Recognising one of history’s darkest hours
Thomas Clarkson was an English abolitionist and a leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire. He helped found the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade (also known as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade) and helped achieve passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended British trade in slaves. In his later years, Clarkson campaigned for the abolition of slavery worldwide; it was then concentrated in the Americas. In 1840, he was the key speaker at the Anti-Slavery Society’s (today known as Anti-Slavery International) first conference in London, England, which campaigned to end slavery in other countries.
The image that would become the emblem, or logo, for the movement, as well as a political, fashion, and ideological statement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was originally designed by a member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in London in 1787.
The logo is comprised of the image of an African man kneeling in chains and above the figure the words read, “Am I not a man and a brother?” These words are said to have appealed to the reason and sentiment of late-18th-century men and women, who were disturbed by accounts of the atrocities committed on the transatlantic slave trade routes, and informed by abolitionist literature distributed in coffee houses, taverns, public assembly rooms, reading societies, and private homes. The medallion expressed in material form the growing horror at the barbarous practices of the transatlantic slave trade and the premises upon which that trade thrived.
This image became so popular that it was appropriated and reproduced in both Britain and America and used as decoration on snuffbox lids, shoe buckles, hairpins, pendants, and bracelets, many of which were made from a variety of materials such as ceramic, metal, glass, and fabric. This image was not always accepted as many argued that the image depicts a black man in a pitiful manner rather than proud and dignified. Nevertheless, the effect that these types of medallions and this image had on garnering support for the abolition of the trade of enslaved Africans cannot be underscored.
Today, even though the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade is the subject of much debate, it is important that we, especially as a nation predominantly of African descent never forget. There is no doubt that such a barbaric trade that lasted for centuries resulted in the destruction of a significant portion of the language, culture, and religion of millions of Africans. It has also been proven that the removal of such large numbers of people from Africa disrupted the African economy, and that dislocation is believed by some scholars to have permanently disadvantaged Africa compared to other parts of the world. It can also be argued that slavery redefined Africans to the world, leaving a legacy of racism and stereotyping of Africans as inferior and subhuman.
Annually the director-general of UNESCO invites the ministers of culture of all member states to organise events, involving the entire population of their country and in particular young people, educators, artists, and intellectuals. International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was first celebrated in a number of countries, in particular Haiti in 1998 and Goree Island, Senegal, in 1999.
Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica.