Remembering past victims of slavery is crucial, but it’s not over yet
The 23 August is the UN International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery – a day to remember the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Estimates vary but around 11 million people were taken from Africa and shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. Estimates vary partly because of the length of time that this practice continued and gaps in documentation – records of sales! More ominously estimates have to be made for those many people who died in the living hell that were slave ships, only to be thrown into the ocean. Others choosing drowning over slavery, or even dropped into the sea by the crew when they were ill or generally not considered to be worth the expense of shipping. It is believed that some 1.5 million Africans died on these ships.
For those reaching the Americas a brutal life of servitude lay ahead. In communities which did not recognise them as human beings but merely as property, for their owners to dispose of as they saw fit. Those trying to escape or considered to be showing dissent could expect a violent response of the utmost depravity. For example, it was recorded that in the USA:
“Slave masters even beat pregnant women, devising ways to do it without harming the baby. Slave masters would dig a hole big enough for the woman’s stomach to lie in and proceed with the lashings.”
Concern for the unborn child arising from it ultimately having cash value.
The 23 August is both a day on which to reflect on this terrible crime against humanity but also on the so called abolition of the slave trade. In the UK the figure of William Wilberforce immediately comes to mind. The narrative tends to be, he is the man who persuaded parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1807 and the British navy imposed this on other nations.
This Anglo-centric view of history is however wrong in so many ways. Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that the UK was a major slaving nation, with some 3 million slaves being transported to the Americas in British ships. Important as he was, Wilberforce only headed a wider abolitionist movement. In reality Britain had to negotiate treaties with other European countries in order to spread its own abolition of the slave trade to these countries ships.
It should also be remembered that the abolition of Britain’s slave trade was not the same as the abolition of slavery in its territories. It was not till 1833 that an Act of Parliament did that, but even then the 800,000 Africans who were ‘freed’, were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. By contrast the Act provided for compensation to the former slave owners for the loss of their property! In today’s money a staggering £16-£17 billion was paid out.
The Anglo-centric view of the abolition of slavery does not even adequately explain its abolition in British territories either. The 23 August has not been randomly chosen for this remembrance. Nor has it got anything to do with the Abolitionist movement in Britain.
During the night of August 22 to August 23, 1791, on the colony of Saint Domingue (now known as Haiti), a slave uprising began. There was nothing unusual about that. Many slave uprisings had occurred before then, in many parts of the Americas and many would occur afterwards. What was different about this uprising was its total success. Under the inspired generalship of Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines the rebels defeated French army after French army sent against them, finally smashing French power on the island forever in the Battle of Vertières in 1803.
Far from being passive victims of slavery, crushed by their master’s brutality, slaves across the Americas showed a willingness to fight for their freedom over and over again. Reacting to such revolts became an increasingly costly business both for states and the slave owners themselves.
By all means let us pay tribute to the likes of William Wilberforce but let us not forget people like Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines and all of those who were willing to pay in their blood for freedom.
Despite their victories however, we’re far from ridding the world of slavery for good. In 2012 the ILO estimated that globally 20.9 million people live today in a forced labour situation – Modern Day Slavery. The 23 August should not just be a day to look back at the struggle to abolish slavery. It also needs to be a day on which we look forward and ask how we can continue the struggle, until everyone is free.