Humanity’s greatest genocide
Nothing above the human being and no human being below another human being
In December 2007, the UN General Assembly declared 25 March as the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
For more than ten centuries, the African continent was crossed by the slave trade in different directions: the Red Sea, the southern Indian Ocean, the trans-Saharan trade, the Atlantic Ocean.
Before the arrival of Europeans in Africa, the scourge of slavery was already institutionalised in many regions, so when European traders entered, they took advantage of a market that already existed.
Over three centuries, from 1550 to 1850, according to some sources some 100 million Africans were reduced to slavery by European colonialism. In the 16th century, it is estimated that only a quarter of all slaves who left Africa did so as part of the Atlantic slave trade.
But when the aboriginal populations in the Americas were decimated, more than 15 million Africans were forcibly uprooted from their homeland and taken in chains to the “New World”. By the 17th century, it is estimated that the transatlantic trade accounted for two-thirds of the total African slave trade.
It is impossible to know exactly how many Africans were forcibly taken to the American continent, because there were millions of people who in the process either died or lost their freedom and their status as human beings, being hunted, tortured, chained and degraded to become mere objects or merchandise.
To speak of slavery in these Dantesque proportions implies not only the violent abduction and inhumane treatment of the black African population, the destruction of their culture, villages and families and the forced uprooting, but also the massacres of innocent men, women and children, the indiscriminate torture, rape and horrific living conditions on the slave transport ships and plantations where most were taken.
On arrival at the ports of embarkation the slaves were chained, badly fed, transferred to “slave ships” designed to “store” hundreds of pieces (people) in the holds… an estimated thirty per cent died on the journey, others were blinded by infection and others were thrown overboard. The conditions in which these people were transported on voyages lasting between two and three months (depending on the ports of embarkation and destination) were deplorable. They were placed below deck with rings around their necks and crickets on their feet, six at a time. The diet was severe, the sanitation was appalling; disease was frequent, ventilation inadequate, and the smell and heat unbearable. The situation worsened when the ship brought more slaves than allowed.
When the cargo (of people) arrived in America, inspected before leaving the ship and the customs duties paid, the slaves who survived the voyage suffered the cruelty of being branded with hot iron on the right arm, shoulders or back, regardless of whether they were children, young people, women or adult men, as a form of control to know that the importation was legitimate by law. The slaves were then locked up in dark and unsanitary barracks, bound with chains until they were sold.
In many port cities in the Americas, the buying and selling of newly arrived “merchandise” (people) often took place. Slaves were offered in advertisements in newspapers at the beginning of the 19th century, which was “the normal” at the time.
Once they had been allocated, they had to set off again to their destination. The new master used to brand them again with a hot iron to establish their ownership. Their treatment on the plantations and in the residences was usually ruthless. And their reproduction ensured that they would be exploited for generations, usually destroying whatever family and cultural ties they had.
Although they were severely punished for any disobedience as a way of ensuring their control, many rebelled and escaped, creating Palenques or camps, against which the owners would throw armed men with their dogs of prey, as a way of teaching the other slaves in a regime of terror and human degradation.
In general, the victims of this slavery fulfilled a vital function for capitalism and its development, which was decisively supported by the process of colonisation of America, and the generation and plundering of wealth. The importance of the Atlantic slave trade for the global economy was extraordinary and affected all European economic sectors, even in countries that did not own colonies or slaves. The cost in human lives and suffering was incalculable, terrifying, and its pernicious legacy has reverberated to this day in most societies in Africa, Europe and the New World.
It is clear that this process, which involved the most gigantic genocide and ethnocide in the history of humanity and drove capitalist development, had nothing to do with relations linked to “liberty, equality and fraternity”, proclaimed during the French Revolution and which would immediately motivate the Haitian Revolution, suffocated in another genocide, which also inspired various rebellions and subsequent struggles against slavery, racism and in favor of abolitionism.
Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery by law in 1981. In fact, today in this African country, it is estimated that 1% of the population still lives in slavery.
For almost two centuries after the barbaric system of slavery stopped, the descendants of enslaved ancestors still face structural discrimination and segregation deeply rooted in racism, colonialism and slavery. The consequences of these violations persist today and continue to wreak havoc on our societies and institutions.
As the Dictionary of New Humanism states: “(…) Slavery contradicts the legal and moral conscience of humanity today, which is reflected in the documents of the United Nations (UN). Humanism has always condemned and continues to condemn slavery as an egregious institution, contrary to the freedom and dignity of the human being”.
The experiences of people of African descent often remain hidden behind data about the population as a whole, obscuring patterns of systemic inequality and rendering their plight and concerns virtually invisible to policymakers. Eliminating the systemic racism caused by slavery is fundamental to achieving a world of universal rights and choice for all people.
Today, slavery is generally evoked as a thing of the past and has become part of the Western common sense of globalised capitalism, but this is not the case. For example, in 1995, the Brazilian government passed a law against slavery. Since then, 54,000 people have been freed from forced labour relations. At the end of 2017, President Michel Temer, a leading exponent of anti-humanism, surprisingly tried to soften the term “modern slavery” by removing the criterion of forced economic dependence when defining it. Thanks to local and international outcry, his malicious agenda was thwarted.
Slavery is also still expressed in multiple forms such as forced labour, debt bondage, migrant labour, human trafficking, the sale of children, forced marriage, the sale of wives, child labour and child servitude.
Humanists consider it fundamental for overcoming all vestiges of slavery to place the human being as a central value, taking up what is stated in the Humanist Document: “The progress of humanity, in slow ascent, needs to transform nature and society by eliminating the violent animal appropriation of some human beings by others. When this happens, we will transit from prehistory to a fully human history. In the meantime, we can start from no other central value than that of the full human being in his or her achievements and freedom”.
Humanists, aware of the risks involved in the fact that large groups of people find themselves in conditions of economic dependence because their basic needs (food, housing, health, education, etc.) are often not met, denounce and work for the construction of a system at the service of full human development and quality of life.
The International Humanist Party considers that in the face of the consequences of the massive and flagrant violations of human rights that constituted crimes against humanity that took place during the period of slavery, colonialism and wars of conquest, as well as the systemic plundering of mineral wealth and natural resources that they suffered and that continues to this day, mechanisms of reparation and redress must be created, both for the victims of racism and slavery, and for the countries that see how their resources extracted under unfair agreements do not contribute to the improvement of the living conditions of their peoples.
Appropriate ways must be found to restore the dignity of victims and to provide for affirmative action and compensation measures, textbooks that accurately describe historical events, memorials and truth commissions, as well as independent mechanisms to monitor the effectiveness of remedies and reparation mechanisms.
International Coordination Team
Federation of Humanist Parties