A delegation of British Baptists in Jamaica this week apologized for England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, a scourge that shaped Caribbean history with effects that linger until today.
“We offer our apology to our brothers and sisters for all who have created and still perpetuate slavery and the hurt which originated from the horror of slavery,” Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, said during the St James Baptist Association’s mid-year worship service at the Mount Carey Baptist Church in the capital city of the former British colony. “We repent of the hurt we have caused.”
Edwards is part of a Baptist delegation from the United Kingdom visiting Jamaica to personally deliver an apology for slavery adopted by British Baptists in their annual gathering last fall. It followed a year of debate both among UK Baptists and British society about what complicity modern-day Brits bear for the slave trade, which enriched their country at the expense of African slaves but was abolished by Parliament 200 years ago.
Baptists in Jamaica first raised the issue of an apology in the 1990s. British Baptists were divided over the question before being chided for omitting such a statement of regret at an emotional reconciliation service at a former slave-trade center in Ghana at a meeting of the Baptist World Alliance last July.
The Baptist Union Council of Great Britain focused on the issue during meetings Nov. 12-14, before unanimously issuing an historic statement apologizing for transatlantic slave trade and expressing “true repentance” for failure to listen to the pain of black brothers and sisters resulting from that legacy.
“We have heard the pain of our hurting brothers and sisters and we have heard God speaking to us,” Edwards said in apologizing for Britain’s role in perpetuating slavery.
“In a spirit of weakness, humility and vulnerability, we acknowledge that we are only at the start of a journey,” Edwards said, adding, “We acknowledge our share and our nation’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade.”
The transatlantic slave trade forced transport of slaves—mostly from West and Central Africa–to colonies in America from the 1500s to the 19th century. Slaves in Jamaica and across the Caribbean were forced to harvest sugar, tobacco and spices.
Britain’s Slave Trade Act in 1807 banned the shipping of slaves, but Britain did not abolish slavery in overseas territories until 1833.
In his sermon, Edwards acknowledged the work of “godly fighters” like Baptists Sam Sharpe and William Knibb.
Knibb, a white missionary from Great Britain, became one of the pioneer abolitionists among British Baptists, placing him at odds with many of the economic powers-that-be in the first half of the 19th century.
Sharpe, a black slave also known as Daddy Sharpe, was behind a slave rebellion known as the Jamaican Baptist War. Sharpe was hanged for his role in the rebellion in 1832. Following two parliamentary inquiries, the British Empire abolished slavery the following year. Jamaica’s government declared Sharpe a national hero in 1975.
“We worship with you today, ashamed that our countrymen were part of this degrading and hellish act against your ancestors,” Edwards added on behalf of British Baptists.
Karl Johnson, general secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union, welcomed the public statement of remorse.
“This is by no means the journey’s end, but the apology is certainly a giant step,” Johnson said.
Baptist work in Jamaica was started by George Lisle, a freed slave who left the United States with British forces in 1782. In 1814 the Baptist Missionary Society in England sent its first missionary to assist the Baptist movement. Today the Caribbean island of 2.8 million people is home to about 120,000 Baptists.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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British Baptists Go to Jamaica to Apologize for Slave Trade