BREAKING THE SILENCE SURROUNDING THE SLAVE TRADEParis - The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition will be commemorated on August 23 this year in a new light: the international recognition in 2001 of the transatlantic trade of slaves as a crime against humanity breached the wall of silence which for so long surrounded the biggest deportation in history.
The time has come for historical and moral atonement. This September, one hundred schools in Africa, Europe, the Americans and the Caribbean will test a new study programme, as part of the 'Breaking The Silence' project, launched by UNESCO in 1998.
"The slave trade represents the biggest forced movement of people in history," says Elizabeth Khawajkie, the international coordinator of the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network (ASPnet), which links around 7,000 schools in 171 countries. "However, this chapter of history has largely remained hidden, especially in school text books." By educating young people about the slave trade the 'Breaking The Silence' project seeks to fill this gap. An integral part of the 'Slave Route' project, launched by UNESCO in 1994, it plays a role in making the slave trade better known and is aimed specifically at secondary school students.
The long-term aim of 'Breaking The Silence' is to introduce into school curricula around the world what French historian Michel Deveau calls "the greatest human tragedy in history in terms of its scale and duration." In the first phase, a triangular network, the ASPnet Transatlantic Slave Trade Project, was created, linking 100 schools on the three continents concerned.
In its second phase, schools in the Network will test out a new educational programme devised by Hilary McD. Beckles, of the West Indies University in Barbados. It takes the form of a trilogy: Voices of Slaves, Voyages of Slaves, and Visions of Slaves. The first two books, in English, French and Spanish, are already available and the third is being prepared. "It's a terrific educational tool," says Doudou Gaye, a history teacher at the Maurice Delafosse Technical and Commercial College in Dakar (Senegal). "The slave trade, which really interests the students, has always been included in our school curricula, but we have not had sufficient material to allow us to enrich our teaching."
Voices of Slaves, a collection of moving testimonies, allows teachers to leave the beaten path by giving pupils a taste of how slaves themselves felt about their fate. As well as a large number of seminal texts about the abolition and poems calling for rebellion, this 80-page book relates more than 20 stories of remarkable lives: such as Prince Zamba of the Congo who made a fortune selling slaves only to end up in captivity himself; or the tale of Marie Prince, the first Negro to escape from slavery in the British Antilles who published an autobiography; or Boukman, the renowned leader of the uprising that led to the Haitian revolution. There is also the story of Phillis Wheatley, the first woman slave poet to publish a collection of poems in the United States; the story of Nat Turner, the leader of the most famous slaves` revolt in the United States on August 21, 1831; the story of Toussaint L`Ouverture, who led the insurrection on the island of Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) on August 23, 1791.
It was in order to pay tribute to the slaves' fight for freedom that UNESCO in 1997 proclaimed August 23 the International Day of Remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition. In his message marking the Day this year, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura recalled that this day "represents an opportunity to institutionalize remembrance, to prevent this crime against humanity from being forgotten or obliterated and to retrieve the memory of a tragedy that was long hidden or unrecognized, thus restoring it, in view of its universal nature, to its rightful place in human consciousness."
The second volume, Voyages of Slaves, examines in 13 chapters the causes and the consequences of the slave trade. It includes two chronologies (the development of the trade and the process leading to its abolition), and a large number of figures (the number of slaves deported by region and date, the losses and profits per cargo of slaves, the death rate and the price of slaves...) and also teaching advice (concepts to develop, educational methods and school activities), as well as a comprehensive bibliography. By drawing on a wide range of literature and juxtaposed by arguments that are often contradictory, it allows students to distinguish between non-racial slavery, which has existed since ancient times, and the slavery of Negroes which resulted in the reification of tens of millions of people.
Evidence of this can be found in the Siete Patridas in Spain, the Code Noir in France and the Code of Slaves from Barbados in the United Kingdom, all texts which guaranteed their masters the right to possess humans as private property. The English Code defined Africans as "vulgar heathens" with "naturally bad instincts", "totally incapable of being ruled by the laws and customs of the 'English nation'". The French Code meanwhile sets out the amount of provisions and clothes a slave was allowed to possess and while excluding the use of torture, Article 42 allowed the masters to chain up their slaves or whip them.
Over 150 pages, Voyages of Slaves makes the many aspects of the slave trade, which by the end of the 18th century had become the biggest commercial enterprise in the Atlantic world, accessible to children. It was an enterprise which involved great risks, given the "easily perishable" nature of the human merchandise, loaded into "floating tombs", ten percent of which never reached the shores of the New World. The descendants and survivors of the slaves today number around 100 million. Despite emancipation, "they remain economically marginalized and much more discriminated against in many parts of America and Europe." Stating that the knock-on effects of slavery, including racism, are far from eliminated, Voyages of Slaves dedicates two long chapters to the impact of slavery on Africa and the western world.
Described as "the driving force of lasting European growth," the system of massive exploitation of African slaves led to the rapid development of ports in Europe, such as Liverpool, Bristol, Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle and of other facilities inland. The Caribbean historian Eric Williams considers the slave trade to be "a major source of the energy which powered the Industrial Revolution in England," while Franklin W. Knight from John Hopkins University in the United States says "the potential economic value of the Americas would never have been realised" without the transatlantic slave trade.
In Africa, this trade had devastating economic and social effects: it crippled economic potential, destroyed political systems, broke down moral and civic practices and exhausted human resources. Even today "you can see evidence of the destruction and the massive movements of people caused by the slave trade ... A long belt of empty land stretches through the sub-Saharan zones of Ghana, Togo, the Dahomey and Nigeria, from where most of the slaves were captured."
African heads of state consider the slave trade to be one of the main sources of under-development on their continent and at the World Conference on Racism and Xenophobia in Durban, South Africa, (August 31 to September 8 last year), they demanded material and financial compensation. "Even if the reparations were implicitly acknowledged in Durban, the countries historically involved in slavery and colonialism refused to give the apologies which could lead to subsequent legal action," says Pierre Sané, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Social and Human Sciences. Divided on the question of material compensation, the 170 States represented in Durban reached a consensus on historical and moral reparations. "Giving Africans, who were the object of this commerce, the status of victims, finally allows their descendants to hold their heads high, and for the descendants of those who committed the crimes, to overcome the taboo surrounding the subject," says Mr Sané. "This international recognition will at least facilitate the reparation of our collective memory, help to open archives, revise history books and education about this dark chapter of history. If the countries concerned genuinely put into action the recommendations made in Durban, an enormous step will be made towards deliverance from the past. The raising of awareness generated by this process may enable future generations to examine the issue of reparations from a different perspective."
The full text of the message from UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura on the occasion of the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition is available online at http://www.unesco.org/bpi/eng/pis/index.shtml
Also marking the day, and as part of UNESCO's Breaking the Silence programme, Anti-Slavery International, an NGO based in the United Kingdom, will launch a new website devoted to the slave trade and slavery at http://www.antislavery.org/breakingthesilence .
UNESCO's General Conference in 2001 invited the UN General Assembly to proclaim 2004 "International year for the commemoration of the struggle against slavery and its abolition".
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