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Newly found ties between Lambeth and slave trade ‘painful but important’ says Archbishop Welby

29 May 2024

Public Domain

Thomas Secker (1693–1768) by Joshua Reynolds

Thomas Secker (1693–1768) by Joshua Reynolds

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has thanked journalists and historians for uncovering links between an 18th-century predecessor and the transatlantic slave trade. Such revelations motivate the Church to “do more to reckon with our past”, he said.

Archbishop Welby was responding to articles in The Observer on Sunday, based on documents found in the Lambeth Palace Library archives. They showed that, in the mid-18th century, payments for the purchase of “new negroes” were approved by the then Archbishop, the Most Revd Thomas Secker.

He approved reimbursements for the purchase of enslaved people to work on sugar plantations in Barbados which were owned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG).

Learning of the involvement of Archbishop Secker, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1758 to 1768 and president of SPG, was “particularly painful”, Archbishop Welby said. He praised the “indefatigable effort of journalists, theologians, and historians, who work to explore the most egregious aspects of our history — both for the Church of England and the wider country”.

Such work “is incredibly important and most welcome”, he said. “As a Church, it motivates us to do more to reckon with our past and repair the wounds inflicted by this evil trade, whose legacy still impacts people’s lives today.”

The documents referred to by the Observer show that, in November 1758, Archbishop Secker, as chair of a meeting of SPG, approved a payment of £1093 for “the purchase of new negroes [from Africa] and for the hire of enslaved labour from a third party”.

The transaction was required “for the future lasting advantage of the estates”, Archbishop Secker was told. A further payment was approved two years later.

The Observer also quoted from a letter he wrote in 1760, in which he seems to recognise that conditions on the estate might be leading to the deaths of the enslaved people working there, and the subsequent request for funds to purchase replacements.

“I have long wondered and lamented that the negroes in our plantations decrease and new supplies become necessary, continuously. Surely this proceeds from some defect, both of humanity and good policy. But we must take things as they are at present,” he wrote.

SPG was left the sugar plantations in the will of the colonial administrator and slave owner Christopher Codrington. In September last year, SPG’s successor organisation, the Christian charity USPG, pledged £7 million to be spent in Barbados over the next ten to 15 years (News, 13 September 2023).

“USPG is deeply ashamed of our past links to slavery,” the general secretary of USPG, the Revd Dr Duncan Dormor, said at the time. “We recognise that it is not simply enough to repent in thought and word, but we must take action.”

In January last year, the Church Commissioners announced the creation of a £100-million fund, investments and grants from which are earmarked to help “address some of the past wrongs” of links between Queen Anne’s Bounty — which provided part of the endowment now managed by the Commissioners — and transatlantic chattel slavery (News, 10 January 2023).

This spring, a report by an independent oversight group recommended that the monies for the fund be made available in five years, and that the Church seek to attract partners to expand the fund (News, 4 March).

An Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Southampton, Dr Richard Dale, has argued that the Church Commissioners’ endowment never benefited from investments in the slave trade (Comment, 22 March).

In March, the Bishop of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett, who chaired the oversight group, said that rather than simply a payment made in an attempt to right a wrong, the Church was embarking on a deeper process from which “everybody benefits”.

“This is not about parents’ giving children sweeties when the parents feel they’ve done something wrong; this is about ensuring that the way in which we engage in the future with impacted communities will be of the now, and for the then,” she said.

In response to the Observer articles, a spokesperson for the Commissioners said that they “will continue to welcome constructive engagement as we seek to learn and understand more. We have committed to undertake and enable further research, in the knowledge that our archives will have far more to tell about other ways in which the Church was involved in African chattel enslavement.”

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