On August 1, 1834 the British Imperial Act of 1833 (An Act for the Abolition of Slavery) mandated an end to chattel slavery in British colonies. In Canada, enslaved Africans became free on August 1, 1834, however, enslaved Africans in British colonies in the Caribbean did not become completely free until four years later on August 1, 1838. The Abolition Act also compensated the White men and women who had benefited from the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans while Africans received no compensation for the years they provided free labour which enriched Europeans.
The complete name of the Act tells its own tale: “An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves.”
This “compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves” not only added “insult to injury” but further filled the coffers of the White slaveholders and added to the wealth of Europe, Europeans and their descendants. At the same time, the impoverishment of Africa, the formerly enslaved Africans and their descendants, was guaranteed for generations.
Guyanese historian, Dr. Walter Rodney, has powerfully portrayed in his 1973 book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”, the stunting effect the trading in African bodies had on the African continent:
“Many things remain uncertain about the slave trade and its consequences for Africa, but the general picture of destructiveness is clear, and that destructiveness can be shown to be the logical consequence of the manner of recruitment of captives in Africa. One of the uncertainties concerns the basic question of how many Africans were imported. This has long been an object of speculation, with estimates ranging from a few millions to over one hundred million. A recent study has suggested a figure of about ten million Africans landed alive in the Americas, the Atlantic islands and Europe. Because it is a low figure, it is already being used by European scholars who are apologists for the capitalist system and its long record of brutality in Europe and abroad. In order to white-wash the European slave trade, they find it convenient to start by minimising the numbers concerned. The truth is that any figure of Africans imported into the Americas which is narrowly based on the surviving records is bound to be low, because there were so many people at the time who had a vested interest in smuggling slaves (and withholding data). Nevertheless, if the low figure of ten million was accepted as a basis for evaluating the impact of slaving on Africa as a whole, the conclusions that could legitimately be drawn would confound those who attempt to make light of the experience of the rape of Africans from 1445 to 1870.”
Rodney also quotes from the writing of the late Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr. Eric Williams:
“The connections between slavery and capitalism in the growth of England (are) adequately documented by Eric Williams in his well-known book, Capitalism and Slavery. Williams gives a clear picture of the numerous benefits which England derived from trading and exploiting slaves, and he identified by name several of the personalities and capitalist firms who were the beneficiaries. Outstanding examples are provided in the persons of David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. There was a similar progression in the case of Lloyds – from being a small London coffee house to being one of the world’s largest banking and insurance houses, after dipping into profits from slave trade and slavery. Then there was James Watt, expressing eternal gratitude to the West Indian slave owners who directly financed his famous steam engine, and took it from the drawing-board to the factory.”
Although the Portuguese began this barbaric trade, quickly followed by the Spanish, it was the British who almost monopolized this dreadful system for centuries supported by the British monarchy. Dr. Rodney argues:
“Some attempts have been made to try and quantify the actual monetary profits made by Europeans from engaging in the slave trade. The actual dimensions are not easy to fix, but the profits were fabulous. John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains.”
Rodney’s argument is supported by the words of Friedrich Engels (November 28, 1820 – August 5, 1895) and Karl Marx (May 5, 1818 – March 14, 1883) who were two White men born in Germany:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
Not that Engels or Marx were by any stretch of the imagination champions of African people’s rights even though some of their writings are sympathetic to the plight of enslaved Africans, but they at least recognized the truth of Europe’s role in under-developing Africa and the gains Europeans garnered from the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans. They were just stating the facts. They also wrote:
“With the development of capitalist production during the manufacturing period, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means to capitalistic accumulation. Read, e.g., the naïve Annals of Commerce of the worthy A. Anderson. Here it is trumpeted forth as a triumph of English statecraft that at the Peace of Utrecht, England extorted from the Spaniards by the Asiento Treaty the privilege of being allowed to ply the negro trade, until then only carried on between Africa and the English West Indies, between Africa and Spanish America as well. England thereby acquired the right of supplying Spanish America until 1743 with 4,800 negroes yearly. This threw, at the same time, an official cloak over British smuggling. Liverpool waxed fat on the slave trade. Liverpool employed in the slave-trade, in 1730, 15 ships; in 1751, 53; in 1760, 74; in 1770, 96; and in 1792, 132.”
The benefits and profits of the European slave trade in African bodies have accrued in value since the 400-year brutal and inhumane trade was abolished. The benefit to Europe, Europeans and their descendants was more than financial, it was the beginning of White skin privilege, a scourge which haunts the descendants of enslaved Africans to this day. It has dogged our footsteps and in many cases our minds and when Bob Marley admonishes us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery he is referring to the legacy of the enslavement of our ancestors.
During slavery, Africans were stripped of their names, their culture, their belief systems and many were taught to revere European culture, names and belief systems and to despise their own. Those beliefs of European superiority and African inferiority savagely and brutally forced on Africans continue to haunt us today. The abolition of chattel slavery did not end the exploitation of Africans. The Europeans moved to the African continent which they carved up and served to further European interests which continues into this 21st century in spite of political independence gained by the formerly colonized continent.
On August 1, 2012 we will observe 178 years since slavery was abolished in Canada and 174 years since the system was abolished in the British-held colonies in the Caribbean.
The Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity (NPAS) is inviting the community to a commemoration of Emancipation Day on Wednesday, August 1, at 63 Gould Street in Toronto. This free event (donations welcome) begins at 6:00 p.m. and features performances and a panel discussion.