A Jamaican Baptist pastor forced the controversial question of compensation to modern-day African descendants for the imprisonment and forced labor of their ancestors at the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Ghana.
Speaking only a hundred yards from the Atlantic coast where millions of West Africans were boarded onto slave ships for the seven-week journey to the Americas, Cawley Bolt asked whether descendants of slaves “have a right to be compensated.”
“I’m not begging for anything, but demanding what is ours,” the pastor of Ebony Vale Baptist Church in Spanish Town, Jamaica, answered.
The gray-haired Bolt said, “One way to compensate is to put money into educational institutions.”
Reparation for slavery is a contentious topic. Some consider slavery “crimes against humanity.” Others argue that slavery was legal at the time, disqualifying it from now being viewed as criminal activity.
At the workshop of the Baptist Heritage and Identity Commission on Wednesday morning, Bolt told participants, “A finger is pointed at those in the North [Europeans and Americans] but Africans were also part of the trade. That can’t be denied.”
He drew sharp distinction, however, between the largest forced human migration in history, the transatlantic slave trade, and forms of slavery on the African continent.
“It is unwarranted to compare slavery in Africa with slavery in the Americas, where the individual was chattel and defined as property and real estate” with no rights, Bolt said,
African slaves were more like vassals and subjects akin to the European feudal system, he said. African slavery resulted from debts, punishment for crimes and war conquest.
“Despite this there were groups of persons who had no freedom, such as community outcasts, adulterers, debtors, prisoners of war and those convicted and condemned of witchcraft,” he said. “But still these persons had limited rights and were not chattel.”
Objecting to the term “slave rebellions” to describe the Caribbean resistance to slavery, Bolt said a more accurate term would be “slave wars of liberation.”
“[S]laves were always conscious of their personhood and never accepted that they should be anyone’s property and so decided to take their freedom since it would not be given willingly and freely by their oppressors,” he said.
He said that slaves found ways to oppose slavery, including infanticide, suicide, stealing, lying and destruction of property.
Bolt said that God no doubt empathized with their actions under immoral conditions.
Writing from a Caribbean perspective, Bolt referred to the slave trade as “unholy triangle.”
“Unholy is a rare biblical concept but one understands it to be the opposite of holy. It does not appear in some biblical reference books or concordances,” he wrote in his presentation.
“It is instructive that in the list of vices in 1 Tim. 1:9-10, one of the vices stated is slave traders or men stealers, or more commonly kidnappers,” he wrote. “Kidnapping was one of the most important means of procuring Africans for slavery in the Americas.”
The American slave trade was pictured as a “triangular trade.” European ships first went to Africa to sell goods. The ships then purchased slaves and took them to the Americas to resell. After unloading their human cargo, ships returned to Europe with American products.
Bolt said the conduct of Europeans was immoral and “unholy, for they defrauded the Africans by exploiting their innocence.”
BWA attendees also heard brief impromptu comments at lunch from Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who was attending a meeting of the heads of state of African nations, which was also held in Accra.
Introduced by Emmanuel McCall, pastor Fellowship Group Baptist Church in East Point, Ga., and past moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Young recalled attending a BWA meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era.
Young urged goodwill Baptists to strive for human rights issues.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and serves on the BWA’s Freedom and Justice Commission. He is attending the general council meeting in Accra.