Reparations: The Chance to Heal the Pain of African Enslavement

Alton P Bell asks: “How will the £100m reparation fund, being made available by the Church of England, help to address legacy issues with Black British men?”

Introduction

At the heart of British Christianity is a stain – the transatlantic slave trade and the part the Church played in the enslavement of Africans. This history is rooted in the interpretation of the Bible and the powerful beliefs that emerged from these ideas that continue to negatively impact the relationships between Christianity and Black African descendants today.

One of the greatest Christian interpreters of Scripture, Origen (185-254AD), an African church father, used the abstract notions of Blackness and whiteness to describe purity and sin. When he interpreted the Hebrew word for Ham[1] as Black, every subsequent Christian exegete associated every Black person mentioned in the Bible with sin.

So, what has this got to do with the monies made available by the Church of England for projects to help descendants of those enslaved?

Long before Britain came into existence (1706), England’s moral authority came from the Roman Catholic Church. In 1442, Pope Eugenius IV issued a papal decree (or bull) – Illius Qui – which approved of Portugal’s Prince Henry’s slave trading expeditions to Africa. This gave Portugal sole rights over all its discoveries. His successor, Pope Nicholas V, issued another bull, Romanus Pontifex in January 1454, which gave formal support to Portugal’s monopoly of trading in Africa, including African slaves, with the instruction to convert ‘them’ to the Christian faith.

England joined the trading in African slaves in 1562, when John Hawkins obtained slaves from Sierra Leone and sold them to the Spanish during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Hawkins was knighted for his initiative and England subsequently became a major player in the transatlantic slave trade.

The trading in Black bodies was so lucrative that myriads of people were encouraged to invest in it. And as it was so far away from England, the investors had no idea of the crimes which were being perpetrated against the African slaves on the plantation. On arrival, the male had to be ‘seasoned’. Part of this was having one of the ‘massas’ defecate in their mouth and urinating on their head. If the male survived this seasoning period, they would be taken to various plantations to produce offspring, since they were regarded as cattle.

The Church Commissioners invested in the South Sea Company in 1711 (via Queen Anne’s Bounty, founded in 1704), which profited from slavery, and the CofE became owners of more than 300 slaves when they accepted a bequest from Christopher Codrington in Barbados when he died in 1710.

Development

Now, after 400 years of benefitting greatly and becoming one of the richest institutions in the United Kingdom, the Church of England has decided to atone for its sins. However, although this gesture is welcomed, this atonement has not followed any prescribed matrix for calculating quantifiable and non-quantifiable harm that took place during slavery and post-slavery. Furthermore, in announcing the £100m fund over nine years, the Church has not couched this in the well-established model for reparatory justice, viz. repentance, restitution, rehabilitation, recompense and ratification. How was this figure arrived at? As the current Chair of the Commission, Bishop Rosemarie Mallett, recently stated, this figure is not enough and should be in the region of £1billion.

Conclusion

Whatever figure they eventually land on, the Church needs to engage with scholars from the African Caribbean diaspora and the University of the West Indies to quantify their Black debt.

Racism is the biggest challenge facing Black and Brown people in Europe and the Americas. The Black man has been vilified, victimised and written off in the west, just because he is Black. The ‘Western code’, as proposed by Walter Mignolo, is deeply embedded in the Western psyche and, as part of the process of reparation, Western churches need to teach church history. The fact that the vast majority of the church fathers were African, and that North Africa was the centre of Christian learning, is always glossed over. The fact that Africa embraced Christianity long before it reached Europe is never emphasised.

All stolen artifacts must be returned. The funds made available should be used to debunk the myths of the past, and present the true Gospel of Jesus Christ – not a colonialised version of it.

Alton P Bell is Senior Pastor of Wembley Family Church and Chair of the Movement for Justice and Reconciliation. Visit www.mjr-uk.com


 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *