Black canvas, white letters – why discourse on slavery is always relevant

For me, this striking image typifies just how pivotal we Black people have been in shaping the modern world.

A 1923 Christmas picture of staff at the African Oil Nuts Company & Miller Brothers in Badagry, Nigeria © Image of Empire

In a single shot, we see the depths to the subjugation and disrespect shown to men and boys from what is now modern-day Nigeria. These men were deemed to be no better than paper and used as such to communicate a festive message. How insulting!

Birth of a nation

It is a funny dichotomy. We have the source of mankind, born on African soil, shipped abroad or enslaved on their land; mentally and physically beaten to accept that they were nothing more than a commodity. And yet without our acquiescence, tenacity, and skill nothing that we value in terms of modern-day development would be here.

Trump tells the world he wants to make America great again and the nostalgic hark back to ‘Great’ Britain all smack of a period when industry and economies were at a peak…thanks to the abundance of free African labour. So it is particularly comical when people with little knowledge about the dynamics of slavery and its lasting impact, and even less inclination to think laterally, believe that any talk of slavery now is irrelevant and should stay buried.

Liverpool’s African slaves

This enigmatic picture I started the conversation with is housed in the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, UK – a city which has richly benefitted from the transatlantic trade.

I recently visited the museum with my fellow blogger Kitdan and learnt that Liverpool dominated transatlantic slavery in 18th century. By the 1780s, Liverpool was the European capital of the transatlantic trade and was responsible for transporting nearly 1.5 million Africans into slavery. More than 10% of all known Africans transported.

According to the book: ‘Transatlantic Slavery: An Introduction’, ‘On 3 October 1699, Liverpool’s first recorded slave ship, Liverpool Merchant, set sail for Africa. She eventually delivered a cargo of 220 Africa to Barbados before returning to Liverpool on 18 September 1700. In November 1699, a second slave ship, The Blessing, set said for the Gold Coast of Africa.

Living history

Stately homes across the UK, including across Liverpool, were built on the proceeds of this inhuman trafficking. Some of these houses still exist, such as Speke Hall in the city. The Hall was the home of local merchant Richard Watt who bought the house with profits from his sugar plantations in Jamaica. I wonder how many of owners of these buildings are transparent about the origins of their existence when visitors come to their doors? And when you are busily eating your Christmas chocolate, while driving in your cars, how many of us consider that enslaved Africans in the west of the continent were the ones forced to farm cocoa and palm oil, reap the sugar in the Caribbean and tap the rubber in the Congo?

Living nightmare
Freedom from slavery was only granted by ‘benevolent’ slave masters or enslaved Africans that were able to pay their way out of the servitude. The idea that one person can own another is a laughable concept really that was legitimised. Imagine – the body you inhabit does not belong to you and you have to PAY to be free. Many of you will have heard that slave masters including US President Abraham Lincoln’s dentures were made from the teeth of his live enslaved Africans. Our foremothers and forefathers literally owned nothing – not even their bodies.

Status quo

So when slavery was officially abolished in 1886, the structures in place to ensure the status quo for Africans continued. Indentured servitude replaced slavery for many African people – the difference between the two forms of control was a small wage. Afterall, what prospect of earning real money and improving their social status would former enslaved Africans have with no education, wealth and no sense of importance. It therefore goes without saying that they would have to turn to their former slave-driving employees to survive – perpetuating that status quo.

Unfair trade

Indentured servitude in the Caribbean, Europe and colonised African countries was replaced by the – often – punitive trade deals once African countries gained independence. Imagine… the West gets rich from setting Africans to work for free and is able to make technological advancements and improve the quality of life for their people.

Then after another period of control is meted out to African countries under colonialism, the price for ‘freedom’ is a long-standing debt-paying exercise. So these deals give countries in the West tariff-free access to markets in African countries and results in floods of cheap foods and other products that price out the local market. Transatlantic slavery may be over but the structures are not.

During my tour of the slavery museum, I learnt how the lifespan of an African enslaved in Brazil was just three years and how one quarter of the enslaved Africans died on every journey. I learnt about how mining industries in Mexico, Brazil and the US were driven by enslaved Africans. And more recently how Haiti is little more than a play area for the USA.

Haiti and the US

The long-standing trade deals between the two countries have done little to eradicate poverty with 80% of Haiti’s population operating below the poverty line. Even though the country’s debt has been wiped clean, the population continues to struggle. Remember the vast disparity in the devastation between Haiti and the US when Hurricane Matthew hit in October 2016?

In Haiti, the death toll exceeded 1,000 but was fewer than 30 in the US. I guess that goes without saying if the US has advanced infrastructure and access to healthcare, made possible by the early foundations that free African labour helped to provide.

So next time someone tells you that the Transatlantic slave trade is a thing of the past that should not be brought up again and again, ask yourself why they don’t want to hear that story when much of our everyday lives are shaped by those horrific pasts.

Read Kitdan’s impressions of the museum and his home city Liverpool here.

Have you been to the International Slavery Museum and what exhibit did you find the most compelling?

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