Sacred Mysteries: Queen Anne’s Bounty sunk in South Sea slavery

·3 min read
Queen Anne depicted in the Parliament of Barbados, 1873 - © Lucinda Lambton/Bridgeman
Queen Anne depicted in the Parliament of Barbados, 1873 - © Lucinda Lambton/Bridgeman

Some of the £10 billion piled up by the Church Commissioners derives from the slave trade, they acknowledge. “I am deeply sorry for the links with transatlantic chattel slavery,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. “That some within the Church actively supported and profited from it is a source of shame.”

Well they still do profit from it, and it is hard to see how they can stop. Income came from investments in the South Sea Company, whose main commercial activity from 1715 was its trade in slaves, which it stopped in 1739. The investments were made by Queen Anne’s Bounty, an ecclesiastical fund gobbled up by the Church Commissioners in 1948.

It’s odd, because the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said in a sermon in 2004, the 300th anniversary of its foundation, that “Queen Anne’s Bounty was established in order to help the Church of England to be holy”. It served, he said, to free the CofE “to reveal its character as Christ’s Body by a more generous and just distribution of resources”. I wrote about that at the time.

It was no secret that Queen Anne’s Bounty invested in Old South Sea Annuities. That is noted in a short history of the Bounty by WR Le Fanu from 1921. Perhaps Dr Williams hadn’t read it. Why should he? If he had, the investment might not have struck him.

The conversion of the National Debt into South Sea Annuities was lampooned at the time, but not because of any involvement of slavery. It seemed like a public fraud. Hogarth published a print of the Devil’s Merry-go-Round: Parsons and Prostitutes, Scotsmen and Witches taking their chance, while Honesty is broken to death on the wheel. “Honour and Honesty are Crimes / That publickly are punished by / Self-Interest and Vilany,” says the caption.

So what was the exotic-sounding Queen Anne’s Bounty? It was set up in 1704 by Parliament to increase the income of clergy in poor parishes. It used money from the similarly exotic-sounding annates and tenths. Annates were the first fruits, or first year’s revenue, a fee paid by each new holder of any church benefice (such as the living of the rector of a parish). Originally the fees went to the papal treasury, but in England after the Reformation, to the Crown. Tenths were a tenth of that sum similarly paid annually.

Henry VIII keenly gained control of them and made commissioners compile the Valor Ecclesiasticus, a sort of Doomsday Book of the value of benefices. These values were never revised; though incomes from benefices did rise, the amount charged for first fruits and tenths did not. Even by 1920 it totalled less than £16,000 a year.

So it was no huge sum sacrificed to apply Queen Anne’s Bounty to parishes with small incomes. Grants were given to buy land for incumbent clergy to supplement income. But when no land was bought, money was left with the Governors of the Bounty, who invested it in South Sea Annuities, paying 3 per cent a year, of which 2 per cent went to the poor clergy. Curiously to our eyes, the poor benefices to be relieved were chosen by lot.

Plenty of governors were nominally in charge, but no laymen appointed bothered to attend meetings regularly. When in 1829 the treasurer resigned owing the Bounty £19,000, the bishops repaid it from their own pockets.

In the 1830s the Church of England was more or less unfairly accused of unjust wealth. In 1836 Ecclesiastical Commissioners were appointed to regulate incomes. In 1948 they became the Church Commissioners with their own ways of dealing with money, which parishes must cope with today.