Wed | Nov 29, 2023

Letter of the Day | Inconvenient truths of slavery

Published:Thursday | August 3, 2017 | 12:00 AM


Four hundred years ago, after the colonisation of the Americas and the mass extinction of the Tainos and other native inhabitants, the Europeans were in desperate need of forced manual labour. We do not know where else they went in their quest, but they seemed to have reaped massive success only on the continent of Africa.

Their proposition to our African forefathers who inhabited the African coast was as shocking as it was preposterous. "Go into your neighbouring villages, jungles, hills and valleys," they said. "Hunt down your fellow Africans. Capture them and sell them to us as slaves. And in exchange, we will give you rum, cotton, brass pots and pans, beads and other little trinkets".

Amazingly, many of our African forefathers accepted this vile proposition. And so began arguably the most hideous crime against humanity the world has ever known, the enslavement of generations of black Africans.

The consequences of this institution would last centuries and would include, among others, the dehumanisation of persons of African descent, and their transportation to foreign lands where they would be repeatedly violated, whipped, abused, humiliated, and bought and sold like chattel.




Today, we universally condemn the Europeans for their orchestration of this crime against humanity. And rightly so. But clearly a 'trade' can only take place if there is a buyer and a seller. And so intellectual honesty also requires us to ask some critical questions of those of our very own African ancestors who participated in, and benefited from, the slave trade as well.

Why did they choose to participate in the slave trade at all? Were they blinded by greed and petty tribal rivalries? To what extent did they consider the implications of their actions?

Did they, for instance, ponder where the enslaved would be taken and what conditions and hardships they would endure in the strange lands to which they would be shipped? Or were they simply indifferent to the plight of their fellow African brethren?




Did they contemplate the short- and long-term impact slavery would have on the families, communities and nations of the African mainland? Most important, did they not recognise that decades and centuries of such a trade would inevitably deplete Africa of one of its most important resource - its human capital?

Some argue that slavery was an accepted, global institution at the time, and therefore involvement would have presented no moral jeopardy to the Africans who actively participated. But that's a copout.

A critical and unbiased look at the history of slavery highlights, on one hand, the savagery of the European slave traders, and the bravery of those of us who fought valiantly for freedom. But on the other hand, it highlights the embarrassing naivete, simplicity, and lack of judgement, foresight, and critical thinking displayed by those of our African forefathers who were involved.

Unfortunately, today, centuries later, many of these same qualities remain too frequently on display among us, their descendants.

Perhaps, therefore, of the many lessons we can learn from slavery, the most important is the pre-eminence of critical thinking, analysis and foresight in guiding decision making at all levels of our nation and society.


St Andrew