By Mark Michael

The Church of England should play a role in discussions about reparations for Caribbean slavery, says Sir Hilary Beckles, chair of the Reparations Commission of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a cooperative league of fifteen West Indian nations. Beckles, the vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies and a noted historian of Caribbean slavery, called for the church to participate in an upcoming reparations summit at a press conference on July 6, according to reports by the Nassau, Bahamas-based Tribune.

Sir Hilary Beckels | University of the West Indies

“It is also the Church of England’s time to join civil society’s conversation about reparations for development,” Beckles said, noting that the church’s General Synod approved a resolution apologizing to descendants of victims of the slave trade in 2006.

He added, “Apologies are not enough. Apologies are precursors for reparations. Apologies are signals of an intent to participate in a reparatory process. Apologies are stage one of an effort that says, ‘we acknowledge the harm that we have caused and we are prepared to enter phase two which is a discussion and a negotiation about how to repair that harm and suffering that continues to be the legacy in the Caribbean today.”

Beckles said that Caribbean people continue to suffer economic deprivation and poor health as a direct result of the injustices of slavery. He argues that European institutions that created and benefitted from the slave system must play a role in addressing these issues.

“Britain and Europe chose to walk away from this mess that they have created,” Beckles said. “They have left it entirely to the democratic leadership of Caribbean governments and civil society. This was a deliberate and strategic effort, to walk away and refuse to take the responsibility for the legacies of slavery and colonization. The model which was used by Britain at the moment of the ending of colonization, was that Britain should exit colonization and its legacies on the cheap. That they should exit without responsibility; that they should walk away and not look back.”

Beckles said that CARICOM’s Commission on Reparations plans a three-day summit with representatives of European governments and private sector institutions “to discuss how to honor this debt owed to the Caribbean at this moment in history.” The Commission on Reparations has outlined a ten-point Reparations Plan for the region, which includes a series of initiatives focused on issues like indigenous community development, public health, literacy, psychological rehabilitation, and the cancellation of debts owed by Caribbean nations.

Responding to worldwide protests against racial injustice, a Church of England spokesperson told The Daily Telegraph in late June, “While we recognize the leading role clergy and active members of the Church of England played in securing the abolition of slavery, it is a source of shame that others within the church actively perpetrated slavery and profited from it.” A similar statement was issued by the Bank of England.

Beckles referenced these comments in his remarks, saying “we have heard of late of major private sector that have emerged out of slavery, that emerged out of colonization that were enriched by the crimes against humanity with issues and comments of regret. The major institutions in the city of London, for example, have all made their statements. Time has come now to move to that summit with these major institutions to discuss their contribution to a development plan for the Caribbean.”

In 1710, Christopher Codrington, a prominent Barbadian planter, bequeathed two large sugar estates to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Church of England’s primary mission agency for North and Central America. The plantations were operated by managers on the church’s behalf, and some have suggested that they were operated on a “work to death” policy, as four of every ten slaves bought by the plantations in 1740 died within three years of arrival. Beckles noted that Codrington plantation slaves were branded on the chest with the word, “Society,” a practice continued for a decade after church ownership to discourage runaways.

Codrington College, the Anglican seminary for the West Indies, was built on one of the plantations, and plantation proceeds were used to finance its operations. Codrington’s original request that a portion of his bequest be used to educate Barbados’ enslaved population was never honored. Beilby Porteus, a late eighteenth Bishop of London who had himself grown up on a Virginia plantation, criticized conditions on the Codrington plantations in a famous 1783 charity sermon that played a crucial role in gaining public support for abolition. The Church of England relinquished its slaves only after slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833 and was paid £8,823. 8s. 9d restitution by the Crown for 411 slaves owned in the Caribbean at the time of abolition.