Perhaps it was not the most politically correct way to broach the subject of slavery: “Have you ever noticed that your black people in America are much bigger and stronger than we are here in Africa?” Peter, our guide in Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) asks. Well no, I had not noticed, but I am not about to respond to the question without knowing where this conversation is going. “It is a well-known fact that European slave traders selected the biggest and strongest men and women for the transatlantic crossing on slave ships”, Peter clarifies. “Work in the cotton plantations the southern states was hard and only the strongest would survive.” The implication is that today’s African-Americans come from a genetic pool with superior physical attributes compared to average Africans.
This is our second visit to West-Africa and by now we know about one common perception: for tourists, there isn’t much else to do but to learn about voodoo and slavery. No matter where you go along the coast of West Africa - Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Togo, Ghana or Angola, the history of the transatlantic slave trade looms large in the collective conscience of the people in each of those countries; and as a visitor you have a choice: you can either “endure” the many explanations about this dark chapter of human history, or embrace the opportunity to really “get into” the subject. Why not try to envision what it must have been like as a young African man to be captured by European slave traders, ripped away from your home and family and walked in chains and with a yoke around your neck to a slave ship? Why not crawl into the 1 m (3 ft) high dungeon where captured slaves were held for days under sub-human conditions before being hauled off to the waiting slave trading vessel? Why not stand at the same shore where thousands of slaves boarded European trading vessels on a journey of no return? Just as we visit Auschwitz to honor the Jews who were murdered by Hitler’s regime, human decency demands that we pay attention to the atrocities that have occurred here. Today, we call the transatlantic slave trade the largest forced migration of humans in history and - the African Holocaust.
Most of the slave transports from West-Africa to the “New World” took place between 1580s and 1860s. It is estimated that more than 35,560 (!!) transatlantic slave trading voyages occurred during those roughly 300 years, carrying between 10 and 12 million Africans to the Americas. Surprisingly, only 7% of all slaves ended up in what is now the USA. The largest number of slaves was transported to the Caribbean and Brazil.
The motivating force behind this enormous movement of people was the insatiable appetite for cheap labor in the colonies. The British, Spanish, French and Portuguese had brought diseases to the New World which decimated the native population, leaving the European powers without laborers to work in the mines and sugar and cotton plantations of the colonial territories; and so the lucrative triangle of commerce was complete: slaves from Africa to the Americas, raw materials (e.g. sugar, cotton, cocoa) from the Americas to Europe and manufactured goods (e.g. guns, alcohol) from Europe to Africa. It was an unimaginably huge and profitable exchange of goods and human resources.
The trip across the Atlantic, called the “Middle Passage”, was brutal. Roughly 80% of the slaves on board the trading vessels survived. Crowded between the decks of the ship with no room to stand up and only 60 cm (2 ft) of space to lie naked on the wooden planks, the holds on the ships were places of total misery. Men and women were separated by partitions and while women were unfettered, the men were chained together by twos. The movement of the ship caused the slaves’ flesh to be rubbed off their bones and without bathroom facilities available to the slaves the stench of blood, mucus and feces in the holds was unbearable. The crew and the ships’ doctors often refused to go below deck to treat the slaves. Many female slaves were kept in separate compartments and subjected to sexual exploitation by the ships’ officers and crew.
The most common causes of death among the slaves included malaria, yellow fever, measles, smallpox, scurvy and dysentery. Often, slaves died from a shortage of water and food towards the end of the journey. Dead bodies were unshackled from the living by the crew and thrown overboard. It is said that sharks changed their migratory patterns to follow the slave trading vessels. Weather permitting, the slaves were allowed to spend time on deck in the fresh air. However, the crew was especially alert during those times as the captive slaves were at risk of committing suicide by jumping overboard into the ocean. Another danger was the possibility of an uprising by the slaves. It is estimated that 1% of all transported slaves died in rebellions or mutinies during the Middle Passage. Many slaves committed suicide by starving themselves to death.
A common perception is that the European colonial powers (Portugal, England, Denmark, and Spain to name a few) were solely to blame for the shameful acts committed under the label of “slavery”. This is not true. The Africans themselves repeatedly played an important role in the sale of slaves. Tribal wars in Africa often resulted in prisoners of war, who were then readily sold to Europeans in exchange for manufactured goods, but it is also true that kidnapping raids as far inland as 300 miles from the coast were popular among the European slave traders.
While the Danish were the first nation to ban the slave trade, the British rejection of slavery was the most influential because of their many overseas holdings. During the 1850s, England had legislated an end to the slave trade and subsequently engaged in an unprecedented foreign policy effort to persuade other colonial powers to do the same. The British wanted to make sure that Portugal and Spain did not benefit from the advantages of the slave trade while England was weaning itself off the practice. In fact, they paid Portugal and Spain millions as an incentive to end the slave trade.
At this time in history there are no countries on earth where slavery is permitted by law. Still, slavery is very much alive in many parts around the globe. The primary victims of slavery in the 21st century are children sold into various forms of servitude and women lured into the sex trade. Children who have been sold by their families in destitute African countries like Burkina Faso are still used extensively in cocoa production especially in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. The advocacy group “Free the Slaves”, which is linked to Anti-Slavery International, believes the number of people in slavery to be around 27 million world-wide. While this is the largest number of enslaved people at any point in world history, it also is the smallest percentage of the total human population ever to be enslaved at any time.
In terms of slave trade economics, today’s going rate for a young, HIV-free female slave for use in Thai brothels is equivalent to only 1/1,000th of the price for a slave in the U.S. in 1850. The relatively low price reflects the high risk of losing the slave through theft or escape. Also, sex slaves are often used intensively for short periods of time before they have to be discarded after contracting HIV. The profit margin for those controlling slaves and participating in the slave trade currently stands at 800%. This is an astronomical rate of return compared to the meagre 6% profit earned by the colonial slave traders.
Shocking? Today’s slaves no longer rot in the cargo holds of wooden ships but the callous treatment of fellow human beings has not changed by much. To me, paying attention to slavery is important. I owe it to the millions of slaves who lost their lives during the Middle Passage and to the millions of kids and young women who are, at this very moment, held against their will in many parts of the world. They are not forgotten.
As we are entering the slave master’s house in Pedakondji Village in Togo, I am determined that this time I will find the courage to enter the slave dungeon. When I was here 5 years ago I couldn’t bring myself to crawl into the dark space below the floor boards where the slaves were held. I turn on the torch on my cellphone and lower myself into, what must have felt like the abyss of despair to the slaves 200 years ago. I am the only one down here. Taking in the stench and the dark energy of this place, I wonder how many slaves have passed through the dungeon, how many have died down here and how many were unaware of the dangers ahead. Surely, by the time they reached this place the slaves must have had their first taste of abuse. Did they have hope? Were they resigned to their fate? How can people treat their fellow human beings with such cruelty?
The 14th century Arab historiographer Ibn Khaldun, who is regarded by many to be one of the founding fathers of modern sociology and economics, writes: “The Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because (Negroes) have little that is (essentially) human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.”
That’s how you justify cruelty.