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27.03.2007 General News

Archbishop urges church to consider slavery reparations

By Guardian Unlimited

Story by Mark Oliver

The Church of England should contemplate paying reparations for its historical role in the slave trade, the Archbishop of Canterbury said today.

Dr Rowan Williams said Anglicans needed to acknowledge that they belonged to an institution partly shaped "by terrible things that our forebears did”.

He said the church had to “work at” the question of reparations, but added that the issue was complex and it was unclear who should receive such payments.

The church, which owned slaves on its Caribbean plantations, did not free them until 1833 - 26 years after the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire.

Britain's government paid the church significant compensation for the loss of its slave labour, and Dr Williams said passing on that reparation should now be considered.

The church"s missionary arm, the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Foreign Parts, owned the Codrington plantation in Barbados, where slaves had the word society branded on their chests with red-hot irons.

The Bishop of Exeter and three business colleagues were paid nearly £13,000 to compensate them for the loss of 665 slaves in 1833.

Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4's Trade Roots programme organisations that received compensation in the 1830s were still “living off the historical legacy” of slavery.

However, he added: “While it sounds simple to say ... we should pass on the reparation that was received, exactly to whom?

“Exactly where does it go? And exactly how does it differ from the various ways in which we try to interact now with the effects of that in terms of aid and development and so forth?

“So I haven't got a quick solution to that. I think we need to be asking the question and working at it. That, I think, we're beginning to do.”

His comments - a day after the 200th anniversary of the advent of UK legislation abolishing the slave trade - could be seen as a challenge to other institutions that profited from slave labour, such as banks, universities and galleries, to consider paying reparations.

Last year, the church voted to apologise for profiting from the slave trade despite Anglican reformers such as William Wilberforce playing a key role in bringing about its abolition.

On Saturday, Dr Williams was joined by other senior clergy at a prayer service in London to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition.

He and the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu - who has called on Britain to make a formal apology for the slave trade - led a procession to mark the bicentenary.

Yesterday, the prime minister, Tony Blair, said the UK's role was a “matter of deep sorrow and regret”. However, his statement appeared to fall short of demands from campaigners, who said he had not gone far enough.

The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, has said the emphasis of the anniversary should be on helping African countries rather than offering apologies.

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