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24 June - On Propagating Christian Slavery - Dr Jo Sadgrove

By Dr Jo Sadgrove

The past month has seen a long overdue flurry of activity in relation to the Church of England’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. A newly released film, After the Flood, draws on pertinent academic scholarship and documents historic and scriptural relationships between churches in Britain, missionaries and the transatlantic slave trade. A two-part radio programme explores the impact of The Church’s Slave Plantation on contemporary Christianity in the Caribbean. An apology has been offered by the Archbishop of Canterbury after the Church Commissioners launched a report detailing connections between their predecessor fund Queen Anne’s Bounty and transatlantic chattel slavery.

It is my hope that these activities will catalyse much needed conversations within and between USPG, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion about institutions, their archives and how they understand their own histories. Doing so is vitally important if we are to approach with any integrity questions of recognition, reconciliation and repair with our global partners around the Anglican Communion in the present, as we navigate our complicity in the violence of the colonial past.

In collaboration with scholars at the University of Leeds, we at USPG have been working on our archival holdings and digitising source material to render it visible in an open access online exhibition. One of the collections in this online exhibition includes some of the historical sources relating to The Church’s Slave Plantation –  a bequest to the SPG in the will of Christopher Codrington III. Codrington, Barbadian born and British educated, was Governor of the Leeward Islands and came from an established Anglo-Barbadian lineage. Within plantation societies in the late 17th and early 18th centuries there was considerable disagreement over whether enslaved people could or should become Christians. Codrington favoured the conversion of enslaved people. When he died in 1710 at the age of 42, he left two sugar plantations in Barbados and 300 enslaved Africans to the SPG.

In the early 1700s, the SPG’s foundational focus concerned the conversion of nonconformist Protestants and unchurched European settlers in the north American colonies. Working with enslaved Africans was not a primary concern of the Society, despite the actions of two SPG missionaries Elias Neau and Francis Le Jau, stationed in New York and  South Carolina, who urged SPG in London to consider catechising enslaved Africans in the colonies as a matter of priority. In the years leading up to Christopher Codrington’s death, advocacy for the baptism and Christian education of enslaved people had significantly influenced the SPG in London. The SPG in turn used their influence to appease planters who were concerned that baptism would entail freedom from slavery, thus undermining the plantation economy. The project was beset with political hurdles, but commitment to the development of a Christian form of slavery by SPG’s missionaries and staff, in which ‘freedom’ was perceived to be a matter of the spirit rather than of the body, was pursued and developed based on scriptural and theological grounds[1].

Codrington’s bequest drew SPG into the trades of slavery and sugar and SPG ran the Codrington plantations for 120 years. For the first ten years of SPG’s oversight, the chests of enslaved people were branded with the word ‘Society’ to indicate ownership, in case they should manage to escape. This is merely what some of the historical sources tell us about the SPG’s role in the slave trade. What then of the experiences of the vast majority of enslaved people which are not recorded in the archive? What of those today who continue to be victims of the racist codes that were laid down and consolidated in the work of the missionary church in Barbados? How does a Christian organisation which seeks a deeper relationship with its own history and with the Church of the Province of the West Indies respond to this? What responsibility should it take? What does it need to learn? What might the repair of such brokenness of relationship entail?

After the Flood offers some insights here. It suggests that we must begin by resisting the institutionalisation of ignorance. We must examine and educate ourselves in relation to our own histories and the histories of the institutions and nations to which we belong. We must acknowledge white privilege, reflect on how it fixes us all within local, global and institutional hierarchies and ask ourselves what it might mean to liberate ourselves from it? This is work that can only be done in dialogue with others. We must listen to and talk with those whose experiences differ from our own. We must constantly work to acknowledge and cede our own privilege for the sake of others. And we must begin by accepting the truth of what we have propagated in the past, and be honest about the ways in which which we continue to benefit from our histories in the present.


[1] For full accounts of this history and the role of SPG within the transatlantic slave trade see Gerbner, Katharine. Christian slavery: Conversion and race in the Protestant Atlantic world. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018 and Glasson, Travis. Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World. OUP USA, 2012.



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