Exhibition | Enslavement: Voices from the Archives

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on February 7, 2023

From Lambeth Palace:

Enslavement: Voices from the Archives
Lambeth Palace Library, London, 12 January — 31 March 2023

This exhibition accompanies the Church Commissioners’ public report on historic links between Queen Anne’s Bounty (one of the predecessors of the Church Commissioners’ endowment) and transatlantic chattel slavery. [See the press release below.]

Handwritten document in brown ink

Petition from Esther Smith, an enslaved woman, to Archbishop Secker, 19 July 1760 (Lambeth Palace, MS 1123/2 item 177).

Letters, books, and documents from our collections are displayed to show some of the links between the Church of England and transatlantic slavery. Amongst these are rare documents from enslaved people, contrasting views on the rights of enslaved people from within the Church, and from missionaries working in the Caribbean and the Americas. These documents also present the arguments put forward using the Church’s teaching at the time both for and against the abolition of slavery.

The role of the Church of England in the transatlantic slavery economy was complex and varied. Missionaries sent to work in the Caribbean and the Americas documented the harsh conditions of daily life on the plantations. Enslaved people were not allowed basic Christian rights such as baptism and marriage in case these rights damaged the property and legal rights of the owners. Some voices were raised against enslavement including Revd Morgan Godwyn, an Anglican missionary to Virginia and Barbados. He wrote in 1680 appealing to the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow Anglican priests to baptise enslaved people.

As a result of the transatlantic slavery economy, enslavement, and disease, Indigenous populations were virtually wiped out. It is believed that of the 12 million Africans enslaved and transported to the Caribbean and Americas between 1500 and 1900, only around 10 million reached their destination. The effects and legacy of slavery are visible to this day.

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MS 1123/2 item 177 — Petition from Esther Smith, an enslaved woman, to Archbishop Secker, 19 July 1760, pictured above.

This petition was written on behalf of Esther Smith. She was born in New York and brought to England by one of her enslavers. The letter documents the number of times she had been bought and sold in her life. In this petition, she is asking to be baptised so that she could,

“[…] attend the Service of Almighty God on the Lordsday, as she always had been accustomed theretofore to do at every opportunity.”

Esther’s enslaver opposed her baptism. Further correspondence contained within the archives provides a raw account of Esther’s desperation and fears. She tried to obtain baptism at St Alphage’s church in Greenwich, London, and fought to avoid being sent to the West Indies, as confirmed by letters from the church’s vicar Revd Samuel Squire and a Methodist prison visitor Silas Told. Archbishop Secker eventually sought advice from Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, who confirmed that “a slave brought to England is still a slave” and baptism would not change this status. Whether Esther succeeded in her efforts remains unknown.

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From the press release (16 June 2022) . . .

Church Commissioners’ research identifies historic links to transatlantic chattel slavery 

The Church Commissioners for England has learned from research it commissioned that Queen Anne’s Bounty, a predecessor fund of the Church Commissioners’ £10.1 billion endowment, had links with transatlantic chattel slavery.  The Church Commissioners is deeply sorry for its predecessor fund’s links with transatlantic chattel slavery.

In the 18th century, Queen Anne’s Bounty invested significant amounts of its funds in the South Sea Company, a company that traded in enslaved people.  It also received numerous benefactions, many of which are likely to have come from individuals linked to, or who profited from, transatlantic chattel slavery or the plantation economy.

The Church Commissioners in 2019 decided to conduct research into the source of its endowment fund to gain an improved understanding of its history. It worked with forensic accountants to review early ledgers and other original source documents from Queen Anne’s Bounty. That research is now complete, and a final report of the findings will be published later this year. The Church Commissioners is forming a group to consider the research and how to respond to these findings. Further information will be shared in due course. . . .

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