Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Slavery past and present - different name, same exploitation

Elmina slave castle in Ghana

Former BBC war reporter Rageh Omaar has spent a year making a documentary series about 21st century slavery for Al Jazeera English.

He said he wanted to do the programme after a friend mentioned that there are 27 million people in slavery worldwide. “Most people think slavery is a thing of the past, but it’s a crime that is happening in plain sight, not just in poor developing countries but also here and in the US, in many different guises,” he told The Observer.

Omaar said he was shocked to see how common and everyday the practice was. “Modern slavery is now a fundamental part of the globalized economy….Every country on Earth has a law banning slavery, but enforcing that law, especially in today’s deregulated economic system, is very difficult."

Forced labour, bonded labour, human trafficking… millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves. It is often not called slavery, but the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their 'employers'.

According to research accepted by the US government, it is cheaper to purchase a slave today than is was at the height of the Transatlantic slave trade.

I recently visited the infamous Elmina Castle on the west coast of Ghana (or Gold Coast as the country was called at the time). It is one of the most important stops on the route of the Transatlantic slave trade and the horror of this terrible place still sticks to my skin.  It is hard to believe that slavery is still going strong today.  For, when seeing a place like Elmina which reeks of terror and violence, one has to  scream:  “How could we?” and “Never again.”   But when do we learn?

Built by Portugal in 1482, Elmina was the first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea, so is the oldest European building in existence below the Sahara.

First established as a trade settlement, the castle later became one of the biggest slave fortresses in Africa.  In 1637, it served the Dutch slave trade with Brazil and the Caribbean, then in 1800s, become property of the British Empire. Today, it is a popular historical site, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The Door of No Return in Elmina Castle/ Dominique Chadwick

 Elmina, like other West African slave fortresses, housed luxury suites for the Europeans in the upper levels. The slave dungeons below were cramped and filthy, each cell often housing as many as 150 to 500 people at a time, without enough space to even lie down. Men and women routinely stayed there for three months until a ship was ready to take them away. The floor of the dungeons, as result of centuries of impacted filth and human excrement, is now several inches higher than when the place was built.

A special staircase with a trap door led directly from the women’s dungeon to the governor’s bedroom.

One of the castle’s two churches stands just above the women’s dungeon. I wonder if the European soldiers, administrators and priests who were posted there found it incongruous to be  praying while hundreds of chained, frightened and desperate women wailed underneath their feet…But then, we are all so good at justifying our actions, at not questioning things that are part of our culture, practices or environment. Would we have been different?

The most poignant sight at Elmina is the Door of No Return, the infamous portal through which slaves boarded the ships that would take them on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic known as the Middle Passage.  Our guide estimated that, over the castle’s 300 years as a slave fortress, some 12 to 15 million captives must have passed through the Door of No Return.

Omaar’s Slavery: A 21st Century Evil is on Al Jazeera English on Monday nights.

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