According to a report by an independent oversight committee released in March 2024, the Church of England should pay £1bn in reparations – 10 times the previously set amount – to the descendants of slavery.

The report was the start of a “multi-generational response to the appalling evil of transatlantic chattel enslavement”, said Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the spiritual leader of the global Anglican Communion of about 85 million Christians.

His words summon the shocking spectacle of the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Church of England owned vast plantations in the Caribbean, chiefly in Barbados, employing thousands of slaves. Slavery was thought to be entirely consistent with the Christian message of bringing the Gospel to the “savages”. The Christian leaders even branded “their” slaves “SPG” – the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

“Cursed be Canaan”

The Anglican Church is not alone: all mainstream Christian denominations were deeply involved in the slave trade, as were the main branches of Islam.

How could this be possible? How had religions supposedly dedicated to propagating the word of a compassionate and loving God become so intricately involved in this “appalling evil”? The answer is rooted in a grotesque misuse of the very words of the Bible. Of the many ways that Christians have invoked the Bible to justify their actions, none has exceeded in cruelty and wilful ignorance their appropriation of the “Curse of Ham” to justify slavery.

Ham (no relation!) was the youngest son of the Biblical patriarch Noah. When Ham saw his father drunk and naked, Noah felt so humiliated that he put a curse on Ham’s son, Canaan, condemning his descendants to perpetual slavery. Here is the moment, as told in Genesis 9:24-25 (New King James Version):

“So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son [Ham] had done unto him. Then he said: ‘Cursed be Canaan. A servant of servants he shall be to his brethren’.”

The making of a ‘slave race’

Since the 15th century, religious leaders have cited the passage as the justification for the enslavement of all African people. For almost 500 years, priests taught their flocks that a Hebrew prophet had condemned millions of Africans to slavery because they were descended from Ham’s son Canaan. The curse of Ham thus formed the core religious justification for the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The curse of Ham entered Islamic thought in the 7th century, as a result of the influence of Christianity, and medieval Muslim scholars drew on Noah’s curse in their worK, as the historian David M. Goldenberg has shown. The Koran, however, makes no mention of the curse and Muhummad’s Farewell Address rejects the superiority of white people over black people.

According to this reading of Genesis, God had not only mandated slavery, he had also predestined black people as a “slave race”. In fact, some Christian leaders argued that it was in the Africans’ interests to be enslaved, because their captivity would hasten their conversion, purifying and redeeming their souls in readiness for Judgement Day.

By manacling and herding millions of Africans onto ships bound for the colonies, slave traders and their enabling church leaders and governments had persuaded themselves that they were guiding the “Negroes” out of darkness and into salvation.

The historian Katie Cannon described the process another way:

“Drunk with power and driven by grand delusions, government officials and officers of slave-trading companies… succumbed to the lies and manipulations that their soul salvation depended on the ceaseless replication of systemic violence.”

The justification for African slavery in America

The first written use of the Curse of Ham to justify slavery appeared in the 15th century, when Gomes Eanes de Zurara, a Portuguese historian, wrote that the enchained Africans he’d seen were in such a wretched state “because of the curse which, after the Deluge, Noah laid upon [Ham]… that his race should be subject to all the other races of the world”.

In 1627, an English author and defender of the slave trade wrote:

“This curse to be a servant was laid, first upon a disobedient sonne Cham [Ham], and wee see to this day, that the Moores, Chams posteritie, are sold like slaves yet.”

In the American colonies the Curse of Ham served as the ideological justification for African slavery. The Puritan colonisers of the New World bought slaves in large numbers to turn Providence, Rhode Island, into a Christian “city on a hill”. All were deemed the progeny of Canaan.

The moral obscenity of slavery was the root cause of the American Civil War (1861–1865). Both sides enrolled God’s authority in their cause. In the south this involved a literal reading of the Curse of Ham. Sulphuric southern preachers thundered that Noah’s condemnation of Canaan had condemned all Africans to slavery. An “almost universal opinion in the Christian world” held that “the sufferings and the slavery of the Negro race were the consequence of the curse of Noah”, asserted Alexander Crummell (1819–1898), an African-American minister and Cambridge-educated academic, in 1862.

Benjamin M. Palmer (1818–1902), pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans and Mississippi’s pre-eminent clergyman during the Civil War, raged in sermon after sermon that Noah’s curse was a prophetic blueprint of the destinies of the “white”, “black” and “red” races. While the white descendants of Shem and Japhet (Noah’s elder sons) would flourish and succeed, Palmer asserted that “[u]pon Ham was pronounced the doom of perpetual servitude…”.

An important reference in the Civil War

In the opening months of the Civil War, bigotry and rank superstition blanketed the south with a Biblical defence of slavery. Southern Catholics also eagerly cited the curse as a validation of slavery. On 21 August 1861, Bishop Augustus Marie Martin of Natchitoches, Louisiana, declared in a pastoral letter, “On the occasion of the war of southern independence”, that slavery was “the manifest will of God”, and that all Catholics must snatch “from the barbarity of their ferocious customs thousands of children of the race of Canaan”, the accursed progeny of Ham.

All this was Biblical balm to slave traders and owners who feared for the salvation of their souls. The religious justification of slavery erased those concerns.

Setting aside the theologians’ misuse of Genesis, even on its own terms the Curse of Ham made a vague and unpersuasive case for slavery. Nowhere in Genesis is there a curse on Africans or black-skinned people.

If slave traders needed an explicit Biblical endorsement of slavery, they might have turned to the New Testament, where we find Saint Peter telling slaves to “be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh”. Or Saint Paul, who urged slaves to “be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling”.

Come abolitionism

Abolitionists were not silent in the face of this grotesque rendering of Christendom’s most sacred text. In a 5 July 1852 speech, Frederick Douglass, the great anti-slavery activist and politician who had himself escaped his “owner”, delivered this response to those who peddled the Curse of Ham from their pulpits:

“[The] church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters… They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God…”

And all based on a misinterpretation of Genesis 9:24-25 by the pro-slavery “Divines”, who thus transformed their religion into an engine of tyranny and barbarous cruelty. It was a sham and a lie, and anything but what Christianity was held to stand for.

Original Article – The ‘Curse of Ham’: how people of faith used a story in Genesis to justify slavery (