The Historical Aspects of Slavery

Slavery was the basis for the com­fortable lives of the upper classes in the ancient world. The importance and power of Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire depended on the work of countless disenfranchised people who, as slaves, created the foundations for the nation's wealth. Europe's discovery of America and establishment of settlements on the western coast of Africa in the modern age led to brisk trafficking in slaves on the part of European countries.

In exchange for slaves, the tra­ders offered cheap and colourful cotton textiles specially made for the purpose in England, inferior liquor and simple guns. The sellers and cat­chers of slaves were often native Africans, who delivered - among others - prisoners-of-war from other tribes to the traders. Suicide, in order to escape slavery and abduction to foreign countries, was an everyday occurrence. Most of the slaves were taken from the area of present-day Congo, Zaire, Angola, Gabon, Zam­bia, Ghana and Nigeria and 'exported' to America via Europe. In 1713, the Spanish crown granted a monopoly concession to the English for impor­ting some 5000 black slaves annually to 'New India' - the Spanish colonies on the American continent. 40% of all slave transports went by way of the English port of Liverpool. The human cargo was transported in sla­vers - ships especially built for the purpose. To prevent resistance by the desperate captives, they were chai­ned by the feet, hands and neck and their faces were covered with iron masks. In the 'tween’ decks, only 60 to 90 cm high, they were stacked close together horizontally, tethered to iron bars.

The rubber is good,
the pepper is good,
Three hundred barrels and sacks; I have gold dust and ivory, too,
And better still, I have blacks.

I took the irons off the dead
As I did generally,
And threw the bodies overboard At dawn into the sea'...

... verses from Heinrich Heine's poem on the slave trade. The economic calculations allowed for the deaths of many of the slaves. The cargo would bring returns even if nearly every other slave died of diseases, or from lack of water or the wretched diet. There were rich profits to be made. It is estimated that between 1550 and 1800, about 60 million Africans were sent into slavery.

Slaves were forced to renounce their identity - their language, religion and customs - and adopt the customs of their owners and of the land to which they had been deported. Many slaves in the countries of Latin America were compelled to convert to Catho­licism. In slavery, their religions, magic rites and cultic ceremonies could only be practised in secret. In 1865, slavery was abolished in North America by Abraham Lincoln. But this did not mean either judicial or social equality for the black populati­on. The descendants of the slaves in North America and many of the countries of Latin America are still the poor, the disenfranchised, the hungry. Attitudes to the descendants of slaves are evident in racial discri­mination and apartheid, in intoleran­ce towards people of different skin colour.