Sun | Sep 24, 2023

Play links British monarchy and Anglican Church to slavery

Published:Friday | June 9, 2023 | 5:15 PMMichael Reckord/Gleaner Writer
Desiree Baptiste performing her play ‘Incidents in the Life of an Anglican Slave, Written by Herself’.
Desiree Baptiste performing her play ‘Incidents in the Life of an Anglican Slave, Written by Herself’.
Desiree Baptiste and Professor Mervyn Morris, former poet laureate of Jamaica.
Desiree Baptiste and Professor Mervyn Morris, former poet laureate of Jamaica.
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Over the past two weeks, hundreds of visitors to and residents of Jamaica have heard a play which, in the words of the author, is “a devastating exposé of the Anglican Church’s involvement in the Codrington Estate in Barbados” during the period of slavery in the West Indies.

It also links the ancestors of King Charles III to slavery. The king is revealled as the direct descendant of Edward Porteus, a 17th-century tobacco plantation owner in Virginia who, in 1686, received a shipment of at least 200 enslaved people from the Royal African Company.

Incidents in the Life of an Anglican Slave, Written by Herself, is the first play by Desirée Baptiste, a London-based writer and researcher with roots in the Caribbean. She grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and spent time in Jamaica as her father was a historian at university campuses in both countries.

Inspired by a rare 1723 letter from an anonymous enslaved Virginian to the “Lord arch Bishop of London”, the play was given three readings in Jamaica. Excerpts were read at the Calabash Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, and at the monthly Poetry Society of Jamaica readings at the Edna Manley College.

On Saturday, the entire play was dramatised at the home of university lecturers Maureen and Rupert Lewis in Mona, and was very well received by the coterie of invited guests. Baptiste had given public readings of the play three times previously in England.

In face-to-face and on-line conversations with The Gleaner, Baptiste revealed her purpose for writing the play. She stated, “Cumbo, the African-born mother of the narrator, is the heart of the play. By bringing her out of the archives and into the light, it was my hope to do more than history-work, but what one might think of as spirit-work.”

“Giving personhood, via story, to the ‘negro girl Cumbo’ (as she is described in the 1700 Virginia will of King Charles III’s direct ancestor Edward Porteus) is a way to honour the many millions of the enslaved of the British empire whose strangled voices remain unheard.”

She further stated that a slavery exhibition, ‘Enslavement: Voices from the Archives’, mounted at Lambeth Palace Library in London in January “omitted any reference to the Codrington Estate, a key story of the Anglican Church and transatlantic slavery. For me the play is a way to get this history directly to the public.”

The head of the Anglican Church in Jamaica, Archbishop Howard Gregory, who attended the exhibition said – according to church’s current newsletter, The Anglican — that he welcomed the initiative of the Church in acknowledging its link to the period of slavery and hoped that it would be the beginning of further admission of the role the Church played. He explained that the Report of the Commissioners only dealt with the Church’s involvement with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and that the Church had yet to deal with its involvement in slavery as a whole.

In response to the findings, the Church Commissioners said the Church would try to address some of the past wrongs by investing in a better future. The Report stated that it would “seek to do this through committing £100 million over the next nine years commencing in 2023 to invest in a better and fairer future for all, particularly for communities affected by historic slavery”.

Baptiste’s biography cites her as “a London-based writer and researcher whose practice sits at the intersection of history and literature. She conducts commissioned research for major UK institutions exploring links to colonialism and transatlantic slavery.

“Her research has underpinned several UK exhibitions and her work for the National Trust has helped this institution to embed inclusive histories into their practice. Her archival discoveries relating to the royal family and transatlantic slavery (and which are embedded in her 2023 play Incidents) have garnered international media coverage.”

entertainment@gleanerjm.com

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated that "a slavery exhibition, Enslavement: Voices from the Archives, mounted at Lambeth Palace Library in London in January 'omitted any reference to…the story of the Anglican Church and transatlantic slavery'."

It should have said that "a slavery exhibition, ‘Enslavement: Voices from the Archives’, mounted at Lambeth Palace Library in London in January 'omitted any reference to the Codrington Estate, a key story of the Anglican Church and transatlantic slavery'."

We regret the error.