The Slave Trade and its Racist Legacy


Expendito Chipasha Chipalo

Europeans reportedly first ventured into Africa before the birth of Christ possibly in the year 500 BC. But this era of history is too remote for ordinary readers. Only scholars devoted to the study of history can find relevance to records related to this period. I will therefore deal with the more recent centuries starting with the “voyages of discovery.”

The plunder of African wealth and people began in the 8th Century AD with the Muslim conquests of North Africa. The Arabs traded in gold and slaves and delivered their loot to European merchants. But things would change in the 14th Century when European exploration started led by the Portuguese.

Prince Henry of Portugal known as the Navigator was the first European to methodically explore Africa as well as search for an oceanic route to the Indies. Henry the Navigator’s voyages started in 1420.

Prince Henry sent several expeditions to the west African coast and in 1455 and 1456, two Italian explorers accompanied by a Portuguese captain working for Prince Henry managed to venture into the interior sailing up the Gambia river up the to the land known today as Senegal.

The exploration of Africa and the Far East went on for many years until 1498 when Vasco da Gama managed to sail past the Cape of Good Hope and went on to Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi where he found Chinese traders and with the help of an Arab pilot managed to reach India on August 28, 1498.

By this time interest in Africa had intensified and many European powers joined in claiming territories mainly along the coast and the islands on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The European merchants started dealing directly with African empires trading in slaves and gold. The European powers in addition started sending convicts from their countries into exile in the African colonies.

While the exploration and exploitation of Africa was taking place, other adventures to find sea routes to Asia across the Atlantic were also taking place. It was thus that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492.

The Europeans who settled the New World found it suitable for the production of cotton, tobacco, sugar, molasses and rum. Unfortunately, Native Americans could not survive on the plantations as they died of diseases brought by Europeans to America.

European workers were also unsuitable as they suffered in the tropical climate while Africans proved to be excellent workers with a lot of experience in agriculture and cattle herding. Africans were also resistant to diseases and were used to the tropical climate of the southern United States and South America.

This is why the European powers engaged in the infamous Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

Over 15 million people were enslaved and sold like animals from 1550 to 1900 AD. They were stolen from Africa, stripped of their humanity, humiliated, lynched and exploited while making the plantation owners very rich millionaires without receiving a cent or appreciation.

The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade was also named the Triangular Trade because of the rough shape it makes on the world map. The first leg of the trade was the transportation of manufactured goods from Europe to Africa: cloth, spirit, tobacco, beads, cowry shells, metal goods and guns used to obtain slaves.

The second leg of the voyage involved transportation of the human cargo from Africa to the Americas and the third and final stage was the return to Europe with produce from the slave plantations: cotton, sugar, tobacco and molasses for European industries and consumption.

The number of slaves taken from Africa, over the four centuries by region was: Senegal/Gambia (479,000), Upper Guinea (411,200), Windward Coast (183,200), Gold Coast (1,035,000), Bight of Benin (2,016,200), Bight of Biafra (1,463,700), West Central Africa (4,179,500) and South East Africa (470,000). (According to the book Transformations to Slavery: Paul E Lovejoy, Cambridge University Press, 2000).

The above figures total up to 10,240,200. They reflect the number of slaves who were accounted for in the slave auctions in the United States.

Those human beings who were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean when they died or fell sick are not accounted for, nor were the ones sold on the black market.

Many slaves died of diseases as they were marched from the interior to the Atlantic coast. The slaves also died from malnutrition and exhaustion during the forced marches through the forests and internment in slave camps. Although Britain is credited with the abolition of the slave trade, it was the worst offender accounting for 2.5 million slaves during the eighteenth century alone.

Events within America and from outside led to the eventual abolition of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January, 1863 to free all slaves in the USA. However, the minds of the slave holders were not liberated.

The reaction from the Deep South, were slavery was the major source of white prosperity, was vicious anger. They formed a white racist and supremacist organization called the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan members controlled state assemblies and took the law into their own hands. Black people were dehumanized and lynched in public for the smallest offences: smiling at a white lady, shaking hands with a white man, drinking beer with a white man, these were all reasons for lynching a black man.

During the American civil war, black people fought with the Unionist Army but were not given any honors or pensions after the war. This discrimination continued long after the abolition of slavery. In 1936, Jesse Owens, a black athlete representing the United States of America at the Berlin Olympics, became the first man in history to win four gold medals at the Summer Games. One would have expected that he received a hero’s welcome home.

But upon his return to the United States, Owens was treated like a curiosity rather than a hero. The president of the United States at the time Franklin D. Roosevelt did not even meet him to congratulate him as was traditional with all Olympic champions

In Germany, the Nazis portrayed African-Americans as inferior and ridiculed the United States for relying on “black auxiliaries.” One German official even complained that the Americans were letting “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes,” compete.

White America completely ignored Owens. During the welcome party in New York, he was made to ride on the elevator of a freight train on his way back home, no endorsements came his way, and he retired from amateur athletics. Owens was only recently recognized by President Barack Obama.

The story was not different in colonial Africa. The continent was shared among European powers at the 1884-85 Berlin Conference dubbed the Scramble for Africa.

For over a century, white colonialists subjected the owners of the land to discrimination and prejudice. Blacks had no right to land, no right to education, no right to justice. Blacks were chattels. African resources were stolen and transported to Europe without any payment to the owners. Europe developed rapidly with this stolen wealth.

Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba was killed like an animal; his body cut into pieces and thrown in an acid bath. Steve Biko was killed for trying to raise the consciousness of black people in South Africa.

Amilcar Cabral and Eduardo Mondlane were killed by the Portuguese for daring to demand independence for their people.

South Africa’s brutal regime enforced the inhuman philosophy of apartheid. Unarmed protesters were killed at Sharpeville for holding a peaceful demonstration against injustice.

In Zimbabwe, white settlers declared unilateral independence and it took thousands of black lives before Ian Smith and his fellow rebels were dislodged from power in Harare.

I can go on listing white atrocities and injustices against the black people in Africa, Aborigines in Australia, Maoris in New Zealand, etc. I ask myself the question: will white attitudes towards people of colour ever change?

When Donald Trump won the United States of America presidential election on November 9, 2016, I visited many websites to check the reaction of different groups including the Ku Klux Klan. Below is what I found on their website.

“Racial greetings from the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan! Thank you for visiting The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Chat Site! This chat site is for members only … however, anyone is welcome to apply. Be aware, that this site and our chat site will contain language not suitable for children and will also contain words that some may find offensive.

“We openly use the words Nigger, Fag, Spic, Jewboy as well as other words to describe what we believe is the filth, that is destroying this great nation. If you decide to apply for an account on our chat site, we will conduct a background check, using certain information based websites and databases, word of mouth contacts as well as several other methods of finding out who you are and what you are about.”

This is from a group calling themselves “The Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan”

This is America 154 years after Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation.

All I can do is wonder: What is wrong with white people? /