Imagine being torn from your weeping family as a result of ethnic warfare… forced to walk hundreds of miles until you reach the sea on the West African side of the Atlantic Ocean. You are stripped of your name, your identity, of every right a human being deserves. The European ship that you are forced to board, is headed across the Atlantic to Caribbean and South American plantations, a voyage through the awful “middle passage”. A multitude of black people of every description chained together, with scarcely room to turn, traveling for months, seasick, surrounded by the filth of vomit-filled tubs, into which children often fell, some suffocating. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying renders the whole scene of horror almost inconceivable. Death and disease are all around and only one in six will survive this journey and the brutal, backbreaking labour that follows…
The transatlantic slave trade persisted for four centuries.
Slavery and the slave trade are among the worst violations of human rights in the history of humanity. The transatlantic slave trade was unique within the entire history of slavery due to its duration (four hundred years), its scale (approximately 17 million people excluding those who died during transport) and the legitimization accorded to it, including under laws of the time.
The transatlantic slave trade constituted the biggest deportation in history and is often referred to as the first example of globalization. Lasting from the 16th century to the 19th century, it involved several regions and continents: Africa, North and South America, Europe and the Caribbean and resulted in the sale and exploitation of millions of Africans by Europeans.
The “triangular trade”
Ships carrying trading goods such as guns, alcohol and horses left European ports headed for West Africa, where they would exchange these items for enslaved Africans. The slaves had either been captured in wars or were victims of a thriving local business in the capture and sale of slaves.
Ships heavily overloaded with African slaves would then set out across the “Middle Passage” to American and European colonies in the Caribbean and South America. To transport the maximum number of slaves the ship’s steerage was often removed. It is estimated that one in six slaves died on this journey due to the cramped, unsanitary conditions. On ships where disease or rebellion occurred, this toll could rise to more than one in two.
After the surviving slaves were sold, the ships returned to Europe carrying goods produced with slave labour such as sugar, tobacco, cotton, rum and coffee.
Justifying a System of Slavery
The transatlantic slave trade was a comprehensive and large scale economic system. The main trading countries - Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England and France – were able to make a significant profit on each leg of the triangular journey and many European cities flourished courtesy of the profits from agricultural industries built and sustained literally on the “backs” of African slaves.
The practice of slavery was often justified on philanthropic or religious grounds. It was even codified under law, in the notorious “Code Noir” of 1685. This French law set out the rights and duties of masters and slaves in the colonies of the Americas and stated that “We declare slaves as movable property”. It established a system of harsh discipline including flogging and branding for minor crimes however it was also portrayed as a “benefit” to slaves against abuses by their masters and included the provision of religious holidays, enforced Catholic worship, tolerance of intermarriages and advocacy for the preservation of families.
Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
By the late 18th century, moral and political opposition to the slave trade was growing in Britain and the US, as well as in other parts of Europe. Groups such as the Quakers in North America and the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade in Britain were instrumental in raising public awareness of the slave trade through public petitions, boycott campaigns and the dissemination of materials describing and sometimes illustrating the living conditions of slaves onboard the trade ships or working on the plantations.
Slaves also rose up against their subjugation, most notably in Haiti in the Revolution of 1791 to 1804. This single event marked a significant turning point for the slave trade as the colonial powers began to recognise the political and military risks of such uprisings. This factor, combined with the growing voices of the abolitionist movement and the changing economic conditions that had reduced the economic significance of some European colonies, signaled the beginning of the end of the transatlantic trade.
Two hundred years ago in early March of 1807, the United States’ President, Thomas Jefferson, signed legislation abolishing the slave trade. Later that same month, the British Parliament, led by the efforts of abolitionists William Wilberforce, the Reverend James Ramsay and John Wesley, banned the slave trade throughout the British Empire. The tide had turned.
In subsequent years other European countries followed suit with laws prohibiting slavery; however it was not until 80 years later that the transatlantic slave trade was finally extinguished, with Cuba and Brazil abolishing it in 1886 and 1888 respectively.
The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is the subject of much debate. There can be no doubt that it resulted in the destruction of a significant portion of the language, culture and religion of millions of enslaved Africans. The removal of such large numbers of people from Africa disrupted the African economy and is believed by some scholars to have permanently disadvantaged Africa compared to other parts of the world. It can also be argued that slavery redefined Africans to the world, leaving a legacy of racism and stereotyping of Africans as inferior.
Breaking the Silence, Lest We Forget
On 17 December 2007, the UN General Assembly designated 25 March as an annual International Day for the Commemoration of the Two-Hundredth Anniversary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, beginning in 2008. Little is known about the 400-year long transatlantic slave trade and its lasting consequences felt throughout the world, or of the contribution of slaves to the building of the societies of their enslavement. This lack of knowledge has served to marginalize people of African descent across Europe, North America and South America.
The purpose of this Day is to honour the memory of those who died as a result of slavery as well as those who have been exposed to the horrors of the middle passage and have fought for freedom from enslavement. In addition, it is a day to discuss the causes, consequences, and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade in order to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice.