The slave trade: myths and preconceptions

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« …with all the branches of my skin
Embroidered to all the trading posts of barbarity. »

Gratien Zossou
Moi, depuis toujours, l’esclave de toujours

The occultation of memory
It is not really surprizing that we don’t talk about it: the slave trade poses moral questions that are too delicate for us to want to tackle. It isn’t that the sources are lacking: the fiscal services forced the slave traders to keep detailed records. It is rather that the slave trade belongs to the repressed part of world memory. Its real causes are rarely analyzed, the history books only fleetingly evoke its realities, its specificity is not acknowledged. We behave as if it were just an episode in the history of Europe and Africa, when it is in fact a major event with huge lasting consequences. Even the slave traders themselves, and the members of the Constituant Assembly which abolished it [in France]in 1794 preferred to refer to « the thing »…
There is a risk that the slave trade and slavery become confused as we commemorate the abolition of slavery. Forced labour, an instrument of domination, existed in all the civilizations of the earliest antiquity. The Greek cities institutionalized it. Slaves constituted 20% of Carolingian Europe. Even the Church was a major owner! And it was always based on the same logic: a process of dehumanization achieved by changing names, through corporal punishment, subjection to the masters’ sexual demands, torture. When the slave trade – the largest displacement of people of all times (the figures suggest that about 20 million Blacks were taken to America) – took off in the fifteenth century, however, it was a quite specific phenomenon which developed:
– The slave trade only concerned Black Africans. Whilst it was possible for the freed slaves of the Antiquity to become integrated into society within one or two generations, the slaves in the West Indies and the Americas conserve the mark of their servile origins in the colour of their skin.
– The slave trade is remarkable for its duration: it only came to an end at the end of the nineteenth century, when it was abolished in Brazil (1888).
– The slave trade was legally structured [in France]by the ‘Code noir’, an edict issued by King Louis XIV in 1685, a monstrous text if there ever was, that was also full of contradictions. It insists on the evangelization of the slaves, thereby recognizing that they had a soul, but treats them as objects to be traded, as if they were pieces of furniture, or buildings. It outlines their rights, then immediately refutes them in a list of things forbidden and sanctions: on a first attempt to run away, the slave loses an ear. His/her ham strings are cut if he/she makes a second attempt, and on a third attempt, he/she is decapitated. It regularizes emancipation, but perpetuates the submission of freed slaves, thereby increasing the insurmountable demarcation between master and slave at boundary between Black and White.
For it is indeed racism which made the slave trade possible. The debate goes a long way back. Before the great voyages, Europe saw itself as the centre of the world. On its southern fringes, in Africa, Ethiopia generally designated the land of « men with burnt faces ». Certain encyclospaedists in the Middle Ages described them as men of justice and wisdom. The great majority, however, associated them with obscurity and evil, comparing them to the forces of darkness and hell. The imagery necessary for the enslaving of Black people was in place.
The ambiguity of abolition
The slave trade took off amidst the relative indifference of the European free-thinkers. Even though a few voices were raised, condemning it in the name of morals, they had no political sway, and contented themselves with ratifying an evil that was already in place. They rarely escaped the racism that their nineteenth century successors theorized as the inequality of the human race. In Traité de métaphysique, Voltaire wrote in 1734: « Whites are superior to negroes, just as negroes are to apes, and apes to oysters« . As a good provident bourgeois, he had shares in Montaudoin of Nantes, the great slave ship owner of the time…
For the crux of the slave trade is of course interest – not just its immediate profitability, but also that fundamental question posed by Montesquieu, then by Voltaire, who has the slave met by Candide state: « It is at that price that you eat sugar in Europe« ! Whether in the name of the Evangiles, or of basic rights, the abolitionists could only win if they resolved the economic problem: « the anti-slavery movement of the eighteenth century », writes Yves Bénot, « bears the seeds of European colonization in Africa in the nineteenth century« . Grégoire and Mirabeau, just like the « Société des Amis des Noirs », and the British abolitionists, saw Europe’s establishments in Africa as a means of « civilizing » the Africans… and of continuing to produce the commodities necessary for the well-being and development of Europe. The future colonists would prove them right, arms in hand, as they instigated forced labour in the colonies…
When the very foundations of imperialism began to be called into question after the First World War, the slave trade was studied, in a paternalist light, as a crime. It was affirmed that slaves were a cheap merchandise, exchanged by well-organized Africans for guns, iron, copper and lead, alcohol, European and Indian printed textiles, cowries from the Indian ocean, and trinkets. It was affirmed that the slave traders packed the slaves in during the voyage, accepting a high death rate, when they in fact tried to reduce it in order to limit their losses. Far be it from us to restore any degree of humanity to the slave trade! The West had to confront the horror behind its development, as we can only forgive those who acknowledge their past. But assuming the horror implies taking the slave trade for what it was: a cold, economic system driven by interest. Only the scientific study of the slave trade can dispel the myths that engulf the memory, the very myths that help position abolition as a step forward for humanity, thereby reinforcing the West’s clear conscience, as if this hegemonic parenthesis were definitively closed.
Abolition is also presented as being the result of a grand moral crusade that shook Western thought, whilst it was in fact the economic and political arguments that predominated, and it was the Blacks themselves who were the main players in the abolitionist struggle through their uprisings and escapes. The revolutionaries who abolished slavery the first time round in France feared the secession, revolt and seizure of the plantations by the English above all. The Constituant Assembly’s 1793 decision followed the insurrection in Santo Domingo (which led to the independence of the colony in 1804 after the defeat of the Napoleonic troops sent to restore slavery; it then took its Amerindian name Haiti again). British emancipation followed the long slave rebellion in Jamaica (1831-32). Please spare us the grand humanist declarations made by Schoelcher, then: he only managed to convince the government formed in the revolutionary period of February 1848 thanks to the fear of a general revolt if the status quo went unchanged.
The difficulties faced by the « new freemen », moreover, goes to show the extent to which abolition was related to the economic situation. In the Caribbean, the agreements between the European governments and the trading posts in India, Indonesia, and China, saw the arrival of several hundred thousand underpaid coolies, thereby further excluding them from the work place. In the United States, the southern states lost no time in setting up segregation and racial discrimination policies as soon as they were defeated in the War of Secession in 1865 (the year the Ku Klux Klan was created in Tennessee).
Finally, the question of compensation was, of course, only to be posed for the settlers: the question of reparations for the former slaves was never raised.
A difficult memory
Whilst Enlightenment thinkers, such as Diderot, sensed that the question of slavery and the slave trade undermined the unity and equality of the human race, and thus the foundations of democracy, their voices went unheeded: in both the North and the South, everybody was implicated.
As for Africa, it is often politically correct to deny African collaboration with the slave traders. According to Djibril Tamsir Niane, however, « with the exception of a few rare cases of inland incursions by white slavers, the organization of the slave trade in the heart of the countries was almost exclusively the affair of Africans« . Abductions existed before the setting up of the slave trade. In the seventeenth century, however, Elikia M’Bokolo clarifies, « the great European nations imposed a sort of ethic upon the slave trade« : only slaves sold regularly by Africans were bought. It of course entailed an imposed, unequal relation, that was incessantly under the threat of the recourse to arms: an infernal machination which, at their apogee, sent kingdoms headlong into decadence – for example the Kongo kingdom – or enjoined others – such as the Dahomey kingdom – to carry out razzias to get slaves in exchange for the fire arms needed for their defence.
Enlightened sovereigns and religious chiefs tried to organize the resistance, but were unable to hold out. The uprisings on Gorée in 1724 and 1749, in St-Louis in 1779, and in Galam in 1786, were bloodily repressed. By the nineteenth century, all the political entities had lost their cohesion: societies were vulnerable before the colonial onslaught.
This generalization of violence was disastrous for Africa, then, and is too often ignored in the explication of the continent’s current problems:
– the slaver traders’ constant exacerbation of ethnic rivalries led to an excessive centralization of powers;
– competition from manufactured European products caused the decline of local crafts;
– insecurity brought about the stagnation of local farming techniques;
– the mobilization of the men in wars increased the use of domestic slavery to farm the land;
– fear, according to Joseph Ki-Zerbo, became « one of the dimensions of the African soul« .
What should we commemorate?
The slave trade was abolished, but not slavery! In reality, modern slavery still exists (cf. inset), particularly in people’s minds. As long as people continue to believe in the inequality of man, its physical and psychological ravages will continue. In that sense, it is still universal. We won’t be duped by commemorating its abolition, therefore: the question of human rights and citizenship can only be posed again if we challenge our representations of the Other, and interrogate the ever existent foundations of hegemony. That is not possible without ridding ourselves of both our good and bad consciences: the slave trade only came to an end thanks to the real and potential revolt of its victims; the slaves only survived thanks to the life force constituted by the images of their gods, the memories of their ancestral tales, and the rhythm of their songs. They brought their moral, social, and technological wisdom with them; they enriched the societies they were thrust into. A renewal was born out of this cultural blending that is still alive today.
Celebrating this vitality amounts to affirming to the world that, in spite of the horror, blending has its good side, without, however, slipping into beatitude: it is not about celebrating a soup, a united colours, where people’s individual qualities are erased so that they become integrated into a single model. It is, on the contrary, about affirming that a society progresses when it lets original expressions thrive and express themselves, rather than assimilating, when it acknowledges the richness they add to its own dynamism, in short, when it valorizes and integrates its polycultural character – and that it regresses, on the other hand, when it thinks it can impose the so-called universality of its models on everyone.
Memory demands that we not start again: it is not so much about asking for forgiveness, as restoring the knowledge of what has been suppressed. It is a process rather than a duty. Restoring memory will thus, above all, be about chasing away the myths and the amnesia, about accepting the autopsy so as to be rid of fundamentalism and fixations of all sorts, about recognizing that one’s identity can only be a constantly renewed process, as it is perpetually in movement, about having the immense maturity to see the potential seeds of future advances in defeats, rather than only parentheses, about banking on a melting pot which teaches us to respect the specificities of each and everyone in order to better integrate them.
Modern slavery
The last countries to abolish slavery were Iran (1928), Ethiopia (1942), Qatar (1952), Saudi Arabia (1962), and Mauritania (1981). It has not disappeared, however. The freed Mauritanians find it difficult to survive independently from their former masters. Serfdom and the abduction of children is still perpetuated today. In the Sudan, the civil war makes matters worse, a traffic of children being carried out for political ends. Modern slavery has taken new forms. Servitude to pay off debts is widespread in Latin America and South-East Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan, as is the exploitation of women and children: pornography and prostitution, forced labour sweatshops, unpaid servants, sale to other families…

///Article N° : 5298


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