Brian Concannon Jr.: Whitewashing the History of Abolition
[Brian Concannon Jr. is a human rights lawyer and directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org]
This week the world officially commemorated one of the pivotal events of modern history with deafening silence. On August 23, 1791, a group of slaves in Haiti led by a man named Boukman ignited a revolt that changed the world. They attacked their French masters, and kept fighting until Haiti wrested independence from Napoleon in 1804. Haiti's rebellion metastasized: the independent nation run by former slaves inspired people held in bondage throughout the world, and forever undermined the"moral" and philosophical underpinnings of slavery. Slavery held on for decades- more than seven decades in the U.S. - but from that time on it was fighting a losing battle.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaims August 23 the official"International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition," but there is little behind the proclamation. The UNESCO website's link to"Activities Worldwide" shows a blank page for the United States. France, alone among former slave trading countries, has an activity listed, but that is for last March's launch of a virtual UNESCO exhibit, aptly titled:"Lest We Forget." The link to the virtual exhibit does not work. There is no mention of the anniversary in any major U.S. media outlets, and very little even on the internet.
In contrast, the film Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce and the fight to end the slave trade in the British Empire, made a big splash when it opened last February. In less than four months, enough people saw the film in the United States for the movie to gross $21 million.
Wilberforce, a wealthy member of the British Parliament, risked his reputation, his political career and even his health in a long struggle to convince his colleagues to pass the Slave Trade Act. The Act became a critical step in ending slavery when enacted in 1807, and both Wilberforce and the Act deserve an important place in history.
But neither deserves to overshadow the Haitians and their revolution. Haitians
risked their lives as well as their health and careers- over 300,000 Haitians
died fighting for abolition, many cruelly tortured and mutilated along the way.
Haitians actually ended slavery in the country, for good, while the Slave Trade
Act only ended the transport of slaves by ship in the British Empire (the Empire
did not actually abolish slavery until 1834). But it is the Slave Trade Act, not
Haiti's revolution, which is widely celebrated as the beginning of the end of
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