Sunday, May 26, 2024

Free Church of Scotland under fire for failure to apologise over slavery money

 The Free Church of Scotland has been accused of “shameful” behaviour after it refused to apologise for receiving money from slavery worth millions of pounds today.

The Free Church is known to have accepted donations from plantation owners in the southern US states soon after its foundation in 1843 and then a significant bequest from a wealthy Glaswegian sugar baron 10 years later.

After coming under intense pressure to address its slavery inheritance, the Free Church issued a short statement on Wednesday night which said it “recognises and freely admits the historical sins of members of the denomination in relation to slavery”.

It said “we acknowledge with sorrow” and “regret” and “grieve” that a delegation of its members took money from southern plantation owners on a fundraising visit in 1844, but stopped short of apologising.

To the dismay of some of its members, the church also said it was “unlikely” to still be the beneficiary of those funds because of property transfers with other denominations over the last 180 years.

Its fundraising from southern slave owners was notorious at the time after the emancipated anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass demanded it “send back the money” when he toured Scotland in 1846, addressing large crowds.

Its statement did not mention the largest known gift it received from slavery-derived wealth: an £18,000 bequest from James Ewing, a rich Glaswegian who had slave plantations in the Caribbean, in 1853.

The historian Anthony Cooke has found that money was used to build churches and two Free Church training colleges in Edinburgh and Glasgow, buildings the church says it no longer owns. Dr Stephen Mullen, at Glasgow University, wrote in 2022 that it “was powered by wealth derived from West Indian rather than American slavery”.

Andrea Baker, a recently Edinburgh-based opera singer whose forebears were enslaved in the US, and who has previously challenged church leaders over the donations, said the response was “a shameful prevarication”.

It was “absolutely despicable” that the church also compared the chattel slavery of the US and the Caribbean with modern-day slavery and trafficking in its statement.

“It’s despicable because when we were put into chattel slavery we were described as non-human,” she said. Enslaved people were legally “owned” by an enslaver and endured multi-generational enslavement; trafficked people today have full legal rights.

“They’re basically saying ‘it wasn’t me’, ‘it weren’t my fault’,” she said. “That money flows through their entire church. They are not listening, they are not engaging and they are so far away from truth and reconciliation.”

Estimates vary on exactly how much the Free Church received. Different researchers put the sum donated by southern plantation owners in 1844 at either $3,000 or £3,000.

The exact value of the Ewing bequest is established. Historical inflation rates since 1853 make his £18,000 gift equivalent to £1.9m today, while estimates based on wage growth since then suggest it is worth more than £16m.

Critics of the church’s stance point to admissions by the Church of Scotland, the country’s largest Presbyterian church, which also benefited directly from slavery wealth, that an apology is due. Earlier this year the then moderator, the Rt Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, visited Jamaica with other churches on a pilgrimage to learn about slavery and discuss reparations.

Gordon Matheson, a former Free Church minister, said its statement “suggested a reluctance to fully acknowledge our ancestors’ complicity in the slave trade and its profits. Our ancestors’ great sin was benefiting financially from slavery while ignoring its evil.”

It was not enough for the church to say it was “unlikely” it was still the beneficiary of that money. “The church will eventually need to face this,” he said. “New research will continue to uncover our past, so why not conduct thorough research now? We can’t condemn our ancestors for ignoring evil if we do the same by downplaying our inherited benefits.”

Academics believe it is quite likely that more detailed research will uncover other gifts to the Free Church from Scottish enslavers and plantation owners who were active Presbyterians and helped set up Scottish churches in the Caribbean. Many received UK government compensation after Britain outlawed slavery.