As we celebrate the abolition of slave trade today, it is perhaps apposite to think of the meaningful lyrics of one of the greatest music artists of all time – Bob Marley – in his hit song, Redemption Song.
The word “slave” actually comes from the Slavs of Eastern Europe. Millions of them – all white, by the way – were captured and enslaved by Muslims in the ninth century and later by the Ottoman Turks.
Slavery has been in existence as far back as human history can go. There are references to slavery in both the Old Testament and New Testament-Exodus 21:2-6, Leviticus 25:39-55, Deuteronomy 15:12-18, and Ephesians 6:5. It is also mentioned in the Quran in Chapter 24, verse 32.
Slavery existed when the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean and most of Europe from the 1st through the 5th centuries. Slavery existed when Alexander the Great conquered Persia in the 4th century BC. It was so common that Aristotle simply considered it “natural.” The slave/master model was just how the world operated in the great philosopher’s day.
Brother Selling Brother to the Europeans for Profit
Slavery and slave trade had been in existence in Africa even before the Europeans discovered the continent. Many societies in Africa with kings and hierarchical forms of government traditionally kept slaves. But these were mostly used for domestic purposes. They were an indication of power and wealth and were not used for commercial gain. However, with the appearance of Europeans desperate to buy slaves for use in the Americas, African kings and prominent rulers began to sell their prisoners of war as slaves. The King of Bonny (now in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria) is said to have declared that slavery was decreed by the gods when Britain in 1807 declared all slave trading illegal.
In East Africa and West Africa, slave trade was well established before the arrival of the Europeans to the scene. The major players in East Africa were the Arab traders of the Middle East and the locals. African slaves ended up as sailors in Persia, pearl divers in the Gulf, soldiers in the Omani army and workers on the salt pans of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) while many people were domestic slaves and were taken as sex slaves. In West Africa, slaves were brought, against their will, on a long journey from inland to the coasts, only to be shipped off to the Americas for work on the plantations. In total, at least 12 million Africans were forcibly removed from the continent.
The likes of James Oglethorpe, William Wilberforce and other abolitionists vigorously pursued the cause for the abolition of slavery and slave trade. Slavery was eventually abolished in the northern states in the U.S. in 1804. The United Kingdom (then including Ireland) and the United States outlawed the international slave trade in 1807.
Though slavery and slave trade were technically abolished in 1804 and 1807 respectively, it is noteworthy to state that slavery still has its contemporary manifestations in the form of serfdom, forced labour, debt bondage, migrant workers, trafficking, prostitution, forced marriage and the sale of wives, and child labour and child servitude.
To nip these in the bud, various international laws have been enacted. It has been estimated that between 1815 and 1957 some three hundred international agreements were implemented to suppress slavery. None has been totally effective.
THE NEED FOR REPARATIONS
Over the decades, many voices have led the struggle for reparation to be paid to Africa for the massive losses it suffered due to the slave trade of at least 12 million Africans who were forcibly removed from the continent. Africa was not just deprived of lost manpower and income, but also creativity, innovation, and relationships.
One of the earliest formal requests for reparations to Africa began in 1992, when a group dubbed the “Eminent Persons” came together under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union. It was led by a wealthy Nigerian businessman and former president-elect, Chief Bashorun M. K. O. Abiola and championed by Kenyan academic Ali Mazrui and other activists.
For Mazrui in the 1990s, reparations from Western countries meant reducing their support for African tyrants, supporting democracy on the continent, giving African states a louder voice in international organizations, and cancelling their debt.
Mazrui and the group of Eminent Persons devised what they called the Middle Passage Plan, inspired by the post-World War II Marshall Plan. Just as the US transferred more than $13 billion ($140 billion in today’s dollars) toward the rebuilding of Europe, so too would former slave-owning and colonial nations transfer capital toward rebuilding Africa. The Middle Passage Plan (paywall) would include a skills transfer to Africa with scholarships for African students. The plan also called for a power transfer, giving greater voting rights to Africans on the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Security Council.
It is, however, sad that the clamour for reparations has since stalled as African leaders have not been willing to pursue reparations and compensation. Enoch Kavindele, former vice president of Zambia, said “The new leaders who have come have not been the original freedom fighters—these are subsequent leaders who have most things already made, already there. The new leaders are happy to go to the IMF and the World Bank to talk about loans to their countries, and yet I think they should be talking about compensation and reparation.”
- The Story of Africa, BBC World Service, https://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/9chapter1.shtml, retrieved and accessed on 15 August 2022
- The Story of Africa, BBC World Service, https://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/9chapter2.shtml, retrieved and accessed on 15 August 2022
- David, Weissbrodt and Anti-Slavery International (2002).pdf “Abolishing Slavery and its Contemporary Forms”. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- Lynsel Chutel, “What is owed Africa ”, https://qz.com/africa/1915182/what-reparations-are-owed-to-africa/?utm_term=mucp. Retrieved on 15 August 2022.