UK: London festival targets capital’s slavery past
23 August marks UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. This year, Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, in partnership with African heritage community groups, is organising a four-day programme in remembrance of Britain’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Beth Herzfeld reports.
Called the “Rendezvous of Victory”, the Anti Slavery International’s four-day programme kicks off on 21 August and ends on 24 August. It will be held in Greenwich and Brixton, two areas of London connected with the slave trade and associated with freedom fighting and justice.
Events for people of all ages will take place at the National Maritime Museum, the University of Greenwich, the Cutty Sark Gardens and on the Cutty Sark itself. (The Cutty Sark is a three-masted merchant clipper built in 1869 and now kept in Greenwich. It was named after the witch in Robert Burns poem, Tam O’Shanter, who wore only a cutty sark or short shirt). As a ship, the Cutty Sark was not used in slavery but its relevance for this event is because it is widely recognised as a symbol of Greenwich and of British mercantilism.
Also, from the Cutty Sark Gardens and the ship itself, you can see Deptford Docks and the Royal Naval Yard. It was from these locations that John Evelyn, the 17th century diarist, witnessed the departure of the Ruby and the Diamond from Deptford on 15 March 1652. These two vessels played a central role in capturing a number of Caribbean islands.
It was also from Deptford Docks that the 18th century writer, political agitator and abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano, was “kidnapped”and resold into slavery. Equiano reappeared at Deptford Docks in 1786 when, now free, was appointed as a commissary for the provision of supplies to the three ships that were being prepared for the fateful voyage that would take hundreds of London’s black poor to Sierra Leone.
According to Mary Cunneen, director of Anti-Slavery International: “The Transatlantic Slave Trade changed the fabric of societies worldwide. Enslavement and abolitionist resistance remains at the root not only of negative acts of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, but also of positive action for human rights. The Rendezvous of Victory is an opportunity for Londoners to acknowledge and understand this rich legacy.”
The Transatlantic Slave Trade, probably the largest forced migration in human history, ripped communities apart, stripping Africa of tens of millions of its young and healthy work force. It forcibly grouped vastly different peoples together, creating new communities, identities and languages, changing the course of history forever.
By the end of the 18th century, Britain was the largest slaving nation in the world. Fortunes made by merchant families in London, Bristol and Liverpool brought immense wealth, largely fuelling the Industrial Revolution.
The profits of enslavement transformed the lives of the British people, changing their landscape as money was poured into building new houses, schools, universities, museums, libraries, etc.
Sugar became more accessible as it flooded in from slave colonies in the Caribbean. Banks grew rich from the profits made by some of Britain’s most notorious slave traders, insuring and loaning them money to be ploughed into their investment in Africans.
The trade in enslaved Africans also gave rise to a new form of thought, which defined Africans as inferior beings, leading to Afriphobia and Apartheid. Racism in the form it is known today grew out of justifying the enslavement of African people for the benefit of Europe.
UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, commemorates the world’s first successful uprising by enslaved Africans in Haiti (then called St Dominique) which began on 22-23 August 1791. The revolt led to the establishment of the first black-led state in the Caribbean.
That victory in Haiti will have a special place in this year’s Anti-Slavery International’s Rendezvous of Victory. Organised in partnership with local community groups, the programme includes:
* Rendezvous of Victory Convention, University of Greenwich (21-22 August).
* Vigil of Remembrance, Cutty Sark Gardens, Greenwich (22 August).
* Special screenings of international films, Ritzy Cinema, Brixton (21 & 24 August).
* Talks and previews of National Maritime Museum’s African Enslavement Collection and workshops at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (23 August).
* Heritage and historical walks around Greenwich and Brixton (23 & 24 August).
* Interfaith ceremony, St Matthew’s Church, Brixton (24 August).
The event culminates on the day the Notting Hill Carnival, Europe’s largest multicultural event, begins. The Caribbean Carnival dates back to the abolition of slavery when enslaved Africans took to the streets. In the UK, the Carnival is a powerful celebration of people’s determination, against all odds, to keep their cultural heritage alive.
This year’s celebration of the Rendezvous of Victory has attracted the support and participation of a wide range of groups in Britain, including the Forum of Africans and African Descendants Against Racism (FAADAR), Breaking the Silence Community Advisory Board of the UNESCO ASPnet Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project, the Churches Commission for Racial Justice, the National Maritime Museum and Greenwich Council.
The others are: the Pathbreakers International Network, Greenwich Racial Equality Council, the SIMBA/Mama Afrika Partnership, the Forum of African Human Rights Defenders in Europe, National Union of Students-Black Students Campaign, the Black United Front, and a number of partners in Greenwich and elsewhere.
Copyright International Communications Aug/Sep 2003
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