A couple of weeks ago I attended the London part of the Legacies of Slavery Hearing organised by the Council for World Mission (CWM). This was the first of four hearings; the others will be held in Ghana, Jamaica and the US. There was a broad range of people attending the hearing which consisted of a core group, who will attend all four hearings, and a group of local participants. Kate and I attended as the two local participants from the URC. Kate attended not as the Moderator’s wife but in her own right as she was CTE’s project officer for Set All Free (a programme marking the bicentenary of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act) remembering Transatlantic Slavery, reflecting on its legacies and responding to slavery today. The process used by the hearing was to listen to a number of invited guests and witnesses, which included our own Dr Eve Parker who delivered an erudite paper through WhatsApp accompanied by some charming gurglings from her new-born babe.
On the first morning, we were given a detailed factual account of the trading in enslaved persons by Rachel Lang, a researcher for the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership from University College London (UCL). She provided data on Europe’s involvement in this hideous activity in the 300 years to 1860. There are two very detailed sets of records.
The first is a compilation of the shipping manifests detailing journeys and cargoes of every vessel engaged in the transportation of enslaved humans. About 12.5 million people were trafficked from Africa, with a total of about 2 million dying on the seas. There is a fantastic animated graphic showing every known transport from 1593 to 1860, called ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes’. Here is the website … it will be one of the most informative, and disturbing, two minutes you’ve spent – https://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html
The second data set has been compiled by UCL drawing on the compensation records when the ownership of enslaved persons was prohibited. Please note that compensation was only paid to slave owners for their loss of ‘property’! The UK government paid a total of £20 million in compensation; equivalent to about £64Bn in today’s money. Given the size of these payments you can recognise why comprehensive records were kept. These records are reported in a tremendous website exploring the legacies of British slave ownership: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/ You may well be surprised how widespread involvement in slave ownership was … and the church was complicit in this activity: both ministers of religion and religious organisations.
I expect CWM will provide a detailed report on the outcomes of these hearings, so I just want to briefly focus on two of the key elements of the legacies, which are racism and white privilege. It seems to me the key driving force behind slavery was greed, aiming to make as much money as possible. Making money from slavery was aided and abetted by the caustic belief that Black people were less than human. You don’t need a doctorate to recognise that this belief still exists in some people, despite two centuries since human trafficking was banned in the UK. Neither do you need a doctorate to understand that that is not how Jesus asked us to behave.
White privilege is a little more complex to understand and explain: it includes a wide range of issues from negative bias (eg in recruitment) to structural economic disadvantages (eg the UK banking and insurance industries which were given some ‘first mover’ advantages during the centuries of slave trading). Some is subtle, some is not, all needs to be tackled.
I am grateful for the opportunity to join this process despite it being informative and disturbing in equal measures.