Sunday, 25 March 2007
200th Anniversary of the British Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
Today marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by Britain. Much has been written and will be written about the slave trade and slavery but I don’t think justice will ever be done to the topic until some people face the truth and are completely honest with themselves. Just as many have produced excellent literature on the subject, many have tried to reduce it to a certain epoch in history and as something to be forgotten. Of course it is easy for the descendants of the perpetrators of this crime against humanity to say this, for after all their riches have been made, their societies have industrialised on the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves and they do not continue to suffer from the negative legacy of slavery. Not to mention, the countries which benefited from slavery are fundamentally opposed to any mention of reparations. However, while these people are despicable, even worse are the revisionists, pseudo-intellectuals and apologists (many driven by right wing evangelical zeal) who attempt to shift the blame onto Africans, arguing that it was Africans who sold their people into slavery and then seek to paint a picture of humanitarian European acts to abolish the slave trade and slavery. I have nothing but contempt for people like this, especially when they are black.
However the truth is the truth and despite their endeavours to propagate lies and mislead people, these are some facts about the slave trade, slavery and colonialism:
The trans-Atlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans by Europeans are without doubt one of the worst cases of barbarism, cruelty and injustice in history and is a crime against humanity.
Europe and America industrialised and enriched themselves on the blood, sweat and tears of African slaves. Slavery and colonialism fuelled their economic growth for over three centuries and the exploitation, rape and pillage of the people and raw materials of the colonised lands served to underdevelop Africa.
Slavery has always been a part of human history and there was slavery in Africa before European slavery. However European slavery was a totally different type and there is no comparison between slavery in Africa and the Middle Passage, the total reduction of a human being to mere chattel and the sheer brutality and magnitude of the European system. Revisionists also like to point out somewhat triumphantly that Africans sold their brothers/sisters into slavery. This may have been true but it is nothing like the picture they paint. Slavery was a part of African customs but was not an integral aspect of the local economies and one of the first things my history books noted was that Europeans raided villages to obtain slaves. Obviously as time went on and the corrupt ways of the Europeans began to influence the local populations, slaves were brought to them, but as it stood, the European economies’ thirst for slave labour was fuelled by slave raids.
The slave trade and slavery were abolished mainly for economic reasons as brilliantly argued by Eric Williams in his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery. Slavery as a form of labour had become unviable and hence it was abolished. The role of abolitionists like Wilberforce and Clarkson was important but has been rendered undue prominence to convey the impression that the Europeans in some great moralistic and ethical wave granted freedom to the enslaved. The fact is that if it had not become an economic liability to maintain the status quo, the British government would have never changed the system.
The role slave rebellions played in the end of slavery has also been largely ignored. The planters lived with the constant fear of slaves rebelling and of another Haiti. In the end it was better to agree to free the slaves than to live with this fear or worse to experience a rebellion.
Opposition to slavery did not necessarily mean being a Wilberforce. All those who died during the middle passage and all those who rebelled and resisted either passively or actively played a significant role which cannot be marginalised. There were also quite a few blacks who were involved in the “intellectual” opposition to slavery in the US and UK, such as Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglas and Olaudah Equiano (incidentally Equaino was first brought as a slave to Barbados). They wrote books, pamphlets, memoirs and give lectures but as is the norm, Wilberforce, Clarkson et al are afforded all the praise and attention.
Race and economics were the two primary reasons for European slavery and are so intertwined that they cannot be treated separately or one given prominence over the other. A desire for empire and riches was conveniently married to the belief in superiority and the quest to civilise the dark world. Greed, lust for power, notions of racial superiority, religious fervour and pure evil all merged and reinforced each other to enable and justify the oppression of fellow human beings.
Compensation and reparations, words that many regard as taboo, are very real issues which must be addressed. It is not only logical that Europe pays reparations but also moral: the wealth of Europe and America was gained on the basis of the exploitation, oppression, blood, sweat and tears of African slaves and on the rape and pillage of the raw materials of Africa and the developing world; there must be some form of compensation, plain and simple. The notion of reparations is not unique or new. Slaveholders in the US and Caribbean were compensated for the “loss” of their slaves; Haiti had to pay reparations to France for having the audacity to win independence; the Germans paid reparations after World War One and paid between 60 and 100 billion US dollars to Israel and the Jews for the Holocaust; banks and insurance companies and other institutions which benefited financially from the Holocaust are still to this day paying reparations. However, when black people speak about reparations, they are told that it is not possible after such a long period of time has passed, that they should move on, stop dwelling in the past etc. When one speaks of reparations, one does not necessarily mean cash payments to countries or individuals. For me, compensation is about international policies to reverse the negative effects of racism and slavery, partnerships between developed and developing countries to promote social and economic growth, investment to foster the human resources of developing countries, fair international trading rules, a transparent and democratic international economic and financial system and international relations acted out on the basis of morality and decency rather than economic greed and quest for power. I guess this is probably asking too much!
One of the lasting legacies of slavery and colonialism is the mental enslavement that still continues to negatively affect the way people think and act. The absolute dehumanisation of the slaves and the systematic destruction of religion, language and culture, creation of stereotypes and a hierarchy based on race and the denial of African history would serve to and continues to define Africa, the African diaspora and relations between and within races. The fact that concepts such as “good hair” and “pretty brown skin” still prevail and that people can still adamantly state that if not for slavery and colonialism they would still be “swinging around in trees in Africa” or “suffering in Africa” is an indication that the psychological shackles on some people need to be removed.
Despite all of this, the endurance of African slaves and their descendants in the face of everything they faced is amazing. Living in a world where they were at one point not even regarded as complete human beings, the people of the Diaspora have managed to create pluralistic societies (in the case of the Caribbean) and have contributed in every way to the world, from music, cuisine and culture to science, literature, politics and sports.
Alrighty, I began with the intention of just making a few points and instead have ended up with much more. I can’t help it! I like to write and if I get started about something I am interested in, it is difficult to stop.