On the 23rd August 2016 the International day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its Abolition’ is commemorated every year on the 23rd august. As the day approaches and I would like to tell a story about my experiences ‘remembering slavery and it’s abolition’. Last year I finished producing a film about the Legacies of African Enslavement
“When I say black? what are the some of the things first things you think about? Answers from class: Violence, savage, aggression, second class, third world… What does it do to your psyche if you identify as black and these are the things that even you as black people, associate with blackness?” (Akala, October 2014)
The word Maangamzi is Swahili for the ‘African holocaust’. Its dictionary definition refers to several different English words including destruction, doom, annihilation and catastrophe. But when Maangamizi is used in context it is specific and goes further. It is not only about the forced enslavement by Europe of 12 million African men, women and children with the associated murder, hard labour and torture that was ‘chattel slavery’. The term also encompasses the continued enslavement endured by peoples and countries under colonialism and later neocolonialism.
This is how author, rapper and educator Akala began his first Local roots /Global routes workshop to a group of students from the BSix sixth-form college in Hackney. Local Roots /Global Routes was set up by UCL’s Legacy’s Of British Slave-Ownership project, Hackney museum and The London Museums Group’s Share Academy. One of the project’s aims is to explore how we can “tell our national stories in ways that include the histories of African men, women and children and their descendants.” I filmed the discussion as part of my contribution to the project.
Akala addressed a group of a-level students with predominantly African or Carribean heritage. After a short discussion he began to draw from his extensive pool of knowledge. He passionately presented what he had discovered during his travels through the African continent: the existence of the ancient ‘Nabta Playa’, the world’s oldest astronomical observatory in the Sahara Desert, the Benin Bronzes and the 700 year old homes of the Swahili empire that owned flushing toilets long before Europe had any idea about decent sanitation.
Akala also spoke vehemently about the Haitian revolution. In 1791 on French owned Saint-Domingue of Hispaniola, a man called Toussaint L’Ouverture, led a revolt against the plantations and committed to freeing all the enslaved people in the region. L’Ouverture was a self-educated man who believed strongly in revolution, he was also formerly enslaved. In 1793 he told his army of Brothers and friends, “I am Toussaint Louverture, I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St Domingue.” His revolt resulted in the ending of slavery on Saint-Domingue and after numerous battles and a war with Napoleon, the forming of the independent state of Haiti in 1804. Now why isn’t this important aspect of our shared history known about and celebrated more widely?
Akala argued that universal knowledge about Africa’s history is conspicuous in its absence. The period of enslavement and colonialism covers just five centuries of Africa’s three million year history and yet it seems to colour and distort some of our understanding of it. During the era of enslavement it is argued that a process of dehumanising ‘blackness’ occurred; racialist theories claimed that Africans were somehow ‘inferior’ to Europeans. Even Charles Darwin subscribed to some of these theories. In his article in The Guardian David Olusoga argues that the roots of modern racism lie in an incorrect pseudo-anthropology that was spouted at the time. Theories about African inferiority were essentially used as propaganda to justify and prolong British ‘slave-trading’.
I think a lot of young people today, I think they are lost. I think not knowing the history in itself makes you lost person because history is what makes you. (Ferus- student, Local Routes/Global Roots project)
During the interviews for the film Reflections, the students told me that African enslavement was still an ‘open wound’ to many members of the black community. They also felt strongly that the legacies of that period had had an impact on their sense of worth, on a sense of how they ‘fit in’. Ultimately they said that they felt the documented histories of Africa and enslavement were told by the ‘victors’; the ‘colonisers’ and left out all the other voices, particularly, the voices of those who resisted enslavement or fought to end it.
In secondary schools the teaching of African enslavement is mandatory and students learn both about its ‘affects’ and about abolition. In terms of teaching, there is progress in the representation and remembering of the sacrifices African people made in the fight for abolition. We do also celebrate Black History Month every October. But something is clearly missing if young people of both African and Caribbean descent are feeling disempowered by the teaching of the subject.
British Abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson are rightly revered for challenging the idea that anyone should ‘own’ another human being. Wilberforce was certainly a force in the campaign for the abolition of enslavement, but he was only one part of it. The Sons of Africa were a group of African abolitionists in London who had ‘purchased’ their freedom. Eloudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Quobna Ottabah Cugoano are the most well known members. They campaigned against enslavement by writing letters and lobbying politicians to support their cause. Their important role hasn’t yet been enshrined into the story of abolition.
In 1833, after years of political resistance and dithering, parliament in London passed the Abolition of Slavery act. (Although adults in the Caribbean were not actually free until 1838). Today we remember the white middle class men who achieved this, but shouldn’t we also be paying attention to the memories of L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Samuel Sharpe and the Sons of Africa movement? Those who fought and won their freedom and ignited the flame for others to follow. Shouldn’t these stories be encompassed into our collective history and education? Because this history changed the face of the world, created new nations and altered the course of others. It has put Europe in Africa and forced African people into Europe and the Americas. The cities of Europe were made rich from the lucrative selling of sugar while many African and Caribbean countries have been stunted by the legacies of enslavement and colonialism.
Reparations for African enslavement took the stage in the British media after the Carribean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) Reparations Commission published their ‘ten point plan’ through the London-based legal firm; Leigh-Day. CARICOM calls for European governments to take part in a process of ‘reparatory justice’, with the ultimate aim of achieving ‘reconciliation, truth, and justice for victims and their descendants’. Much of the media focus has been about reparations in the form of a large cash sum or ‘pay-off’.
Last September, Caricom’s chair Sir Hilary Beckles wrote an open letter to David Cameron where he states; “We ask not for handouts or any such acts of indecent submission. We merely ask that you acknowledge responsibility for your share of this situation and move to contribute in a joint programme of rehabilitation and renewal” The UK based reparations movement PARCOE is requesting that the British government set up an ‘All party Parliamentary commission of Inquiry for Truth and Reparatory Justice’. Their goal is to initiate an honest, open conversation to address the wrongs of the past, not a demand for an insurmountable cash pay-off.
When thinking about reparations, the psychological effects of slavery on the descendants of the enslaved is not being taken into account. Clearly, it is something that cannot easily be quantified or measured. Underneath Caricom’s point on ‘Psychological Repair’ it states “Only a reparatory justice approach to truth and educational exposure can begin the process of healing and repair”. If young people today are taught more of the full story about the ‘triangular trade’ with all its nuance and complexity, then perhaps this process of repair could begin. We would include the stories of the oppressed triumphing over their masters, stories of vested interests and financial gain and of incorrect pseudo-science. If some of the ‘other’ voices from history are heard could this lead to a better understanding of the current cultural landscape, social stratum and racial tensions?
Reparations is clearly no easy issue to tackle. Certainly compensation would be beneficial for many of the economies that have been damaged by the period of enslavement and colonial rule. Perhaps the first action that Britain could take could be to acknowledge committing this crime, acknowledge that they were a key player and fundamental to the damage that has been done. Perhaps then, those in the African and Caribbean diaspora who are asking for reparations and the communities across the world that still suffer from economic, social and cultural disadvantage because of these crimes, can experience a very small bit of the peace and justice they deserve.