What the Church of England’s new £100m slavery fund tells us about addressing historic injustices
Ben Croft and Walker Syachalinga explain why the landmark move by the Anglican Church is to be welcomed and why the UK government should take note.
Posted on 01 February 2023
“We believe a better future only comes from understanding our present, as well as the past that got us here.”
Those are the opening words to the Church of England’s (CoE) historic report announcing a £100m “impact investment fund … to address some of the past wrongs” linking it to historic slavery.
Between 1714 - 1739, the Church of England made around £443m (in today’s money) through a fund which had invested in the South Sea Company, a company whose main activity was transporting “34,000 enslaved people in crowded, unsanitary, unsafe and inhumane conditions”.
That fund would go on to receive benefactions from wealthy slave owners including Edward Colston.
The fund was eventually subsumed into a new fund that is now worth around £10bn and is used for various matters including providing pensions for clergy. It is that historic profiting from the transportation of enslaved Africans that the CoE’s new fund seeks to atone for by, among other things, investing in communities affected by the legacy of slavery.
Claims relating to historic injustices such as those brought to light by the CoE’s report generally face tougher hurdles than those seeking justice for more recent injustices.
A notable example of this are the Mau Mau claims where Leigh Day acted for Kenyans tortured by British service personnel during the Kenya Emergency of 1952–1960.
Despite the passage of time, the claimants in 2013 secured an apology from the British government and a settlement worth £19.9m. To do so, they had to overcome huge challenges including previous attempts by the British and Kenyan colonial governments to limit enquiries and investigations into abuses committed by military and police personnel.
Having previously assisted the CARICOM Reparations Commission, an organisation of Caribbean nations, in attempts to achieve reparatory justice for the victims of genocide, slavery, slave trading, and racial apartheid, Leigh Day welcomes the CoE’s voluntary announcement.
While a fund such as the one just announced by the CoE would have seemed unlikely 10 years ago, it is encouraging to note the growing trend of those who benefitted from past injustices to make amends to communities still living with the legacy of those injustices.
A few examples include: in June 2020, the King of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets” for his country’s historic atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo; in 2021 the German government announced a £940m aid payment to Namibia to address its role in the genocide of the indigenous Herero and Nama people; and in November 2022 the Prime Minister of Barbados met with Richard Drax, a Conservative MP, over attempts by the government of Barbados to turn his family’s former slave plantation, Drax Hall, into a museum.
In addition to the financial settlements above, private institutions such as the Horniman Museum; the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris; the National Gallery of Art (NGA), the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (NMAA) and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum in Washington DC; and the Met Museum in New York are also repatriating museum artefacts initially obtained under unjust circumstances. For its part Germany has returned 125 artefacts originally looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin 125 years ago.
The UK government should take note of the wind of change
The examples highlighted above are in sharp contrast to those of the UK government which has refused to engage with debates around justice for communities still affected by the legacy of slavery.
When a 2020 parliamentary petition calling on the UK government to pay slavery reparations reached over 20,000 signatures, the government responded by saying: “While reparations are not part of the Government’s approach, we feel deep sorrow for the transatlantic slave trade, and fully recognise the strong sense of injustice and the legacy of slavery in the most affected parts of the world.”
That response and its subsequent actions show the UK government’s failures in tackling the continuing legacy of historic injustices.
More recently, the UK government’s introduction of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021 (‘the Act’) threatens to make access to justice difficult for many survivors of historic wrongs.
The Act amended s33 of the Limitations Act 1080 seeks to impose a six-year time limit for bringing any historic human rights or personal injury compensation claims, even in cases of torture. Additionally, the Act also inserted a new s 1ZA to the Foreign Limitation Periods Act 1984 which seeks to impose bar to bringing historic claims in instances where the applicable foreign limitation period has expired.
The UK government cited “the uniquely challenging context of overseas military operations, and the exceptional demands and stresses” on British service personnel as the justification for introducing this law. However, the Law Society of England and Wales, and human rights organisations such as REDRESS, remain concerned with the Law Society warning of “the practical effect of the act on access to justice and the rule of law.”
The UK government is also objecting to the return of precious museum artefacts originally looted by British soldiers. In 2021, then Culture Secretary said of the Benin Bronzes that they ‘properly reside’ in Britain while more recently talk of the return of the Elgin Mables (Parthenon Marbles) was swiftly shut down by the Culture Secretary who said “they belong here in the UK”. This is despite repeated calls for their return by the original states, Nigeria and Greece, respectively.
The examples above are clear illustrations that notwithstanding the passage of time, there is a wind of change in western society’s relationship with the past. Matters which were once taboo and relegated to the past are now being addressed for their continuing impact on certain communities. The UK government should take note of the changing tide in international and domestic approaches to making amends for past injustices and allow affected groups freely to pursue their claims.