on the occasion of the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade
16 March 2007
On 25 March 2007, Britain and the Commonwealth will mark the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ahead of the official commemorations, Your Excellency described slavery and the global slave trade as "profoundly shameful occurrence It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time." Your Excellency's words speak for themselves and are a grim reminder of that gruesome past. The World Council of Churches appreciates your courage to remind people of this tragic part of the colonial history.
Last year many churches in Commonwealth countries as well as in the United States and other European, African and Latin American countries started a process of sharing and exchange of views on how best to contribute to the commemorations of the bicentennial anniversary. The process amongst others discussed the role of the churches and individual Christians in contributing to an environment that justified slavery; it also reviewed the significant role played by the abolition movement. The World Council of Churches has been requested to support the churches in this initiative.
The Elmina Castle in Ghana stands as a symbol of churches failure to denounce slavery as crime against fellow human beings. The castle was built by the Portuguese and Dutch before the British took it over. It is symbolic not only because of the brutality that was perpetuated by the slave trade with all its consequences, but also, of an unjust, unfair system of social, political and economic power that prevailed. Standing in the midst of this colonial architecture the chapel is a sad reminder of the church's role in this evil enterprise.
Around 50 years ago, the renowned British missiologist and ecumenist, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin was appalled to discover that not only was the chapel of this castle built directly over the dungeons, where the slaves were kept in inhuman conditions before being shipped. A hole was cut in the chapel floor by the British who took over the castle from the Dutch. This enabled them, while in prayer, to keep an eye on the captured Africans. Later he wrote: "I am always amazed that these crimes can be so easily forgotten. Ever since that visit I have wished that some representative Englishman - an archbishop or prime minister - might come to Ghana and go down into that dungeon, kneel down on the floor and offer a prayer of contrition. I still hope it may happen."1
I have shared this story with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams. Perhaps this bicentennial year of the abolition of the slave trade is the right moment to heed Bishop Newbigin's admonition.
People of African descent in diaspora and in Africa await an unambiguous apology and clear sign from European nations that acknowledges their participation in this terrible part of colonial history. Perhaps under Your Excellency's leadership the European nations, an integral part of this enterprise could begin a process of truth telling, repentance and reconciliation in order to promote an honest and open dialogue in relation to the scars left on the people as a part of the colonial legacy.
1 Quoted by Brian Frost, The Politics of Peace, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991, p 149