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Archbishop of Canterbury calls church’s slave trade links a ‘source of shame’

The church’s investigation found its predecessor fund had invested ‘significant amounts’ in the trade of enslaved people.

17 June 2022

The Archbishop of Canterbury has apologised after research found the Church of England’s investment fund had links to the slave trade, calling it a “source of shame”.

The revelations came to light via an investigation commissioned by the Church Commissioners for England into the early ledgers and other original source documents from Queen Anne’s Bounty – its predecessor fund.

On Thursday, the Most Reverend Justin Welby and the Right Reverend David Urquhart announced the three-year probe had found the church’s investment fund had contributed “significant amounts” to the South Sea Company which traded in enslaved people.

The South Sea Bubble, a Scene in 'Change Alley in 1720', 1847. By Edward Matthew Ward (1816-1879). Ward's famous oil painting of 1847 shows the speculation mania in early 18th century England which ended in the financial ruin of many of its investors.
The South Sea Company was founded in 1711 with a view to restructuring government debt and restoring public credit (Alamy/PA)

Mr Welby said “this abominable trade took men, women and children created in God’s image and stripped them of their dignity and freedom”.

“The fact that some within the Church actively supported and profited from it is a source of shame,” he added.

“I am deeply sorry for the links with transatlantic chattel slavery that the Church Commissioners has identified.”

Founded in 1711 to refinance England’s national debt, the company was awarded the monopoly on Britain’s trade of enslaved people to the Spanish Americas.

The church’s recently published report estimated that the South Sea Company transported a little over 34,000 slaves “in crowded, unsanitary, unsafe and inhumane conditions” during its 30 years of operation.

The Old South Sea House, on the corner of Bishopsgate Street and Threadneedle Street, City of London, England. Seen here in 1754 the building was the headquarters of the South Sea Company and was burned down in 1826
The Old South Sea House, on the corner of Bishopsgate Street and Threadneedle Street in London which was headquarters of the South Sea Company (Alamy/PA)

By the time the South Sea Company ceased its slaving activities in 1739, Queen Anne’s Bounty had accumulated investments in annuities with a value of around £204,000 (equivalent to about £443 million today).

This income helped Queen Anne’s Bounty fulfil its purpose of supplementing the income of poorer clergy, and was likely reinvested, contributing to the overall accumulation of Queen Anne’s Bounty’s wealth, the research paper explained.

The Church Commissioners was formed in 1948 by merging two bodies, Queen Anne’s Bounty and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners.

African slave trade. Black slaves in the hold of the slave ship. From Amelia Opie 'The Black Man's Lament; or How to Make Sugar', London, 1826
African slaves depicted in the hold of a slave ship in 1826 (Alamy/PA)

The Archbishop said the research was commissioned to “gain an improved understanding of (the Church Commissioners’) history” and it was “only by facing this painful reality that we can take steps towards genuine healing and reconciliation”.

He added: “This is a moment for lament, repentance and restorative action. I pray for those affected by this news and hope that we may work together to discern a new way forward.”

The Church Commissioners will now form a group to consider the research as well as how to respond to its findings, with further information to be shared in “due course”.

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