Nobody ever chose to be a slave
By THANO MBEKI
"Letter from the President", ANC Today, April 13-19, 2007
MORE THAN 200 YEARS AGO, in 1802, Haiti was in the grip of an intense military and political struggle that was waged by African slaves, to liberate themselves from French slave owners, and from French domination. Angered by the sustained struggle of the slaves, Napoleon said:
"Toussaint...this gilded African...I will not rest until I have torn the epaulettes off every nigger in the colonies...Toussaint L'Ouverture has chosen a course of action which is quite impossible and that which the Metropole considers most intolerable. At this time, they don't even wish to discuss the matter further, these black leaders, these ungrateful and rebellious Africans."
However, neither Napoleon nor the French armies commanded among others by his brother-in-law, General Leclerc, could tear the epaulettes off the "ungrateful and rebellious Africans." The struggle in Haiti culminated in the proclamation on 1 January 1804, of Haiti as the first ever, independent Black Republic.
Unfortunately, the global celebrations in 2004 to mark the bicentenary of this historic event were much more subdued than the more recent celebrations, in 2007, to mark the bicentenary of the adoption in 1807, by the British Parliament, and the signing into law of the Abolition of Slave Trade Act, which, while not prohibiting slavery, made it illegal for British subjects and institutions to participate in the transportation of slaves.
However, it was important that the international community should commemorate this bicentenary as part of its response to the challenge to address the massive legacy of slavery and the contemporary forms of its manifestation.
Prophets and rebels
In the Introduction to his seminal 2005 book, "Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves", the historian, Adam Hochschild, writes:
"At the end of the eighteenth century, well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to eighty thousand chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year.
"In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons. The same was true in parts of Africa, and it was from these millions indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave traders drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent's coasts. African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well...
"One measure of how much slavery pervaded the world of the eighteenth century is the traffic on the Atlantic Ocean...So rapidly were slaves worked to death, above all on the brutal sugar plantations in the Caribbean, that between 1660 and 1807, ships brought well over three times as many Africans across the ocean to British colonies as they did Europeans. And, of course, it was not just to British colonies that slaves were sent.
"From Senegal to Virginia, Sierra Leone to Charleston, the Niger delta to Cuba, Angola to Brazil, and on dozens upon dozens of crisscrossing paths taken by thousands of vessels, the Atlantic was a conveyor belt to early death in the fields of an immense swath of plantations that stretched from Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro and beyond."
About three weeks ago, on 25 March, the international community joined together to celebrate the bicentenary of the signing into law, at noon on 25 March 1807, by King George III of Great Britain, of the Abolition of Slave Trade Act. Adam Hochschild explains that the Act "banned British subjects, shipyards, outfitters, and insurers from participating in the slave trade to the colonies of France and its allies...(It) stopped all slave ships from leaving the world's major slave-trading nation after 1 May 1807, (and) gave hope to millions of people around the Atlantic."
In a letter to one Pavel Annenkov, in 1846, Karl Marx also wrote about the fundamental importance of slavery to the birth of the new, post-feudal world. He said:
"Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry.
"But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World."
International solidarity & reparations
Important as it was, in the ways indicated by Marx and Hochschild, ultimately the slavery they spoke of became a thing of the past. This came about as a result of the heroic struggles waged by the African slaves of Haiti, and their colleagues throughout the "New World". But this historic result was also accomplished because of the actions of people of conscience in the slave-owning countries, who felt it their duty to act in solidarity with the slaves who were laying down their lives to secure their emancipation.
In good measure, the book "Bury the Chains" is an outstanding tribute to these people of conscience, and especially those who raised the banner of anti-slavery in Great Britain, then the principal slave trader along the African Atlantic coast. These include Thomas Clarkson, John Newton, the freed slave Olaudah Equiano, Granville Sharp, James Stephen, and, of course, William Wilberforce.
Writing of these people of honour, Adam Hochschild says: "Their passion and optimism are still contagious and still relevant to our times, when, in so many parts of the world, equal rights for all men and women seem far distant.
"The movement they forged is a landmark for an additional reason. There is always something mysterious about human empathy, and when we feel it and when we don't. Its sudden upwelling at this particular moment caught everyone by surprise. Slaves and other subjugated people have rebelled throughout history, but the campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights. And most startling of all, the rights of people of another colour, on another continent.
"No one was more taken aback by this than Stephen Fuller, the London agent for Jamaica's planters, an absentee plantation owner himself and a central figure in the proslavery lobby. As tens of thousands of protesters signed petitions to Parliament, Fuller was amazed that these were 'stating no grievance or injury of any sort or kind, affecting the Petitioners themselves'. His bafflement is understandable. He was seeing something new in history."
The new thing Fuller saw was the inevitable growth, given the birth of the global capitalist market, of the phenomenon of international solidarity, which, later, gave birth to the powerful and global solidarity movement against apartheid. The Church of England and the Anglican Church internationally was an important activist in this anti-apartheid struggle, including its present head in his personal capacity, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Rt Rev Rowan Williams.
It therefore came as no surprise that, on the occasion of the celebration of the bicentenary of the adoption of the British Abolition of Slave Trade Act of 1807, Archbishop Williams raised a question considered difficult and contentious by some in the former slave-owning countries - the issue of reparations. In this regard, the Archbishop's office said: "The point about moral responsibility is that the slave trade yielded considerable profit for institutions - but how that is dealt with now means asking the wider question about how that heritage is used to help most effectively those suffering because of the legacy of slavery."
More specifically, the Archbishop of Canterbury raised the important issue whether the Church should not find ways and means by which to return to those who were enslaved the compensation it received when the slaves it owned were freed as a result of the adoption in Great Britain of the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act. For his part, British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his profound sorrow and apology for British involvement in slavery.
In their 2002 Report to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, entitled "Abolishing Slavery and its Contemporary Forms", David Weissbrodt and Anti-Slavery International say with regard to the issue of reparations:
"While the Declaration (of the Durban 2001 UN World Conference against Racism - WCAR) acknowledges that the transatlantic slave trade and slavery were 'appalling tragedies' in history and are a source of racism and related intolerance, it states little in terms of express reparations for descendants of victims of slavery. The Declaration notes that 'some States have taken the initiative to apologise and have paid reparation, where appropriate, for grave and massive violations committed,' and it suggests that States find appropriate ways to restore the dignity of victims and calls on States to take measures to halt and reverse the lasting consequences of such practices. In addition, the Final Declaration urges States to ensure the right of victims to seek just and adequate reparation and satisfaction. In conclusion, the WCAR 'acknowledge[d] that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organised nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade, and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences.'"
In the light of these decisions, agreed by the international community in Durban in 2001, it is clear that Archbishop Rowan Williams was perfectly correct to raise the issue he put back on the global agenda - the need to find ways and means to address the persisting material and other consequences of slavery.
Slavery in new clothes
The challenge facing the international community in this regard is compounded by the fact that the contemporary global economy and society have given birth to various forms of economic activity affecting millions of human beings, that are akin to the loss of personal freedom experienced by the classical slaves. This suggests that the past historic victories against slavery succeeded to defeat and suppress slavery only for a limited period of time.
However, I believe that it will help us better to contend with the new reality if we consider what Karl Marx meant when he said - "All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World."
In the substance, he sought to make the point that, ineluctably, economic systems predicated on private gain will always seek ways to enslave the people who work for others, while accepting that employers might be obliged to pretend that their relationship with their employees is something other than one between a slave and a slave-owner.
Surely this must mean that within the context of our pursuit of the objective of a people-centred society, we must at all times remain vigilant to confront the tendency towards the enslavement of the working people, however disguised. To help us in this regard, there has emerged a large body of knowledge that seeks to define what are considered to be modern forms of slavery. In this regard the view has been presented that:
"Common characteristics distinguish slavery from other human rights violations. A slave is:
* forced to work - through mental or physical threat;With regard to the foregoing, the point has been made that the following are the various types of slavery that exist today:
* owned or controlled by an 'employer', usually through mental or physical abuse or threatened abuse;
* dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as 'property';
* physically constrained or has restrictions placed on his/her freedom of movement."
"Bonded labour (that) affects millions of people around the world. People become bonded labourers by taking or being tricked into taking a loan for as little as the cost of medicine for a sick child. To repay the debt, many are forced to work long hours, seven days a week, up to 365 days a year. They receive basic food and shelter as 'payment' for their work, but may never pay off the loan, which can be passed down for generations;
"Early and forced marriage (that) affects women and girls who are married without choice and are forced into lives of servitude often accompanied by physical violence;
"Forced labour (that) affects people who are illegally recruited by individuals, governments or political parties and forced to work - usually under threat of violence or other penalties;
"Slavery by descent (which) is where people are either born into a slave class or are from a 'group' that society views as suited to being used as slave labour;
"Trafficking (which) involves the transport and/or trade of people - women, children and men - from one area to another for the purpose of forcing them into slavery conditions; and,
"Worst forms of child labour (that) affects (according to the ILO), an estimated 126 million children around the world in work that is harmful to their health and welfare."
An African tragedy - A luta continua!
In an earlier Letter in ANC TODAY Vol 5 No 40, we drew attention to the tragedy facing large numbers of Africans who, driven by dire poverty, daily risk their lives to reach Europe in search of even the meanest of jobs, provided these give them the means to avoid death by starvation.
This desperate flight from poverty in Africa creates the perfect circumstances for some in Europe to employ Africans (and others from Asia and Latin America), in conditions of disguised slavery. Surely the moment will once again come round when the newly enslaved will once more rise up to liberate themselves. Undoubtedly, once again there will be people of conscience within the developed world, who will join the newly enslaved in a concerted and sustained uprising that will, once more, constitute a landmark in the evolution of human society.
Together,these comrades-in-arms created the possibility for modern society to address the challenging question of how the heritage represented by the progress achieved by those who benefited from open and old slavery, and those who benefit from disguised, contemporary slavery, should be used to help most effectively those suffering because of the legacy of slavery in all its forms.
"Nobody ever chose to be a slave, to be colonised, to be racially oppressed. The impulses of the time caused these crimes to be committed by human beings against others. Surely, the impulse of our own time says to all of us that we must do everything we can to free those who to this day suffer from racism, xenophobia and related intolerance because their forebears were enslaved, colonised and racially oppressed."
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