Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

‘Sankofa’: slavery and selective remembrance

Despite the clear historical evidence, both Britain and Ghana still sanitise memories of the brutality and suffering of the transatlantic slave trade.

Sam Okyere
11 September 2016
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Cape Coast Slave Fort. Photo by antonella sinopoli//flickr.cc(by-nc)

On 21 August 2016, for the very first time, a memorial service was held at Trafalgar Square in London to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade. The icon and theme for the event was ‘Sankofa’, a popular Ghanaian (Ashanti) symbol. A bird with its neck turned backwards, Sankofa implies going back or retracing one’s steps to fetch items, practices or memories which have been left behind or forgotten. I found the theme quite apt, for as a Ghanaian living in Britain, I have been struck by the walls of silence, convenient conflations and half-truths produced by both societies to shield themselves from their histories of the transatlantic slave trade.

Reliable figures are hard to come by, but some historians suggest that by the end of the transatlantic slave trade, an estimated 1.5 million people (excluding those who died or were deliberately drowned at sea) had been transported from Ghana alone (then the Gold Coast) to slavery in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the ‘New World’. The legacies and icons of this tragedy spanning over 300 years are dotted all over the country. To name just a few, we have Jamestown, where slaves were purportedly sold to European merchants for the very first time; the castles and forts in Accra and Cape Coast, where men, women and children were held in dungeons until their perilous transportation across the Atlantic; and the slave market at Salaga. Despite this visible and visceral evidence, discussion of Ghana’s connections to the transatlantic slave trade are rare; and as yet, there is no national remembrance event or annual memorial day for what is undoubtedly a national tragedy.

Owing to this deliberate ‘silence’, understanding of the true scale of the transatlantic slave trade among Ghanaians is relatively limited and often extremely fallacious. Treatment of the topic in the school curriculum is brief and lacking in critical insight, as I know from first-hand experience. When it is taught, it is not uncommon to find suggestions that Ghana’s experiences were of benefit to the country. In the senior high school history syllabus, for example, evaluation of the topic ‘The Coming of the Europeans’ actually asks students to write about “Who benefited more from the Trans-Atlantic slave Trade: Ghanaians or Europeans?”. As part of the same evaluation, tutors guide students through a “discussion of the positive and negative effects of the slave trade”!

These unfortunate attempts to find positives from a practice broadly accepted as wholly indefensible appear designed to anaesthetise. Ghana seems to have opted for a utopian agenda in which it can somehow claim to have benefitted from the slave trade and from colonial rule more generally, without accepting the shame and dishonour that both implied, and which persist in the country’s ongoing socio-economic deprivation.

Britain’s historical silence

Living in Britain in my early twenties, a series of unsavoury experiences led to introspection about where (and whether) I actually fit as a black African in British society. Experience of anti-black racism for the very first time in my life finally made me grasp the extent to which my identity, ancestry and biography intersects with the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, to an extent which may never have been possible in Ghana. I became aware of Britain’s own brand of whitewashing and deliberate forgetfulness in its representations of the transatlantic slave trade. It seemed impossible to find media or popular representations of the slave trade which did not inadvertently veer towards the heroic deeds of William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, the Quakers, and Britain itself in the abolition of slavery. At the same time, there was a noticeable absence of recognition for the role that Africans and African descendants played in the demise of the slave trade. In truth, while some were complicit in the sale and exportation of their compatriots into slavery, Africans were themselves central to the abolition of slavery, started to resist it almost as soon as it began. Without the exploits of Olaudah Equiano in the British anti-slavery movement or Haiti’s successful anti-slavery rebellion in 1804, abolition might not have occurred when it did.

Thus, similar to Ghana’s attempts to take ‘ownership’ of the slave trade by compelling high school students to evaluate its benefits to the country, Britain avoids the inconvenient truths of the scale of its involvement by skimming over the topic in the history curriculum in public schools. Indeed, relatively few in Britain today recognise the immense benefits which Britain (unlike Ghana) extracted from the slave trade and from the colonial rule that became the ‘post=slavery’ mode of subjugating black and brown bodies after the abolishment of the transatlantic slave trade. The British industrial revolution, numerous monumental buildings, banking powerhouses such as Barclays (with its Quaker linkages at the time) all immensely benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade.

The dangers of distorted facts and selective remembrance

The selective representation today of Britain’s role in, and the immense benefits it drew from, the slave trade serves to shield it from calls for reparatory justice for those who suffered injuries at the hands of the British Empire over the last five hundred years. This is a continuation of historical injustice. As indeed is the perpetuation of ‘white saviourism’ in the contemporary abolitionist movement, which draws so much from the sanitised histories of Wilberforce et al.

For its part, Ghana’s unique historical experience should be providing it with insights that inform a more sophisticated set of contemporary explanations for ongoing inequality and exploitation. But instead, it neglects the past and in the present reproduces the facile narratives of ‘modern slavery’ activists who seek to label all sorts of difficult work ‘modern slavery’, without addressing any of the underlying political or economic cause factors. This too is a dereliction of duty. And it must change. For Ghana could and should make the antiblackness of contemporary anti-slavery activism and discourse apparent. It should ensure that the historic and persistent debilitating impacts of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy are not waved away by modern abolitionists. It should demand work towards ‘emancipatory’ agendas, towards reparations, and towards international social justice.

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