The Church of England and the Slave Trade

11 01 2023

Yesterday saw the release of a study of the financial ties between the Church of England and the slave trade. Grant Thornton, the accounting firm, worked with two historians (Dr Helen Paul of Southampton and Professor Arthur Burns of King’s College London) to try to determine the magnitude of the church’s investment income from slave trading enterprises, chiefly the South Sea Company. For press coverage, see here, here, and here. See also the video below to get a sense of what the popular debate about the report is like. (I was amused when the Pentecostal preacher in this segment was accused by the other guest of being “woke”).

The report’s authors concluded that the church gained roughly a billion pounds in today’s money from its investments in the slave trade. They also note that the church took donations from individuals whose fortunes stemmed, in part or in whole, from slave trading. To make amends for what it did historically, the Church will allocate £100 million to some sort of impact investment fund, the precise details of which have not yet been announced. In effect, these assets will be invested not to firms that offer the best financial return, which is what the assets managers would normally do, but in companies that are trying to do good in the world via socially-responsible business practices. We often hear demands that the firms that historical profited from slavery now pay some form of reparations to the descendants of slaves. Such demands for corporate reparations for slavery are linked to the wider campaign for government reparations for slavery. The Church of England’s decision to atone for its historical ties to slavery by shifting a modest proportion of its vast assets into an impact investment fund, a decision that will likely cost the church some money, is a gesture in that direction. It’s a compromise move.

Now I see that Charles Read, a very talented young economic historian at Cambridge who sometimes writes for The Economist, has critiqued the methodology of this study, claiming that it somewhat over-estimates how much wealth the church got from slavery. Read, who is very well informed about the practical workings of the South Sea Company, the slave-trading firm in which the church invested, claimsthat most of the money remitted to the church from the South Sea Company came not from the profits of the company’s slave trading voyages but from government annuities (i.e., the British taxpayer).

My guess is that Dr Read’s calculations are more likely to be accurate than those of the forensic accountants of Grant Thornton simply because he has greater knowledge of how investments worked in the eighteenth century. The day job of the forensic accountants who were tasked with doing this historical research doesn’t involve looking at documents produced with quill pens! However, debating precise figures of this type is sort of beside the point. In my view, this scholarly debate about the actual facts of the case is unlikely to influence how the public and the Church of England’s many stakeholders are going to feel about this issue. (I say feel not think here because the vast majority of people will arrive at their positions on this issue not by closely examining the historical evidence but by  adopting whatever position fits best with their pre-existing worldviews).

Conservatives of the type who love denouncing “wokery” (whatever that means) will immediately leap to the defence of the Church and will denounce the Archbishop of Canterbury for caving in to the radicals, while anti-clerical zealots will use the evidence that the Church had some sort of financial ties to slavery as an excuse to bash it once again.

For some time now, I’ve been working with co-authors on a study of how firms that historically profited from slavery (e.g., Lloyds insurance) have dealt with the recent demands that they apologise/pay reparations. Although the Church of England is a very different type of organisation than a profit-seeking company, I think that our research on how businesses have dealt with the reparations for slavery issue can shed light on why the Church of England has responded in the way it did. I’m going to be in London next week to present an overview of our (current) research findings at the Lambeth Palace Library. Lambeth Palace is the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. My talk will begin at 5.30pm on Wednesday 18 January. Full details of my talk can be found here. All are welcome, but those wishing to attend should book a free ticket via Eventbrite or email not later than 15th January.



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