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A wall of silence around slavery

We must acknowledge slavery’s role in creating the modern world if we are to address its legacy. The UNESCO Slave Route Project exists to help breach the wall of silence.

This year marks the beginning of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). The main objectives of this United Nations sponsored initiative include promoting “respect, protection and fulfilment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms”, as well as “greater knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture and contribution of people of African descent”. In light of these objectives, it is worth recalling the three kinds of historical denials that Africans and people of African descent have had to overcome:

  • The denial of their humanity and dignity through numerous attempts to reduce them to the status of beasts of burden, whose primary function is to serve external interests and agendas.
  • The denial of their history and culture through a series of selective ‘histories’ that present Europeans as actors and Africans as peoples whom are acted upon.
  • The denial of their rights and citizenship through all types of policies, laws and strategies of racism and discrimination.

Most prejudices against people of African descent are rooted in the persistent belief that they have not made any valuable contribution to the progress of humanity. Their civilisations are also questioned, with every sign of sophistication ritually dismissed as importations from other regions. The ancient Egyptian civilisation is not the only case where Africa and Africans have been denied ownership of history and heritage.

These prejudices are not simply the result of ignorance. They are part of a long history of ideological constructions that have served to justify and legitimate the slave trade, slavery, colonisation, segregation and apartheid since at the fifteenth century. Elaborated upon by the most eminent thinkers that Europe and America have produced, these ideologies of race and difference have done nothing less than codify and corroborate European racial and cultural supremacy. These widespread prejudices have survived the abolition of slavery and the formal end of colonisation. They continue to be disseminated by the media, cinema, television, textbooks and politicians, influencing the ways Africans and peoples of African descent are perceived and provoking racist suspicions regarding their capacity to master their life.

Silence and responsibility

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there continues to be a wall of silence around the slave trade and slavery across the world. This silence surrounding slavery has allowed Europeans to escape responsibility and to avoid reflecting upon the inhumane economic and socio-political system that shaped our modern world. It has also helped to avoid challenging questions regarding the continuing legacies of slavery, along with the larger relationship between slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

Slavery currently holds the unique status of being the only crime against humanity for which the perpetrators were financially compensated for the lost of their human property at the point of legal abolition. The victims and survivors of slavery were not so lucky. This sharp dichotomy illustrates the ethical and moral disaster on which the modern world was built.

It is difficult to understand how a tragedy of this scale could be ignored and silenced. Historians estimate that a total of around 50 million Africans were deported from the different regions of Africa and enslaved in Europe, the Americas, Asia, various islands in the Indian Ocean and throughout the Middle East. If we add the number of those who died during capture, the arduous journey on foot towards various ports, the ‘holding’ camps and the middle passage, there were hundreds of millions of lives that were taken from Africa.

This massive outward forced migration had profound consequences for the African continent, resulting in population decline for at least four centuries. Demographers have calculated that the total number of Africans at the end of nineteenth century should have reached 200 million, rather than an estimated 100 million. The slave trade and slavery had another peculiar consequence: they left in their wake the tenacious poison of racism and discrimination that plagues Africans and people of African descent in our societies today. They paved the way for new forms of slavery that continue to affect millions of people, in particular women and children, in different parts of the world.

Learning from the past

What lessons can societies that have practiced such systematic and enduring crimes draw from this history? What could we expect from a ‘civilisation’ that passed through this kind of inhumanity? To what extent can we appreciate humanistic values that were introduced at the height of the slave trade and slavery? These are ethical and philosophical questions that are not, in my view, sufficiently asked amongst the academic and political discourses. UNESCO created the Slave Route Project in 1994 in order to contribute to this reflection, as ignoring this history constitutes in itself a denial of human rights and an obstacle to peace, mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation. The inaugural meeting took place in Benin.

The ethical, political and cultural stakes of the UNESCO Slave Route Project were clearly articulated from the very beginning. Before being treated as an object of research, the slave trade and slavery should first be posed as an ethical question. The barbarity that societies are capable of unleashing, especially those societies claiming the privilege of ‘civilisation’, are the stakes. They are also the contradiction between the moral aspirations of peoples and their subjugation to an immoral economic system of their society. Employing a historical lens here is important: if the principles of universality and indivisibility in human rights seems to be largely accepted today, it is important to recall that has not always been the case.

The comprehension of this chapter in world history makes it possible to better grasp the ambivalence of humanistic movements, in particular the genealogy that binds the slave trade to other historic crimes such as the extermination of indigenous peoples in the Americas, the holocaust of Jews, apartheid and more recent genocides. Far from being an event of the past, the tragedy of the slave trade and slavery raises some burning challenges for today’s societies: the fight against racial prejudices and discrimination, the equitable distribution of power and resources, the respect and practice of cultural pluralism.

The Slave Route Project aims in particular to demonstrate that despite the barbarity of this system of oppression, the people enslaved by violence never ceased to resist from the moment their villages were attacked up to the places where they were exploited. Using the full potential of their culture, they not only survived the conditions of dehumanisation, but even ‘re-humanised’ slave societies through social ingenuity and artistic creativity.

The Slave Route Project furthermore contributes to the recognition that the slave trade and slavery constitute key foundations of our modern world. They were not only crucial to the accumulation of capital that industrialised and enriched the Americas and Europe, but also cultural interaction between peoples of Africa, Americas, Europe and Asia gave birth to new cultures and artistic production that now form part of the extraordinary diversity of our world. Moreover, the struggle against slavery profoundly influenced the global human rights movement. This history, no less than any other, has participated in the emergence of modernity.

This tragedy concerns the whole of humanity and calls out to all of us whatever our origin. The universal silence that surrounds it, the troubling discourse that justifies it, and psychological scars it inflicts affect us all. It encourages us to confront the most pressing issues of our multi-ethnic, post-slavery societies: reconciliation, cultural pluralism, new identities and citizenships, economic immorality, and new forms of servitude.

About the author

Ali Moussa Iye is a scholar from Djibouti. He is Chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section of UNESCO, where he runs the Slave Route Project and the General and Regional Histories Project, including the UNESCO General History of Africa. Ali holds a Ph.D. from the Institute of Political Sciences in Grenoble, France.

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