|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Remembering Slavery Victims, Deputy Secretary-General Encourages Celebration
of Power of Human Spirit to Overcome Injustice, Harshest Exploitation
Following are Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro’s remarks at the “Living Legacy” concert, in New York, 25 March:
We are here to pay tribute to the millions of victims of the transatlantic slave trade, and to celebrate the remarkable legacy they have left despite the abhorrent treatment to which they were subjected. Slavery reduced human beings with culture and history to lives of legally sanctioned brutality and commodification.
This International Day of Remembrance is part of our collective effort to regain at least some of what was lost. Continuing scholarship, including through the efforts of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), has documented, not only the terror of slavery, but also the contributions of enslaved Africans.
That is why the theme of this year’s Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is “the living legacy of 30 million untold stories”. This observance honours the best in all of us and warns of the worst. It is an opportunity to acknowledge the horrific tragedy that for centuries remained buried, and to assign it its proper place in the human conscience. It is an occasion to praise the endurance and courage of the victims, and to accord them the dignity that was so absent in their lives. It is a moment at which we credit their contributions to civilization; to agriculture, science and architecture; to religion, culture and politics; to the culinary arts and so much else. And it is a day to commend the bravery and conviction of all those who fought against slavery. Let us remember that enslaved Africans themselves were in the vanguard of the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself.
Allow me to offer a personal reminiscence. Growing up in [the United Republic of] Tanzania, we knew about slavery. It was part of the curriculum at school. As an adult, I visited two slave markets: at Bagamoyo and Zanzibar. The very word “Bagamoyo” speaks to the hardships of the slave experience. It comes from a word meaning “lay down your heart”.
After a long trip from the countryside to the coast, working all the way, with little food or drink, one can see why people might want to just “lay down your heart” and wait to be transported. At the market, they were collected and left in an underground trench. Once a person reached this small dark alley, there was no going back. It was time to go. It was time to “lay down your heart”.
At the Zanzibar slave market, people were crammed into a small, dark, underground area with no window and no air. Of course, today, now that the site has been made fit for tourists, there is air. Families were separated. People were tied with iron shackles and led to the ships through a very narrow path. Those who were too big to fit were made to starve so they would.
As you know, the trips across the ocean were long. Those who died en route were simply thrown into the ocean. I had learned about this. But when you are there, you really feel it. It was shocking to think of one human being doing this to another. It is not just the staggering numbers of victims or the global span of countries that make the transatlantic slave trade unique and worthy of our continued attention. It is also the heritage of racist and discriminatory attitudes that obliges further study.
Indeed, those attitudes remain too widespread, too entrenched in too many places, thereby creating an environment conducive to modern forms of slavery such as debt bondage and domestic servitude, forced or early marriages, the sale of wives and trafficking in children. Today’s observance is meant to mobilize the world for that struggle as well, and to applaud those who are already helping us to eradicate these and other slavery-like practices.
Let me also note that 2011 is the International Year for People of African Descent, and that efforts are also under way to establish a permanent memorial on slavery here at United Nations Headquarters. As we continue the vital work of education and remembrance, let us celebrate the sheer power of the human spirit to overcome injustice and the harshest exploitation.
* *** *