Reper­cus­sions of slav­ery live on to­day

Mil­lions suf­fered and con­tinue to bear brunt of this in­iq­ui­tous sys­tem of op­pres­sion of peo­ple

Pretoria News Weekend - - OPINION - Amis­tad

THE Span­ish king, who 500 years ago this month ini­ti­ated the pol­icy of sell­ing slave-trad­ing li­cences to mer­chant bankers and in­dus­tri­alised slav­ery by au­tho­ris­ing the trans­porta­tion of slaves di­rect from Africa to the Amer­i­cas did not do the world a favour.

In­stead, King Charles V notched up slav­ery to an in­dus­trial scale and per­pet­u­ated the false think­ing of racial su­pe­ri­or­ity that still ex­ists to­day.

The sys­tem of en­slave­ment pre­ceded the king’s pol­icy – in Greece, Rome and in Africa slav­ery was used as a tool to sub­ju­gate and profit from the sale of peo­ple well be­fore the use of sailing ships to trans­port mil­lions from Africa to the Amer­i­cas.

For 350 years af­ter the pol­icy was ini­ti­ated, 10.7 mil­lion black Africans were trans­ported be­tween the two con­ti­nents with at least 1.8 mil­lion dy­ing en route. Euro­peans looked at Africans and re­garded them as com­modi­ties. They were bought, bartered for and used for sex­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion.

For slaves trans­ported from Africa, the hor­rors of the slave ships did not end there. Af­ter all, slaves had no rights and were to be used and even dis­posed of as de­sired by the slave masters. Any re­volt by slaves against their masters was put down quickly and led to even stricter and more de­mean­ing leg­is­la­ture aimed at fur­ther sub­ju­gat­ing slaves and in­tim­i­da­tion tac­tics to pre­vent up­ris­ings.

Per­haps the most fa­mous of th­ese re­volts on Amer­i­can soil was the up­ris­ing ini­ti­ated by Nat Turner, who be­came a preacher af­ter be­ing al­lowed to read, write and prac­tise re­li­gion. He led a sus­tained slave re­bel­lion in 1831, lead­ing to leg­is­la­tion aimed at fur­ther op­press­ing slaves by pro­hibit­ing ed­u­ca­tion and move­ment.

The Amis­tad re­bel­lion took place on a ship and the trial of the slaves who re­belled was heard in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, fed­eral dis­trict court. Slaves on board had re­volted against pun­ish­ment and tor­ture and had taken the ship’s crew cap­tive. When they even­tu­ally made it to the United States, a trial be­gan with abo­li­tion­ists sup­port­ing the 36 Africans who had been stolen from their coun­tries.

Af­ter more than 18 months of in­car­cer­a­tion in the US, not to men­tion the time spent as slaves, the Africans were fi­nally freed and abo­li­tion­ists paid for them to re­turn to Sierra Leone.

The story of Haiti, the first coun­try to be formed by former slaves, re­veals the ex­tent to which colo­nial France tried to hang on to the colony but also the depths it was will­ing to plumb to ex­act vengeance on the Haitians for dar­ing to re­volt and to throw out slave and plan­ta­tion own­ers.

In the end Haiti man­aged to get its in­de­pen­dence from France but at a price that the coun­try is still try­ing to re­cover from. In 1825, France recog­nised Haiti’s in­de­pen­dence but only in ex­change for an in­dem­nity of 100 mil­lion francs, with a re­pay­ment pe­riod that ended in 1887.

This com­pen­sa­tion was for the French farm­ers who had been stripped of their land dur­ing the re­volt. Haiti had to com­ply with the re­pay­ment or face the equiv­a­lent of eco­nomic sanc­tions from France and other coun­tries.

To­day, Haiti re­mains one of the poor­est coun­tries in the world. The im­pact of slav­ery con­tin­ued for decades af­ter the prac­tice it­self was abol­ished. Slaves from Brazil to the US were not granted ci­ti­zen­ship and could not vote. It would take decades for this bat­tle to be won. The im­pact of slav­ery and the no­tion of racial su­pe­ri­or­ity would spawn the ha­tred and big­otry as­so­ci­ated with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. In turn, the civil rights move­ment in the US and the anti-apartheid move­ment in South Africa sprung up to fight the in­jus­tices per­pet­u­ated by racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Ev­ery as­pect of life was based on the premise that racial su­pe­ri­or­ity had been be­hind slav­ery and was to con­tinue even af­ter it had been abol­ished. Sport was not an ex­cep­tion. Adolf Hitler re­port­edly said in 1936: “Peo­ple whose an­tecedents came from the jun­gle were prim­i­tive, their physiques were stronger than those of civilised whites and hence should be ex­cluded from fu­ture games.”

He was re­fer­ring to Amer­i­can ath­lete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Ger­many. How ironic that Owens, the grand­son of former slaves, had proven to be un­beat­able at an event that was meant to show­case Aryan su­pe­ri­or­ity.

Hitler ap­par­ently re­fused to meet with or shake hands with Owens af­ter the four vic­to­ries and if this was where the story ended it would have suited those who ad­vo­cated for racial divi­sion.

But his­tory tells a dif­fer­ent story. Owens and his US team­mates sailed on the SS Man­hat­tan to Europe for the Olympics – the rest of the white team trav­elled in first class com­part­ments but Owens and other black ath­letes did not.

Af­ter his tri­umph at the Olympics, Owen re­turned to a seg­re­gated Amer­ica but then pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt did not con­grat­u­late him and nei­ther was he in­vited to the White House. Forty years af­ter his re­mark­able ef­forts in Ber­lin, Owens was fi­nally recog­nised for his Olympic feat, with pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford award­ing him the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom.

In 1990 he was posthu­mously awarded the Con­gres­sional Gold Medal by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Bush. The lack of recog­ni­tion and re­spect for Owens’s achieve­ments was in­dica­tive of the racial dis­crim­i­na­tion that em­anated from cen­turies of slav­ery.

In the 500 years af­ter the Span­ish king’s ac­tion, the de­mand for repa­ra­tions for those who suf­fered at the hands of slav­ery con­tinue to grow louder. Ran­dall Robin­son, founder of the Wash­ing­ton-based ad­vo­cacy group Tran­sAfrica wrote in the New York Times: “The peo­ple who largely con­structed the early foun­da­tions of the Amer­i­can econ­omy were paid not a cent for their un­remit­ting labour. That they had con­structed the White House and the Capi­tol meant lit­tle to the na­tion’s rulers. That Har­vard Law School had orig­i­nally been en­dowed from the sale of slaves by its founder, Isaac Roy­all, re­mains largely un­known to many who have gone there.”

The profit de­rived from slav­ery turned coun­tries into colo­nial pow­ers and re­shaped the world. Half a mil­len­nium later, some con­tinue to deny that slav­ery and King Charles V’s pol­icy is still hav­ing an im­pact on the mod­ern world.

● Kuben Chetty is the Re­gional Po­lit­i­cal Ed­i­tor of In­de­pen­dent Me­dia in the KwaZulu-Na­tal

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