Saturday, 22 September 2018

St Helena 1815: The East India Company, Slavery and Religion

St Helena halfpenny bearing crest of the East India Company

The East India Company and St. Helena's leading families were naturally apprehensive about the impact the detention of Napoleon would have on their remote, congenial world. Sir Hudson Lowe the new Governor, although technically appointed by the Company, was a Crown nominee and a servant of the Government. His appointment brought UK politics one step closer.

From the 1790's the anti-slavery and evangelical movements had a major impact on UK politics, and with that came increased pressure on the East India Company for the licensing of missionaries to save the souls of the heathen.

Bowl c. 1820 bearing slogan used by anti-slavers from the 1790's

The Company was painfully aware of the changing political climate. It had had an uneasy fight to get its charter renewed in 1812, and had been forced to open up India to missionary activity. (1) In a long letter addressed to Lowe in 1815 it addressed the very topical issues of slavery and of religion. (2)

On the issue of slavery the Company could make a case for its enlightened policies : there was no slavery in India, and the ban on the import of slaves into St. Helena preceded the much celebrated 1807 UK Slave Trade Act by 15 years. But 23 years after the import ban, slavery was still entrenched on the island, and over a third of the population were slaves. (3)

Poster advertising sale of Slaves in Jamestown, 1829

Nevertheless the 1815 letter to Lowe played down slavery's importance : their numbers were comparatively small", they were slaves "only in name" and "every indulgence is extended to them consistent with the safety and wellbeing of the Settlement."

The letter also indicated that the Company had issued orders to free the slaves altogether, but to its regret " obstacles have presented themselves to the complete Emancipation. " This was probably a reference to the rearguard action of Robert Leech and Sir William Doveton, leading magistrates who both attested to the good character of a slave-owner indicted for the murder of a slave in 1815. (4)

On matters of religion the Company shared the concerns of the Anglican Establishment and the Lord Liverpool Government about the rise of religious enthusiasm and the threats to Anglican dominance. It appointed chaplains to inculcate morality, order and loyalty amongst its soldiers and civilian employees, but it viewed missionary activity as a threat to the stability of its empire.

The letter to Lowe devoted much attention to the religious and moral climate on St. Helena which it claimed was improving. It prided itself on the creation in 1811 of two schools under the supervision of one of the chaplains.

The observance and inculcation of Religion both by precept and Example at St Helena has constantly been an object of the Court’s unremitting anxiety in furtherance of which they have for several years past maintained an Establishment of two Chaplains concerning whose religious principles and moral character they were 
 well satisfied at the time of their Appointment, their ordinary duties, the regular performance of Divine Worship on Sundays in the Town and Country Churches, to visit the sick in the Hospital and the Inhabitants of the Island as occasion may require, and otherwise to deport themselves in a manner becoming the Clerical Character.

The Company was though very concerned that the expected influx of population to guard Napoleon would bring in more non-Anglicans.

The subversion of the established Church we should consider as an evil and incalculable magnitude and we cannot too strongly recommend that the maintenance of our Established Religion be an object of your especial attention and unceasing Solicitude.

Coat of Arms of the Diocese of St Helena, established 1859

On this the Company's wishes were carried out. Anglican control of St. Helena outlasted both the East India Company and the institution of slavery. Not until mid-century were the Anglican defences breached, by the Baptists: St Helena's one and only native born Governor, Hudson Ralph Janisch (1873-1884), the son of a German Lutheran immigrant brought to the island by Lowe and named after him, became a Baptist as a young man. (5)

Today there is some diversity of religion on the island, but the other older non-conformist denominations, the Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Unitarians, have never established a presence there. As in England half a century ago, the overwhelming majority of Saints identify themselves as Anglican, but relatively few are regular churchgoers. (6)

The Saints' Anglican identity is accompanied by a strong loyalty to Crown and mother country. The continuous cycle of disappointments and the dissatisfaction that constitutes the experience of many islanders seems not to have weakened this loyalty. Their approbation is however, not so often given to the representatives of British authority on the island, from the Governor down.
1. The Anglican Establishment, closely intertwined with Tory/Loyalist politics, was however concerned not so much with saving souls as with maintaining the established social order. These aims seemed to be threatened by the growth of religious dissent and the associated campaigns to remove civil disabilities from Roman Catholics and Protestant non-conformists, as well as the campaigns for universal suffrage. Penelope Carson, The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858 (The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2012) pp 117-118.
2. To Sir Hudson Lowe from the Court of Directors of the East India Company, East India House, 10th October 1815.
3.The letter to Lowe gave the full breakdown of the population - European Inhabitants 736,Garrison (Officers included) 891, Free Blacks
 420, Slaves
 1293, Chinese Labourers 247. Total 3587
4. The death of Leech and the sidelining of Doveton paved the way for the partial abolition that Hudson Lowe was able to declare in 1818. But slavery still remained an essential part of life on the island, most of the European families continued to own slaves, and it was not finally abolished until 1834.
5. For a history of the first Baptist missionaries on the island see Baptist Pioneers of St Helena.
6. According to the 2017 Social Attitudes study only 15% of the UK population now describes itself as Anglican, half as many as in 2000. 50% of the UK population describes itself as having no religion.