What about the slaves who freed themselves?

Effie Jordan

Toussaint L'Ouverture or William Wilberforce  — which name is more familiar to you? Each played a crucial, though very different role in the events which led to Britain passing an Act to end the transatlantic slave trade in 1807.

The Abolition Act was the beginning of the end of four centuries of slave trading which saw millions of Africans forcibly shipped in appalling conditions to Caribbean plantations.

Those who survived the journey continued to be subjected to extreme brutality and were often literally worked to death. Plantations were big business offering huge profits for their British investors. Untold millions of African lives were lost and destroyed, and slavery leaves many deep scars in the continent and across the world today.

The World Development Movement (WDM) is working with Anti- Slavery International and the African-led group Rendezvous of Victory in a Cross Community Forum to explore the legacies of enslavement and its abolition.

Firstly we must look at the legacy of silence around the role of freedom fighters such as Toussaint L'Ouverture.

Although many factors were integral to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the focus often falls on a small group of British  'abolitionists', including Hull MP Wilberforce. The crucial part that slaves played in winning their own freedom often goes untold. And our tendency to construct heroes means that a few individual figures  — both black and white  — are singled out, whilst the mass numbers of people at the grassroots who were actively resisting an unjust system are overlooked.

There are parallels with the situation today. WDM tries to ensure Southern perspectives are put forward in the arena of global trade and finance. We regularly report the strong resistance on the ground to unjust policies imposed by rich country dominated institutions like the IMF and World Bank. And we prize the tireless efforts of thousands of individual activists making a collective difference. We'd hate to think that if poverty were eradicated now, the history books in 200 years time would be reporting it was Bono and Bob Geldof alone who sorted it all out.

Secondly, the Cross Community Forum tries to explore the links between the slave trade era and global injustices today. There is often a failure to properly acknowledge how today's economic system has been built upon the injustices of the past.

Again we can draw parallels between the economic system which treated people as property and today's system which puts profits before the welfare of millions of people worldwide, keeps countries shackled by debt and unfair economic conditions, and allows modern forms of slavery, such as bonded labour and trafficking, to go unchecked.

It remains to be seen how today's media and political leaders will report, reflect on and commemorate the bicentenary. WDM will continue its work with diaspora and Southern groups giving Africans a voice where often their voice is denied. This will allow the other side of the story to be told, not just because justice dictates it should be, but also so lessons can be learnt from one of the greatest global campaigns in history. People need to know it took black and white, the oppressed and the free, rich and poor, the South and the North to take a stand against the injustices they saw and to end the slave trade.

This is one of the greatest legacies of the slave trade  — that, against all odds, this brutal system was abolished. It is this legacy we need to carry forward to 2007 and beyond.

* Effie Jordan works for the World Development Movement.