St Patrick and Slavery

As an Englishwoman, I have to be careful what I say about St Patrick. No matter that he was a Romano-British missionary, kidnapped as a young man and sold into slavery in Ireland, from which he eventually escaped, only to return later as a priest and preacher; the Irish claim him as their own. It is another case of the captive taking the captor captive. So, two thoughts this morning, if I can dignify them as such.

How many people celebrating St Patrick today with ‘the wearing of the green’ and other forms of jollification will give a thought to the real St Patrick, the man who burned with zeal for the souls of those who enslaved him? How many will read his Testament, or think of the long hours of prayer, the endless journeys, the ready acceptance of his position as eternal outsider in Irish society, refusing gifts from local kings and chieftains and thereby placing himself outside the usual network of kinship and patronage? How many will think what it was like to confront power armed with nothing more than a conviction of truth and a desire to share the blessings of the gospel?

Not only have we tended to lose sight of the real St Patrick in the celebration of all that has become associated with his name — love of country, pride in national culture, a sense of belonging — we have also tended to gloss over those six years he spent as a slave. He was allegedly 16 when he was torn away from all that was familiar. We can only speculate what effect slavery had on him at that age, but we do not have to speculate about the effect slavery has on millions of people in the world today. The shocking truth is that even here in Britain there are men and women who are enslaved. Slavery is not a problem afar off; it is close at hand; we just do not give it its proper name.

Why are we so mealy-mouthed when it comes to slavery? Why do we prefer to close our eyes to the degradation it imposes? We may not think of the illegal immigrant we employ at less than the going-rate as a slave, but he/she is not a truly free person any more than the one who works as a gang-labourer in British fields or as a bonded worker in a far-away factory. Even if we are not ourselves involved in such dealings, we are complicit if we enjoy the fruits of slave labour; and that’s a thought should give us pause.

In 1102 the Church in England formally condemned the slave-trade after centuries of  individual opposition to it, but it was not until 1706 that Sir John Holt, the Lord Chief Justice, ruled that a slave setting foot on England became free; not until 1807 that the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire; and not until 1834 that slavery itself was abolished (though territories controlled by the East India Company and Ceylon had to wait until 1843). It is a sad history, but maybe one of the best ways of celebrating St Patrick today would be to consider some of the things that gave his life shape and purpose. Prayer and service of others naturally top the list, especially during Lent, but I think we should also give serious consideration to the subject of slavery and doing what we can to eliminate it wherever it exists. That beats ‘the wearing of the green’ any day, for freedom is everyone’s birthright.