historical connections with African chattel enslavement (News, 17 June 2022). And I learnt about this abhorrent practice, in which women, men, and even children had their freedom taken away, were owned and exploited for profit, and endured horrendous treatment, which very often caused death. It was and continues to be a shameful and horrific sin.

The research revealed how Queen Anne’s Bounty invested significant sums in, and derived a material amount of its income from, the South Sea Company, a significant participant in enslavement during the early 18th century. Queen Anne’s Bounty also received numerous financial “benefactions”, many of which are likely to have been derived from exploiting enslaved Africans.

As an ethical investor with responsibility for the stewardship of the Church of England’s endowment fund, the Board of the Church Commissioners was horrified and ashamed of what we had found, and decided to make a response, committing £100 million to a programme of impact investment, grant-making, and further research (News, 13 January 2023), besides continuing to use our voice as a responsible investor to address and combat modern slavery.

The response is not about paying compensation to individuals: it is about seeking to invest for a better and fairer future for all — in particular, communities affected by the enduring legacy of historic African chattel enslavement. By impact investment, we mean investments that seek to generate positive social and environmental impact alongside a financial return, perhaps through health care or education.

After publishing the findings of the research in 2023, we appointed an independent oversight group to advise us on how best to deploy the funding that we had committed, engaging widely in forming its recommendations. This group delivered its report to the Commissioners’ Board, which welcomed it. We are now developing plans to implement our response, informed and shaped by the report’s recommendations.

It has been a particular privilege of this work to engage with, and learn from, people affected by the legacy of enslavement, and descendants of the enslaved, including many of our sisters and brothers across the Anglican Communion. We’ve learned from hundreds of people in England and around the world about their hopes for what we might be able to achieve, besides hearing from some who feel that we are not doing enough.

WHEN the oversight group published its report on 4 March (News, 8 March), it drew wide media coverage, which then gave rise to some criticism of our work, often personal and offensive, particularly to African-descendant communities. Many of these voices came from within the Church.

The criticism led me to reflect on and question our research and our response. And doing so has helped to remind me of the rigour of the research and the missional importance of the response.

It may be an uncomfortable and inconvenient fact, but the endowment fund managed by the Commissioners does have tangible links to African chattel enslavement. In addressing those links, we have a chance to make a real difference to the lives of communities that are still today experiencing the legacy of this horrifying cruelty.

We have faced questions from those who suggest that the investments made in the South Sea Company did not really fund the “trade and transport” of enslaved people, and that the returns did not derive from enslavement because the South Sea Company’s enslaving activity was supposedly relatively insignificant and unprofitable (Comment, 22 March).

I have also heard how offensive such comments are to those descended from the enslaved: we are dealing here with a legacy in which our brothers and sisters have been classed as inhuman, just personal property to be used for profit.

Dr Helen Paul is a lecturer in economics and economic history at Southampton University, and is one of the academics who contributed to our research. She wrote: “The South Sea Company was formed as an integral part of the early modern British state. It was designed from the outset as a slaving company. It shipped enslaved human beings across the Atlantic in terrible conditions. It operated as a slaver for several decades during the first half of the 18th century. Its investors were well aware of this.”

Over its lifetime of trading (of enslaved people), the South Sea Company forced nearly 42,000 enslaved people to leave the African Coast. It disembarked on the other side of the Atlantic almost 35,000 people, meaning that just over 7000 people died on the crossing. Their bodies would have been thrown overboard. This is the horrifying reality.

We stand by our research and what it uncovered. The degree of “profiting” is not the issue: any financial involvement in this vile practice would be too much. For a responsible investor of an in-perpetuity endowment fund, with its purpose to support the work and ministry of the Church of England, the fact that the Commissioners’ predecessor fund had investments of any sort in such a company is a source of deep shame.

WHILE some people have told us that our response is not ambitious enough, there has also been criticism from those who think that the funds that the Church Commissioners are committing to our response ought to be spent to relieve financial pressures facing churches in England today.

I and my colleagues are acutely aware of the challenges faced by many churches today — not only financial issues, but also the practical demands on many faithful clergy and volunteers who serve God and the Church through all of the work that they do to run services, manage buildings, lead children’s work, and visit the sick and elderly (and so much more). I give thanks for all those people working so hard in their parishes. I also give thanks for all those who give money to their church.

Those givers are the main source of the Church’s income, on top of which the Commissioners are distributing about £400 million every year: just over 20 per cent of the Church of England’s total expenditure.

The £100 million being committed to our response to links to African chattel enslavement sits alongside total funding of £3.6 billion, which we plan to distribute to the Church over the same three triennia funding periods (2023-25, 2026-28, and 2029-31), this being 30 per cent higher than the previous annual rate of distributions. Congregations are not being asked to find money to help us get to this £100-million figure, as some have implied: not a penny donated to a parish church will be used to establish this fund.

While recognising that no amount of money will ever be enough to repair the horrors of the past, the Board of the Commissioners considered that £100 million was an appropriate financial commitment, significant enough to have an impact, but also ensuring that we honoured our commitments to providing long-term financial support to various ministries in the Church. When considering the level of funding that the Commissioners would make available the Board also looked at other institutions with similar histories which had set aside funds in response.

You may have read suggestions that our response will be increased to £1 billion. It will not. Our financial contribution remains at £100 million. But we share the oversight group’s aspiration to see the impact of our work grow to much more than the funding that we are providing — by way, we hope, of returns on investments made, as well as other organisations’ and institutions’ following our lead. In that way, we hope to “seed” an in-perpetuity fund that seeks to establish a lasting positive legacy.

SO, HERE at the Commissioners, we will continue to invest responsibly on behalf of the Church: seeking excellent returns, while challenging the businesses in which we invest to take more responsibility for people and the planet, and also challenging others in the investment world to do better.

As we do this, we will also hold ourselves accountable for our own past investments, and we will respond in faith to what we have learnt, in the hope that our response may help to bring healing, repair, and justice, and be a demonstration of Christian values and the living out of the gospel.

All of this work is at the heart of our purpose: to support the Church of England’s ministry, particularly in areas of need and opportunity. We will never forget that core purpose, as we seek to provide sustainable financial and practical support to the Church of England, helping those in our churches to make a difference to communities in England and to witness to the love of God for everyone in this land.

Gareth Mostyn is chief executive of the Church Commissioners for England.

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