Church launches investigation into slavery links of investment fund

Church of England launches investigation into slave trade links of its £9.2billion investment fund that pays Archbishop of Canterbury’s £85,000-a-year wages

  • Church’s historic assets may have been built on proceeds of slavery, report said
  • Particular concern over a fund known as Queen Anne’s Bounty, meant for poor
  • But instead it was invested in speculative assets including South Sea Company

The Church of England today launched an investigation into the whether the £9 billion investment fund that pays the Archbishop of Canterbury’s £85,000-per-year wages may be tainted by money made from slavery.

The Church risks ‘reputational’ damage over the way its historic assets may have been built on the proceeds of slavery, a report said.

The warning of possible links was made public in a report by the Church’s financial arm, the Church Commissioners.

The Church risks ‘reputational’ damage over the way its historic assets may have been built on the proceeds of slavery, a report said. Pictured is Lambeth Palace 

The £9.2billion investment fund pays the £85,000-per-year wages of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, alongside other senior bishops 

The South Sea Company is today most famous as the subject of a period of wild financial speculation known as the South Sea Bubble, but less known is what the firm was actually set up to do.

Founded in 1711 in a bid to wipe Britain’s sovereign debts, the enterprise was given a monopoly to supply 4800 slaves a year to the Spanish colonies in South America, on the assumption that Britain would be able to strike a treaty with Spain to permit the trade. 

But the treaty was less favourable than hoped, allowing only one slave shipment a year and imposing a tax on the human cargo. One voyage took place in 1717 with limited success, but a year later investor confidence was boosted by King George I becoming the company’s governor. 

Three years later the company took on management of the entire government debt after ministers pocketed bribes, prompting the share price to skyrocket, from £100 in 1719 to more than £1,000 by August 1720. 

However, with the company making barely any profit and unable to transport more than one slave ship a year it soon became clear the elevated share price was based on nothing but speculation.  

The subsequent crash wiped out the fortunes of thousands of investors including Sir Isaac Newton, who lost several millions of pounds in current terms. An inquiry found that at least three government ministers had accepted bribes to allow the South Sea Company to take on the national debt. The Bubble Act was introduced in a bid to avoid similar financial crises in future. 

However, the Company survived the bubble and would go on to carry out 96 voyages in 25 years, purchasing 34,000 slaves of whom 30,000 survived the voyage across the Atlantic, according to research by the historian David Eltis. That gave a mortality rate for crossings of about 11%.  

Source: Britannica and others. 

It said there may be trouble ahead over the holdings of its 19th century predecessor, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, and in particular the fund known as Queen Anne’s Bounty which became a feature of Church finances in 1704.

The money, passed to the Church by the Crown, was meant to buy land for poor parishes but was often invested instead in financial speculation. 

Some of the money was invested in annuities in the South Sea Company, which had a monopoly to transport slaves from Africa to the Spanish colonies in South America.  

The Commissioners are headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, and pay his £85,070 salary, alongside those of other bishops. 

They also maintain Lambeth Palace, the See Houses of other bishops, and contribute heavily to the running of cathedrals.

Their holdings, which grew to £9.2 billion last year, pay for around £1 in every £6 that the Church spends, and have been used to bail out the CofE during the shutdown of churches during the pandemic.

The cloud over the CofE’s investment fund marks the third time the Church has been embarrassed over its past willingness to profit from slavery.

A first apology was issued 15 years ago over Anglican ownership of Caribbean sugar plantations worked by slave labour.

Last year there were further exposures of at least 100 clergy who made money from slavery before its abolition in the British Empire in 1834.

Yesterday’s report from the Commissioners said: ‘The Church Commissioners have established a sub-group of the Board, to lead research into the issue of historical linkages to transatlantic chattel slavery.

‘Long-established endowment funds may give rise to a reputational risk linked to the possibility of their original source, or early investment of funds, having slave trade connections. 

This could be the case for the original Queen Anne’s Bounty and Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ funds.’

A spokesman for the Commissioners said: ‘Like many organisations, we are looking into our past and have commissioned external research into the origins of our predecessor bodies.

‘We are doing this work of our own volition to better understand where our funding came from and to see if our predecessor bodies had links to or received profits from the historic transatlantic slave trade.’

Archbishop Welby last year acknowledged the historic involvement of the Church in slavery, saying in a sermon that figures from its past ‘bring baggage.’

Some of the Church’s money was invested in annuities in the South Sea Company, which had a monopoly to transport slaves from Africa to the Spanish colonies in South America. It is best known as the subject of the South Sea Bubble (depicted here in a print by Hogarth) 

He said: ‘We find saints and slave-traders, the proud and prelatical, with the humble servant of the people. They are part of us, of our inheritance, to be reformed, to be repented of, to be imitated.’

The Archbishop has also declared that some statues and memorials in churches and cathedrals to debatable figures ‘will have to come down.’

But in May a report prepared by Church officials advised against removal or destruction of church monuments, saying that ‘from a Christian perspective every memorial is a memorial to a sinner, however fulsome any tribute to their life, character and achievements may be, and the final moral reckoning on all our lives is known to God alone.’

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