Slave Trade and Slavery: A Founding Tragedy of our Modern World

© UNESCO

Among the major crimes that Ahave marked human history, the slave trade and slavery are disnguished by their magnitude, their duraon and the violence that accompanied them. It is difficult to understand how a tragedy of this scale could have been ignored for so long. Historians esmate that thirty million Africans were deported from different parts of Africa and enslaved in other regions of the world. If we add the number of those who died during capture, the arduous journey towards various ports, the holding camps, and the middle passage, there were, in fact, near a hundred of millions of lives that were taken from Africa.

This massive outward forced migraon had resulted in a populaon decline for at least four centuries. Demographers have calculated that the total number of Africans at the end of the nineteenth century should have reached two hundred million, rather than an esmated hundred million. Imagine the potenal that was lost across an enre connent and the vulnerabilies created and further exploited.

Denials of Dignity and Resistance:

The slave trade and slavery had another peculiar consequence. They le in their wake the tenacious poison of racism and discriminaon that plagues people of African descent today. Throughout this history, black people across the world have had to confront three kinds of denials that have served to jusfy and legimize the slave trade, slavery colonizaon, segregaon and apartheid since the 15th century. They are:

– The denial of their humanity and dignity through numerous aempts to reduce them to the status of beasts of burden, in view of dehumanizing them.

– The denial of their history and culture through pseudo-scienfic discourses aiming at minimizing their role in human history.

– The denial of their rights and cizenship through all types of policies, laws, and strategies of discriminaon.

It is to fight this legacy of racial prejudices, sll disseminated through the media, cinema, television, textbooks that the United Naons has proclaimed in 2014 the Internaonal Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) to promote the fulfilment all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent and a greater knowledge of their contribuon to humankind.

Despite the extreme violence of this system of oppression, codified by the monstrous Black Codes, the enslaved Africans never ceased to resist. Using the full potenal of their culture, they not only survived the condions of dehumanizaon but also contributed to transforming slave sociees through their social ingenuity and arsc creavity, which produced the extraordinary cultural diversity.

Lessons from History:

It is to fight this legacy of racial prejudices, sll disseminated through the media, cinema, television, textbooks that the United Naons has proclaimed in 2014 the Internaonal Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) to promote the fulfilment all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent and a greater knowledge of their contribuon to humankind. Cognizant that ignoring such major historical events constutes in itself an obstacle to peace, mutual understanding, and reconciliaon, UNESCO launched in 1994 the Slave Route Project to contribute to this reflecon. The ethical, polical and cultural stakes of this project were clearly arculated from the very beginning. The barbarity that sociees are capable of unleashing, especially those sociees claiming the privilege of civilizaon are the stakes. Moreover, comprehension of this chapter in world history makes it possible to beer grasp the genealogy that binds the slave trade to other historic crimes such as the exterminaon of indigenous peoples in the Americas, the Holocaust, Apartheid and more recent genocides.

The slave trade and slavery are therefore founders of our modern world. Through the capital accumulated during trade which contributed to the enrichment of Europe and America, the common heritage which is the main source of today’s arsc creaons, and through the combat against slavery which has profoundly redefined the very noon of liberty, dignity and universality, this history has parcipated in the emergence of modernity.

This tragedy concerns the whole of humanity and calls out to all of us, because of the universal silence that has surrounded it, the troubling light it sheds on the discourse used to jusfy it, and the psychological scars it has le in our souls.

It also challenges us to confront some of today’s burning issues in post-slavery sociees: cultural pluralism, mutual respect, reparaons, and naonal reconciliaon. It helps to beer fight against new forms of servitude that connue to affect millions of people, in parcular women and children, in different parts of our world.

The Internaonal Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolion iniated by UNESCO offers us an opportunity to reflect on the 23rd of August on this tragic history of humanity and on the persistence of its disastrous legacy in contemporary societies.

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