Christendom and the Slave Trade
DURING the 19th century, Catholic and Protestant missionaries were united in their opposition to the slave trade. However, that had not always been their position. In previous centuries, they approved of and participated in the slave trade despite the horrendous suffering this produced.
Missionaries started coming to the east coast as well as the west coast of Africa when the trade route by sea around the Cape of Good Hope was discovered in the 15th century. After three centuries, however, missionary work in Africa had almost come to an end. There were few African converts. One reason for this failure was Christendom’s involvement with the slave trade. C. P. Groves explains in The Planting of Christianity in Africa:
“The active pursuit of the slave-trade accompanied the Christian mission and was not thought amiss. Indeed, the very mission possessed slaves of its own; a Jesuit monastery at Loanda [now Luanda, the capital of Angola] was endowed with 12,000. When the slave-trade was developed between Angola and Brazil, the bishop of Loanda, on a chair of stone by the quayside, bestowed his episcopal blessing on the departing cargoes, promising them future felicity when the stormy trials of life were over.”
Jesuit missionaries raised no “objection against Negro slavery,” confirms C. R. Boxer as quoted in the book Africa From Early Times to 1800. In Luanda, before slaves boarded ships bound for Spanish and Portuguese colonies, adds Boxer, “they were taken to a nearby church . . . and there baptised by a parish priest in batches of hundreds at a time.” Then, after being sprinkled with “holy water,” the slaves were told: “Look you people are already children of God; you are going to the land of the Spaniards where you will learn things of the Faith. Don’t think any more about where you came from . . . Go with a good will.”
Of course, Christendom’s missionaries were not alone in approving the slave trade. “Until the last half of the eighteenth century,” explains Geoffrey Moorhouse in his book The Missionaries, “it was but the way of the world at large.” Moorhouse cites the example of an 18th-century Protestant missionary, Thomas Thompson, who wrote a tract entitled The African Trade for Negro Slaves Shown to Be Consistent With the Principles of Humanity and With the Laws of Revealed Religion.
Nevertheless, by her participation Christendom shares responsibility for the terrible suffering that was inflicted upon millions of African slaves. “Exclusive of the slaves who died before they sailed from Africa,” states The Encyclopædia Britannica, “121/2% were lost during their passage to the West Indies; at Jamaica 41/2% died whilst in the harbours or before the sale and one-third more in the ‘seasoning.’”
[Diagram on page 8]
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Diagram of the way slaves were packed into a slave ship
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / The New York Public Library / Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations