Most Episcopalians and Americans know the United States’ history of slavery, and how Union and Confederate soldiers fought a bloody civil war opposing and defending it. But lesser known is the horrific story that preceded slaves’ journey to the New World; a journey that carried them from Africa to plantations and cities in the Americas and the Caribbean.
In late January, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry led a reconciliation pilgrimage for bishops and Episcopal Relief & Development friends and supporters to Ghana. The pilgrims visited cities and sites critical to understanding the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and Episcopal Relief & Development partners and programs working to improve Ghanaians’ lives.
It was a pilgrimage that the presiding bishop described as akin to going home.
“I was really thinking of it as a kind of ‘homecoming’ for me as an African-American, as someone born and reared in the United States. Whenever I’ve come back to Africa, whether east, central or west, I’ve often had that strange feeling like I was coming to a land that knew me before,” he said, while standing in the courtyard of Elmina Castle, a castle built by the Portuguese in 1482.
“But this time, knowing we were coming to the place of [initial] enslavement, of embarkation, where the slaves began their journey through the middle passage … knowing that was like returning to the roots of who I am. And when you go back to your roots, you’re really going home.”
From Accra, Ghana’s capital, the pilgrims flew north to Tamale and boarded a bus that took them further north to the Upper East Region, where they spent a morning walking the paths of Pikoro Slave Camp, the same paths walked by an estimated 500,000 enslaved people between 1704 and 1805. Newly captured slaves from Mali and Burkina Faso were brought to the camp where they were chained to trees, where they ate one meal a day from bowls carved into rock, and where the process of stripping them of their humanity commenced. Slaves were marched from Pikoro 500 miles south to one of 50 castles on Africa’s west coast, 39 of them in Ghana, where they were held in dungeons, standing and sleeping in their own excrement, before their captors loaded them onto ships bound for the New World. The pilgrims traced that journey, as well, flying back to Accra and boarding a bus bound for the coast.
“In so many ways this pilgrimage has birthed reconciliation for those of us who participated as we’ve been reconciled with one another and been formed in beloved community,” said the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the canon to the presiding bishop for evangelism, reconciliation and creation. “Reconciliation with our history and with the slave trade and the ways that so many were implicated in it and suffered because of it, and reconciliation because what we’ve seen through the work of Episcopal Relief & Development, that history does not have to define the way as we as church show up today in Ghana and around the world.”
The Church of England and the Episcopal Church were complicit in the slave trade, with many Episcopalians owning slaves and profiting from the slave trade and its ancillary trade in raw materials – rum, sugar, molasses, tobacco and cotton. The “middle passage” worked as a triangle: Ships sailed from Europe with manufactured goods to Africa where the goods were exchanged for slaves that were captured in other African countries. Those slaves were sent to the Caribbean, where some worked on plantations; others were taken to North and South America along with sugar and molasses, where they were again sold. Ships then carried commodities, such as coffee, rum and tobacco, to Europe to sell and process, then sailed back to African where slave traders swapped goods for more slaves and continued the triangular journey.
The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, all at one time or another, occupied the castles and controlled the trans-Atlantic slave trade. An estimated 12 to 25 million Africans passed through Ghana’s ports to be sold as slaves in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and in 1834 declared owning slaves illegal. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson in 1808 signed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves but slave ownership continued until 1865 and the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Even though Anglican and Episcopal churches later participated in and sometimes led the abolitionist movement, the churches and individual Anglicans and Episcopalians benefited from the slave trade. The 75th General Convention in 2006 sought to address the church’s role in slavery. In 2008, the Episcopal Church formally apologized for its involvement in slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Slavery’s legacy is “not only race,” said Curry, but the contradiction that the American republic was founded on democratic principles and the idea that all are created equal.
“Bearing the language of the equality of humanity, though not fully living into it yet, that was a living contradiction … America has struggled to resolve. A civil war happened because it was unresolved,” he said. “And all the struggles after that, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow segregation, the emergence of the civil rights movement … a lot of the tensions and divisions that you see in American society now, some of their origins are traceable to the fact that in our [nation’s] originating DNA, the issue of freedom and slavery was not resolved, human equality was not fully resolved. Although they [the Founding Fathers] were headed in the right direction, they weren’t quite there.”
Source: Episcopal News Service | Lynette Wilson