Tragic trade from beneath the equator

Dossier ~ Monday 14th September 2009
The Red Sea Sharks (1958) - Page 47]

In 1958, at the time of the publication of The Red Sea Sharks, slavery was thought to have been abolished, yet was still rife. What are the origins of this ancient trade, which is still in existence today?

Woe betide the losers !

What is the origin of slavery ? Several theories exist in this regard, yet the most commonly accepted theories point far back in history to the time when human beings began to settle. Having been nomadic hunters, who also harvested crops, our ancestors began to establish permanent communities. They discovered how to domesticate and breed certain animals. It was at the same time that agriculture began to develop. These new methods required manpower and so prisoners of war were put to work. Paradoxically, slavery was considered as a form of progress: beforehand, prisoners were systematically put to death.

An abhorrent trade

No matter which of the greatly admired ancient civilisations we consider, whether it is Egypt, Rome or Greece : all were founded on the work of millions of slaves. Philosophers such as Aristotle were in favour of slavery. The great sage couldn't imagine a society that would function without slaves. Slaves were often victims of war, but were also people on the wrong side of pirate operations and attacks. When war failed to provide adequate numbers of prisoners, the Romans didn't think twice about sourcing slaves from civilian communities, rounded up on the slightest pretext. This system of abuse has left its traces in history, and even in language : Slavic people owe the name of their race to the Latin word sclavus, which means slave. The Romans routinely captured people from the Balkans as slaves.

A slaves lot

These days, the practice of slavery is above all associated with the trade in human beings between Africa and America. It is estimated that 18 million people were snatched from their homelands to be transported to the other side of the Atlantic. Many were put to work on the plantations of North and South America. In fact the Caribbean Islands have a majority black population as a direct result of the slave trade. The original inhabitants of the islands were American Indians, but they were all massacred to make way for the plantations. Despite the fact that working conditions were incredibly tough at times, the fact that certain sadistic slave masters would abuse their subjects, and the fact that nothing can really justify the sheer exploitation of slavery, it is worth noting that at the time of the American Civil War, life as a slave in the cotton plantations of the southern United States was more desirable than that of a free labourer working in factories in the north.

Denouncing slavery wherever it rears its ugly head

Without detracting from the importance of slavery in America, we mustn't forget slavery in other parts of the world. In The Red Sea Sharks, Hergé took up the cause of slaves, right in the middle of the twentieth century ! Raids on African populations which resulted in captives being transported to Arabia, were responsible for many more victims than the Atlantic slave trade  -  and over a far longer period of time (from the sixth to the twentieth century). Prisoners were gathered in Zanzibar, before being sent on their way to their new masters. While Zanzibar was a centre of the Arabic slave trade, Gorée Island in Senegal is a place where slaves were collected before embarking to America.

Europeans slaves to morocco !

Another forgotten slave trade is that which existed within African kingdoms themselves ! Travellers had confirmed the existence of slaves in African society since the eighteenth century. It was even reported that the king's court in Ghana had white slaves. Yet one of the most surprising slave trades to learn about is the trade in European slaves. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, ruthless pirates plundered the coasts of Sicily, Italy and Spain, all the way to the south of England. Witness statements have been recorded from a young British person, captured by Arab pirates hunting humans in English fishing villages. More than a million Europeans were displaced to Algeria or Morocco, where they would be put to work building palaces (notable in Meknes).

So it's all relative ?

Perhaps the earlier point about the relatively desirable lifestyle of slaves in the southern plantations bothers you. Please remember that we are not trying to excuse, explain or make light of the lot of a slave ! But it should be remembered that at the time novels like Uncle Tom's Cabin played on the stereotype of the cruel master and portrayed fictional events, nobody was thinking about the real-life child labour going on in factories in the north of the country. Plantation slave-masters were obliged to clothe and feed their slaves. They had to provide for them when they grew old, in retirement homes entirely financed by the landowners. Slaves had some rights against bad treatment. Factory bosses were not obliged to clothe their workers, keep them healthy or look after them in old age. Children worked for up to 18 hours a day in appallingly unhygienic conditions. Slavery versus (poorly) paid work : which could claim the greater respect of human rights ?

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