WHEN I was a boy, occasionally a Baptist woman would walk down our street in Marabella ringing a bell as she recounted a “vision” that had come to her. Baptists brought religion to the street.
Here at Emancipation, 186 years on from its proclamation, as a descendent of slaves I do not find any personal psychic connection with the Christian church. Nor do I discern any affinity between the church and black people. I am discomfited by the fact that Christian religions still have so much dominion over black lives in this country, in which African Shouter Baptists remain at the margins. I am particularly concerned that they are not answerable to African communities where they run schools. They are untouchable. I am disheartened that church schools are unrelenting, primary sites of race and class differentiation, hiding behind a 20 per cent formula, devised before we had a constitution, at a time when people drank bosco and peanut punch.
I am a Catholic, nominally. I received first communion in Marabella and was confirmed in the St Peter’s church on Pointe-a-Pierre hill. Over time my mother and two sisters converted to Shouter Baptist.
In her PhD dissertation “Christian Slavery: Protestant Missions and Slave Conversion in the Atlantic World, 1660-1760”, Katherine Gerbner contends that “Protestant missionaries in the early modern Atlantic World developed a new vision for slavery that integrated Christianity with human bondage. Thus, the thrust of their efforts was not to end slavery, but to convert slaves to Christianity.” The major churches—Anglicans, Catholics, and Presbyterians—did more than proselytise; they owned slaves.
With emancipation beckoning, Foreign Secretary Canning said in 1824 at Westminster that: “It is intended to increase the amount and widen the basis of the Ecclesiastical Establishment in the West Indies.”
The church would be central to continued colonial presence after emancipation. Onto their conversion portfolio was mapped education. I think that has been to our detriment. Churches have no special competence where education is concerned. They were there when slavery ended, and never left. They specialise in teaching the most promising students. They inoculate the political elite whom they would have taught in prestige schools into silence and complicity. The Christian church has no monopoly on religion.
In his article “Social death and political life in the study of slavery,” historian Vincent Brown recounts from ship’s logs the sad tale of a woman who died at sea aboard the slave-ship Hudibras. “She had been…the “soul of sociality” when the women were on the quarterdeck. There she had knelt “nearly prostrate, with hands stretched forth and placed upon the deck, and her head resting on her hands.” Then, “In order to render more easy the hours of her sisters in exile,” the woman “would sing slow airs, of a pathetic nature, and recite such pieces as moved the passions.” This African woman did not learn religion on a plantation. She never made it to Caribbean shores.
In the case of Anglicans, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, came forward in 2006, confessing that his church owned slaves in Barbados. In an article: “Slave Mortality and Reproduction on Jesuit Haciendas in Colonial Peru” Nicholas Cushner provided evidence that by their expulsion from Latin America in 1767, Jesuit priests had been the largest owners of African slaves in the Americas.
In the National Catholic Reporter of June 15 this year, Shannen Dee Williams, wrote that prior to the civil war the Catholic church was ”the largest corporate slaveholder in Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri”.
Presbyterians were slave owning. In Jamaica in 1814 a bill was passed establishing the Church of Scotland (Presbyterians). In 1819 Church authorities published seating arrangements such that “the range of pews under the South Gallery shall be appropriated to White People, and those under the North to those of Colour.”
This is segregation in a Caribbean church. In the Catholic church in Marabella they used to set aside special pews for the white congregants who came to church from Pointe-a-Pierre. They could come in late and still have a seat.
Reflecting on the American context, Irving Kull published “Presbyterian attitudes towards slavery” in the June 1938 version of the journal Church History. He noted that in 1787 an entreaty was published that said “The church sympathised with those portions of its body where the evils of slavery had been entailed upon them and where the number of slaves and their ignorance and vicious habits rendered their immediate emancipation dangerous, and it urged efforts towards abolition as speedily as compatible with public welfare”. It was a matter of safely dismounting from the back of a tiger.
In 1843 an American Mission established Presbyterian footholds here in Iere Village, to work among newly emancipated slaves. Prof Brinsley Samaroo has written in “The Presbyterian Canadian Mission as an Agent of Integration” that Presbyterian missionaries who came here “saw nothing wrong with the racial separation that existed and indeed did much to preserve this.”
Dr Jerome Teelucksingh has sought to set the record straight here, in his book Beyond the legacy of the Missionaries and East Indians, in which he points out that the roots of the local church are traceable not to 1868, the arrival of the celebrated Reverend John Morton, but to the American Mission of 1843.
The nameless Presbyterian missionaries who worked among newly freed slaves lie buried in a churchyard at Iere.
There are rumblings on the ground about the fate of the St Benedict’s College building, the creation of Dom Basil Matthews. Legendary local black priest. There is also some resentment that Fr Clyde Harvey (now Bishop of Grenada) is not stationed here, where he was born, especially in the depressed areas behind the bridge where his navel string is buried.
So as this Emancipation Day comes upon us, I have visions of resolve, thinking about these things. This cannot be what freedom constitutes.
• Theodore Lewis is emeritus professor, University of Minnesota. He attended Harmony Hall Presbyterian School.