August 23 is globally memorialized as the day to reflect on slave trade and its abolition. Humankind has ‘observed’ this day since 1998. This year’s anniversary passed in muffled quietude as all the others before it. Basically, slavery is alive and well everywhere in the world. The degree and the guises may change from time to time. It may vary from space to space. Yet the substance remains – regardless.
Memorialization of this day was an initiative of UNESCO. It seeks to sensitize humankind to the atrocities of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, also known as the Middle Passage Trade. The buying and selling of Africans to work on sugarcane and rubber plantations in the Americas took place from the 15th through the 19th centuries. It was a savagely ruthless business. Between 1.2 and 2.4 million Africans died during their shipment to the Americas. Those who landed there arrived in chains, screaming and kicking. They numbered anywhere between 11million and 15 million, uprooted and separated from their friends and families, even in exile.
The choice of 23 August commemorates the start of the slave revolt in San Domingo – present day Haiti. This story has been so movingly document by CLR James in the seminal work The Black Jacobins. James’ title mirrors the Jacobins who overthrew the French Bourbon Dynasty in the French Revolution 1789 – 1792. It is telling that the Black Revolution in San Domingo took place in the period 1791 – 1804, coinciding with the French Revolution. Yet it was also a revolution against the French! The French did not think that the same principles of liberty, fraternity and egalitarianism that they sought at home applied to the slaves in San Domingo.
Ironically, dynastic Europe defeated the French Revolution. Conversely, San Domingo’s revolution, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, made the richest slavery driven community at the time the first free African community in the world. L’Ouverture himself would die a treacherous death. But the revolution worked. Shortly afterwards, Slave Trade was formally abolished in Britain and America in 1807. It ended in the Caribbean islands in 1811.
Yet, is slavery alive and well, as we have said? Does it only seem to change its guises? Karl Marx recognized slavery as a form of economic production, alongside such other forms as feudalism, capitalism, socialism and others. And he was right. The Africans who worked on the slave plantations were wealth-creating machines. They had no more welfare needs and no more rights than a machine has. They could not vote. They could not leave the plantation. They married whom the boss chose for them. They could be separated from the family and be sold to another slave owner, permanently never to see their relatives again – even the new family in exile. Alex Hailey depicts this so adroitly in the Kunta Kinte family story in the book and movie titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Some of the impacts of the Transatlantic Slave Trade will never be reversed. The impoverishment of Africa by taking away the most able bodied men and women, for example. Then there was the permanent displacement of a Black population and its future generations. The Black populations in the Americas will never know where they came from, beyond knowing that they originated from someplace in Africa. This is a permanent scar that should be addressed through commemorations of 23 August and beyond.
But equally needing address is not just the fact that people still buy and sell slaves in diverse parts of the world today. There is neo slavery in Africa, led by the continent’s ruling classes. It is the enslavement of the citizen by fellow citizens. Its best manifestation is in the tribe. The tribal kingpin is the new slave owner. Unlike the slavers of the 16th to 19th centuries, he does not have to capture and ferret away individuals who are kicking and screaming. The slaves are the hovelling poverty inflicted individuals who don’t care to know that the tribal master is the author of their destitution.
When he is outside government, the African slave owner will ask the tribe to carry him on their backs into government. “Our government,” he says, reminding us of Malcolm X’s notion of the House Niger and the Field Nigger. When the slave master buys a new car, the House Nigger says, “Our new car.” But the Field Nigger says, “Our sweat.” The new African slave is a House Nigger. He will fight, rape or kill to ensure that the master gets into government. When “Massa” is in government his focus will be on looting the public coffers. If anyone questions his thieving, he has the tribal slaves to fall back to. He tells them, “Our government is under attack.” In all public conversation, the slaves will vociferously speak for Massa. They carry out the debate in the stinking slums that they call home and kill each other there for Massa.
Alone in the world, the modern African slave lives in subhuman conditions in urban slums and in debased rural shacks. He lives below the poverty line, unable to access proper medical care. He can hardly feed his children, or dress them. He can’t give them quality education. He lives on the false hope that something good will come his way someday. He does not even know where the good thing will come from. He is religious, simply trusting that God will send manna from heaven, someday. The selfsame religious slave who prays so hard is a hater. With amazing zeal, the godly person abhors people from other tribes.
The slave’s eyes and mind are closed. He understands that life is hard. But he does not understand that he is one of the main reasons life is hard. Nor does he understand that he is a slave. He hates his condition, his circumstances. But he does not recognize them as modern slavery. His closed eyes and mind cannot see that the tribal kingpin whom he worships is the author of his hopelessness. And so the slave hates his circumstances. He hates slavery. But he loves Massa. Going forward, commemoration of things like the Transatlantic Slave Trade may need to broaden their scope to address modern forms of slavery.