Slave Trade: Sins of the Past and Present

Contemporary Slavery

Arab Slave Trade
The Arab slave trade lasted longer and enslaved more Africans than the European slave trade

The UN wants all hands on deck to curtail modern slavery—a clear recognition of enslaving practices that exist even today.

The UN high commissioner for human rights in 1997 established an expert team to deal with “contemporary forms of slavery,” including “debt bondage, serfdom, forced labour, child slavery, sexual slavery, forced or early marriages and the sale of wives.”

Gulnara Shahinian, the first special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, says that “Women and girls who are forced to marry find themselves in servile marriages for the rest of their lives…. Nothing can justify these forms of slavery; not traditional, religious, cultural, economic or even security considerations.”

Ms. Shahinian was not speaking in abstract terms. The Public Broadcasting Service, a US-based nonprofit television network, reports that in Southern Asia, 48 percent of girls are married before the age of 18.

In Africa the figure is 42 percent, while it is 29 percent in Latin America and Caribbean.

The International Center for Research on Women, a US-based nonprofit organization that supports women in developing countries, provides further statistics showing acute situations in many African countries.

In Niger, for example, 77 percent of girls marry before they are 18 years old, while in Chad the percentage is 71 percent.

In addition, there is the unending fight against racism.

In 2006 Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, one of Africa’s top soccer players, memorably walked off the football pitch in protest as White supporters of a rival club chanted monkey noises at him.

“In that moment you start thinking whether there is something wrong with being Black.”

The good news is that the world’s sporting bodies are taking disciplinary measures against racists while at the same raising awareness of the need to stamp such attitudes out in sports.

Slavery and Africa’s Underdevelopment

Many researchers correlate Africa’s underdevelopment with the transatlantic slave trade.

Mr. Nunn’s working paper “The Long-Term Effects of Africa’s Slave Trades” concludes that “the parts of Africa that are the poorest today are also the areas from which the largest number of enslaved Africans were taken in the past.”

Mr. Nunn is concerned about underdevelopment in Africa. Citing data from 2000 that stated $1,834 as the average per capita income for countries in Africa, Mr. Nunn notes that that figure is significantly lower than the $8,809 average given for the rest of the world.

Without the slave trade, he argues, 72 percent of Africa’s income gap with the rest of the world would not exist.

“In terms of economic development, Africa would not look different from other developing economies.”

In their research paper “The Fundamental Impact of the Slave Trade on African Economies,” Warren C. Whatley and Rob Gillezeau of Michigan University in the US concur with Mr. Nunn’s viewpoint.

Resources were allocated “away from agriculture and industrial work towards slave trade,” they argue.

In addition to causing depopulation, they maintain that the slave trade stunted Africa’s long-term development, sharpened divisions along ethnic and social lines and fostered a culture of violence.

Anniversaries Galore

Nearly two centuries since emancipation began to gain momentum, the transatlantic slave trade is still an emotional subject.

Kenyan academic Ali Al’amin Mazrui is championing reparations to assist Africans in Africa and in the diaspora to deal with poverty and good governance.

Mr. Mazrui says that skills transfer could be a major part of reparations because “historically, Black people worldwide are damaged, marginalized and incapacitated due to the long history of victimization and exploitation.”

Many key emancipation anniversaries take place this year.

It is 150 years since the emancipation proclamation in the US; 200 years since enslaved Africans were emancipated in Haiti; 180 years in Canada, the British West Indies and the Cape of Good Hope; 170 years in India; 165 years in France; 160 years in Argentina; 150 years in the Dutch colonies; and 125 years in Brazil.

For the UN, scholars like Mr. Mazrui and many others, 2013 presents an opportunity both to celebrate and to refocus attention on arresting all forms of modern-day slavery.


By Kingsley Ighobor