Obscure history of the Slave Trade


By Patience Rusare-MuravaSLAVERY – the ownership and control of one human being by another, characterised by subjugating an individual to the point of total obedience – is one of the grimmest phenomena in human history, and sadly remains in existence in various forms across the globe to this day.

Conveniently ignored by the modern world, the abiding image of the practice is of the slave ships, carrying Africans across the Atlantic Ocean, packed like sardines in utterly inhumane conditions, on a journey that many did not survive.

However, it is all too clear that people of the so-called Free World, who now hold themselves to be the champions and protagonists of human rights, were the chief architects of this heinous inhuman practice that tramples on all forms of human rights, and it is in their best interests to not delve into the intricacies of the Slave Trade.

Paradoxically, for all our invocation of slavery, there is silence around the topic. 

For instance, if one broaches the subject of the Slave Trade in Western citadels, people suddenly become uncomfortable. 

One is asked to ‘forget the past’ or ‘not to bring up that ancient history’.

Former US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray even penned a book titled Where you come from matters less than where you are going that attempts to gloss over the injustices of the past.

Astonishingly, there are only two or three academics worldwide studying the origins of the Transatlantic Slave Trade – and much of the body of literature as well as archeological remains have only been explicated in the past four years.

However, it is almost impossible to write the African story without the Transatlantic Slave Trade coming to the fore.

This year marks the 575th anniversary of one of history’s most tragic and significant events – the birth of the Africa-America Transatlantic Slave Trade. 

Today, Africa still feels the effects of the Slave Trade and slavery.

African historians have documented the detrimental effects the Slave Trade had on the institutions and structures of African societies. 

Historical evidence from case studies show how the Slave Trade caused political instability, weakened states, promoted political and social fragmentation and resulted in a deterioration of domestic legal institutions.

The parts of Africa that are the poorest today are also the areas from which the largest number of slaves were abducted in the past.

Because these characteristics persist, these parts of Africa continue to be underdeveloped and poor.

According to the 1971 book The Slave Trade: The Story of Transatlantic Slavery by Oliver Ransford, the Transatlantic Slave Trade started in 1444, when 235 people snatched from the coast of West Africa were transported across the Atlantic Ocean, then put up for sale in Lagos (not in Nigeria), now a laid-back Portuguese beach resort on Europe’s south-western tip.

The tragic practice caused untold suffering to the African populace as well as the people carted across the Atlantic and, today, the Slave Trade left a trail of poverty, racism, inequality and creation of elitist wealth across four continents (Europe, North America, South America and Asia) – yet the practice has almost been completely ignored despite the huge impact it had.

Little wonder our children barely know the details of the Slave Trade and it has been excluded from the curriculum inherited from the colonial regime.

For almost five centuries, more than 12 million black Africans (a conservative figure) were transported during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, according to Marcus Rediker in his book titled The Slave Ship: A Human History published in 2007. 

A further two million reportedly died en route.

The practice was dehumanising; from the capture, treatment, squalid transportation, auctioning (like stock) and subjection to backbreaking work, among other condemnable acts.   

Blacks were ensnared and captured like animals; many of them were bound, with their mouths padlocked. 

The people who participated in the capture of the slaves were fellow blacks, who preferred to be called kings and the slave merchants called caboceers, who made a living from identifying potential areas to ‘harvest’ slaves.

These kings and caboceers, working in cahoots with slave merchants, forced the slaves to walk in ‘slave caravans’ to the European coastal forts, sometimes as far as 1 600 kilometres.

Shackled and underfed, only half the people survived these death marches. 

Those too sick or too weary to keep up were often killed or left to die. 

Those who reached the coastal forts were put into underground dungeons where they would stay, sometimes for as long as a year, until they were boarded on ships.

To avoid this torture, some slaves opted to commit suicide by jumping into the ocean if they got a chance.

Those slaves who survived capture and the journey to the coast would then face the Atlantic crossing (also termed the Middle Passage), which was every bit as terrible as popular memory would have it.

Just as horrifying as these death marches was the Middle Passage. 

In the slave ships, people were stuffed between decks in spaces too low for standing. 

Women were raped, often.  

Men were chained in at least pairs; shackled wrist to wrist or ankle to ankle. 

People were crowded together and usually forced to lie on their backs with their heads between the legs of others. 

This meant they often had to lie in each other’s faeces, urine and, in the case of women’s monthly cycle, in bloody discharge.

They often suffered from dysentery. 

The heat was often unbearable and the air unbreathable.

In such cramped quarters, diseases, such as smallpox and yellow fever, spread like veldfire. 

The sick were thrown overboard and fed to the sharks. 

Some went on to commit suicide after failing to stomach the living conditions on board, and it is reported others used their fingernails to pierce their skin to induce excessive bleeding, leading to death.

Because a small crew had to control so many, cruel measures such as iron muzzles and whippings were used to ‘put the slaves in their place’.

Upon arrival at their destination, the slaves would be auctioned before being dispatched to their respective plantations. 

At the auctions, different criteria were used to put price tags on the slaves; young physically fit men fetched higher prices as well as women with many children, while older ones fetched much less. 

Those who made it to the plantations were overworked and a number of them starved to death. 

Women slaves who were spared the backbreaking farm labour, were given an equally arduous task — breeding future slaves, looking after the products of the breeding exercise while others would tend to domestic chores. 

Female slaves were raped often by their ‘masters’. 

The male slaves were handpicked to sleep with female slaves to breed; these offspring were raised by neither of the parent slaves, but by domestic slaves. 

Such male or female slaves were sold again or taken to other plantations. 

This tells the pain of separation experienced by the African slaves. 

Slaves were denied the right to mourn their deceased or even showing empathy for a sick slave; a practice slave masters equated to weeping over a calf slaughtered by the butcher.

‘Educated’ people like US President and slaveholder Thomas Jefferson stated that Africans were only three-quarters human.

Because of slavery and the maltreatment of blacks, there was also the belief among the white folk that Africans had a higher pain threshold than other races.

Little wonder the brutalisation of the black body was a daily feature of slave life.

This brutalisation received moral support from the church which encouraged slave ownership.

Additionally, governments and organisations worldwide have tended to favour commemorating the slave revolts and abolitionist movements which combined to end the Slave Trade rather than the more historically distant and politically less comfortable story of how it all began.

Apparently, whites such as William Wilberforce have hijacked the narrative that they put up a spirited fight towards the abolishment of slavery, yet they were responding to pressure from the so-called ‘free slaves’.

History has been unkind to individuals, such as Olaudah Equiano, who played a more quintessential role in advocating the abolishment of slavery than most of the individuals who feature in history books.

The silence is more than tragic and unforgivable given that, at the time, slavery underwrote the entire Western economic system.

When the Slave Trade was eventually abolished, at different times in different countries, it was the slave owner who was given compensation and not the slave who had suffered indignity for generations.

It should also be noted that what was abolished was the trade in slaves, not the practice and the laws that recognised the colour bar.

Profits accrued from the Slave Trade and slavery led to rapid investments in various industries in Europe.

America also became filthy rich because of slave labour in cotton and tobacco fields.

So-called white advocates of the abolishment of the trade never released their slaves.

It is indisputable that profits from the Slave Trade financed the British Industrial Revolution and the first industrialisation of the US. 

Today, modern Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Glasgow, among others, owe their opulence largely to wealth from the Slave Trade.

The first financial institutions were also founded from the lucrative proceeds of the Slave Trade. 

Insurance companies, the most famous being Lloyd’s of London for example, sprang up in order to insure slave ships and their human cargo. 

Barclays Bank, the Bank of England and the ill-fated Barings Bank were some of the major financial institutions established because of the wealth their founders gained from the slave and plantation trades.

Even the world famous Codrington Library of the Oxford University, the epicentre of British intellectualism, benefitted from an endowment by Colonel Christopher Codrington, a colonial governor who owned slave plantations in Barbados.

Cultural places, not usually associated with slavery, such as the British Museum and Art Gallery, must thank African slaves for their rise to glory.

While renowned British companies such as Tate and Lyle, Lloyd’s of London and Imperial Tobacco are still dodging responsibility for their inglorious Slave Trade past, all that their American counterparts, such as JP Morgan Chase, can offer is an apology.

The Church of England had slaves in its plantations in Barbados, the so-called ‘Little England’, where the European minority of four percent controlled an estimated 280 000 population, whose national economy it still dominates and controls to this day.

Every important British or European family, including the Royal Family, invested in and grew wealthy from the Slave Trade. 

In fact, the Royal African Company, an English slave-trading outfit, was founded by the Duke of York and his brother Charles II.

Literally, the ‘building’ of such countries like Britain was done on the backs of slaves. This was true not only for Britain but for all the other major Western and northern European powers and the US. 

Europe’s progress and modernity was predicated on Africa’s misery.

Canada, itself, was part of the wider phenomena of the Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery.

Among other things, slavery was a racist system predicated upon an alleged black inferiority and white supremacy.

Those who profited from this system justified it by arguing that blacks deserved enslavement because they were inferior people.

Today we still feel the impact of this kind of thinking.

Institutionalised racist practices, anti-black racism, the colour line, colonialism, African underdevelopment and also that of former slave societies in the New World, duplicity of Western governments, white supremacy, economic disadvantage, racialisation of black peoples as well as  psychic distance between black and white have all been identified as legacies of the Slave Trade and slavery.

This explains why, recently, British House of Lords Cross-bench peer Lord Palmer audaciously asked if Britain was considering re-colonising Zimbabwe.

It also explains Western governments’ attitudes towards Africans.

Africans are just a commodity; a means to an end.

No wonder the US and the West did not hesitate to bomb Libya and butcher Colonel Muammar Gaddafi like a cow at an abattoir.

It is no surprise we have a whole American president referring to African and North American countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Haiti and El Salvador as ‘shit-holes’.

Donald Trump conveniently forgets that they created the ‘shit-hole’.

History would tell you that Liberia was founded in 1821 by former slaves from the US as a result of the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade while Haitian independence marks the only successful slave revolt in modern history.

Sierra Leone’s Freetown had, for several hundred years, been one of the chief resorts of the slave dealers of the Western shores of Africa.

Western NGOs operating in Africa are no better as they represent the thinking of their governments.

Though they purport to be humanitarian, they have no regard for humanity, much in the same way as the kings and caboceers during the Slave Trade era.

Remember the scandal in Chad in 2007. This involved European nationals allegedly embroiled in a scheme to abduct young African children under the pretext of medical emergency. 

They were to take them to Europe, ostensibly to save them from the scourge of civil wars in Darfur and Chad so that the children would have a better life. This put a spotlight on how Western NGOs perceive Africans.

Arguably the most well-known Western intervention in Africa for so-called humanitarian reasons occurred in the 19th Century when European Christian missionaries and their cohorts went to Africa ostensibly to help Africans recover from the ravages of the Slave Trade.

It was colonialism.

Historical records show that the Christian missionaries (the Catholic Church in particular) often advocated the European invasion and conquest of Africa on the grounds that it would facilitate their humanitarian work. 

What is of particular significance is that Christian missionaries viewed Africans, at best, as ignorant and depraved heathens while at worst, as less than human beings who could only be saved through European colonial imperialism and its various agents.

King Leopold of Belgium, who after the 1884-85 Berlin Conference on Africa acquired the Congo, is portrayed in the literature as an outstanding European philanthropist who was engaged in a mission of civilising Africans.

In the portrayal, it is scarcely mentioned that he presided over the genocide of about 12 million Africans in the 1890s.

The history of the Slave Trade should not be sanitised. We owe it to history to document the practices that obtained during the Slave Trade. 

It is a travesty that the German Holocaust has more documented history than the Slave Trade, yet the latter recorded far more figures than what we are made to believe.

Let us revisit our history and set the record straight.

We owe it to ourselves and future generations.

We should know where the rains began to beat us! 


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