This week we celebrate two saintly Archbishops of Canterbury, two very different men who both lived in difficult times. Today’s feast is for Alphege, a Saxon martyr who ‘smelt of his sheep’. The day after tomorrow is Anselm, a great teacher.
It was the reign of Ethelred the Unready when Alphege became Archbishop. He had retired from his monastery to become a hermit, but was needed elsewhere, in particular to seek an honourable peace with the marauding Danes. Canterbury and London are both close to the North Sea, the great open highway for the Danish Longboats, both cities vulnerable to attack.
Alphege reached a peace agreement with some of the invaders, who converted to Christianity, but another group took him captive and led him off to Greenwich, now a suburb of London on the River Thames. Here they held him to ransom, demanding money from the people of Canterbury.
The good shepherd of his sheep refused to let them pay. Stalemate ensued for some months, until his captors had a mighty ox roast with plenty of stolen alcohol, and decided to get some fun out of him if they couldn’t get any money. They stoned and beat him to death using the bones of the beasts they were feasting upon.
A short while after his martyrdom on this day in 1012, Saint Alphege’s remains were transferred to Canterbury Cathedral, near those of his predecessor, Saint Dunstan. Thomas Becket would be buried nearby.
From the 1860s onwards, as missionaries arrived in the interior of Africa south of the Sahara, it became clear that the work of William Wilberforce and the abolitionists earlier in the 19th century was far from complete. Although the slave trade across the Atlantic had been ended in 1807, and slavery itself abolished in the British Empire in 1833, the missionaries found that people were still being kidnapped and sold to Arab slavers across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. The European powers, while busily carving up Africa between them, had agreed in Berlin in 1885 to work for the suppression of slavery in Africa. It was time to take them at their word.
Saint Daniel Comboni, founder of the Verona Fathers had died in 1881. His life’s work had been in Sudan, where an ancient slave trade was still being savagely practised by the Arab colonisers. He saw that ‘In Central Africa, slavery remains as flourishing as ever, but the cries of the victims are never heard far away in Europe. The desolation continues and will continue for a long time.’ It was reports like his, as well as those sent to Cardinal Lavigerie by pioneer Missionaries of Africa like Fr Simeon Lourdel and Brother Amans, that made sure their cries were heard, and inspired Pope Leo XIII and Lavigerie to initiate a new campaign.
Despite the many difficulties they faced in establishing their mission in Uganda, Lourdel and Amans immediately set about ransoming slaves and providing safe houses for them. Lavigerie had alread been doing the same thing further north. Buying slaves would never be a long-term solution though, since the slaver had his profit without the trouble of transporting his captives to the coast, and could still pick up a few more unfortunates once out of the missionaries’ sight.
Fr Lourdel became influential at the royal court of Buganda, the main kingdom of what would shortly become the British protectorate of Uganda. He and the other missionaries, including the Protestant Alexander Mackay, would successfully lobby King Mwanga to have the abolition of slavery and freedom of religion enshrined in the treaty he signed with Great Britain in 1890.