The Church has discovered that one of the fund’s early investments was in the South Sea Company, now known mainly for its part in the “South Sea Bubble” financial scandal in 1720. The company was formed by the British government in 1711 and its main activity was participation in the Atlantic slave trade. It is estimated that it transported about 34,000 African slaves during its years of operation.
The Church formed a committee to report on the scale and circumstances of its investment. The report and a covering message from the Church have now been published online.
The Church makes extensive apologies for its predecessors’ investment 300 years ago. However, the manner in which the Church has presented its findings and proposed actions is itself “problematic”.
The first problem is that the Church does not explain that slavery was a global and longstanding practice (as presented lucidly in several History Reclaimed articles). Knowledge of this historical context and of the social and moral attitudes of the time are essential to the understanding of Britain’s (and specifically the South Sea Company’s) motivation. This absence leaves the uninitiated reader with the erroneous impression that, with regard to slave trading, Britain was uniquely at fault, and uniquely evil.
The Church states that its response to these “past wrongs” will include “committing £100 million over the next nine years to a programme of impact assessment, research and engagement”.
The payment of reparations is fraught with moral and practical problems (as explained in History Reclaimed articles), and it is not clear that the Church is prepared for the controversies which will inevitably surround its allocation of these funds. One academic, Dr Steve Cushion, has already suggested that the fund should total £1.3 billion, not £100 million, and criticises the arrangement which allows “the perpetrator to determine the amount and manner in which the profits of their crimes are distributed”.
This leads to the second, and more serious, omission. The Church’s report and summary make no reference to Christians’ admirable central role in the suppression and abolition of slavery. Anglicans (in addition to Quakers) were at the forefront of the abolition movement from the 1780s, all their bishops voted en bloc in favour when the abolition legislation was brought before parliament, and the Church spent considerable time, effort and expense for many years thereafter in suppressing the slave trade elsewhere.
This makes the case for future financial reparations by the Church considerably weaker. Has the Church not already atoned for its perceived sins?
The Church will also be “supporting dioceses and parishes to research and address their historic links with transatlantic chattel slavery”.
Given the impact of slavery on many aspects of British life in the 17th and 18th centuries and today’s fevered search for slavery connections, however tangential or inadvertent, it will be very easy to find numerous connections to the slave trade when, for example, dioceses examine their benefactors from that era. The question then arises of what action to take when armed with that knowledge. If previously unknown information comes to light, it should be placed on the historical record in a sober and objective manner, but there must be a suspicion that the data collected by the Church of England will simply increase the emotional temperature around the slavery debate.
Two examples of diocesan connections to the South Sea Company itself illustrate the problems to be faced.
One of the most famous investors in the Company was Sir Isaac Newton, whose investment was £22,000. He is buried in Church of England ground, at Westminster Abbey, as is George II, Governor of the South Sea Company. Can we expect an explanatory note of their involvement to appear in the Abbey?
In 1725, Derby Cathedral was rebuilt, around its original 16th century tower, by the renowned architect James Gibbs (1682-1754). Gibbs’s career was supported by a wealthy patron, Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford, who became a friend. Gibbs’s many commissions included the remodelling of his patron’s home, Wimpole Hall, and the building of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Harley inherited his wealth from his father, Robert, 1st Earl of Oxford, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who formulated the South Sea Company scheme and who became its first Governor. Although it appears that no money derived from slave trading directly financed the building of Derby Cathedral, Gibbs’s close association with the Harleys may well, in today’s febrile atmosphere, make him (and therefore the cathedral) “guilty by association”.
In summary, by not addressing two crucial issues – the global and social context of the South Sea Company’s operations and the central role of Anglicans in the abolition of slavery – as well as opening the door to a flood of revelations on diocesan connections to slave trading, the Church of England risks exacerbating current race relations instead of achieving its stated aim of a drive for “truth, justice and reconciliation”.