The Anglican Church and Its Slavery Past as the USPG Celebrates 310th Anniversary: Is an Apology Enough?

The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG)–the world's oldest Anglican mission agency–is celebrating, this month, its 310th anniversary. The anniversary began with a special service at York Minster on Saturday, 7 May, with Archbishop John Sentamu in attendance.

Many would, however, recall the vote by the Church of England, during the February 2006 meeting of the General Synod of the Church to apologize to the descendants of victims of the Slave Trade, in an amendment "recognizing the damage done to those enslaved by the Church," at the 800 acre Codrington slave plantation in Barbados, owned by the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Reverend Simon Bessant, in a speech, during the 2006 synod, confirmed what had been known in historical circles for long, that the USPG, then known as the SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) owned the Codrington slave plantation on the Island of Barbados, West Indies, in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Both the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Archbishop of York John Sentamu supported the amendment.

In the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams:

The body of Christ is not just a body that exists at any one time, it exists across history and we therefore share the shame and the sinfulness of our predecessors and part of what we can do, with them and for them in the body of Christ, is prayer for acknowledgment of the failure that is part of us not just of some distant 'them'.

One of the ironies of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act was that, it was slave owners, not the slaves, who were compensated at the emancipation of slaves. The Anglican Church received 8,823 pounds sterling in compensation for its loss of over 400 slaves. The Bishop of Exeter, along with three of his colleagues received some 13,000 pounds in compensation for over 660 slaves.

Many of the descendants of the African slaves of the Codrington plantation are citizens of Barbados and Barbuda, an Island in the Eastern Caribbean which forms part of modern day Antigua and Barbuda. Barbuda was used by the Codrington plantation as a supply depot, and "seasoning" area for slaves.

Lisa Codrington is one of the many citizens of Barbados who have been able, through personal research, to trace her lineage back to those unfortunate African slaves of the Anglican Church. She first suspected the truth from her surname, Codrington–it was the custom for slaves at emancipation to take on, as surname, the names of their slave masters. Her ancestor, Devonshire Codrington, who was born in 1776, was not set free by the Church until 1834, when the Slavery Abolition Act forced the Church to emancipate its slaves

While Lisa, who now lives and works as an actress and playwright in Toronto thinks that the apology is a "good start,"  she queries:

But is that all?…Is it involving reparation? Is it involving further work, further education by the Church…Slavery is not something you can say sorry for and then be done with it.

Lisa expresses the feelings of thousands like her who are descendants of  African peoples enslaved in the "New World." But unlike other peoples, such as the Jews, who  have had the political power and influence to fight for and obtain reparations, people of African descent in the Americas continue to smart in silence at unredressed injustices of recent history.

According to Lisa, in a report by The Telegraph, "people have gotten worse [punishments] for doing less." Lisa's aunt Ivy Devenish-Scott thinks that, "it would be right for them to provide more now for the families of people who suffered."

How the Society for Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) acquired the Codrington Slave Plantation

Christopher Codrington, British soldier, who spent his retirement years in his birth place of Barbados, after resigning his governorship of the Leeward Isles, died in 1710, bequeathing his slave plantation on the Island to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The slave plantations were bequeathed to the Society for the purpose of building a college in Barbados. Codrington College was finally opened in 1745.

The Church of England and The Codrington Slave Plantation

Codrington Slave plantation came under the administration of managers hired by the Church of England. The slave plantation acquired slaves shipped to Barbados from West Africa.

In the 1783 anniversary sermon of the SPG at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London, Dr Beilby Porteus, Bishop of Chester, was the first official of the Church of England to call to the Church to cease its involvement in the Slave trade on the Island of Barbados. Till Dr Porteus' sermon, the Church of England had joined in the general practice of justifying its involvement in slavery on biblical grounds. The Church of England ignored the message of the Bishop of Chester and continued ownership of the Codrington plantation till it was forced to relinquish ownership by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, after which it was awarded compensation.

Conditions on the Codrington Slave Plantation

The form of slavery practiced in the West Indies in the heydays of the Sugar Cane slave plantation economy was the worst of its kind in the New World. Europe' demand for sugar stimulated the mobilization of resources for the production of sugar in the Caribbean, and the first major sugar plantations sprung  up on the Island of Barbados. Tobacco had been the major cash crop produced on the Island, but with the commencement of production of higher quality tobacco in Virginia in the 1640s, Barbados turned to sugarcane production with Dutch sugarcane planters from Brazil arriving on the Island to invest in production.

The type of technology employed by the sugarcane planters on the Island of Barbados was very labor intensive and large holdings of slaves were required. The Transatlantic Slave Trade supplied the demand for sugarcane slaves on the Island. Under the system adopted in Barbados, the sugarcane had to be processed in a grinding mill within 48 hours of harvest, otherwise the sugar in the cane stalk would begin fermenting. Sugarcane processing factories, therefore, had to be built very close to the fields, and slaves set to backbreaking work planting, weeding, cutting and transporting the cane to the factory, where grinding, processing and transportation to the wharf for export took place.

Under the conditions of the technology employed, the conditions of slavery were very harsh in Barbados and there is no reason to suppose it was significantly better on the Codrington plantation. A widespread policy, in the days before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 on Barbados slave plantations, was that of deliberately working slaves to death. The policy was informed by the fact that slaves were cheap and plentiful on the slave market before the British naval blockade of the West African Slave Coast began, and slave-owners found it more economical to work a slave to death than invest in maintenance of the slave or incur medical bills on behalf of the slave.

An indication of the harsh conditions on Codrington plantation was the concern of the managers to prevent escapes. The American historian Milton Meltzer says that the managers of Codrington generally rebranded slaves  who had “already been branded once by the trader," with the word "society." This, according to Professor Woodville Marshall,  emeritus professor of history at the University of the West Indies, was done to inform anyone who found  any of them, in the event of an escape, "that these were slaves of the Lord."  By 1740, thirty years after the Anglican Church took over the plantation, four out of every ten slaves acquired by the SPG died within three years. This estimate of mortality rate on Codrington plantation is higher than the average of 3 out of every 10 for the entire Island, and confirms the claims that the West Indian sugarcane plantation policy of working slaves to death also operated on the Codrington plantation.

According to Adam Hoschild in his Bury the Chains :

At Codrington, as throughout the Caribbean, new slaves from Africa were first “seasoned” for three years, receiving extra food and light work assignments. Slaves were vulnerable during this early traumatic period when they were most likely to die of disease, to run away… or to commit suicide. If you survived those three years, you were regarded as ready for the hardest labour.

Professor Woodville Marshall curiously supports the argument by apologists that the Anglican church was not directly responsible for the "sins" of slavery on the Codrington plantation. The Church's sins, he argues, were more those of omission than commission. In his words,

They had professional planters to run the place. The Church didn't play an active role, because they were more interested in the receipts. It was not so much the SPG that the Church should be apologizing for as the activities of the individual parsons who kept plantations and slaves for sheer profit.

It is difficult to believe that the Church's "sins" were more of omission than  commission when we consider evidence of how bad things were at the Codrington plantation managed by agents of the Church (ordinarily  in law, the acts of an agent are considered the acts of the principal, who is entitled to the benefits accruing from such acts).

It stretches one's credulity to be asked to believe that the Anglican Church was not aware of how bad things were on the Codrington plantation. The historian Adam Hoschild in his Bury the Chains emphasizes just how bad conditions were at Codrington:

For nearly a decade, Codrington officials tried to reduce escapes by branding all slaves on their chests. In the end, though, the chief deterrent was the lash, plus, at times, an iron collar and a straitjacket…

Nowadays USPG's work involves mostly pastoral care, providing support for training programs within the church, fundraising for mission, especially in Britain and Ireland, and even more recently supporting hospitals and other centers caring for HIV and AIDS patients.

But it is encouraging that Archbishop Rowan Williams, in a BBC Radio interview, in 2007, acknowledged the need for the Church of England to pay reparations to descendants of those the church enslaved. But he raised issues on the how to effect the reparation:

While it sounds simple to say…we should pass on the reparation that was received, exactly to whom? Exactly where does it go? And exactly how does it differ from the various ways in which we try to interact now with the effects of that in terms of aid and development and so forth? So I haven't got a quick solution to that. I think we need to be asking the question and working at it. That, I think, we're beginning to do.

How best to pass on the reparations should not be a problem provided the will to do it really exists in the church hierarchy.

Conditions on the Codrington Slave Plantation

The form of slavery practiced in the West Indies in the heydays of the Sugar Cane slave plantation economy was the worst of its kind in the New World. Europe' demand for sugar stimulated the mobilization of resources for the production of sugar in the Caribbean, and the first major sugar plantations sprung  up on the Island of Barbados. Tobacco had been the major cash crop produced on the Island, but with the commencement of production of higher quality tobacco in Virginia in the 1640s, Barbados turned to sugarcane production with Dutch sugarcane planters from Brazil arriving on the Island to invest in production.

The type of technology employed by the sugarcane planters on the Island of Barbados was very labor intensive and large holdings of slaves were required. The Transatlantic Slave Trade supplied the demand for sugarcane slaves on the Island. Under the system adopted in Barbados, the sugarcane had to be processed in a grinding mill within 48 hours of harvest, otherwise the sugar in the cane stalk would begin fermenting. Sugarcane processing factories, therefore, had to be built very close to the fields, and slaves set to backbreaking work planting, weeding, cutting and transporting the cane to the factory, where grinding, processing and transportation to the wharf for export took place.

Under the conditions of the technology employed, the conditions of slavery were very harsh in Barbados and there is no reason to suppose it was significantly better on the Codrington plantation. A widespread policy, in the days before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 on Barbados slave plantations, was that of deliberately working slaves to death. The policy was informed by the fact that slaves were cheap and plentiful on the slave market before the British naval blockade of the West African Slave Coast began, and slave-owners found it more economical to work a slave to death than invest in maintenance of the slave or incur medical bills on behalf of the slave.

An indication of the harsh conditions on Codrington plantation was the concern of the managers to prevent escapes. The American historian Milton Meltzer says that the managers of Codrington generally rebranded slaves  who had “already been branded once by the trader," with the word "society." This, according to Professor Woodville Marshall,  emeritus professor of history at the University of the West Indies, was done to inform anyone who found  any of them, in the event of an escape, "that these were slaves of the Lord."  By 1740, thirty years after the Anglican Church took over the plantation, four out of every ten slaves acquired by the SPG died within three years. This estimate of mortality rate on Codrington plantation is higher than the average of 3 out of every 10 for the entire Island, and confirms the claims that the West Indian sugarcane plantation policy of working slaves to death also operated on the Codrington plantation.

According to Adam Hoschild in his Bury the Chains :

At Codrington, as throughout the Caribbean, new slaves from Africa were first “seasoned” for three years, receiving extra food and light work assignments. Slaves were vulnerable during this early traumatic period when they were most likely to die of disease, to run away… or to commit suicide. If you survived those three years, you were regarded as ready for the hardest labour.

Professor Woodville Marshall curiously supports the argument by apologists that the Anglican church was not directly responsible for the "sins" of slavery on the Codrington plantation. The Church's sins, he argues, were more those of omission than commission. In his words,

They had professional planters to run the place. The Church didn't play an active role, because they were more interested in the receipts. It was not so much the SPG that the Church should be apologizing for as the activities of the individual parsons who kept plantations and slaves for sheer profit.

It is difficult to believe that the Church's "sins" were more of omission than  commission when we consider evidence of how bad things were at the Codrington plantation managed by agents of the Church (ordinarily  in law, the acts of an agent are considered the acts of the principal, who is entitled to the benefits accruing from such acts).

It stretches one's credulity to be asked to believe that the Anglican Church was not aware of how bad things were on the Codrington plantation. The historian Adam Hoschild in his Bury the Chains emphasizes just how bad conditions were at Codrington:

For nearly a decade, Codrington officials tried to reduce escapes by branding all slaves on their chests. In the end, though, the chief deterrent was the lash, plus, at times, an iron collar and a straitjacket…

Nowadays USPG's work involves mostly pastoral care, providing support for training programs within the church, fundraising for mission, especially in Britain and Ireland, and even more recently supporting hospitals and other centers caring for HIV and AIDS patients.

But it is encouraging that Archbishop Rowan Williams, in a BBC Radio interview, in 2007, acknowledged the need for the Church of England to pay reparations to descendants of those the church enslaved. But he raised issues on the how to effect the reparation:

While it sounds simple to say…we should pass on the reparation that was received, exactly to whom? Exactly where does it go? And exactly how does it differ from the various ways in which we try to interact now with the effects of that in terms of aid and development and so forth? So I haven't got a quick solution to that. I think we need to be asking the question and working at it. That, I think, we're beginning to do.

How best to pass on the reparations should not be a problem provided the will to do it really exists in the church hierarchy.

http://www.goddiscussion.com/68253/the-anglican-church-and-its-slavery-past-as-the-uspg-celebrates-310th-anniversary-is-an-apology-enough/

 

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