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Religion & Culture | The Black Holocaust - Behind a global economic system that killed and enslaved millions

Published:Wednesday | October 17, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby

The Transatlantic slave trade was unique, not because of the millions raped and killed, but because it served as the economic lifeline of every global power today.

From the Americas to Europe and to every other place I have rested my head, I have listened reservedly to many who have spoken dismissively of the African Slave Trade as just one of many types of slavery throughout history.

It is a pattern, a refrain, and a farcical one at that, spewed by talk-show hosts, conservative politicians, and some liberal scholars.

To equate the African Slave Trade with any other form of slavery is dangerously misleading. For one, it absolves the nations, and other powerful interests, that benefited economically and politically from the centuries-long exploitation of human cargo.

It also marginalises the slavery's lingering impact on millions of people today. Finally, it devalues the tens of millions of blacks that perished.

Conservative estimates by the United Nations put the death toll at more than 17,000,000.


Others cite astronomically higher figures.

No other form of slavery exacted such brutality on a people. The Middle Passage alone is enough to silence detractors. No other slavery accounted for the death tens of millions of people. And no other form of slavery was so internationalised that the economies of every major power depended on its very existence.

Institutional forms of slavery did exist in Greece, Rome, and other parts of the world. And, yes, it did exist in pre-colonial Africa.


Slavery in Ancient Rome


Let's look at slavery in Ancient Rome. Pliny in Natural History (33.70), writes of its pervasiveness (as a status symbol), including its rigid stratification. Slaves worked in mining, agriculture, and in domestic capacities. Those relegated to mining tasks bore slavery's darkest side.

"Mountains are hollowed out by the digging of long tunnels by the light of torches. The miners work in shifts as long as the torches last and do not see daylight for months at a time ..."

Not unlike slaves in the Americas, household domestic workers fared better, but unlike the African slaves, they were able to procure property (called peculium) and money, that were used to buy their freedom.

In Mark Cartwright's Slavery in the Roman World we learn that freedom could be permanent, or restrictive, based on financial obligations (statuliber), to their owner.

Slavery in pre-colonial Africa existed in many forms. Kingdoms militarily absorbed smaller groups, the spoils of which included captives who were made slaves. Slavery was used to settle debt, or was part of a retributive system aimed at communal justice.

Note the following, though: unlike the Atlantic Trade, slaves (in pre-colonial Africa) had traditional rights, were not transferable from one owner to the next and could themselves own slaves.

(Ken Olende's Slavery in PreColonial Africa Does Not Justify Atlantic Trade).

History professor Donald Wright builds on this narrative in Slavery in Africa, arguing strongly against equating the brutality of the slave trade with conditions in pre-colonial Africa.

He writes, "In the interior of West and Central Africa, slaves often served as soldiers and confidants of high officials. With their necessarily limited ambitions and dependence on their masters, slaves were considered the ideal persons to be close to men in power. In a few cases, female slaves assumed power and influence as well.

"For example, in the 19th century in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey (now southern Benin), women served in the royal palace and formed the kingdom's soldier elite.

"Slaves, taken in battle or in slave raids, were cut off from their kin. In some societies, however, slaves were viewed as dependents, and could, over time, become identified as members of their owners' extended families.

"Many African societies decreed that children of slave owners by their slaves could not be sold or killed. Also, after three or four generations, descendants of slaves could often shed their slave status. Thus slavery, on one hand, cut people off from their kin but, on the other hand, provided them with the possibility of becoming attached to other families and, after several generations, reintegrated into the web of kinship."

One of the most unique aspects of the transatlantic slave trade was its indispensability. It was the hub around which the European and American economies were built. Banking institutions, private financiers, insurance companies, shipping companies, traders, merchants, architects, politicians, the planter class, small investors and builders all profited from the pillaging and enslavement of Africans.

In How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy, the writer explains how each plantation was part of an international economic and banking system.

He adds, "As American financial and shipping companies expanded throughout the southern region, banks and financial houses in New York supplied the loan capital and/or investment capital to purchase land and slaves.

"Recruited as an inexpensive source of labour, enslaved Africans in the United States also became important economic, and political, capital in the American political economy. Enslaved Africans were legally a form of property - a commodity. Individually and collectively, they were frequently used as collateral in all kinds of business transactions. They were also traded for other kinds of goods and services ... used to secure loans to purchase additional land or slaves (and) to pay off outstanding debts. When calculating the value of estates, the estimated value of each slave was included. This became the source of tax revenue for local and state governments. Taxes were also levied on slave transactions."



A Unique Holocaust


Surely, ours was a Holocaust like no other. Still, and disturbingly, blacks are told to be quiet if they dare raise the unique horror of the slave trade, although other groups, openly and unapologetically, memorialise and institutionalised their painful past.

Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer once warned the Jewish people to never make a salad bowl of the Holocaust (even if the suffering of others during the Second World War is marginalised in the process.)

The Holocaust is theirs, their patent, forever imprinted in their DNA.

Well, in the vein of Bauer, I ask my people not to make a salad bowl of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery. We must learn our history so that we can effectively respond to those who, out of ignorance, or pure spite, dishonour our memory.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning audiobook, Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Feedback: