How should we remember the enormity of the slave trade?

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

Craig Hollander, from The College of New Jersey, asks how should we commemorate International Slavery Remembrance Day on 23 August. 

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated every August 23 as the “International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.” That’s a lot of pressure to put on one day. After all, the slave trade existed for nearly 400 years (between roughly 1500 and 1870). During that time, slave traders brought coercively more than 10 million African men, women, and children to the Americas to toil as slaves. Countless others perished either in Africa or during the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. Those who somehow survived the ordeal were considered the property of others. They were compelled to obey the commands of their owners, and could be bought and sold yet again.
But UNESCO would like us to remember the abolition of the slave trade, too. And that, in itself, is no easy story to tell. It was not until the mid-18th century that some whites in Europe and North America began to criticize the ongoing slave trade. Those early activists—along with many more blacks, both enslaved and free—gave rise to a widespread movement to abolish the traffic. By 1820, the primary maritime powers of Europe and America had abolished the slave trade. However, their purported humanitarianism rarely extended to those who were already enslaved; indeed, slavery itself remained legal throughout much of the Atlantic world until well into the 19th century. As a result, slave traders continued to traffic Africans across the ocean.
The question, then, is, how should we remember the enormity of the slave trade and its protracted abolition this August 23? Surely we would do well to educate ourselves about the victims—the millions of dead, as well as the survivors who endured unspeakable oppression. We should also rededicate ourselves to the principles of those who fought against slavery. Such principles will be in demand until personal liberty and human dignity are respected universally.
Plate to Commemorate the Abolition of the Slave Trade

To find out more visit our free day of talks, tours and commemoration on 23 August

Craig Hollander, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of History

The College of New Jersey