“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes through decades and centuries before you.” John Lewis, July 2020.
This week marked the commemoration of the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. This day, 23 August, was intended to remind us of the tragedy of the slave trade.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), this remembrance “should offer an opportunity for collective consideration of the historic causes, the methods and the consequences of this tragedy, and for an analysis of the interactions to which it has given rise between Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean.”
It was troubling to note recently in our local papers the glossing over of the chattel slavery experience in the West Indies and its conflation with the Holocaust.
While it is proper to note that slavery has long existed and has touched many countries, it is not factual to advocate that the form of slavery in the Caribbean was the same as elsewhere.
Slavery was more common in Eastern and Southern Europe than Northern Europe, but it was dying by the late 15th Century. Europe also practised indentureship and serfdom—the former had a defined and limited period, and, in the latter case, a portion of land was the mode of transaction.
West and Central African elites and royalty from slaveholding societies relied on their kinship group, ranging from family members to enslaved people, to secure and maintain their wealth and status.
An enslaved person in this area had a greater chance of becoming free within a lifetime. Racial categories did not determine legal rights, and enslaved people were not always permanently separated from their family network.
In the Caribbean, chattel slavery—one person has total ownership of another—was practised. You had no more value than a hoe or a shovel. You were entirely dehumanised.
You had no rights to life, nor did your children or their children’s children. The enslaver had no compelling reason to consider your feelings or rights. You were not even labour, but you were property with no way of escape.
Interestingly, this legal posture was absent at the arrival of the first Africans, who were often treated as indentured labourers. But by the middle of the 17th Century, the notion of chattel slavery was entrenched as a supporting feature of the plantation economy.
To equate this horror with the terror of the Holocaust is to shrug off the sustained maltreatment of the Africans who were taken from their homes for economic reasons.
The sheer number of persons brought across the Atlantic dwarfs the number of Jews murdered at the time of World War 2. The 12 million persons quoted in the local papers subsumed six million Jews and five million other marginalised people.
This horrific action took place over twelve years (1933 – 1945). The estimates of affected Africans range from 12 to 20 million.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the most significant long-distance forced movement of people in recorded history. We should not be seduced into believing the Middle Passage was a standalone trip. To do so is to ignore the role that Northern Europe played.
The slave trade was financed and encouraged by the Northern Europeans as a means of gaining profit.
Thomas Ruffin (1829) said it best: “With slavery… the end is the profit of the master, his security and the public safety; the subject, one doomed in his own person, and his posterity, to live without knowledge and without the capacity to make anything his own, to toil that another may reap his fruits.
“[…] The power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect.”
This perspective informed the Africans of their place from the time they were put on the ships to cross the Middle Passage. It is estimated that nearly one in five Africans did not survive the brutal trip.
The ships were designed to maximise the cargo capacity of persons brought to the colonies. The enslaved persons were chained and packed into the vessel holds and endured months of extreme temperatures, harsh weather and filthy living conditions. While the crew chained the men for long periods, they sexually assaulted the women.
The saddest part of this story is concocting moral fiction to validate enslaving others. The goodly Christians reached back into the Old Testament to the story of Ham and connected the curse to the black man!
Racism was literally invented to support this profit machine. Racial pseudoscience, which put the black man at the bottom of the pyramid, became popular.
This school of thought advocated that genetic and biological differences made whites superior to blacks. In so doing, an oppressive systematic method of dehumanising others was constructed. The black skin became a property value.
“Africans were, in effect, without soul, spirit, emotions, desires, and rights.”
Let us not forget that this awfulness occurred just over two hundred years ago, three generations ago. Let us not contribute to the erasure of the contributions of the enslaved people who were taken forcibly from their birthplaces to create wealth for those they never saw.
The truth does not change—we should put aside our willingness to profit from exploiting others. More anon.