The Church and the legacies of slavery
Published on 28 April 2023 8 minutes read
A new report on the Church of Scotland's connections to the transatlantic slave trade has been published.
The research covers a 131-year period between the Act of Union in 1707, which led to the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and the abolition of slavery in Britain's colonies in the West Indies during the 1830s.
It reveals that some Church of Scotland ministers and elders inherited wealth made on plantations from relatives and some buildings including Glasgow Cathedral have memorials to people who profited from the slave trade.
Some church members received sums of money from plantation owners while the organisation itself 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.
The Faith Impact Forum report is being presented to the General Assembly next month and it is hoped that this work encourages the Church to engage in self-reflection and to examine the roots of racial discrimination that many in Scotland still experience today.
It does not seek to lay blame or make people today feel guilt for actions that happened in the past and affirms that the Church of today believes that racism is a sin, Black lives matter and all humans have equal dignity in the eyes of God.
The report says that the Church should use any knowledge it has about past connections to slavery to educate people, and learn from this past, not to downplay or try to conceal it.
A survey of church members found that many felt that physical features of buildings that had links to historic slavery should not be removed, but instead used to help congregations and people in the local area learn about this chapter of Scotland's history.
The report acknowledges that chattel slavery, whereby enslaved people were considered the legal personal property of the enslaver in perpetuity, had helped to shape a worldview where Black people were treated as lesser than white people.
Many of the offensive attitudes that fuel racist behaviours today stem from ideas and beliefs that were used to justify the transatlantic slave trade.
Racism is a sin
The report states that up to as many as 20,000 Scottish migrants arrived in the West Indies during the latter half of the 18th century and it is likely that many places of worship were built by enslaved people such as St Andrew's Church in St George's, the capital of Grenada.
The British Government paid £20 million to slave owners in compensation for their loss of ‘assets' when slavery was abolished across most of the British Empire in 1833.
The report recommends to the General Assembly that a statement of acknowledgment and apology should be brought to a future General Assembly and a dedicated page about the Church's connections to the slave trade should be created for its website.
Commissioners will be asked to endorse a call for a commitment to becoming an anti-racist church and to encourage congregations and presbyteries to continue to engage with the topics of historic slavery and racial justice and mark Racial Justice Sunday.
The report recommends that a piece of appropriate art work should be commissioned to help congregations start conversations about the legacy of slavery.
The General Assembly is also being asked to support a call for a new academic scholarship in partnership with a Scottish university which should be open to students including those linked with partner churches in Africa and the Caribbean.
Although this is a significant piece of work ordered by the General Assembly in 2020, past General Assemblies have received reports and approved deliverances condemning racism and racial injustice in 2005, 2011 and 2013.
The Faith Impact Forum, through the Legacies of Slavery Project Group, spent 18 months compiling the report.
The research feeds into the work of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group, established by the Church in 2021 to celebrate the diversity of all God's people and to strengthen our culture of welcome.
Church buildings, held in trust by the General Trustees, were examined to note any physical evidence of slavery connections, such as memorial stones, inscriptions and stained-glass windows dedicated to enslavers.
Researchers also worked to uncover the ways the Church may have benefitted from slavery, financially or otherwise.
They examined Scottish heritage sources, historic and archival records, and published academic texts, databases and the results of a questionnaire on church history and architecture sent to congregations.
The University College London Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery database contains references to a number of individuals related to the Church of Scotland, including some who benefited from slavery through inheritance.
In some cases, money from slavery was bequeathed to parishes for specific purposes, such as poor funds distributed by the Kirk.
The names in the report include; Very Rev Angus MacKellar, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1840, who inherited a part-share of Hampden and Kerr estates in Jamaica through his wife Helen Stirling.
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.
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.
The clergyman is the subject of a famous oil painting attributed to Henry Raeburn called the ‘Skating Minister' which hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland.
As a merchant living in St Lucia, John Walker's connections to the slave economy can be inferred, but it is unknown whether he personally owned any slaves.
There are a number of church buildings that benefited from financial gifts from people who owned slaves across Scotland.
Alexander Grant financed the clock tower at Aberlour Parish Church in Moray.
He was an enslaver and merchant in Jamaica and the nephew of Rev Alexander Grant, minister of Glenrinnes.
Gourock Old and Ashton Parish Church in Inverclyde bears the coat of arms of Gourock, which is widely understood to depict an enslaved man.
The coat of arms has strong connections to Duncan Darroch, who made his fortunes in Jamaica.
Glasgow Cathedral, under the care of Historic Environment Scotland, contains a number of memorials to prominent city merchants who made their fortunes through tobacco and sugar from plantations in the West Indies.
These include memorial windows to Alexander Spiers of Elderslie and Sir James Stirling of Keir, who owned slaves in Jamaica.
Cecilia Douglas, who owned slaves on St Vincent in the Caribbean, donated a large window to the cathedral and there are two memorial inscriptions in her memory and that of her husband Hugh Douglas at Bothwell Parish Church in Lanarkshire.
The Kirk Session of Irvine Parish Church was bequeathed £100 in trust for the benefit of the poor by William Gemmell, merchant in Messrs Gemmell, Bogle & Scott which was associated with the Mount Craven estate in Grenada.
Augusta Lamont was the great niece of John Lamont, a sugar planter and enslaver resident in Trinidad who received £9,000 in compensation on the abolition of slavery.
He left the majority of his wealth to his nephew James, Augusta's father, and she was the last of the family to inherit Clan Lamont's property in Scotland.
Upon her death in 1950, she bequeathed the entirety of her share of the estate, which largely related to the contents of Knockdow house, to the Church of Scotland to further the work of the Church in the Cowal Peninsula in Argyll and Bute.
The sale of the property and the contents was completed in 1990 and in 1992 £1,549,814.16 was received by the Church and the fund is currently understood to be valued at just over £5.5 million.
Abolition of slavery
The report noted that the General Assembly of 1792 produced a strongly worded deliverance that the slave trade was "'incompatible with the great principles of religion and morality" and expressed "ardent wishes and earnest prayers' that Parliament should speedily act to bring the trade to an end".
It stated: "Through this work the Legacies of Slavery Project Group have become aware of a wider story around slavery and the Church of Scotland which goes beyond the role of the Church in abolition."
The research confirms that Scotland and the Caribbean were closely connected through slavery and this had long-lasting, and sometimes surprising, consequences,
"We have learned that stories of slavery and abolition are often nuanced and not always clear cut," stated the report.
"For example, we note that one of the most visually recognisable proponents of abolition, Dr Robert Walker (the Skating Minister) who led the Presbytery of Edinburgh to petition parliament in 1788, was also named eight years previous in 1780 as the residuary heir of the estate of his brother John Walker, a merchant operating in St Lucia.
"We are also mindful of the number of ‘sons of the manse' who profited, some significantly, from the enslavement of their fellow humans, whilst also recognising the commendable campaigns of many Presbyteries and Synods as part of the abolition movement.
"In many cases we do not see clearly defined direct relationships between slave ownership and the Church of Scotland, although slavery related connections between Scotland and the Caribbean clearly abound.
"We have learned that there is architectural evidence of connections to slavery within some of our church buildings, although it is not believed to be as wide spread as first thought.
"There are some examples where the Church or ministers can be seen to have benefitted directly from the profits of slavery.
"What we do see are many instances where money was left to ministers and kirk sessions to distribute amongst the parish or to be used for philanthropic causes."
The report said some Scots who made financial and social gains from enslavement left a portion of their money for philanthropic purposes such as caring for the poor.
"This raises important questions regarding the origins of money from which many people in Scotland, including the Church, benefitted," it stated.
"If the Church is committed to seeking racial justice then we must seek to acknowledge the origins of such funds that the church either received for its own use, or distributed for others."