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Resistance exhibition: The role of the Church of England and the Bishop of London in colonial expansion

Community archaeologist Alexis shares his research on how in the 17th and 18th centuries the Bishops of London played a crucial early role in England’s colonial expansion.

The Church of England was deeply implicated in Britain’s colonial expansion and the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans. Successive Bishops of London were responsible for the Church in the British colonies around the world.

Alexis Haslam provided research for the project team to use in the current exhibition, The Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery: resistance.

In this blog, Alexis writes about the early role of the Church of England and the Bishop of London in establishing Church structures overseas.  Meet characters such as Bishop Juxon, whose family was involved in the early sugar trade, and learn about the establishment of forts and factories on the west coast of Africa as part of the establishment of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved people.

Strange New World

written by Alexis Haslam, Fulham Palace community archaeologist, October 2023

As part of our ongoing research into the Bishops of London and the colonies, I was invited to investigate the establishment of Anglican churches and chapels in the newly occupied territories up to and including the tenure of Bishop Henry Compton (1675-1713). An excellent article entitled ‘A case without parallel: The Bishops of London and the Anglican Church Overseas, 1660-1678’ written by Geoffrey Yeo has proved invaluable in helping me address the role of the Bishops of London in the colonies.

The research I have undertaken does not represent a complete picture of the presence of the Church of England abroad, but hopefully, I have shed some light on the Church’s involvement with colonial expansion.

Fulham Palace’s main interest in the subject is of course due to the fact that it was the Bishop of London who was placed in charge of the church abroad. From at least 1660 the Church of England clergy overseas were directly responsible to the Bishop of London. The reasons for this may have been due to the ever-expanding mercantile interests of the City of London. Wherever these merchant companies roamed they established trade links, and being practicing Christians they took chaplains with them. With the mercantile companies falling within the London diocese they naturally came under the Bishop of London’s jurisdiction. The Bishop thus became not only responsible for the Diocese of London but also by default the effective foreign secretary for the Church of England.

So it is clear that the rapidly developing colonial expansion, whilst driven by mercantile interests, was something that the Church of England had to become involved with. If the Anglican faith was to flourish, develop and take root in the new world it would have to do so against the threat of religious dissenters, the financial self-interest of traders and plantation owners and significant distance, which at times made effective governance almost impossible. Whilst some bishops were keen to embrace this global challenge, others found the situation insurmountable and were content to focus their attention on more resolvable issues closer to home.

Upon the establishment of Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 followed by its incorporation as a Royal Colony in 1624, it was made clear to the new settlers that Anglican Christianity was to be the sole lawful religion within this region. The first governor of the colony was informed that he was to build churches and that all sermons should follow the constitutions of the Church of England.  But even by the 1740’s no Anglican bishop had visited the North American colonies and as a result no church buildings had been consecrated.  A failure to establish resident bishoprics abroad continued until the late 18th century, in sharp contrast to the Catholic Church which had already established a Bishop in French Canada.

As far back as the 1630’s Archbishop Laud and Bishop of London, William Juxon were becoming increasingly concerned that dissenters could readily establish themselves in these new lands and would be free to practice and preach as they pleased. A commission was therefore established in 1634 with the power to regulate the colonies and control colonists both leaving for and returning from America. This was followed in 1637 by proclamations preventing the transportation of passengers to New England without a licence. A subsequent Royal Proclamation forbade emigrants from sailing to the colonies without testimony of religious conformity to the Anglican Church. This was also applied to Bermuda in 1638.

Prior to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the situation was therefore as follows: Colonies had been established in North America in Virginia, Maryland, New Hampshire, Massachusetts (as the Plymouth colony), Connecticut, Rhode Island and Carolina (later divided into North and South). Newfoundland had been established in 1610 whilst settlement began in Bermuda in 1612. Settlement also started as early as 1612 in Antigua and Barbados in 1627 whilst there was also an Anglican presence in Syria at Aleppo and in modern-day Turkey at Constantinople (Istanbul) and Smyrna (now Izmir). In Europe Church of England, services were also being conducted in the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and in Hamburg, which at the time was a free city-state. Farther afield The East India Company had set up a trading post in Indonesia at Bantam (Bantem) in 1603 to encourage the spice trade.

Perhaps the most significant picture of the state of the Church of England in the colonies is provided by the settlement at Surat in India. Here Sir Thomas Roe had founded a factory (merchant warehouse) for the East India Company in 1614, and from the outset a chaplain was appointed. Duties included not only conducting religious services in Surat but also in neighbouring factories at Malabar, Carwar and Calicut. The first recorded chaplain, Reverend William Leske, served between 1614 and 1617 but was finally relieved of his duties for unworthy conduct. Another chaplain was later caught playing dice. The Anglican Church therefore had a major problem in that the unvetted appointment of religious practitioners by mercantile companies could have quite serious consequences. Individuals more interested in the opportunity to increase their wealth within the new colonies were unlikely to take their religious roles particularly seriously. Land was first granted in Madras (Chennai) in 1640, shortly before Britain descended into Civil War.

The Civil War effectively ended the Bishop of London’s involvement with the colonies following the abolition of the positions of Archbishops and Bishops in 1646. They would not return to power until the Restoration in 1660. The subsequent Bishops, Sheldon (1660-1663) and Henchman (1663-1675) were primarily occupied with re-establishing the Bishopric and the colonies thus remained a distant issue. The Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1656 did however mean that Anglican services were now being conducted in Lisbon and Oporto. Meanwhile, new colonies had also been established during the Interregnum such as Anguilla in 1650 and Jamaica in 1655. Fort St George was built in Madras in 1644 and the first chaplain was installed here in 1647.

The colonial situation was a poor one to re-inherit for the bishops upon their reinstatement in 1660. None of the ministers present in Jamaica were ordained, whilst many of the ministers in Barbados were serving without orders. Whilst both Sheldon and Henchman did send ordained ministers to the colonies it was clear that their priorities lay at home rather than abroad. It was also in 1661 that Bombay (Mumbai) was gained from Portugal as a result of Charles II’s marriage to Katherine of Breganza. In 1668 it was handed over to the East India Company for the sum of £10 a year.

This brings us to the final bishop in the period covered by this article, Henry Compton, who served as Bishop of London between 1675 and 1713. It was Compton who tried to gain a grip on the colonies and the chaplains who were preaching in them by determining that no practising Anglican chaplain should be doing so without his licence. Whilst Tangier in Morocco had been occupied since 1661-2 and contained a chapel, it was not until 1676 that it was made clear that the Bishop of London was in charge of the church there. Compton himself was rather keen on Tangier as he had spent some time there whilst in the army, but the colony was abandoned in 1684. Compton was soon issuing licences to clergy he considered worthy to serve abroad, with destinations including Tangier, the American colonies, the West Indies, Hamburg, Lisbon and Oporto. He also issued licences to schoolmasters, chaplains and preachers in the armed forces overseas and brought both the Admiralty and East India Company in line too, with the first East India Company chaplain (John Evans) receiving Compton’s license in 1677. Jamaica ceded to his control in 1678 and Compton was even able to gain an Anglican presence in the new Quaker colony in Pennsylvania which was established in 1681.

Following the Restoration the colonies continued to expand. New York, New Jersey and Delaware became proprietary colonies in 1664 followed by Pennsylvania in 1681. A Royal Charter was provided to the Hudson Bay Company for Rupert’s Land in modern-day Canada in 1670. In the West Indies and Central America Montserrat was taken in 1667, the Cayman Islands were gained as a result of the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, and the Virgin Islands were captured from the Dutch in 1672. In Europe, there was a further Anglican presence in Russia at Moscow, Arkhangelsk, St Petersburg and Kronstadt, whilst in Indonesia the East India Company established a presence in Bencoolen (Bengkulu City) in 1685. At the same time, Compton was falling out with James II to such an extent that he was removed from service in 1686 and quite literally sent on gardening leave in Fulham. With the arrival of William and Mary he was restored to the position in 1688 but in the meantime, the Bishops of Durham, Peterborough and Rochester, who had taken over colonial responsibilities, had not really applied themselves to the role.

Of all of the colonial expansion during the second half of the 17th century the most unpleasant concerned the establishment of forts and factories on the west coast of Africa. These bases were primarily used for the transportation of enslaved people to plantations in the West Indies and North America. British forts included Ouidah / Whydah in Benin which was established in 1650, James Island / Fort James (now Kunta Kinteh Island) in the Gambia which was seized from the Dutch in 1661, Cape Coast Castle in Ghana which was captured from the Swedish Africa Company in 1664 andFort James in Accra, Ghana, which was built by the Royal African Company in 1673. A trading post was set up in Beyin, Ghana in 1681 and later became Fort Appollonia, Fort Dixcove (or Fort Metal Cross) was established in Ghana in 1692, Fort Winneba in Ghana which was built by the Royal African Company in 1694 and Fort Komenda in Ghana was built between 1695 and 1698 around an earlier trading post built in 1633. All of these forts had chaplains and chapels associated with them and therefore a Church of England presence.

By the time of Compton’s death, Nova Scotia had also become a British Colony as part of the Treaty of Utrecht. This followed the War of the Spanish Succession and whilst France had been forced to hand over this part of Canada, it had also lost the Asiento de Negros. The Asiento was a monopoly contract granted by the Spanish government to supply enslaved people to its colonies in the Americas. The contract was instead awarded to Britain which at the time was viewed as a major coup for the British delegation which included John Robinson, Bishop of Bristol and, soon to become Bishop of London following Compton’s death.

The Church of England’s involvement in the colonies was thus present from the very beginning of colonial and mercantile expansion, be that in the form of company chaplains or in the Church providing direct instructions to early settlers and companies in how they were to establish their religious orders. Whilst the 17th century was a particularly turbulent period, it is clear that certain bishops took the spread of the Church seriously and did their best to establish conformist clergies in the new lands whilst the threat of dissent hung heavy in the air. Distance was always an issue, and the Civil War resulted in a nearly two-decade-long break from the colonies and the influence of both the government and the bishops. When the bishops returned much of their attention was focused on the many issues that had developed at home. Bishop Compton perhaps made the greatest effort to gain control over the church in the new world, and his issuing of licences meant that he was dedicated to appointing only those he considered worthy of the task. Colonial expansion would of course continue over the next two centuries, but by the time Compton died in 1713, Britain’s influence and the presence of the Church of England spread from Canada all the way to the hot and humid climate of Indonesia.

Alexis Haslam, Fulham Palace’s community archaeologist

Interested in learning more?

Explore the latest online exhibition The Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery: resistance at Fulham Palace.