Emancipation Monument, Barbados
Larger than life-sized statue of unknown slave, with broken shackles. Named 'Slave in Revolt' by its creator, the Barbadian sculptor Karl Broodhagen, this statue was commissioned by the government of Barbados to commemorate the 150th anniversary of slave emancipation in the British colonies; it was unveiled in March 1985.*
On the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade Reparations, rights and emancipation
By TONY SEED and ISAAC SANEY*
THE AIM of this special supplement, on the occasion of Black History Month and the bicentennial of Britain's abolition of the slave trade, is to inform. A key theme is the development of racism and resistance. We aim to put the Black Canadian and Québecois experience in a broad historical context, avoiding a narrow interpretation. Our Timeline, "A People's Odyssey", is brief, but aims to convey the broad sweep of historical forces shaping the Black communities. To make this framework visible, many elements usually consigned to the background have been brought to the fore. Thus, individuals do not appear front and centre, though it is very clear that notable individuals played critical roles at critical times, leaving an indelible mark on life and history.
African Canadians have a long and glorious history of struggle to affirm their rights and the rights of everyone else. They are pioneers of Canada and Québec. From the arrival of Mathieu da Costa, a Black crewman and interpreter on de Monts' expedition who settled in Acadia in 1605, up to the present time when the vast majority of Blacks in Canada and Québec have arrived from Africa and the Caribbean, they have contributed enormously to the building of this country. Today, with the exception of Nova Scotia, Ontario and Montréal, the Black community is geographically dispersed. There are some 662,200 Blacks, almost half of whom - some 310,000 - live in Toronto. In spite of their historical contributions to building this country, they are treated as second-class citizens and face brutal discrimination in employment, housing, education and other spheres. They make up one of the most oppressed sections of Canadian and Québecois society.
African Canadians have resisted all attempts to ghettoize and marginalize them. They are in the forefront of the struggle against state-organized racist attacks, against all forms of discrimination and attacks on the polity, and for the equality of all citizens. These contributions have been integral to the development of society, but their historic significance really stands out when the surrounding conditions are seen for what they were and are.
Celebrations or Reparations?
March 27, 2007 is the bicentennial of the Abolition by the Britain of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Major celebrations are planned. The role of the British Parliament and individual Abolitionists is to be highlighted as decisive. Yet Canada together with Britain, the United States, France and others all deny historical responsibility and cupidity. It is noteworthy that there is no discussion of the necessity for reparations for the inhuman crimes of slavery. This behooves us not only to mark this event but to demand that the states that profited from the trafficking in human flesh and the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas render accounts.
The Canadian government has worked actively to undermine the just demand for reparations, for fair compensation. It argues that slavery did not exist in Canada because it was not formally an independent country at the time. It glorifies the migration of the enslaved and free US Blacks as a flight to "freedom" in the British colonies. In December, 2000 Canada stood alone with the United States in challenging African people's right to self-determination and reparations at the Regional Preparation Conference of the Americas for the UN Conference Against Racism.
The casual link between the exploitation of the African continent in the past and its impoverishment today is also denied. The exploitation of Africa and its peoples, Asia and other parts of the world, and the workers of the west, created the great river of wealth that runs through the coffers of financial oligarchs.
At the beginning of the 18th century England held 800,000 slaves in her colonies, including the Canadas; France, 250,000; Denmark, 27,000; Spain and Portugal, 600,000; Holland, 50,000; Sweden, 600; there were also about 2,000,000 slaves in Brazil, and about 900,000 in the United States. As W.E.B. Du Bois underlines in his seminal study, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, the institution of slavery was the powerful base of the economy; thus, against the economic forces which these four and a half millions of enforced labourers represented, the battle for emancipation had to be fought.
The Act of 1807 made it illegal for British ships and citizens, including those of the Canadian colonies, to trade in this horrendous commerce of human flesh, millions of whom were ripped from their homes and lives in Africa. Millions more died on the voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. It was said that the ocean floor of the Atlantic is bleached white with the bones of dead Africans.
In Britain, the campaign for abolition involved hundreds of thousands of working people, including many Africans, some of them former slaves who played a leading role. It was one of the largest in Britain's history, one of the first in which the working class grew conscious of its own strength. It constituted an international movement. The enslaved Africans, who waged a constant war in different parts of the world, played a crucial role.
Economic and strategic interests dictated Britain's decision: advantage over its colonial rivals, and a means to dissipate the growing opposition to the government and its colonial regimes - rather than by any concern for the enslaved. Ownership of slaves was legal until 1834 (and long afterwords in its protectorates, such as Sierre Leone). Britain's economy - and that of its colonies - relied on slavery throughout the 19th century. Slave labour was widely used during the colonial period.
As part of the British Empire, Canada was and is directly implicated in the Slave Trade and slavery, and its legacy.
The Canadian government and media refuse to deal with the historical record and colonial legacy of slavery in this country - just as they refuse to acknowledge that colonial Canada is born from the dispossession and genocide of the First Nations and the subjugation of the nation of Québec. Canada is not a post-colonial society: 19th century colonial arrangements and conceptions still predominate in the national rubric.
Despite the narrative falsely portraying the British colonies - Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Upper and Lower Canada, Prince Edward Island - as a sanctuary of "freedom" for so many enslaved Africans from the South, the terminus of the famed Underground Railroad, the "North Star", the undeniable reality remains:
 slavery legally existed in the Canadas for 200 years;
 newly-arriving Africans were ruthlessly segregated, exploited and oppressed;
 the abolition of slavery in the colonies was due more to the struggle of working people, enslaved and free Africans, progressive politicians, and the Québec patriots than to a sudden burst of humanitarian feeling on the part of the Canadian ruling circles; and
 these circles reaped enormous profits from slavery and the colonial arrangements.
This is vividly illustrated by the long suppressed history of the 10,000 Nova Scotians (from the more than 40,000 Canadians) - fishermen, farmers, workers and artisans - those who took up arms against slavery on the side of the Union during the US Civil war, while the ruling circles lined their pockets from running the blockade of the fleet of the slave-owning Confederacy.
Historian Thomas Raddall notes: "By 1862 one third of the ships entering the port of Boston were windjammers from Nova Scotia ... Halifax was as prosperous as never before in all her boom and bust history. The city was glutted with money." Much of the colonial aristocracy, including descendants of Loyalist slave-owners, such as the Ritchie family, Keiths and others, actively sided with the South, providing new ships and armaments, smuggling and the new business of blockade-running, hospitality to Confederate agents, and legal support to captains of captured naval ships.
Poignantly, English dock workers refused to load and off-load ships coming from or bound for the British-backed Confederacy.
While prime minister Stephen Harper has been silent, the Governor-General of Canada, Michaelle Jean, visited Ghana and on 26 November 2006 called on Africa to "apologize" for its role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Her statements blaming Africa provoked protests for absolving Europe's criminal responsibility - by portraying the colonial powers as mere "buyers" among others of Africans captured or enslaved.
Two days later, British prime minister Tony Blair publicly expressed "deep sorrow" over the fact "that the slave trade ever happened." His statements also provoked widespread outrage from African and Caribbean communities. Even the media felt compelled to point out that Blair's sentimental words of "deep sorrow" were an expression of pragmatism and duplicity - an attempt to present himself as a great humanitarian, not only in Britain but on the world stage, especially as Britain, the us and others are poised to commit even more crimes against humanity in the context of imposing the superiority of a mythical "western way of life" on the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The content of this drive was clearly articulated by US president George W Bush in his visit to Canada on 1 December 2004. Speaking in Halifax, Bush evoked the supremacist notion of an English-speaking "master race." He declared that "our two peoples are one family, and always will be" - asserting that what "unites" this "family" is "our community of values" that "reaches back centuries."
The Canadian state has embraced this "civilizing mission" and Anglo-American empire-building, the "white man's burden", for example, joining in the invasion and occupation by the US and France of Haiti, the first independent black republic in the Americas.
Black History is an important counterpoint to these dangerous developments. It informs the struggle to defend the rights of all, including the right of self-determination. It demonstrates the courageous capacity of the world's peoples to resist. People are the makers of history - not helpless, hapless spectators or victims, but the active, conscious force in fighting for a better world.
*Tony Seed & Isaac Saney are editors of Shunpiking Magazine, Halifax, NS
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