The transatlantic slave trade which lasted for over 400 years (between about 1500 and 1900) was the largest forced migration in human history. It completely changed Africa, the Americas and Europe. Over 15 million people (including children) from across the social spectrum (musicians, artists, farmers, traders, soldiers etc.) were taken from Africa and enslaved. The historical event also embedded the narrative of ‘racial’ difference into the political, economic, cultural and social fabric of countries around the world.
The United Nations (UN) declared 25 March the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to be observed annually. The UN called for programmes to mobilise educational institutions and other organisations to educate future generations about the “causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, and to communicate the dangers of racism and prejudice.”
There are other annual observances, such as Slavery Remembrance Day (designated by UNESCO) which is held on the 23rd of August annually in recognition of the day in 1791 when an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) began. It was a momentous event in the fight to end the European transatlantic slave trade and a reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation.
While many nations profited from the trade, Portugal and Britain were the two dominant countries accounting for about 70% of all Africans transported to the Americas and enslaved. Britain was the most dominant between 1640 and 1807; the three most important ports were London (1660-1720s), Bristol (1720s-1740s) and Liverpool (1740s-1807).
Work by UCL catalogues the details of British slave owners, illustrates the extent to which the historic wealth of the slave trade extends its reach into modern Britain and contributed to British society flourishing long after slavery was abolished: in the Georgian architecture of cities such as London, Liverpool and Bristol; in established businesses, in the wealth of some sectors of the country.
People who were taken from Africa were transported on disease-ridden ships, and treated with physical and emotional cruelty. Those who survived the journey lost their families, their languages, their culture, their links to their ethnic groups and historical ties. Countless lives were lost; the depletion of human capital from Africa was so substantial that countries have still not recovered from it to this day. After abolition, former slaves were left in abject poverty, a legacy from which no country has recovered. In Jamaica, for example, Britain’s largest slave colony, 80% of its population lacked functional literacy at the time it was granted independence in 1962.
Below we list resources and references which you can use to explore the issues around this significant day of remembrance which has had a substantial impact on subsequent generations and informs discourse around ethnicity, race, inequity and power in countries around the world to this day.
(Image used for this article is by Sulaiman Ishola called “African Faces”)