The book Two Triangles: Liverpool, Slavery and the Church describes the trans-Atlantic slave trade that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. The book also discusses the church’s involvement in this terrible practice. Some church leaders provided theological justification for what was taking place, but others, including many in the Anglican church and the City of Liverpool, helped bring about the abolition of slavery within the British Empire. (Two Triangles can be purchased from the Liverpool Cathedral bookshop here.)
Although the events of the book seem now to be “just history”, the book’s message is surprisingly relevant to us now in our Age of Limits — for two reasons. The first reason is to do with the theological arguments to do with the morality of slavery, and their relevance to our use of fossil fuels. The second reason is that the slaves were needed to provide the energy needed to develop and operate the Caribbean plantations. We need the energy provided by coal, oil and natural gas if we are to maintain our current, abundant lifestyle.
The triangle that the book refers to was to do with trade ships that made journeys between three nodes of a trade triangle: Liverpool, Africa and the Caribbean. On the first leg a ship carrying rum, textiles and manufactured goods would sail south from Liverpool, England to ports in west Africa. Having unloaded its cargo it would be packed with slaves captured from the African hinterland. The ship would then sail west to the Caribbean using the trade winds. In the Caribbean the slaves would be sold and the ship loaded with raw materials such as sugar, cotton and tobacco. It would complete its journey by following the Gulf Stream and returning to Liverpool.
The descriptions in the book of the second leg of the passage — the transport of slaves from their homes in Africa to the Caribbean — were tough reading. ‘Nuff said.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.
The book provides an important discussion to do with theological tension between the verses in the Bible that endorse slavery and the Christian spirit of love for all human beings. We can see this same discussion playing out now with regard to climate change. There are those who want to do the right thing, i.e., reduce carbon emissions, even if that action means a reduction in our standard of living. And there are those who want to make money now, regardless of the morality of their actions.
Many of the people living at the time of the slave trade recognized the immorality of what was going on, but they saw it as a necessary evil. One of the leaders of the American Revolution was Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty, or give me death!”. In the year 1773, a time when the slave trade was at its height, he wrote,
Would any one believe that I am master of slaves by my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not — I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.
Do those words sound familiar?
Indentured labor of various types was needed to provide the energy that their society needed to function. Henry, and the other prosperous people of his time, needed that energy to run their society and to maintain their standard of living. They knew that what they were doing was wrong, but they could see no way out of their dilemma. The analogy with what is taking place now is stark — we know that burning fossil fuels is creating many predicaments, but we need those fuels to maintain our way of life.
For both ourselves, and for Patrick Henry, the way out of the dilemma was “alternative energy”. In his case, during the 18th century a new source of energy was coming along: coal. The energy supplied by coal was so abundant that there was less need for the human energy. Later on, we found an even better source of energy: oil.
Is it coincidence that two things happened at about the same time? In the year 1859 Colonel Drake (who wasn’t a colonel) drilled his first successful oil well. The technology that he used — a drill string inside casing — is still in use now. Just a few years later, slavery in the United States was abolished. (In the picture, Drake is the person on the right in the stovepipe hat.)
Theology and Technology
Two Triangles emphasizes the moral component to do with the abolition of slavery. This is something that is needed now with regard to climate change. One of the consequences of climate change is that the people who suffer the most from its impact are the people who are least responsible for it happening. And it is not just people. The massive fires that have recently occurred in Australia led not just to people losing their lives and their homes, it also resulted in an enormous loss of wild life.
But moral and theological pushback by itself is insufficient. We need to find new sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. This is turning out to be very difficult. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of people of faith not only to make moral arguments, but also to understand how technology can help us find responses to the predicaments in which we find ourselves.