The UN International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

By Michael Evans - 25 Mar 2013 11:24:0 GMT
The UN International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Monument to Slaves; Credit: © Shutterstock

On 25th March each year the United Nations International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the Transatlantic Slave Trade honours the lives of those who died as a result of slavery, or who experienced the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.

The day also presents an excellent opportunity to raise awareness of the dangers of racism and prejudice.

During the period of around 400 years from the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries between 15 million and 17 million African men, women and children were transported against their will across the Atlantic to North, Central and South America. Millions more died during the course of the journey.

The captives were brought from the coasts of Africa in cramped and unhygienic slave ships and 96 % of them were landed at ports in South America and the Caribbean Islands.

Between 1501 and 1830, four Africans crossed the Atlantic for every one European. The legacy of this is plainly evident today, with many millions of people throughout the Americas who are all of African descent.

This inhumane trade is now universally regarded as being one of the worst ever violations of human rights, with some experts believing that the effects of this trade are still being felt in the economies of some African countries.

The first anti-slavery statement was signed in Germantown, Pennsylvania by a group of Dutch and German Quarters in 1688 and this was followed by similar disapproval by English Quakers who began to promote reforms. From the 1750s a number of Quakers in Britain's America colonies began to express their opposition and called on Quaker slave owners to improve the conditions of their slaves, to educate them in reading and writing and Christianity and to gradually emancipate them.

The British abolitionist movement came into being in 1783 after an informal group of six Quakers presented a petition to Parliament, signed by over 300 Quakers. Individuals and organisations began to correspond and books, pamphlets and newspaper articles were part of the effort to raise awareness of the cause. This was the beginning of perhaps the first and certainly the largest humanitarian movement that had ever been seen.

It was becoming clear to the international community that this sort of trade was no longer to be tolerated. Although the trade had previously been accepted without question, the Anglo-American abolitionist movement began to gain more support. In 1791 the British campaigner William Wilberforce introduced his first Parliamentary Bill to abolish slavery. This was easily defeated, but he tried again the following year, and the next, and the next, until in 1807 the British Parliament finally voted to abolish the slave trade throughout its maritime power.

Abolition itself followed slowly as agreements had to be established with the various semi-autonomous colonial governments. Further British Parliamentary legislation followed and in Britain the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in 1833, ending slavery in Canada, the British West Indies and the Cape of Good Hope.

By now the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum. Within ten years slavery had also been abolished in India and in 1848 it was abolished in French territories.

1st January 1863 was the day of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. This stated that: "all persons held as slaves within any state, or designated part of the state, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free"

Slavery was officially abolished in the United States on 1st February 1865 as a result of the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. President Lincoln was anxious that the Emancipation Proclamation should not be seen as a temporary measure made during the Civil War. Yet in spite of all the good intentions, racial segregation continued throughout most of the following century and racism continues to remain an important issue.

The United Nations International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is an occasion to consider the causes, consequences and lessons to be gained from the transatlantic slave trade. The theme for 2013 is Forever Free: Celebrating Emancipation when tribute will be paid to all those who worked tirelessly to overturn the acceptance of the slave trade as an institution that was legitimate and moral.

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