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Can Africa charge Church of England over admits ‘real shame for us’ over slavery ties

The Church of England knew it was investing in the transatlantic slave trade during the 18th century, the head of its investment arm admitted, after it committed 100 million British pounds ($121m) to address the wrongs of links to the slave trade.

The Church Commissioners, who manage the church’s 10-billion-pound investment portfolio, will use the money for a fund that will invest in communities affected by past slavery, and conduct research and engagement related to the church’s ties to slavery.

A report commissioned by the church found last June that a predecessor of its investment fund, called Queen Anne’s Bounty, invested significant amounts in the slave-trading South Sea Company in the 18th century.

“There’s no doubt that those who were making the investment knew that the South Sea Company was trading in enslaved people, and that’s now a source of real shame for us, and for which we apologise,” Gareth Mostyn, chief executive of the Church Commissioners, told BBC radio on Wednesday.

The report relied on research from forensic accountants and academics to analyse early ledgers and other documents from Queen Anne’s Bounty – which was merged with another body to form the Church Commissioners in 1948.

The company also received many donations from individuals who were likely to have profited from transatlantic slavery, in which enslaved Africans were transported to work in crop plantations mainly in the Americas, the report said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said on Tuesday it was now time for the church to take action to address “our shameful past”.

Welby, the spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion of about 85 million Christians and also chair of the Church Commissioners, said it was necessary to address the church’s past transparently to face “our present and future with integrity”.

‘In denial for 200 years’

Britain’s colonial past and historical links to slavery have been subject to much scrutiny in recent years, with the toppling in 2020 of a 17th-century English slave trader’s statue in Bristol sparking a nationwide debate.

Countries including the United States and Britain have faced calls for slavery reparations over the years, with demands and estimations of compensation ranging from anywhere between billions and trillions of dollars.

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UK college seeks permission to remove slavery-linked memorial. Cambridge University’s Jesus College wants to remove a plaque commemorating a slave-trade investor, Tobias Rustat.

A university college in the United Kingdom has asked a judge to allow the removal from its chapel of a memorial to a historical donor implicated in the slave trade.

The hearing that opened on Wednesday will be held for several days at the University of Cambridge.

The university’s Jesus College wants to take down an ornate marble plaque commemorating Tobias Rustat, a 17th-century slave-trade investor and significant donor to the college, which is fixed to the wall of its chapel.

Rustat, a courtier to King Charles II, was also an investor in the Royal African Company, which transported nearly 150,000 slaves, and took part in running the company.

The college said he “had financial and administrative involvement in the trading of enslaved human beings over a substantial period of time”.

It wants to move the plaque, featuring a portrait of Rustat, and display it in an archive room with information giving historical context. Its academics have voted in favour.

Because the memorial is in a religious building, a church-appointed judge will rule on the fate of the plaque at an ecclesiastic court hearing held in the chapel itself.

The judge is overseeing the so-called “consistory court” session, independent civil proceedings that are to include the questioning of expert witnesses.

Such hearings are rare, and usually concern church buildings.

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A group of graduate students stood outside the chapel on Wednesday, holding placards with slogans backing the college’s plan: “Moving not erasing” and “Churches are people not marble”.

“The Rustat memorial is an obstruction to the whole college community enjoying the use of the Chapel,” said one student, who declined to give his name.

The college chapel’s dean James Crockford said the college acted due to “heightened feelings” about the memorial, with some students “disturbed and upset by being faced with it”.

 

“The inscription on the memorial behind me focuses very much on the financial virtues of Tobias Rustat,” he said.

However, some alumni and descendants of Rustat have opposed its removal, arguing his donations were not money earned from slavery.

Lawyers representing the college are participating in the court hearing, as is a lawyer representing a group of alumni opposing the memorial’s removal.

After an introductory prayer, lawyer Mark Hill, representing the college, said it wants to display the plaque, featuring a portrait of Rustat, in another building with information on historical context.

Lawyer Justin Gau, representing a group of about 65 former students, whom he is not naming, attacked the college’s initial proposal to put the memorial in a wine cellar and questioned the need for the chapel to be a “safe space”.

 

“Why cannot Rustat’s whole life be put into context in this building?” he asked.

Can an apology heal the harm left by slavery?

On Wednesday, December 21 at 19:30 GMT:
The Netherlands has formally apologised for the 250 years it used slave labour, exploiting more than 600,000 people of African and Asian descent in its former colonies.

​​“For centuries, the Dutch state and its representatives have enabled and stimulated slavery and have profited from it,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a nationally televised speech on Monday.

“It is true that nobody alive today bears any personal guilt for slavery … [however] the Dutch state bears responsibility for the immense suffering that has been done to those that were enslaved and their descendants.”

In an effort to heal the wounds of the past, the government also plans to open a slavery museum and establish a fund to promote awareness about the Netherlands’ role in the slave trade.

The move comes at a time when more European institutions are attempting to reckon with the colonial past and their roles in the transatlantic slave trade. Since the spread of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, mayors of major Dutch cities including Amsterdam have apologised and acknowledged how their institutions have benefitted from slavery.

But critics are concerned that a formal apology will have little real-world impact and say the Dutch government’s plan is flawed because descendants of enslaved people have not been consulted in the process.

In this episode of The Stream, we’ll look at the issues and challenges surrounding formal apologies for slavery.

In this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Linda Nooitmeer, @lindanooitmeer
Chair, Dutch Institute for the Study of Slavery (NiNsee)

Quinsy Gario, @quinsyg
Poet & artist

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