Church of England creates community fund as compensation for investment in the slave trade

The Church of England has committed £100 million to a fund to “address past wrongs” over its investments in the slave trade in the 18th century. Of course, people will say it is too little, too late and will not reach those most affected, and I have some sympathy for that reaction. But it is nevertheless both a substantial commitment and a symbolic act which will hopefully encourage other public bodies to follow suit.

As an active member of the Church of England I applaud the stance of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Faced with demands for compensation he commissioned the “Church Commissioners Research into historic links to transatlantic chattel slavery“. (The Church Commissioners are the trustees responsible for the charitable funds of the Church of England.)

He has now set up an oversight group to manage the new fund “with significant membership from communities impacted by historic slavery”. However he does not use the term “reparations”, as the fund will not pay individuals; instead it will finance community projects in areas most affected by the slave trade.

Nothing can ever compensate for the greatest crime in western history, but that does not mean that nothing should be done.

As a white woman I have no lived experience of the impact of the despicable trade on the descendants of slaves. In fact, at one stage I queried what I would do if I discovered that my ancestors had been slave owners, or had made money from the slave trade. Although it seemed unlikely in my case, it was nevertheless a moral dilemma which could be faced by many liberal people today. And in one sense everyone in the UK has enjoyed the long term benefits of an economy that was bolstered by the slave trade and the import of cheap goods such as sugar and cotton.

As a child I wept when I learnt about slavery and felt a kind of corporate national guilt, but had no idea what could be done about it. Later I realised that a life spent in opposition to racism in all its forms was one way of dealing with the emotional legacy.

I’m not sure that the Liberal Democrats have ever made a definitive statement on reparations. Here on Lib Dem Voice we celebrate Black History Month, and we would welcome posts on the issue as well as comments below.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Actual reparations are tricky, because it suggests it is possible to measure or make-up for past damage. The CoE were wise to avoid that term and for now will use the fund to further explore historical and ongoing challenges alongside good works.

    I agree that the simple act of living in the UK means that we have benefited from money made during that period, whether or not we have a direct genetic or financial link to family wealth from those days. Sometimes it is obvious. If you share the name and live in and profit from the country estate that was substantially built with income from slavery then you continue to benefit from it. If your family made its fortune from slavery, but later lost most of it, then became solvent again thanks to some entirely separate venture, does that count? David Olusoga’s excellent documentary a few years ago revealed that a lot of ‘ordinary’ people in the UK owned (a part share of) slaves in much the same way people today own shares in companies, and the odds are many of us will have at least one ancestor in that category.

    Many rich old families are not as rich as they once were, thanks to inheritance tax, and we’ve all benefited from the transfer of that generational wealth into the public purse. It’s often said that the Scottish Enlightenment was built off the back of slavery, as were many universities.

  • Chris Williams 11th Jan '23 - 3:04pm

    ‘Nothing can ever compensate for the greatest crime in western history, but that does not mean that nothing should be done.’
    The Shoah killed 6 million Jews in Europe over 5 years.
    Stalins 5 Year plan. Between 1932 and 1933 in which 3.3 to 7.5 million died.

  • Tristan Ward 11th Jan '23 - 3:14pm

    Luke Chapter 18, verses 11-13.

  • Mel Borthwaite 11th Jan '23 - 4:36pm

    It is a sobering thought that we live in one of the world’s wealthiest countries precisely because of colonialism, slavery and exploitation. Millions have been killed in wars fought to secure control over resources, trade route and markets. Slavery – probably the worst manifestation of capitalism (where human beings are viewed as commodities to be owned and exploited) is a particularly shameful chapter. We can not undo the past, and we can not compensate those who were directly impacted, so all we can do is to seek to improve our own conduct going forward as well as look for opportunities to help those who today are disadvantaged by their background, upbringing or family circumstances.

  • Tristan Ward 11th Jan '23 - 4:56pm

    Chris Williams

    Not to mention assorted acts of colonisation involving among other things the passing of western diseases to aboriginal peoples.

    And why does Roman use of slavery, Chinese use of slavery, Arab use of slavery, Babylonian and Mesopotamian use of slavery and African use of slavery not get a mention? Surely we should all be making sure everyone whose ancestors have a possible connection with what we now see as criminal does not escape censure and obligation to make good for the crime whenever and however it came about?

    Personally I’m not a great fan of the iron age idea that the sins of the fathers should be visited on the children, even to the fourth generation, or of giving political opportunity to the far right by detailed debates about fault and blame.

    Instead, there are problems that need fixing. Let’s do so by concentrating on promoting liberty, equality and opportunity and ensuing no one is enslaved by poverty, conformity or ignorance, whatever their race class creed or history.

  • Chris Williams 11th Jan '23 - 8:19pm

    Tristan Ward
    Apologies that I omitted the crimes you mention, but I was writing a comment and not an essay. I hope I got my point across.

  • Nigel Jones 11th Jan '23 - 8:43pm

    Is not our historical benefits from conquering, exploitation and slavery a good reason to campaign for better international aid ? Such aid can be more than just 0.7% of government budget and include government support for other organisations, international charities and individuals to contribute more too. What about support for Fair Trade that enables suppliers of goods to earn a fair income and enough to develop their communities ?

  • @ Tristan, this isn’t about punishing children for the sins of their father. This is about whether or not children should continue to profit from the sins of their father while the children of those he stole from still go hungry.

    It’s a variation on how we deal with the proceeds of crime. If a man stole all of your belongings and left you with reduced ability to earn a living so your children grew up in poverty and unable to get a proper education, would you be OK with your money being passed onto his children so they could live in luxury? Or would that be punishing them for the sins of their father?

  • Peter Davies 12th Jan '23 - 7:24am

    Once you go down that route, it’s obvious that most ‘old’ money is tainted. There are still people whose current wealth goes back to the Normans nicking the land the Saxons nicked off the Celts and then exploiting the serfs. There are plenty more who benefited from corruption in the centuries since.

    Nigel Jones is right about the case for international aid. There is also a strong case for greatly decreasing the influence of ancestral wealth domestically. That means an inheritance tax that raises real money and ensuring that the best start in life is available to children of all backgrounds.

  • Mel Borthwaite 12th Jan '23 - 7:27am

    Can I reword your question in a way that more accurately reflects the situation?
    If a man stole all the belongings of your great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather, would you argue that the great great great great great great great great grandchildren should be financially compensating you?
    If we agree that compensation in those circumstances is appropriate, we then face the difficulty of proving the degree to which individuals alive today have personally suffered or personally benefitted from what happened over 2 centuries ago.

  • Tristan Ward 12th Jan '23 - 7:43am

    @ Fiona (cont)

    Naturally none of this is to say that slavery is acceptable in any way, and we liberals will continue to fight it in all its forms – its one of the things we do.

    But, a continual rhetoric from liberals that we and the west – many of which achievements arise from liberal values such as human rights, sceptical enquiry and properly regulated capitalism for example – are guilty and fail gives comfort to our enemies and does not help our cause.

    In particular I see our enemies pointing the rhe CoE to say to other disadvantaged groups ” all they car about are black people – and it all happened a long time ago” to divide and rule Think Johnson and “watermelon smiles” and “picaninnis” for example. This why you are right to be wary of reparations.

    Much better to concentrate in individuals whatever their class creed or race to fight today’s enslavements whatever their causes using the positive rhetoric of liberalism in my opinion.

  • Tristan Ward 12th Jan '23 - 8:03am

    @ Fiona

    Something got lost!

    Back in 1800 slavery was seen as neither a sin nor a crime. – you could could certainly find a churchman to tell you so, and certainly the Old Testament has plenty of references to slavery as normality (I think there are some in the New Testament and Koran as well but open to correction)

    The point is, slavery has been a normal part of the human condition for pretty well all of recorded time accross most cultures (including black African ones) up to (say) 25th March 1807, and any discussion of it and its consequences that ignore this seems to me to be far too simplistic.

    And in practical political terms let’s not sell liberalism as hand wringing and guilt ridden, but as the powerful force that has and continues to deliver emancipation from today’s enslavement of every kind and for every person whatever their class, creed or colour.

  • Mick Taylor 12th Jan '23 - 8:24am

    Let’s draw an analogy here. My mother’s family were German Jews and they were persecuted and quite a number died in concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Should I be arguing that today’s Germans should be compensating me, my sisters and our children and grandchildren for what their grandparents and great grandparents did? Very few of today’s Germans were even born 77 years ago when WW2 ended. Reparations, were offered to my grandmother’s and mother’s generations.
    Frankly, I don’t think so. What is needed is to continue to fight anti-semitism and for equality for all to ensure that nothing like the holocaust ever happens again.
    People whose distant relatives benefited from slavery have no personal responsibility for what their ancestors did. What today’s generations should be doing is ensuring that modern slavery is banished forever and that the government’s despicable intent to water down actions against it are thwarted. We should also ensure that the descendants of those brought forcibly to the West as slaves have as good a standard of living as the rest of us through policies to raise low incomes to at least a living wage and through finally ending discrimination on the basis of race, colour and ethnicity, which continues to disfigure our national discourse, all the more so since Brexit.

  • I agree with so many commenters above that what is important is dealing with the now, be it international aid or combatting modern de facto slavery. Trying to trace back guilt through the generations is as impractical as it is nonsensical (& I write as someone with no Anglo Saxon or Celtic ancestry, so it’s not directly my fight).

    Frankly, I think the Church of England’s action here is rather foolish, at least in as much as they’re trying to link it somehow to the historical slave trade, but it’s their money, I’m not a member of their church and they can do what they like. Just remember this when they plead hardship and seek money from the state to support ‘their’ schools & infrastructure.

  • Steve Trevethan 12th Jan '23 - 11:43am

    Might we also look at now?
    Anti-Slavery International defines modern slavery as when “an individual is exploited by others for personal or commercial gain.”
    Might we add to this, “Political Gain”?
    Might we be more audible and visible in our concerns for those are being finessed or forced to accept a real cut in their pay or to accept a continuation of inadequate pay?
    Some 30% of our children continue to lack sufficient food.

  • Andrew Tampion 12th Jan '23 - 11:45am

    I agree with the other posters who have pointed out several reasons why the Chuch of England’s policy here is at best of doubtful value.
    But I will add two others.
    First it not true, as Mary Reid implies, that no modern Anglo Saxons are the descendents of slaves. During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries Barbary pirates attacked British merchant ships and took British sailors into slavery. The best known example is Thomas Pellew who wrote a book about his expriences. But there were raids on the British isles, for example the raid on Balitmore, County Cork in Ireland were over 100 villagers were taken into slavery in Africa in 1631. Are their descendents entitled to compensation from Morocco, Algiera and Tunisia? Barbary Pirates also raided the coasts of Spain, France and Italy to take slaves.
    Second after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 the Royal Navy maintained squadrons of ships on both the west and east coasts of Africa to intercept slave ships. This is all the more significant because British traders played little or no part in the East African slave trade. Further British diplomats applied pressure on local potentates, for example the Sultan of Oman, to restrict or end the slave trade. Indeed one of the reasons that the British developed colonies in east Africa was to suppress the slave trade when diplomacy failed. Are the Omanis, Kuwaitis and Qataris liable to compensate the descendents of Africans who their ancestors enslaved?

  • Massimo Ricciuti 12th Jan '23 - 12:56pm

    Thank you, Mary for this article!!!

  • Mary asks: ‘what I would do if I discovered that my ancestors had been slave owners?’
    Well, one ancestor on my father’s side had a plantation in the Caribbean in the late 1600s. Clearly repugnant, and a nasty shock when I discovered it. But I’m not going to feel personally guilty over what one of my 9x great-grandfathers did.
    After all, we each have 516 of those on our family trees. (And any financial gain he had for sure didn’t find its way down to even my 4x great-grandfather – we have 16 of those!)

    Meanwhile, one of my cousins, seven times removed, was a private secretary in the late 1700s to a Whig politician – on the side of the abolitionists. And no one else on my family tree had any connection to the slave trade at all. To give some kind of context to the concept of ‘our ancestors’.

  • Christopher Haigh 12th Jan '23 - 6:42pm

    @James young I zgree with you. The. CorE is
    now probably my favourite institutions after the monarchy.

  • James Fowler 14th Jan '23 - 12:29pm

    Morality changes, and we have be very careful about that. Slightly frivolously, it may be that in a hundred years having been a CAR OWNER or worse, a CAR DEALER may be viewed in slightly different terms to today.

  • David Evans 14th Jan '23 - 1:23pm

    Encyclopedia Britannica states “Slavery existed throughout the ancient world, from the Americas to Europe, the Middle East, China, India, and elsewhere in Asia. Korea had a very large number of enslaved people, ranging from a third to half of the entire population.”

    On that basis, it is certain that at least 99% of the world population has ancestors who were slaves, and at least 99% of the rest were descended from Serfs or other forms of forced labour. Some Conservatives might say it would be easier if we all just paid reparations to ourselves – and a slogan like that would resonate.

    A Lib Dem would say just do everything you can to oppose slavery now. Talk of Reparations or anything like it is a mug’s game promoted by those wanting to allocate blame, sow division and extract money from others. Talk of positive action to help all who are significantly disadvantaged whatever their heritage or race is a positive healing approach.

  • A lot of people missing the point, or still in denial about how much we (collectively) continue to benefit from the proceeds of slavery. It’s not about individual guilt, or even collective guilt.

    I don’t feel guilty or proud of what my ancestors may have done in those days. The odds are some were actively involved in making it worse and some actively involved in making it better.

    Do people really not believe that that we still benefit from the money that poured into the country as a result? Or that extreme inter-generational poverty continues to exist in parts of the world that made us rich?

  • Mel Borthwaite 15th Jan '23 - 1:50pm

    Your final question is very significant. I fully believe that inter-generational poverty continues to exist in parts of the world which the UK exploited to make us rich. Are these the areas the Church of England is speaking about when they say they wish their new fund to be managed by a group that includes ‘significant membership from communities impacted by historic slavery’? I didn’t get that impression.

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