Repercussions of slavery live on today
Millions suffered and continue to bear brunt of this iniquitous system of oppression of people
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