When it comes to race, the Church cannot afford historical amnesia

Liverpool Cathedral as seen from the city's Georgian Quarter. Liverpool was once the slave-trading capital of Britain.(Photo: Unsplash/Deividas Toleikis)

Britain has a long history with roughly the same borders as in the 10th century. It's a nation blessed with ancient cathedrals, royal palaces, castles, museums, international and World Heritage sites.

As a country, it's obsessed with history, and therefore, it's not unusual to see most people glued to their television sets on Sunday evenings watching the latest historical or period drama.

You would be hard-pressed, however, to see any black people in any of them, as they tend to portray a one-dimensional view of Britain, although black people have been in the country if anyone would care to remember!

"Africans were in Britain before the English," says Peter Fryer in his book, 'Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain', although you wouldn't think so seeing any of these programmes.

Historians like David Olusoga and other recent writers confirm Fryer's claim, and their detailed research paints a reassuring and inclusive picture. They show black people were in Britain long before many people realised and were there in many of its glory years.

For example, they were there in 1590 and in such numbers that Elizabeth I issued a proclamation threatening to expel 'blackamoors' out of the country. But watching any Tudor portrayals, you'd be forgiven for thinking Tudor England was all white.

The same is no less true of the eighteenth century when "20,000 negroe servants lived in London," so the Gentleman's Magazine reported. They were brought there by plantation owners returning from the West Indies, and they worked as household slaves, cooks, maids, and occasionally pages. Others who had found their way to Britain as a stowaway or were discarded by their masters settled in the East End of London, where they eked out a living among the poor.

A few others like Ignatius Sancho, a protégé of the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, and Olaudah Equiano, a slave to a British naval officer, managed to gain their freedom. But they were the exception, with the rest living all their lives as slaves, and therefore the property of their owners.

Much nearer our time and during the First and Second World Wars, black people were again in Britain doing their bit for 'King and Country.' Most people forget that when Germany and its allies declared war on Britain, the Empire, with over three million soldiers and labourers, responded to the call to help. The Second World War was no different, with the fighting force swollen by over half a million people from the Empire and Commonwealth. Still, you wouldn't think so looking at the recent Memorial Service at the Cenotaph in London, where only a sprinkling of black soldiers was on parade and hardly any national recognition of their role in the two Great Wars.

Things began to change with the Windrush period (1948-70) when hundreds of thousands of workers were needed to help rebuild Britain after the war. Caribbean people responded, with the majority coming as Anglicans, which belies the assumption that they were mainly

Pentecostals. We know they were poorly treated, with many turned away from local churches as their presence was upsetting the white congregation. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has apologised for this and for the "conscious and unconscious racism experienced by countless blacks seeking to find a spiritual home in Britain". But where did this racism come from, and how did it manifest itself in Church and society?

On a general level, racism believes that a person's racial characteristics determine their place in society and, with it, their life chances. It is a relationship between those who have power and exercise it and those who are essentially powerless.

For example, this relationship and power dynamics were fully played out during slavery and the Empire, when the English turned the Caribbean into a massive sugar plantation colony, making the settler class very rich. Between 1761 and 1807, traders in British ports transported over three million African slaves to the Caribbean, where they worked on plantations producing sugar.

Sugar made Britain rich, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was one of the driving forces behind her industrial success. Sugar was as crucial to Britain as perhaps oil is today, and it was sugar that made plantation owners rich. The term, 'as rich as a West Indian'showed how wealthy a person was, and it was the proceeds from sugar and the slave trade that made London, Liverpool, and Bristol also rich.

At first, the Church in England sent out clergies to the Caribbean, not to convert the slaves but to act as chaplains to the white plantation settler class. It sanctioned, supported, and justified slavery, seeing its role more in a master/servant relationship than a church and its parishioners. The Church in England also backed many of the crude pseudo-scientific theories bandied around at the time, claiming that black people were inferior and less than humans. This was a view endorsed by the power structure in Britain, emphasised in print and literature, and supported by the Church.

The nineteenth century was also when European nations had begun exploring Africa, meeting people of darker skin and making judgements about them. Their rationale for enslaving Africans was based on their religious assumption that the Africans they had met were heathen, barbaric, less than human, and could be enslaved. They used a story in the book of Genesis to justify their action. The story goes that Ham, the supposedly black son of Noah, committed a sin against his father, and he and his descendants were cursed and condemned to be 'servants unto servants.'

For four hundred years, this and other racist views percolated in the Empire and British society, and when Caribbean people arrived in the 1950s and 60s, they were not prepared for any expression of these racist views. Naively they thought that as they respected and looked up to white people in their own countries, they would be treated much the same way in Britain. When this didn't happen, and it often didn't, they were surprised and disappointed. They didn't know that 'being black' negatively affected white people, frequently stirring up all the negative historical stereotypes they had internalised.

The Church was no exception, and to many white people, black meant everything terrible. Being blacklisted was negative, and black was evil and of the devil. It didn't take a great leap of the imagination for white people to link these stereotypical images they had internalised, to the Caribbean people they saw coming into 'their country' and into their churches. The Church was the last place Caribbean people expected to see this type of behaviour, for as Christians, they thought they would find a warm welcome in the Church in Britain as they were of one faith and one baptism.

Caribbean people themselves were not immune to the impact of the stereotypical thoughts and images they, too, had internalised. For example, they knew next to nothing about white people, and what little they knew was limited to the white people they saw in the Caribbean, usually those in an official capacity or those who were wealthy or well-to-do. Generally, white is associated with what is good, pure, clean, and beautiful.

Consequently, many Caribbean people had an exaggerated view of white people and thought all white people lived well in Britain, were well-to-do, and their streets were paved with gold.' They soon got a nasty shock when they saw how many white people lived, in many cases, much worse than they.

The "unconscious racism" Justin Welby speaks about can also manifest itself in omissions and collective amnesia. As Christians, we all need to be mindful and alert to this, as it is often embedded in the structure, institutions, and culture of our society.

The Church is best placed to shine light into these areas, as it is called to be the light of the world - the light set on a hill that cannot be hidden. This also is the historical mission.

Roy Francis is an award-winning former BBC 'Songs of Praise' producer and the author of 'Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain'.