Slavery and Slave Trade: Felony, Reparations and Redress

by Damola Awoyokun

Africa, Africa, your sufferings have been the
theme that has arrested and engages my heart.
Your sufferings no tongue can express,
no language impart.

— William Wilberforce (1792)

Vis-à-vis the Atlantic slavery and slave trade, the 2001 United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa has bequeathed to us nothing but featherweight dividends. First, it did not succeed in deploring and branding the slave raid and trading a crime against humanity. Secondly, it maintained a passive silence over the Reparation Question. And this is the aspiration of the Western Axis and it is exactly what they manipulated the conference to achieve.

Slavery, it is of particular importance to note, did not commence with the blacks nor in Africa. In fact the word “slave” was derived from the “Slavs”, the ethnic minority which migrated from Asia to Central and Eastern Europe in the 5th century BC, and was subjected to callous servitude. Furthermore, slavery was a matter of course in the historical dialectics of social evolution. So there is nothing strange to discover that slavery but not slave raid existed in African world even before the incursion of the western slavers. The distinction is essential because slave raid is about deliberate looking out for slaves for economic objectives while slavery, as regard the one perpetrated on the by Africans soil till the eve of West’s invasion, was the outcome of warfare.  It is either as part of the conqueror’s war booties to carry off back home, some of the captured enemies as slaves or at times demand slaves as part of war reparations. However the Atlantic African slavery claims to essential difference is not that it was part of the Industrial Revolution nor that slave labour, for the first time, became a principal factor of production. But above all, its enormous magnitude, its abhorrently barbaric features, its institutionalized nature, its transcontinental dimensions and its negation of the essence of the victims’ humanity.

Although western nations involved in the slaving with their media have been mischievously at work to dilute their collective guilt, annul the evil their ancestors did, and to downplay the figures of the human merchandise involved. They are invited to note that the UNESCO, nevertheless, submits an estimate for the 400 years of slave raid and dealings, as 100million Africans –those who expired in transit and those who landed “safely”. In the global history of slaving, it is no exaggeration to assert that the cumulative total  number of slaves cum proportion of their suffering, is negligible to those our fore parents suffered not only when raided on their lands and the agricultural estates which they were shipped in the Caribbean  and Americas but also during the Middle Passage. Let Olaudah Equiano’s description suffice:

” The stench of the hold while we were on [ship] were so intolerably loathsome that it was dangerous to stay there for anytime…..this wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now becoming insupportable; and the filth of the tubs, into which children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shriek of the women and the groans of the dying rendered a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”

Archaic yet paltry was shipboard hygiene. Captains and slave wardens made little efforts to guard food and water from contamination and to isolate the ailing slaves. Sanitary amenities were inadequate thus slave ships harboured multitudes of diseases. Dysentery was, nonetheless, the biggest killer.  An average of 16% of the transported slaves: men, women and children were estimated to have perished in the Middle Passage. All because they were blacks.

It was thought, surely, that since the Native Americans were nearer to the Caribbean and Brazilian plantations, the European slavers would have instead descended on them.  Factually, they did. But the Native Americans packed up rapidly from diseases like tropical malaria and yellow fever, smallpox, mumps, and measles to which they lacked immunity. They also could escape with ease: their homes were apparently close by, they were familiar with the terrain, and they knew how to survive on indigenous plants and animals in the course of fleeing.

But Africans were different. Firstly, they came from an environment where those who survived into adolescence had acquired sufficient immunity to such diseases that kill the Native Americans so easily. They lived three to five times longer than white labourers under the difficult conditions on plantations, and longer still than Native Americans. There native lands were far, far away. Secondly, the enlightenment thinkers: Hume, Kent, Nietzsche, Jefferson, Hegel, Frobenius, Montesquieu even Karl Marx, provided the intellectual and philosophical footing that partly initiated  but strongly sustained the trans-Atlantic slavery and trade of human cargoes. In his Nobel lecture, Wole Soyinka, strongly opined that on their books should be hanged cautionary notifications: “WARNING! THIS WORK IS DANGEROUS FOR YOUR RACIAL SELF-ESTEEM”; so that in the future their descendants or other mischievously inclined minds would not readily make mincemeat of such works and inherit their callous ideologies and perverted values.

I make bold to say that imperatives of this exogenous African tragedy must constantly be promulgated to the minds of Blacks and the eyes of the world because:

1.    Nobody would be authorized to disparage our suffering.
2.    It strengthens our determination never to undergo such a despicable experience again or allow ourselves to be pushed into it ever again.
3.    It would always prod our memories, as to how we got there, which in turn; help us to prepare ourselves to fight any encroachment that might threaten our existence and well-being. In short, it would sharpen our vigilance.
4.    It would serve as lesson for future generations.
5.    The forces and doctrines that made it to be may pass for the truth.
6.    The world would learn from it. Remedies, recourse, redress, monitoring systems and other measures at local, national and international levels would be promptly and effectively put in place to avoid its recidivism.
7.     It would act as a constant warning to the future enemy.

Blacks worldwide must not therefore succumb to the temptations of amnesia or display a total loss of perspectives. August 23 each year: The International Day of Slave Trade and Its Abolition must be taken as a crucially important, a thought provoking and reflection day. That day has to be taken with a seriousness it commands. In fact I suggest that African Union should dedicate the whole month of August to the memory of African’s slavery. The efforts of the Lagos State government are commendable in this organizing annual Black Heritage Festival, but rounding up of the remembrance activities with ‘a special gala nite’ is shockingly repugnant! It is uncalled for.  As regards the transcontinental slavery and commerce, nothing has changed only the name. The source points are still the same. The destinations too are the usual ones. The premises that made the ugly slave commerce inevitable are still intact. Such a concluding merriment for the Black Heritage Festival, in the genuine participants attenuates their focus and also emasculates their passion for action. More so, many of those that were at the gala nite are largely indifferent to the bona fide meaning and the spirit such a cultural concourse connoted.  And they did not verify any desire to be orientated.

There has to be a decisive resolve and a firmer commitment on the part of Blacks both onshore or in the Diaspora for a redress. “It was African kings and leaders that betrayed their people. The West has no case to answer”, some western schools of thought said. Continental Africans were not responsible, for the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean, Europe, Americas and in the Middle East as Prof. Henry Gates’ controversial film: ‘Wonders Of The African World’ tried also to disseminate. In fact pockets of black resistance here and there were documented even on the surfaces of some European books on history. Several communities actually fought tooth and nail against the slave raiders. But of course, “in any situation where people are seeking to liberate themselves”, writes Prof. Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University, Pennsylvania, “you will have those who side with the oppressor. It is not just a historical reality, it is a current fact”. He continues, “we do not blame apartheid on South African blacks much like some Africans were collaborators with whites in South Africa….because some Jews collaborated with Germans [then] Jews were responsible for the Holocaust [?]”

Islamic Arabs initiated and sustained the Trans Sahara slave trade while Europeans initiated and sustained the more monumental Trans Atlantic slavery and trade.  Indeed that some African kings and rulers collaborated in forcibly taking away ‘the mind and muscle of our race’ would not erode the demand for reparations and compensation, neither would it lose its punches or poignancy. It is objectionable from the moral aspect, for the ‘beneficiaries of slavery’ to dilute or even erode both the Western and Arabic guilt simply by pleading the excuse of Africans involvement and collaboration. Their roles were also forthrightly abominable and criminal. I am obliged to affirm with special vehemence that Africans too have to apologise to fellow Africans or phrased differently, continental Africans apologise to ‘uprooted blacks’ in the other destinations of the Middle Passage.

Ali Mazrui, an African Scholar and a Muslim went to battle on behalf of Islam to deflect its background of slave guilt. The gospel according to Mazrui argued: “Islam has washed itself of the guilt of slavery by facilitating the absorption of slaves into host populations through Islamic kinship systems”. This still falls short of admittance, an apology even that is if some are going to accept the “absorption” as a form of reparation. That through the efforts of the Abolitionists, slaves were set free and absorbed in America, for instance, does not exculpate the American perpetrators neither would it be acceptable that America has automatically “washed itself of the guilt of slavery” . Also the second religion that commands multitudinous followership: Christianity was equally guilty. The Christians’ oracle from its old testament to the new has parts of it expressly in support of the institution of slavery. There was no description of it as detestable. So it was easy for the Christians of the dark era of transcontinental slavery to recourse to their Holy Writ for facile justifications. More so, Africans have been defined as brutes, sub-human species, blacks who to them typify all that pertains to the kingdom of darkness, of evil. Hence they have to see hell in the sugar plantations.

Apology is intrinsic to purification of history. It is an output of contrition. Contrition is the first condition for forgiveness. Lack of contrition flows from absence of the sense of sin. We blacks, descendants of slaves and slave survivors, are veritably willing to forgive [but not forget lest the monster again rear its ugly head] if the Britain, Spain, Portugal and other involved European states, the US and Islamic Arabs evince adequate contrition and are ready to pay  atonements for their crime against humanity. Reparation completes the forgiveness process, anywhere justice is served. The fear of western establishments may be that accepting to pay reparations may open the floodgates of lawsuits. If they still insist on this they will definitely serve their penance in the court of history.  The cost of this fear is less, far less than the consequences attracted by begging the purification procedures and the healing of memory. Also such an attitude is incompatible with the imperatives of natural justice and rules of harmonious coexistence.

The demand for reparations must not be reduced to dollars and cents or mere economics. Neither should it be mortgaged for debt forgiveness or African share or equities from the Industrial Revolution. [Some African leaders and heads of states are at fault.] It is not, as the editorial of June 4, 2001 edition of British tabloid’s ‘The Independent’ distorted the campaign for reparations, “as simply a negotiating ploy to extract more development money out of rich nations”. It went further to reinforce the assertion that the paradigms of the involuntary servitude are still with us: “the rich nations should do more for many of the countries of Africa,” it then begged the admittance of guilt by concluding, “but should be based on present need rather than past history”. Completing the forgiveness process is about safeguarding the sanctity of the codes of racial contract within and among all races of the human family when an injury is inflicted. There was no way they did not apprehend the brutality meted on slaves as heinous. This same notorious editorial maintained that “it[slavery] was not a crime by the values of the time, and only came gradually to be seen as such” this has limited relations to truth. Codes of ethics, morality of actions have always been immutable. If slavery was not criminal by the ‘value of the time’ why do they not enslave themselves? “Long forgotten documents show that Britain knew that the slave trade was illegal, even while Britons continued to trade in slaves. It was assumed wrongly; that there was no international law [that] prohibited the slave trade at the time of African slave trade….the general act of Berlin Conference 1885 declared that ‘trading in slaves is forbidden in conformity with principles of international law’. Britain was one of the 15 signatory powers. The Act was not a treaty establishing rules for the future behaviour, but was declaratory of existing general ‘principle of international law’. By signing [it], Britain was acknowledging that the slave trade was illegal under international law prior to 1885” writes Geraldine van Bueren in The Guardian (London) of 25 may 2001.

If six millions Jews were lost to the 2nd world war and there was compensation, why not for the monumental catastrophe of Africans slaving and slave trade? Running away from it truly confirms it heinousness and would enhance the call for reparation with more vigour.

Many of the unpleasant experiences of African peoples today find their genesis in the conduct of the perpetrators of the slavery, colonialism, apartheid. Worse more, those ideologies and paradigms, the institutional supports are still living with us up till today.  On the other hand Africans are being enslaved internally by ‘we-on-us’. This in a moment.

Joseph Inikori posits that two conditions are critical to sustaining the slave deals:
1.    The existence of a market for slaves and a well developed transportation system capable of transporting slaves to that market relatively cheaply.
2.    The existence of weakly organized communities whose members can be captured and sold at little cost to the captors.

Today the ‘slaves markets’ still exist in Euro-American societies. Annually many of our boys and girls, men and women are being transported to these societies for cheap labour and sexual functions. Human trafficking is the new nomenclature for it. Place slaves ships on the beautiful coastlines of Africa today and you will be scandalized by the sheer number of African brothers and sisters jostling for spaces therein, volunteering themselves with ease for enslavement. Visa lottery is one of these slave ships. Why this is possible takes us to the second critical condition: existence of weakly organized communities…… Yes, the slavery ideologies of the Middle Ages, also produced colonialism and apartheid in contemporary times, infused in the hearts of Africans a complex of inferiority, dearth of self-esteem, no dignity, no sense of pride only the desire to be subdued. Furthermore, they also engineered our political instability, ethnic strife and economic predicaments.  In Europe, they sat at a conference table and parcel out amongst themselves lands and regions: France have this, Britain have that, France again, then Portugal take south, Belgium go with that……. Lumping ethnic groups that should have separate countries together into one country. The Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda is an instance. Also Nigerians have also realized that they the 1914 amalgamation was a mistake and an unacceptance. What is more, to sustain the regimes of colonialism, they sowed animosities among ethnic groups,  pitched one against the other in a deadly combat as part of divide and rule antics. African Union would have to note that boundary readjustment is one of the perquisites of political instability in Africa.

IMF, the World Bank, World Trade Organization, Paris club, and G8 on behalf of the western axis, preside over the current economic enslavement. They buy our natural resources at their own fixed prices and we in turn use the meagre incomes again to service foreign debts given under duress with dubious conditions.

Africa your freedom lies with you.  Owo ara eni la fit un iwa ara eni se. What about, the military coups, sight-tight ‘democratic’ leaders, the presidents-for-life, the phenomenal corruption of our leaders, perversions of electoral arrangements etc.  These are the forces of internal enslavements to which we have to do battle. Why should African leaders come round design a blueprint for African economic recovery as articulated in NEPAD yet take it to the EU and United States for approval. Why must we take dictations from them? Why must NEPAD be predicated on foreign aids and investments when it is apparent that our failure is their development, their wealth is our poverty? Africa, Africa your freedom lies with you.

The West and Arabs have done their damage. All that is left is ours. We have to commit ourselves, without further ado, to self-interrogation and re-examine our presumptions. When and where did the rain start to beat us? Who and who collaborated in it? Where is African culpability? How do we uproot the vestiges of the aftermath of slave trade and colonialism particularly the mental and psychological stumps? Why do we think that we cannot do things right by ourselves?

Africans must regain their self- confidence and independence, inspire a strong self-identity and self-pride in the Black heritage.  We have to believe in our culture, our philosophies, our religions, our value systems and remain firmly rooted in them. Blindness to any of these opens the way to fake self-esteem and reinforces the desire to be subdued by those whose cultures we ape. There must be spiritual liberation, an inner struggle for mental emancipation and decolonization of the mind. Reject the indiscriminate adoption of foreign values for if these persist, it is a success story for the ugly systems of slavery

We all recall the unprecedented activism and campaign to free Nelson Mandela and South Africa from the manacles of apartheid. Writers did not cease to write about the injustice of that system. Intellectuals did not fail to rationalize it as wrong. Theatre artists deployed their resources of stage, musical artists: the Miriam Makebas, Brenda, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sunny Okosuns, even the Kollington Ayinlas all sang in unison to deplore such an aberration, calling for the release of Mandela.  Freedom t-shirts worn all over the world. Freedom calls were extended to debates, lectures taken to UN, international fora and western media against Thatcher of Britain and Ronald Regan of US, the proactive supporters of apartheid. Even in ordinary common entrance examinations to secondary schools the question persisted then: where is apartheid practiced?

The impulse that lied beneath this historic campaign must not die down, if it has, it must be resurrected. It is needed in the complete liberation of Africa and the reparation issue. Let the activism start locally and let its impact be felt globally. The perpetrators of slavery and slave trade must reconcile themselves with the fact that they had committed a crime against humanity and they must pay for it. It is highly necessary for Blacks, with their leaders both onshore and in the Diaspora to be present themselves as united over the reparation issue. Obasanjo’s stand on the issue serves interests decidedly malignant to the black cause.

Africans too must not forget that we must rid our various states from all the local surrogates of slavery and colonisation. Then soon, let me frankly declare, we shall join the league of those who made it.

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