Remembering the Atlantic slave trade and its abolition

Remembering the Atlantic slave trade and its abolition

Diagram of a large slave ship. Thomas Clarkson: The cries of Africa to the inhabitants of Europe, 1822. Source: Wikipedia.

August 23 marks the ‘International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition’. The date bears historical significance as it corresponds to the date of the beginning of the Haitian revolution, an event that some have argued was the precursor to the abolition of the slave trade.   

Since 1998, UNESCO, the U.N.’s educational, science and cultural organization has been urging member states to hold events and celebrate the date with the aim of "inscrib[ing] the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples". 


Why does the retelling of traumatic events become an important exercise for “all peoples” to partake in? And how does one go about it?

Well, for one thing, it educates us about the genesis of our rights and for another, it allows us to locate the injustices in our contemporary reality. Thus, while the slave trade has been abolished all around the world for many years now, the issue still persists but has masked itself in various forms of modern slavery where individuals are trafficked into bonded labour or sexual slavery.

Many resources are available online to learn more about the Atlantic slave trade, a link to which will be provided at the end of this piece. But perhaps the most important book on the subject has been written by American historian and writer Marcus Rediker.

Titled ‘The Slave Ship: A human history,’ the book uses documents such as letters, diaries, memoirs, captain’s logbooks, shipping company records, testimony before British Parliamentary investigations etc. as sources of evidence to recount the violent history of the slave trade.

Alluding to the enormity of the situation, Redicker writes:
“Over the almost four hundred years of the slave trade, from the late fifteenth to the late nineteenth century, 12.4 million souls were loaded onto slave ships and carried through the “middle passage” across the Atlantic to the hundreds of delivery points stretched over thousands of miles. Along the dreadful way, 1.8 million of them died, their bodies cast overboard to the sharks that followed the ships. Most of the 10.6 million who survived were thrown into the bloody maw of a killing plantation system, which they would, in turn, resist in all ways imaginable”

In the passage that follows, Redicker reminds us that these gargantuan numbers he just mentioned don’t really accurately reflect the horrors of the past. The reality was much worse.

Another 1.8 million deaths (based on conservative estimates of scholars), for instance, can be chalked up to those who died in “transit and while being held in barracoons and factories of the coast.”

Concluding the paragraph on the number of slaves, he says: “Another way to look at the loss of life would be to say that an estimated 14 million people were enslaved to produce a ‘yield’ of 9 million longer-surviving enslaved Atlantic workers.”

In a chapter titled  “Life, Death and Terror in the Slave Trade,”  Redicker writes using information pieced together from Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘the natural history of sharks’ to recall the horrors that the slaves aboard the ships were subjected to when they attempted to resist their captors by threatening to attempt suicide.

“ Another captain facing a ‘rage for suicide’ seized upon a woman ‘as a proper example for the rest.’ He ordered the woman tied up with a rope under her armpits and lowered into the water: ‘When the poor creature was thus plunged in, and about half a way down, she was heard to give a terrible shriek, which at first was ascribed to her fears of drowning, but soon after, the water appearing red all around her, she was drawn up and it was found that the shark, that had followed the ship, had bit her off from the middle’ Other slave ship captains practiced a kind of sporting terror, using human remains to troll for sharks. ‘Our way to entice them was by Towing overboard a dead Negro, which they would follow until they had eaten him up.”

To know more about the slave trade, you can pick up a copy of Rediker's book or also look at the resources put up by the UN.