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Remembering the slave trade

By Jean Allain

Today is International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, established by UNESCO “to inscribe the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of peoples.”

That tragedy was the development of, in Robin Blackburn’s words, a “different species of slavery.” One that took the artisan slavery of old (consisting in the main of handfuls of slaves working on small estates or as domestic servants) and industrialised it, creating plantations in the Americas which fed the near insatiable appetite of Europeans for sugar, coffee, and tobacco.

Thanks to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, we know that between the 16th and 19th century, more than 12.5 million individuals were taken as slaves from Africa.

In essence there were two transatlantic slave trade routes which emerged as a result of international agreements. Portugal, and later an independent Brazil, carried out an unhindered trade south of the equator until late into 19th century. This, the greater of the two slave-trade routes, emerged as an encounter between Brazil and the two Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola, where nearly half of all slaves taken during the Transatlantic slave trade embarked (more than 5 million).

The second trade route, north of the equator was triangular in nature. Goods from Europe (including firearms which fuelled African rivalries and created emperors) were destined for African leaders. These leaders delivered slaves from the interior to the coast through conquest, for embarkation from places such as Elmina on the Gold Coast in modern day Ghana and Ouidah on the Slave Coast in today’s Benin. During the second leg of this triangular trade, the human cargo on board and destined for the Americas, travelled through the horrors of the so-called ‘middle passage’ where more than 2 million lost their lives crossing the Atlantic. Once disembarked, the stores of ships were once more filled with slave-produced commodities, which drove the economy of the Americas, for the final leg of their voyage back to the Old Continent.


The transatlantic slave trade changed the face of the Americas. In the wake of the decimation of the indigenous populations, Africans came to make up the majority of the populations of most countries of the Americas during the 16th and early 17th century. It was not until African slaves had built the infrastructures of the Western Hemisphere and the age of sail gave way to steam, that the ‘Great Era of Migration’ of Europeans took place in the mid-19th century, thus allowing Europeans to displace Africans as the largest population to colonise the New World.

The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is found in faces throughout the Americas, most evidently on the Eastern seaboard, where from Nova Scotia to Terra del Fuego, African descendents make up large segments of the population.

The 23rd of August was chosen by UNESCO as this date of Remembrance in honor of a 1791 slave revolt which would ultimately lead to Haitian independence.

Over the last 50 years, there has been much debate over why the United Kingdom moved in 1807 from being the largest slaving nation (at this point in time, every second slave destined for the New World was transported on British flagged ships) to abolishing the slave-trade a sea destined for its colonies. That debate (Williams vs Drescher) had originally focused on abolition having transpired for moral reasons vs economic reasons. The former focused on internal politics in England and the rise of the abolitionist movement. The latter focused on British foreign policy after its loss of the United States of America and its new found dominance of the seas after Trafalgar.

Yet over the last decade or so the debate has gained a new voice: that of the slaves themselves and their role through rebellion and resistance. Slavery became less tenable in the Age of Revolution, especially as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man was internalised throughout the Americas.

Slavery did not start with the transatlantic slave trade, nor did it stop with its abolition.

Today we recognise, in law, that slavery can transpire even when laws allowing for it have long been abolished. Yet just as the outlawing of torture does not mean that torture has disappeared, so too has there been a recognition that slavery remains part of the fabric of our contemporary societies. Nowhere is this more evident that in the United Kingdom, where in 1772 it was declared that Britain was ”a soil whose air is deemed too pure for slaves to breathe in it,” only to find itself legislating in 2009 to in fact criminalise slavery.

While it is often thought that owning a person was fundamental to slavery, the research of late has shown that not only were people enslaved without legal ownership at the fringes of slave societies throughout the Americas. The legal definition of slavery established nearly 90 years ago in an era when legal ownership was still possible, is actually resilient enough to be used today, as it has been, to prosecute people in various parts of the world for contemporary cases of enslavement.

Jean Allain is Professor of Public International Law, Queen’s University Belfast, and an Extraordinary Professor, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is author of Slavery in International Law and editor of The Legal Understanding of Slavery.

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Image credit: Triangular trade between western Europe, Africa and Americas by Sémhur. GNU Free Documentation License via Wikimedia Commons.

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