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Bicentennial of Abolition of Atlantic Slave Trade

End the Racist System of Modern Day Slavery!
An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!
All for One and One for All!

March 25, 2007 marks 200 years since the trafficking in captive Africans for enslavement throughout the British empire officially ended. On this date 200 years ago, the British Parliament passed An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade which declared that from May 1, 1807 the slave trade shall be abolished. In the U.S. the international practice of trafficking in African captives enshrined in the U.S. constitution ended one year later in 1808. However, U.S. domestic trafficking and forced breeding to offset the loss from international trafficking continued until 1865. At that time chattel slavery was officially abolished but the denial of civil status to former slaves continued in one form or another until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

In the post-Civil War period, systematic crimes were committed against African Americans to maintain conditions of near-slavery -- from the "Black Codes," which enforced that Blacks who quit their job could be arrested and imprisoned for breach of contract, to post-Reconstruction practices of sharecropping and peonage. Peonage was a complex system where a black man would be arrested for 'vagrancy,' ordered to pay a fine that he could not afford, and then incarcerated. A plantation owner would then pay the fine and use the black man's labour until the fine could be paid off. The peon was forced to work, locked up at night and if he escaped, chased by bloodhounds until recaptured. In the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Scott, an escaped slave, remained a slave, and that as a slave was not a citizen of the U.S. and thus not eligible to bring suit in a federal court, and that as a slave he was personal property and thus could never be free. In other words, the slave is not to fight for freedom -- a crime the slave-owner will not forgive. Thus the empire-builders past and present attribute the historic victory of the abolition of the slave trade to themselves, to the power of empire, while when it comes to reparations, it is declared not possible.

At the beginning of the 18th century there were more than 4.6 million African people enslaved worldwide. In the U.S. over 8,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved from 1619 to 1865. Historians estimate that one slave perished for everyone who survived capture in the African interior and made it alive to the U.S.

Diagram showing the interior of an 18th century slave ship.

Not only did the institution of slavery result in the extinguishment of millions of Africans, it eviscerated whole cultures: languages, religions, mores and customs. Herein lies the true meaning of slavery -- the psychological destruction of its victims by wrenching them from their history, their memories and their families on a scale never previously witnessed and reducing them to chattel.
The practice of slavery constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans' life, liberty, humanity and cultural heritage and it further deprived them of the fruits of their own labour. In spite of this, the U.S., Britain, Canada and the former colonial powers that benefitted so greatly from this crime against humanity refuse to make reparations.

The movement for reparations goes back to 1898 soon after chattel slavery was abolished. In 1898 activist Callie House delivered 600,000 signatures of African Americans and their supporters to the U.S. Congress demanding pensions for former slaves and their descendants. Her petition states:

"It is a precedent established by patriots of this country to relieve its distressed citizens, both on land and sea, and millions of our deceased people, besides those who still survive, worked as slaves for the development of this country, and Whereas, We believe it is just and right to grant the ex-slaves a pension."

Signatories to the petition affirmed that in that spirit, "We sign this petition in support of our just demand for reparations."

Since 1898, the courts have refused to provide redress in the form of reparations. According to the courts, the issue of slavery reparations is an issue that has historically and constitutionally been committed to the legislative and executive branch of government. In spite of this, efforts continue to target companies that participated in, perpetuated and profited from the crime of slavery. FleetBoston, Lloyd's of London and R.J. Reynolds are examples of companies which aided and abetted the commission of genocide as well as torture, ethnic cleansing, rape, kidnapping and murder. Besides other things, they financed and insured the ships used to deliver slaves to tobacco plantations in the U.S.

The movement for reparations in the U.S. estimates that from 1790 to 1860, the U.S. economy reaped the benefits of as much as $40 million in unpaid labour. Some estimate the current value of this unpaid labour at $1.4 trillion, however this does not even touch the surface of the kind of system based on the exploitation of persons by persons which has continued to adjust itself to achieve its aim of living off the labour of the exploited and oppressed.

In this regard the movement for reparations is in essence the striving of the working class and oppressed peoples of the world to create a system in their own image -- a system without the exploitation of persons by persons in which the rights of all human beings and their collectives and nations are provided with a guarantee.

 April 19, 1866: African American citizens of Washington, D.C. celebrate the abolition of slavery. 4,000 to 5,000 people assembled at the White House, where they were addressed by President Andrew Johnson. Led by two black regiments, they marched past 10,000 cheering spectators. A sign on top of the speaker's platform read: "We have received our civil rights. Give us the right of suffrage and the work is done." (Harper's Weekly, May 12, 1866, p. 300)

Today the U.S. and all former colonial powers and dominions such as Canada perpetuate a system of modern day slavery under the same criminal justification that the prosperity of the few to the detriment of the many is pre-ordained and that the enslaved workers and oppressed peoples of the world owe their existence and emancipation to condescending saviours. The fact remains that the liberation of the slaves was the deed of the enslaved who never accepted their condition, just as the slave-owners have never accepted their emancipation.

In this vein Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a perfunctory statement on March 25. Calling the abolition of the African slave trade throughout the British empire an "historic victory in the struggle for freedom and human dignity," Harper attributed it to "a decade long campaign by courageous abolitionists, led by the great parliamentarian William Wilberforce."

He not only dismissed outright the centuries-long struggle for emancipation of the enslaved Africans and Native peoples of the Americas against this criminal colonial practice and legacy, but the essence of his message is "Long Live Empire!"

Referring to the historic abolition of the slave trade by the British empire he says, "With this the full might of the British Empire was directed to ending the barbaric practice of the African slave trade..." For emphasis he recalls "the important role that Canadians played in the struggle against slavery, most notably the leadership of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe who persuaded the Legislature of Upper Canada to adopt the first meaningful restrictions on slavery within the British Empire in 1793..." Significantly, Harper does not round out the story of Simcoe who, three years later led a military expedition to
  Slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), 1791.
Haiti to rescue the slave-owners from the slave rebellions. According to the hazy description in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, in 1796 "As part of Henry Dundas' much criticized strategy of colonial warfare against France, the British had intervened in that island at the invitation of royalist French planters. They had found a complex racial war in which the planters were being overwhelmed by free mulattos and by rebel slaves, some of whom accepted French republican authority and some of whom had Spanish support. The British force had no prospect of winning; but in nine months Simcoe was able to bring order to the civil administration, to check corruption in the system of military supply, to reorganize a medical service inadequate to cope with yellow fever, and to restore the collapsing defence of the royalists' plantations. The breakdown of his health after only five months' actual service on the island obliged him to leave in July 1797. The government was displeased, partly because the whole enterprise was not the easy success that had been originally hoped for, and partly because he greatly exceeded the strict budget set for him. The budget was inadequate, but in any case Simcoe was temperamentally unsuited to the stricter ministerial control of the West Indies. Refusing to attempt more than a military stalemate without fresh troops, he persisted in outlining plans of conquest if given the reinforcements that were so clearly not available. Without them, failure was only a matter of time. The sensible course, as his successor realized, would have been to use the authorization that the government had already given him to withdraw."

Fugitive slaves arriving at a safe house “station” on the Underground Railroad (Charles T. Webber, 1895)
After whitewashing the essence of the historic victory won by the enslaved Africans that refused to accept slavery, as an afterthought Harper acknowledges the role played by "those who made Canada the North Star of the Underground Railroad for thousands of escaped slaves."

Finally, Harper uses the occasion to disinform Canadians about the current struggle against modern day slavery:

"While we must always be vigilant in combatting the vestiges [sic] of racial discrimination, Canadians can take great pride that we have built a society of hope and equality of opportunity. Let us dedicate ourselves to continuing this work by combatting contemporary forms of slavery, such as human trafficking."

He not only dismisses the systemic racism inherent in Canada's economic, political, social and cultural system but does not specify precisely what constitutes "human trafficking"? This Stephen Harper will not say because Canadian governments are the architects of the reengineering of the state to make modern day slavery legal in the manner of the system of civil death which was established in the U.S. after chattel slavery proper was abolished.

Civil death is the declaration that under one hoax or another human persons have no status when it comes to legal rights and protections. Today, this is the status enforced in Canada on migrant labourers from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean who are considered non-persons when it comes to legal protections of any kind. Immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are targetted for racial profiling and discrimination as a matter of course. These are not "vestiges" of racial discrimination as Harper puts it. They are the conscious policy of the modern-day empire-builders participating in aggression and war abroad and the fascistization of all of life at home.

State-organized racism in the form of lynchings and segregation
were the modern legacy of slavery in the U.S.
In the U.S. the status of non-persons for African Americans was the target of the U.S. civil rights movement. With untold sacrifice it led to more historic successes. Nonetheless, the disparities between white and black America tell the real story. A 1998 census report shows that 26 per cent of African American people in the United States live in poverty compared to 8 per cent of whites. The same year, African American infant-mortality rates were more than twice as high as those among whites. Federal figures also show that a black person born in 1996 can expect to live on average 6.6 fewer years than a white person born the same year.

African Americans are more likely to go to jail, to be there longer, and if their crime is eligible, to receive the death penalty. They lag behind whites according to every social yardstick: literacy, life expectancy, income and education.

Furthermore the U.S. ruling circles continue to reverse the advances made during the civil rights movement by legalizing the notion of civil death for all those who refuse to accept their conditions of enslavement in any way, shape or form. To speak about societies of "hope and equal opportunity" and refer to contemporary forms of slavery within the confines of a very limited definition of what constitutes "human trafficking" condones the systemic racism on which societies such as the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany and other former colonial powers are based. It condones the massive dislocation of the peoples of the world in the neo-liberal global market and the use of youth as cannon fodder for U.S. wars of aggression and occupation and all the crimes the U.S. is committing against humanity, in return for promises of citizenship.

On this occasion, TML calls on the Canadian working class and youth of this country to use the occasion of the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade to take up the abolitionist movement in its profundity. Uphold the dignity of labour by ending the racist system of exploitation of persons by persons and fighting for another world in which all forms of slavery are abolished. Go all out on May 1, 2007 to oppose the attacks on migrant labour in Canada and the U.S., the attempts to destroy the trade unions, institute guest worker programs which seek to enshrine civil death and a system where the rights of all can be trampled in the mud.

No to Condescending Saviours!
End the Racist System of Modern Day Slavery
An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!
All for One and One for All!
Demand Reparations Now!

Note On November 28, 2006, in a resolution introduced by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), with a 110-plus co-sponsors, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted unanimously to designate March 25, 2007 as the International Day for the Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, the day the Imperial British Parliament signed the Abolition of Slavery Act.

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