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Following the Traces of Racism: “Slavery and the slave trade were midwives to the birth of capitalism.”

Translated Saturday 17 November 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

An interview on the history of slavery with the organizers of a international conference on the theme Black slavery being held in Senegal on 15-18 November 2007: Daniel Voguet, a lawyer and president of the Association of the Descendants of Black Slaves and Their Friends (ADEN)(1) and Max-Jean Zins, a researcher, specializing in the Indian sub-continent, at the The Center for International Studies and Research in Paris.

HUMA: How are the questions of Black slave-trading and the slavery trade linked to contemporary problems?

Daniel Voguet: In the first place, the French overseas départements that are mainly inhabited by the descendants of slaves are incorporated as a part of France today. Logically enough, they are interested in their history.

Secondly, slavery and the slave trade, which continued over a period of several centuries, had a fundamental influence on the development of the European economy, and especially on the French economy. Entire industries began to develop due to the slave trade: the armaments, textile and shipbuilding industries, etc. Above all, the slave trade and the triangular trade made possible the initial accumulation of capital, which, combined with other factors, contributed to the emergence and development of a capitalist economy. It’s hard to measure the consequences for Africa, but it’s obvious that the continent was emptied of its inhabitants for several centuries. The raids to capture slaves and the slave trade, relayed by Africans, contributed to the disorganization of the continent and thus prevented the development of modern nation-states.

Thirdly, the ideological justification of slavery, as developed by the Catholic Church and by certain “scientists”, continues to play a role to this day. For centuries, the French were told by those who supposedly were the depositories of religious and scientific truth that black people were “inferior beings.” This ideology was introduced into the judicial system in the form of the black code, which defined black people as “chattel goods”! I believe that there is a link between this history and the continued survival of racist ideology today. This poison prevents French people as a whole from living in fraternity, liberty and equality, which is the basis of the French Republic.

HUMA: Why did you choose to combine the viewpoints of researchers from three continents, Europe, Africa, and America, for this conference?

Max-Jean Zins: It is by contrasting different points of view on a precise subject that we are able to get at the historical truth. By contrasting different approaches, we are better able to define the fundamental phenomenon constituted by slavery and the slave trade.

HUMA: Why did you decide to hold the conference in Africa?

Max-Jean Zins: Africa was the number one victim of the slave trade. For us, it seemed self-evident that the conference should be held in Africa. Then there was also a meeting with the municipal leaders of Gorée, and we were afforded the opportunity of combining the conference with the Festival of the Black Diaspora. The backing of the Gorée city hall, which is involved in a project of remembrance, was an important element. And with that backing came the support of the Institute of Gorée, which is directed by Breyten Breytenbach, a South African and a former anti-apartheid activist.(2)

HUMA: Is the participation of researchers from Senegal and Benin a sign of renewed strength in African research into the slave trade and slavery?

Max-Jean Zins: Yes. A certain number of countries, like Senegal and Benin, have internationally-recognized historians. The study of slavery and the slave trade is not such an easy thing to do in Africa, because some Africans were themselves involved in the slave trade. But the taboos on the subject are progressively falling, and different historical schools of thought are now developing in this field.

HUMA: How do the different geographic areas vary in their approach to the history of slavery and the slave trade?

Max-Jean Zins: Let’s take the example of Cuba, an island where slavery played a considerable role. Cuba has a history that is specific to the island, in particular since 1959. The fact that the island has been freed from a certain forms of "trusteeship" was a source of national pride, which resulted in the descendants of slaves occupying a special place. By taking responsibility for this new Cuban history, it became possible for Cuba to make a leap forward past a certain number of identity problems.

The situation on Guadeloupe is completely different. A person from Guadeloupe is a Frenchman of African origin who lives in the Caribbean. His history is not the same as that of a Cuban. It did not culminate in the independence of Guadeloupe. As a result, questions regarding slavery and the slave trade are formulated in a totally different way. Similarly, Haiti, Santo Domingo, or again the United States and Brazil constituted particular cases. Hence the interest of comparing and contrasting the approaches of researchers from different continents.

HUMA: Does today’s talk of a “refusal to repent” — which has struck a certain chord in public opinion — mark a break with the movement of recognition which was manifested in the voting of the Taubira law and the setting aside of May 10 as a day dedication to remembering the slave trade and its abolition?

Daniel Voguet: We are not in favor of repentance. This religious concept is completely foreign to our approach. Our problem is not to repent, it is to know what happened. That’s essential, if only so as to fight against racism.

HUMA: For you, is there a continuity between slavery and the slave trade, the colonization which followed, and the neo-colonial looting to which Africa continues to be subject today?

Daniel Voguet: I think so. We can put a name on that continuity: the profit motive. Africa continues to be looted today, in more sophisticated forms, but they are based on the same motive-force and the same criterion: exploitation and domination in the name of the profit motive. Human development is not at the heart of this system, it is not its raison-d’être.

Max-Jean Zins: I don’t think that it’s possible to conceive of colonialism without slavery. Historically, the two phases are different. The first phase, that of slavery, is linked to European economic needs which became apparent during the emergence of European mercantile and industrial capitalism. At first, this system needed slavery to accumulate capital and to start the cycle of production. The labor force furnished by Africa was delivered by Africans to Europeans. But it was Europeans who gave the orders and controled the market. The initiative was European. In return for slaves, Europeans sold off their products to Africans. European coastal cities were not the only ones to benefit from this trade in human beings. During a certain period the whole of Europe lived, directly or indirectly, on the slave economy.

The consequences for Africa were obviously catastrophic. Africa was weakened through the sale of part of its population. Moreover, the products imported to Africa were consumer products, and they generate new forms of production in Africa. So the slave trade ruined Africa both demographically and economically, such that, when the second great phase of capitalist expansion began, with colonial conquest, European armies had no problem getting into Africa. Africa had neither the men nor the economy that would have enabled it to resist and defend itself against the European invasion. Drained of its blood by slavery, Africa did not have the means to fight back. For these reasons, colonialism is incomprehensible without a prior understanding of the slave trade.

Translator’s notes:

(1) For more information on "ADEN", see their web-site: http://adenassoc.com

2. The little-reported Gorée Institute works towards a peaceful, just and prosperous Africa to be part of the global arena in a more advantageous way; an Africa of open and self-reliant institutions with states that are effective and democratic, enterprises that are successful and transparent, civil societies that are socially-engaged and independent, and free and responsible citizens who may participate in all of these processes. (source: http://www.goreeinstitute.org/index2.html)

3. A French law passed in 2001 that declaring slavery - from the fifteenth century onwards - to be a crime against humanity. See http://www.humaniteinenglish.com/article194.html

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