||“The bloody Writing is for ever torn: Domestic and International Consequences of the First Governmental Efforts to Abolish the Atlantic Slave Trade", ACCRA and ELMINA - Ghana, 8-12/08/07
Not all whites were guilty: Not all blacks innocent. That’s not in dispute. That the barbarity of slavery happened is a Fact … Fact … Fact
(The National Dance Company of Ghana)
Ghana, Elmina Castle, and Cape Coast Castle in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
The accumulation of capital by dispossession has been and continues to be at the core of the dramatic conditions of life that poor and destitute face across the world and particularly in the African countries. Indeed, capitalism expands with violence, through destruction of socio-cultural setting and the dispossession of natural and manmade resources from those who need them the most: the poor. As such, poverty may also be a result of structural conditions (slavery and slave trade, the colonisation, the structural adjustment progamme, looting of natural resources, social and structural exclusion…) that both political and economic elites from the poor countries and their allies from the west impose to the poor and undeveloped countries.
This painful reality was constantly expressed throughout the international conference on the Trans-Atlantic Slavery. This conference report is articulated around four main sections. Section One brings the historical significance of the host countries and venues. Section Two presents the roots causes of slave trade abolition in some countries. Section Three presents the major consequences of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade abolition. Section Four introduce some personal reflection on the conference
The year 2007 is critical to Ghana for two reasons. First, it represents 50th Year Anniversary of Independence of Ghana (06/03/1957). The country’s independence positively influenced the political independence of numerous African countries in the 1960s and afterward. Second, it is the 200th Anniversary of the official end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The celebration of the second event was organised by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, through an international conference under the theme mentioned above
The opening of the conference took place at Accra and Elmina. In Accra, His Excellency the Vice-President of Ghana opened the conference at the International Conference Centre. His Excellency welcomed all presenters and Travel Scholarship Recipients, wished them fruitful discussions, and ended his address with some critical questions:
“… What is next? Are we going to agree with those who see Africans as people who can do it themselves? What is the limiting factor to Africans to take their destiny in their hands…?
Dr Nana, added
Your Excellency the Vice President of Republic of Ghana, there is a custom in our community. When the great chief has finished, the chief has nothing to add.
… An International Conference on Slavery is more than an academic exercise. It is an opportunity to salute the courage of human kind against the subjugation of the past … Thank you all for being here. I hope that have a wonderful time in Accra and Elmina!
The keynote speaker stated
… I thank also the organisers for bring this conference in Africa in order to allow more African scholars to attend… African academics work in harsh conditions of deprivation, fear, and other challenges… The Atlantic Ocean has no population and therefore has no history. It was simply a passive route through which many people have lost their dignity and lives … Slave trade abolition was a result of inefficiency or high cost of this business face to new and emerging tendencies…
These speeches were followed by a three hour trip to the Elmina Beach Resort Hotel in the Cape Coast, few meters from the Elmina Castle, one of the two World Heritage Sites in the region. Indeed, Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle were the main markets for slave trade on the African side of the Atlantic, and embarkation points for the perilous, humiliating, dehumanizing, and painful journey to the Americas, Europe, West Indies, and Asia where slaves were resold as commodities at auctions.
The traffic was so congested that the organisers were forced to call upon the Traffic Department in order to be escorted and given priority from other road users. On our way, I witnessed numerous activities in the informal economy which characterises many African countries. These activities vary from selling water in small plastic sachets, selling live snails, bush meat, old tyres, oranges and other fruits, second hand clothes to the informal repair businesses of a several machines and appliances.
At Elmina Castle, we spent our cultural evening in traditional performances “Musu: Saga of the Slaves”. Musu, according to our keynote speaker from the National Dance Company of Ghana, refers to the worse form of abominations in Ga and Akan languages of Ghana because Musu is worse than crying when you eat, beating a man with a broom, having sex in the bush, committing suicide, breast feeding a child and cursing, or raping a teenage …
Atlantic Slave Trade refers to three abominations which can happen to human beings because during the Atlantic slave trade, human beings were captured like wild animals in the bush and then deprived of their name which is an attribute of moral and spirituality. This shameful trade also destroyed the sense of community before, during and after the journey. Indeed, slaves were not allowed to meet so as to prevent them from reviving a sense of community or belonging. They could not love or be loved; they were deprived from their social, moral, and social order. Third, in the journey, all sense of morality was switched off because of hard and humiliating conditions of the journey. These conditions include lack of sanitation, massive rape, abuse and torture, murder, lack of intimate life, chains around the necks, the hands, and the ankles. In short slaves were traveling like animals…
Of course slavery existed in Ashante before the arrival of Portuguese and other slave traders. The difference was that in Ashante, slaves could not put to death and slave owners had the obligation of looking after the good health of their slave. Some slaves could either buy the freedom and thus become free people or, depending on their courage and manners, become part of the owner’s family. This was not the case in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in which the slave owner had the right to kill his slaves or do whatever pleased him. The lack of human right, the atrocities and the destruction of the moral fabric eventually led the world to stand and fight against slave trade. The fight was through public campaigns, organisations’ networking, abolition movements.
That is why Ghana has the historical responsibility of assisting the African diaspora to find their roots back to Africa where their soul and spirits belong. This in turn will create for these sons and daughters of Africa a sense of belonging and a collective identity which has been switched off for centuries.
This speech was followed by a brief overview of the trauma and humiliation that slaves and particularly women went through in Ghana and the Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle in particular. There are more than sixty castles (three biggest buildings), forts (larger fortified buildings), and lodges (trade-factories) on a less than 500kms stretch along the coast of Ghana. These building all lack toilets, bathrooms, windows for ventilation. Slaves were prohibited from bathing from the time they were captured in their villages until their final destinations after crossing the Atlantic Ocean them having been sold at auctions.
In transit at Elmina Castle or Cape Coast Castle en route to their final destination, one slave woman was chosen among the 500 others on regular basis, and was given the opportunity to be washed by male guards before serving the governor. Once her duty accomplished, she was sent back to the village around the Castle where she was also rejected for what happened to her. Our tour guide argued that these slave women, who were used, abused and humiliated, thrown up like old pair of sockets, explained the strong presence of “mulattoes” along the coast of the former Gold Coast from the beginning of the fifteenth century.
Many participants of African descent could not hold their tears. They started weeping like children. Husbands comforting their wives and vice versa. Single people and those who came alone moved behind the crowd to hide their sorrow and tears. They then took some photos of different views of the Elmina Castle and we left for our hotels. This moment was the most painful experience I had during the conference. It brought back the experiences of the slaves 200 years ago and the new forms of slavery (child labour, sex workers, migrant and forced labour, refugees …) still experienced by many in different parts of the world.
Scholars from the Americas, Caribbean, Europe, and Asia were given accommodation at the Elmina Beach Resort Hotel, a world class world hotel and the venue of the conference. “Young” scholars from Africa, white South Africans included, got accommodations across the city in poorly maintained lodges and hotels. In support of this observation, a delegate from South Africa and Professor in one of the leading universities in the country commented few minutes before we returned to Accra to leave for South Africa:
… I have not bathed since were arrived at the Cape Coast Hotel [i.e. for five days] because of the lack of hot water. Their taps - because they were many and I did not know which one to open, my gosh - when I open them, water was running sideway spilling water on the floor...
A delegate from South African Development Community added
… My bed, blankets, and the all room were smelling dust. I think that my room was not used for couple of months … Unfortunately, when I asked from the Hotel Management to give me a new blanket, and to clean my room properly, they said someone was there already. They could not send workers in the same room twice a day. I must wait for the next morning. The following day my room smelled the same. I was so upset and disappointed by both the conference organisers and the Hotel Management that I simply kept quiet….
Another participant from Nigeria points in the same direction and argues
The organisers of this conference said that African scholars should use this opportunity to meet and exchange with scholars from other parts of the world. Why did not they arrange accommodation for all participants in the same hotel in order to allow us knowing each other and sharing experiences…? I am afraid… This conference is promoting discrimination and racial divide as happened in the past…
Some Case Studies of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
African people and the church have played different roles in the various eras of the slave trade. Some Africans have been actively involved in expanding the slave trade but others have been vocal against it. In fact, from traditional chiefs to ordinary slave traders, some Africans benefited from the trade and had an interest in sustaining it. Likewise, the presenters highlighted that Christian churches had a critical involvement in preparing the groundwork for the easy penetration of the dehumanizing business. The church brought the Bible and asked both land and African people. The African people should not worry about material well being because all material resources will remain on earth. They should instead focus their attention on the eternal life in which there will be no sorrow, thirsty, or hunger. They will be singing, praising God, and rejoicing forever! On the other hand, centuries later, the church lobbied both the governments and civic organisations, and advocated for the abolition of the slave trade for moral concern. In some traditional African Kingdoms, traditional leaders were so opposed to trade that they erected walls around their Kingdoms, seeking to protect themselves and their people. Cities were created from this process.
The British anti-slavery movement was the result of changes in public norms assisted by the printing industry and a growing level of literacy. It was also a byproduct of class struggles. Furthermore, the British economy shifted from slave trade to wage trade because of the industrial revolution. Yet, the abolition of slavery did not end the slave trade!
The Dutch abolition of slavery in Dahomey (now Benin), the West Indies, Senegal, and Gambia was also the result of resistance against the general enslavement of indigenous African communities. There was also a process of construction of colonial process and, with it, of new paradigms which substituted slave trade by good trade. The abolition of slavery opened up new possibilities to exploit the African people.
Brazilian slave trade in Bengwela in Angola was introduced by Portuguese from Brazil which runs bureaucracy and consumption of the slave trade. What is more, Brazil drove out the Dutch from Angola, but it did not succeed to drive out the Dutch and the British from Elmina. Brazilians extended their presence inland allowing these slave traders to mix with locals. For Brazil, the abolition of slavery was, as for many other nations, the result of increasing risk and decreasing returns on investment in slave trade. In fact, as the slave trade became costly because of slave revolts and numerous forms of resistance and there was emergence of local elites involved in the slave trade in Brazil, Portugal joined the European abolition movements and cut ties with Brazil in order weaken the position of Brazilian local elites in the trade.
In Francophone Africa, the cycle of violence of slave trade cost so many lives that violence did not disappear with neither the independence nor democracy of the economies. There were two major slave destinations: there were the Arab Muslims toward the Middle East dominated by Islam and which lasted more than 1000 years; there was also the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade toward the northern hemisphere.
The abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade did not bring peace to Africa. In fact, this period of history was followed by colonization and its cycle of violence. That period, which saw two world wars was followed by other forms of slavery - the migrant workers, sex workers, forced labour, child labour, human trafficking … Indeed, in what is called voluntary migration, the focus was and continues to be on the healthiest people, the strong and the skilled. These people which the African continent and poor countries around the world need so much are still in high demand in the Americas and Europe leaving the vacuum in the originating economies difficult to fill.
Capitalism expansion and dispossession of the local people are the common denominator between the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, colonisation, and economic globalisation. Slave resistance led to slave trade abolition. Thus, only resistance will lead to freedom against these new forms of slavery.
In the Caribbean, spiritual power and witchcraft, the poisoning of slave owners by their subjects were used to challenge the power of slave owners and thus, moving toward the abolition of slave trade. That is why it was suggested that rebel slaves should be killed and cut into pieces in order to expel the spirits of the dead from the areas or to prevent them to return home [Africa]. These atrocities were seen as a threat to African slaves since they remain bounded to their culture and home. As a result, law against Obia (witchcraft) and poisoning perpetrated by women slave proliferated. Consequently, court cases and prosecutions increased steadily in the region.
In the Americas and the Caribbean region, the price of slaves depended on gender, age, and physical appearance. In fact, women cost more than men because of the increasing return in terms of slave children. In addition, women slave were more obedient than their male counterparts. Women’s ability to bear children was a premium for local slave markets.
In the Americas, the abolition was associated with the desire by people to end the atrocities whereas in the Caribbean, the abolition had economic foundations. The number of slaves inside and outside the economies increased before abolition came to effect.
Some consequences of Slave Trade Abolition
Different presentations and debates suggested that economic motives were critical to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and to its abolition:
The abolition of slave trade was associated with decreasing returns to the slave business because of the resistance (passive and active) from the slaves.
Slave trade occurred against some African people who saw the abolition of the business causing a loss of income
The abolition of slavery did not end the trade: it continued underground in the Americas and openly in Africa, in countries such as Niger and Sudan;
In some countries, the abolition exacerbated slavery because each slave owner was trying to increase their stock of slaves. However, it set some guidelines from which anti-slavery policies and practices were made;
Abolition was a result of slave resistance to enslavement leading to decreasing returns on investment. Abolition of slave trade opened doors to other type of trading activities;
Slave trade abolition in the British Empire came about through public awareness of the atrocities of slave trade, and through the economic benefits associated with the industrial revolution – which caused a shift from slave labour to wage labour. In addition, public awareness in the British Empire was a product of relatively high rates of literacy and of the force of the printed press;
Slave trade abolition transformed war as a tool for control of new areas - gun and gun power became the new assets of capitalist expansion;
Slave trade abolition marked the beginning of colonial globalization;
Slave trade abolition entailed creation of the internal and international African diaspora;
Personal reflections on the international conference on slave trade
I will begin this reflection with three questions which a respondent to a series of presentations put to the floor. I will then look at the question from an African scholar to the panelists. Lastly, I will look at the way the conference ended.
“Why did slave trade abolition activists came back with colonisation, why did not slave trade abolition emerge from within the natives, African Kingdoms, rather than coming from outside [Africa]?, what has been and still is the connection between the Americas, Europe and Africa?”.
There was no answer from the floor; nobody was willing to answer to these questions. Yet, they are interesting because they link traditional and modern slavery. They seek to partially explain the unequal relations between the poor and rich countries.
Another participant continues
… Comrades, I think that we need to have a broader view of the phenomenon under investigation because slave trade cannot be understood in isolation with what is happening now in Africa. In fact, if we look around, we will find the legacy of the old form of slavery and numerous manifestations of new slavery. In fact, what do we do with child labour, sex workers, human trafficking …?
One of the panelists replied: “we are not here to interrogate the present. We are looking at what happened in the past and not in present time …”.
This answer coupled with the disagreement on whether we were celebrating the 200 years of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade or remembering the courage and determination to survive of the slaves from their capture to their commodification at different auctions, pointed to what I was worrying the most: losing the focus of what brought us together from different continents, and ending the conference without any proper recommendations and vision for the future. If there is no vision, there will not be a framework for reference from which we can interrogate our own progression towards an inclusive society. We then might not be able to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past!
The last two days of the conference were even more confusing. Indeed, on August 11th, 2007 whilst a panel discussion was taking place, academics from Africa met at a parallel session which was not in the programme. On August 12, 2007, the conference ended without any recommendations or vision for the future. No information was given about whether or when the next conference would take place nor why. Was-it because the modern slave trade does affect the organisers of the conference since they live in the developed countries? When the African diaspora speak of returning to their African roots, can they go to war torn countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan …? And if they cannot go searching for their roots in the countries at wars, what are they doing to bring peace and good governance in these countries? Aren’t these the very people who have the political and economic power to influence the course of events in these countries?
Setting aside the answers which the African diaspora might have to these questions, the world is closer than it was centuries ago when the first Africans left the continent under the conditions that we explored with tears at the conference: what is wrong in one corner of our village is sending its shock waves to and affecting other parts of the village. It is difficult for people to live in peace in some parts of the village when other parts of the village are on fire. The example of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe and the consequences of state collapse in these countries to their neighbouring countries is self explanatory. My appeal to the African diaspora is to use their positions and influences, because they can, to lobby their different governments to support peace building, economic development, a fair redistribution of assets, good governance and democracy in Africa. The African diaspora will then be proud of belonging to and visiting all African countries.
As for the questions that we given by the Vice President of Ghana, nobody tried to talk about it. The conference ended without any recommendations or plan for the short or long term.