Legacy of slavery in Caribbean and journey towards justice

From United Nations Caribbean

Legacy of slavery in Caribbean and journey towards justice

It is now understood and accepted that the transatlantic slave trade was the greatest crime against humanity in what is now defined as the modern era.

In terms of its scale and its social, psychological, spiritual and physical brutality, specifically inflicted upon Africans as a targeted ethnicity, this vastly profitable business, and the considerable subsequent suppression of the inhumanity and criminal nature of slavery, was ubiquitous and usurping of moral values.

The demographics that the juggernaut economic enterprise of the slave trade and slavery represented are today well known, in large measure thanks to nearly three decades of dedicated scientific and historical research, driven significantly by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and by recent initiatives, including the United Nations Outreach Programme on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery.

Some 12 to 20 million Africans were enslaved in the western hemisphere after an Atlantic voyage of 6 to 10 weeks. This voyage, now known as the “Middle Passage”, consumed some 20 per cent of its “human cargo”. Disease and death were common outcomes in this human tragedy.

The Caribbean was at the core of the crime against humanity induced by the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. Some 40 per cent of enslaved Africans were shipped to the Caribbean Islands, which, in the seventeenth century, surpassed Portuguese Brazil as the principal market for enslaved labour. The sugar plantations of the region, owned and operated primarily by English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Danish colonists, consumed black life as quickly as it was imported.

Critically, the Caribbean was where chattel slavery took its most extreme judicial form in the instrument known as the Slave Code, which was first instituted by the English in Barbados. Passed in 1661, this comprehensive law defined Africans as “heathens” and “brutes” not fit to be governed by the same laws as Christians. The legislators proceeded to define Africans as non-human—a form of property to be owned by purchasers and their heirs forever. The Slave Code went viral across the Caribbean, and ultimately became the model applied to slavery in the North American English colonies that would become the United States.

Barbados in the Caribbean became the first large-scale colony populated by a black majority, and South Carolina in the United States assumed the same status. In this way, black enslavement became the primary institution for social and economic governance in the hemisphere. It was the basis of wealth creation in both production and commerce. In most societies, slavery investors emerged as the political and economic elite. Capitalism and black slavery were intertwined. The Atlantic economy, in every aspect, was effectively sustained by African enslavement.