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Legacies and Chains: Learning and Living in the Shadows of Empire

The opening up of the archives by USPG is something I highly respect as a Contextual and Practical Theologian whose theological identity and call to ordained ministry has been birthed within the African Caribbean context. Context matters! Paying attention to the multiple and complex experiences during the long history of African enslavement and colonialism matters! My academic work uses Caribbean, Black and Postcolonial lenses to consider the depth of this unfortunate part of human history which affects not only African slaves and their descendants, but also Europeans and their descendants and all the multiple connections in-between. Furthermore, it affects how we see, or should see, the kinds of Christianity we all continue to participate in.

The documents in USPG’s archives, for example Elias Neau’s letter to John Chamberlayne, lay before us the racist and patronising assumptions behind the mission practices that founded the New World colonies and New World Christianity. They help us to learn from the many ways in which missionary Christianity was complicit in expansionist agenda. In my own work, I am constantly asking critical questions of missional practices, of church practices, and of the undergirding narratives being carried out. Often hidden assumptions drive practices, and they end up eclipsing, or even marginalising the experiences of whole groups of people. Unless we can interrogate the past, we really cannot perceive the ways in which such practices continue into the present.

When we dig a bit deeper into the archives, we see that there is a tension between seeing slaves as property (plantation or colonial machinery) or as souls (rational human beings endowed with dignity and worth). One of the interesting things history teaches us is that the missionary agenda, with the mandate for the care for slaves, was often resisted by planters and colonial churches. Theologically, it was troubling to perceive the slave as worthy of entering the same heaven as the planter. The tension was fundamentally an economic one: freedom from sin and condemnation couldn’t possibly mean freedom from enslavement. In fact, a Slave Bible developed which was edited to fit the purposes of the planter class. There was a constant fear of rebellion if ‘true freedom’ and equality were to be gained.[1]

When considering the archives, I would like us to keep this idea of legacies of colonisation in our minds. If we take seriously the entry, Proposals for Propagating the Gospel in All Foreign Countries, it reads like a mission statement for colonisation. Often the criticism for any interrogation of history is that it is only relevant to the distant past and the historical actors directly implicated. Such a view, in my opinion, is unfortunate and naïve. We can trace the consistent pattern of Missionary Christianity and its ties to European ecclesiastical, political and military expansion from Columbus’ first landfall in what is now called the Islands of the Bahamas, with the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the English and the Dutch. The pattern is simple. Indigenous beliefs and practices were deemed heathen and uncivilised; European Christian practices were taught as standard; power structures were enforced to suppress the colonised and to uphold a European, male, white centre of power. And, wherever this status quo was challenged, the most vicious military means were employed to eliminate such threats.

Map of Codrington College (click image for details).

What you have is an expansionist agenda with little interest in anything other than conquest and it is the continuity of this pattern than is relevant for us today. For example, when there is an insistence on congregational numbers or quantity with regard to church ministry, and little thought about quality, context and relationship, the same impulse persists. We see something similar in the way different Church traditions continue to carry out theological agendas that exclude, deny, suppress, or vilify entire groups of people. There is a reason why the Windrush generation were rejected by the churches upon reaching post-war Britain in the 1950s and 60s. This wound persists. There is a reason why there have been Black Lives Matter movements across the world. There is a reason why the Archbishop of Canterbury has called the Church of England ‘institutionally racist’. Finally, there is a reason why the Anglican Communion is strained politically and theologically over the issue of human sexuality, with the constant temptation to ‘other’ and ‘demonise’ those of opposing views.

The reason is that we still live in the shadows of empire and colonization; we are still negotiating their implicit refusal to self-critique, to be flexible, and to allow new ways of being Christian in the world. The USPG archive opens up for our exploration a tragic history that did not begin with the organisation, but one that they are determined to bring some sense of a resolution to.

Revd Dr Carlton Turner, is a Caribbean Contextual and Practical Theologian and Anglican priest working as a tutor in Contextual Theology and Mission Studies at the Queen's Foundation, Birmingham and the author of Overcoming Self-Negation: The Church and Junkanoo in Contemporary Bahamian Society.


[1] Kortright Davis, Emancipation Still Comin’: Explorations in Caribbean Emancipatory Theology (New York: Orbis, 1990); Lewin L. Williams, The Caribbean: Enculturation, Acculturation, and the Role of the Churches, Gospel and Cultures (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996); Noel L. Erskine, Decolonizing Theology: A Caribbean Perspective (Trenon, NJ: Africa World Press, 1998).

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Lioness Claiming Herstory

A West African proverb, I’ve heard it told by Ghanaians and Nigerians, declares that hunters will always be the heroes of the hunt until the lions get their own historians. And what about the lionesses, who have to snarl even louder to tell their bit of the story?

I was born in Montego Bay in the 1950s, when Jamaica had been a British colony for over 300 years. I was brought up in a church which had just changed its name from ‘the Church of England in Jamaica’ to ‘the Church in Jamaica in the Province of the West Indies’. As little children of the empire, we were well-versed in the stories of heroic missionaries, who had given their lives to bring the gospel to the heathen. Many were the Sunday nights spent in darkened halls watching slide shows delivered by earnest preachers, most of whose faces were as pale as the pictures of Jesus they distributed. We were all fired up to devote our pocket money to the cause, and hoped that we too could one day go to bring enlightenment to those benighted souls. We felt that we were destined to be the subjects of the missionary story, and were quite unaware that the evangelists probably thought of us as also being in the ranks of the unenlightened, the objects of mission.

We received these stories unquestioningly, as we watched Through Gates of Splendour, a film of missionaries dying heroically in Ecuador, celebrated the courageous white men who travelled to Africa and the Caribbean with their own coffins, ready to die to bring a better life to the heathen.  We were seldom told about the women missionaries, and, strange to relate, we had no stories of the many people of colour, several of whom came from the Caribbean, who also devoted themselves to this cause. We were not encouraged to wonder about the people to whom these missionaries came, to be curious about their ideas, lifestyles, religions and cultures. They were, we were told, pagan savages, who had to be saved from ignorance and barbarity.

And, of course, we were told nothing of the blood that stained the hands of these bearers of the gospel, either directly, or through the organisations and backers who sent them and supported them. Why did we not know / were we not told that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel maintained a chapel in Cape Coast Castle, in what is now Ghana, over the dungeons where kidnapped and enslaved Africans were incarcerated until they were loaded onto slave ships? Why did we not know / were we not told of these slaves, some sent to the Americas, and some perhaps to join the captives labouring on the Codrington Estate in Barbados, owned by this same Society for the Propagation of the Gospel? The church was a part of empire, and for the empire to be strong, sometimes a little blood had to be spilt, the gospel, thereby, to be violated. If the church was spattered with the gore, she could always wash her hands like Lady Macbeth, or Pilate.

It was only later, when our own Black / African / Caribbean scholars had access to the information hidden in archives far from our shores, that we learnt to question the benign perspective of the empire and the colonial church. It was only as we got the information to allow us to tell our own stories, that we began to reframe the narrative, to sift out the kernel of truth from the chaff of these flawed and blood-stained men. It was only as we discovered the truth of our history that we began to recognise that the God of whom they spoke was the one who had screamed beside us when we were torn from our villages, sweated beside us when we stumbled the 1500 miles to the coast, wept with us when we saw our loved ones, too weak to continue, thrown overboard, flinched with us under the overseer's whip. This God we understood, despite, not because of, the pious admonitions to obey our masters.

Emancipation Statue, Barbados

Emancipation Statue, Bridgetown, Barbados (Karl Broodhagen, 1985). Source: Wikimedia Commons

And so we need access to the records, all of them. We do not want to have to spend money we don’t have to travel to cold climes and try to get access to dusty archives. We need to be able to scrutinise them, to interpret what is said and not said. We need to be able to puzzle over the entry in the Codrington accounts of where a servant (read slave) is bought from Andrew Albury for 5 pounds on June 17, 1710. Who was this person, who cost more than the £3, 7s 11 1/2d for '£15 1/2 Bushells Bonavis' but less than the £11 3s for ‘5 mens expenses’ paid to the same Andrew Albury on the same day? A man, a woman, a child? Were they born in Barbados, or dragged from a slave ship? What happened to them? Were they branded with the word ‘Society’ burned into their flesh? Were they whipped, raped? Did they die young, or survive to be old and abandoned? What ghosts lie behind this cold entry in the records.[2] Yet these are our records, and we need them so we can tell our own stories.

Primary sources are neither innocent nor objective. We know this. Human beings chose what to write down, what to falsify, and what or whom to ignore in their letters, minutes of meetings and account books. Most often the records disregarded the contributions of women of any ethnicity, of people of colour, of those considered to be of lower status. These written records compiled by the elite, the hunters are, fortunately, not all we have. We lions have passed on our own stories. And yet we need these records to weave with the tales whispered from mother to child. We need them all so we can roar our own histories.

Rev’d Dr Rachele (Evie) Vernon, Nannyish theologian at large [1]. Once worked with USPG.


[1] For this term see Marjorie Lewis, ‘Diaspora Dialogue: Womanist Theology in Engagement with Aspects of the Black British and Jamaican Experience’, Black Theology, 2:1 (2004), 85-109, DOI: 10.1558/blth.2004.2.1.85

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