It has been many years since the matter of reparations for the enslavement and atrocities against black people by the rulers of the former British Empire was formally discussed. Up to now, this subject has been met with grave silence by those who are now deemed to be accountable.
However, the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Right Most Reverend Justin Welby might well have unwittingly relit the torch in a lecture which he gave in London last week. The Archbishop, who was unexpectedly appointed as leader of the Anglican Community worldwide in 2013, has earned a reputation for plain speaking and liberal discourse.
In a scathing attack on the old British Empire, he condemned it as un-Christian and said it was driven by a sense of superiority which was based on abuse and exploitation. Although he did not give title to those whom he felt were abused, it is easily taken that he was speaking of black people and other members of the new Commonwealth.
He did not mince his words, and he accused the Christians who served the Empire of carrying out “many murderous atrocities” and further advised their modern successors to “take seriously the abuses of our history”.
Archbishop Welby said British Christians should be conscious of their history and how it impacted other faiths in Great Britain. He said the Church had colluded with the leaders of the Empire in its actions and he noted the Diaspora communities had experienced abuse and exploitation by an Empire that seemed to hold the Christian story at the heart of its project. Tellingly, he added, “The ideology underlying the British Empire was largely predicated on the racial superiority of the British.”
It is not often, but nonetheless refreshing, that we hear such comments from a leader of the free world and the most reverend gentleman spoke with disarming candour when he opined that the Church operated with a racist and un-Christian view. Indeed, many immigrants of the 1950s and 1960s can testify to that opinion as a result of being dissuaded from worshipping in Anglican churches across Great Britain.
The Archbishop took a wide and historical view of the atrocities which were perpetrated by the old Empire and he cited the particular case of the massacre at Amritsar in March 1919, when a British officer ordered his troops to fire on a crowd of Sikhs, killing as many as 1 000 people who were peacefully gathering to celebrate a local festival. “This atrocity and so many others were perpetrated by Christians and done in the name of Christian society,” he said.
Expanding on the topic of mass atrocities, he said Christian Evangelists in Africa were responsible for large numbers of deaths in religious riots.
Hundreds were killed in subsequent uprisings and the Anglican leader said “the errors and sins are part and parcel of our present. We need to take seriously the abuses of our history.” This is a comment that should engage the thoughts of our modern rulers.
Archbishop Welby’s lecture is significant in that he seeks to embrace all faiths and he is respectful of the practices of each. He asks for diversity with a positive fulfilment and accepts that Christianity is neither exclusively British nor white. And, in conclusion, he acknowledged that Britain’s most dynamic and fastest growing churches are black led with cultural roots that go back to Nigeria and Ghana.
Archbishop Welby’s confessions on behalf of the British Empire and the Anglican Church, one could argue, are pleas that would be upheld as guilty in any law of a civilized land. Whether or not his comments can lend weight to the arguments to revisit the case for reparation is moot. However, it is pretty certain that those who argue the case for compensation should feel heartened by his comments. The fact that one as eminent as the Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken out, not glaringly in support of reparations but in condemnation of the evil deeds by his predecessors against our people, should not be easily dismissed.
Over the years, the general view has been that reparations should be satisfied in monetary terms. This in itself would be impracticable, and other means should be sought to make amends to the countries affected.
Surely it is not beyond the capabilities of the offenders to provide assistance in areas such as additional infrastructure, technical support and, most importantly, additional education facilities for the many countries that suffer an inadequacy in this area.
PS: The Archbishop called for tolerance by all faiths and it is sad that we have just witnessed, in defiance of that call, one of the most inhumane acts in history in New Zealand. Perhaps his words of condemnation are the best way to end these chapters. He said: “Those who act out of hate for Muslims act out of hate for all here. Those who acted or supported the actions in New Zealand attack all of us.”
Vincent “Boo” Nurse is a Barbadian living in London who is a retired land Revenue Manager, Pensions and Investment Adviser. He is passionate about the development of his island home and Disapora.