The issue of slavery and slave trade remains a contentious one in our contemporary times. This becomes exacerbated with the daily reminders of such imperial and colonial symbols of subjugation, which still live among us to this day. And to this effect, the Church of Scotland resolved to draft a letter of apology as concerns its role in the slave trade.
By meticulously circumventing the pressing need to pay reparations to all peoples of African descent affected by the slave trade, the Church of Scotland resolved last month to prepare the apology over its role in the slave trade, and that in doing so, it should seek the input of the wider church before the statement [of apology] is brought for consideration at a future meeting.
The Church of Scotland was intrinsically linked to the transatlantic slave trade according to a report published by the church itself.
The extensive research by the Faith Impact Forum disclosed how some ministers and elders are beneficiaries of the riches made off the slave trade: inherited wealth made on plantations from relatives and some buildings have memorials to those who profited from the slave trade, as per this report by The Herald.
And now, the church stands in deep embarrassment over its role in inflicting injustice over other peoples.
The Reverend Karen Hendry highlighted how the church is in “deep regret” over these undesirable aspects of its blighted past: “The Legacies of Slavery report gives substance to such a part of our history. And we seek to humbly acknowledge this and think about how we apologise.
“This requires further work and preparation, and this is what the forum is asking this assembly to agree to.
“The report helps us to understand better the historic relationship between chattel slavery and the Church of Scotland, and the continuing legacy of that abominable practice.”
She added, “We offer this report on the clear understanding that the assembly will want to affirm that we are members of a church that is actively anti-racist.”
In April 2023, the Church of Scotland admitted its role in the slave trade, and made recommendations to offer an apology. The transatlantic slave trade bore a huge influence on Scotland—currently, 62 streets in Glasgow, the capital of Scotland, are named after slave-owning tobacco barons. These include the notable Jamaica Street and the Kingston Bridge.
The trade in human beings had far-reaching tentacles in the European nation, with church leaders being beneficiaries of such illicit wealth as they inherited wealth built on this despicable trade. The Church of Scotland is the custodian of a “multi-million pound fund which can be connected to compensation paid out to a family upon the abolition of slavery”.
In some instances, “money from slavery was bequeathed to parishes for specific purposes, such as poor funds distributed by the [Church]”.
The report by the church in which it admits its role in the slave trade revealed that “Rev Peter Robertson, a minister at Callander, was awarded compensation for enslaved people on the Friendship Estate, Jamaica as an executor and trustee of Duncan Robertson who was his uncle.”
It also shows how “Rev Dr Robert Walker, a prominent abolitionist, minister at Cramond and later Canongate Kirk, both Edinburgh, was left the residuary estate of his brother John Walker, a merchant in London and St Lucia.”
Some buildings owned by the Church of Scotland were financed through slave trade profits. The clock tower at Aberlour Parish Church in Moray was financed by Alexander Grant, an enslaver and merchant in Jamaica. And “Glasgow Cathedral contains a number of memorials to prominent city merchants who made their fortunes through tobacco and sugar plantations.”
In all this, as the Church of Scotland attempts to offer an “apology” for its rather recently discovered sins, it seems at surface level that indeed the church is doing a noble thing.
But it is short of what constitutes true, emancipatory justice—the holistic apology. A holistic apology should of course be accompanied by reparations, given that the church is even the custodian of a multi-million pound fund. Redistributive justice stands as the only way to right the wrongs of the slave trade. And the church does not mention the prospect of reparations for once.
The Rev Sandy Horsburgh, minister of St Nicholas Buccleuch in Dalkeith, Midlothian expressed how the report “shone a light on things that were hidden in plain sight, but things which we need to see and understand.” And further highlighted, “Through this report, we know our cities, our society, our church and ourselves just a little bit better.”
And this is true. The problematic part is that such statements are at best spurious if they do not address how to compensate the victims of the slave trade in financial terms.
The church members were encouraged to research more on the history of the church and its role in the slave trade, and, one can only hope that this may lead towards a consciousness calling for reparations to be made.