A series of exhibitions and lectures have been taking place across Belfast, raising awareness of the links between Northern Ireland, Africa and the transatlantic slave trade. It is 400 years since the first human cargo of people from Africa landed in Virginia in the United States and were sold as slaves, setting the scene for this trade to the New World to see a sharp increase in the 17th century.
The African and Caribbean Support Organisation of Northern Ireland (ACSONI) is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the slave trade with a series of events in November, with leading academics discussing the impact of slavery and how Northern Ireland is inextricably linked to the trade.
Although Belfast was known for its abolitionist campaigns, spear-headed by reformers including Mary Ann McCracken and Thomas McCabe, wealthy merchants profited from slavery.
One such merchant, Waddell Cunningham, thought to be the richest man in Belfast, owned a sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Dominica. In 1786 he called a meeting to explore the establishment of a slave-trading port in Belfast; an idea which was strongly opposed by Thomas McCabe. It was that opposition that enabled organisations here to welcome Equiano and Frederick Douglass, themselves freed from enslavement who wrote their personal narratives, while slavery was still being supported by the British Government. It was not outlawed until 1833.
Now in the middle of the United Nations designated ‘International Decade for People of African Descent’, which ends in 2024, ACSONI wanted to draw Northern Ireland’s attention to how, through its involvement in the slave trade, the city’s wealth and maritime importance grew.
Joseph Ricketts, manager of ACSONI, cited by The Irish News, said, "Inspired by the United Nations-designated International Decade for People of African Descent, we wanted to tell the story of a strong people who survived one of the most oppressive periods in history, and consider what this means for their learning and integration here in Northern Ireland.”
He continued, "It is of relevance for everyone because it is by recalling the past that we can prevent the same mistakes from happening in the future."
In a major ecumenical 400th Commemoration Service held at St Anne’s Cathedral on Sunday November 17th, Dr Livingstone Thompson said, “there are issues of recognition, justice and development that we in Northern Ireland in particular, and Britain and Ireland in general, must face.”
Undoubtedly, Britain and Ireland benefited greatly from their participation in the slave trade, amassing a wealth that allows modern Britain to boast about its strength in the world. However, Thompson emphasised that many people, not only of African descent, were “gobsmacked and at a loss to understand why the United Kingdom parliament and government say that there’s no need for the government to play a leading role in marking the UN International Decade of People of African Descent.”
He said that the government’s current stance encapsulated “the same attitude that gave state support to the enslavement of Africans; it is the same attitude that compensated plantation owners at the time of abolition and said to the former enslaved, ‘go fend for yourself’; it is the same attitude that created a hostile environment in the UK for people of African descent.”
Paul Mullan, director of The National Lottery Heritage Fund Northern Ireland, said that many people in the Province were unaware of the local connections to the transatlantic slave trade and that it is “an uncomfortable heritage” and a “dark period in our history,” that needed to be acknowledged. He added that the impact was still felt through the generations by the people most negatively affected by it, according to The Irish News.
Although recalling the events may be uncomfortable, in an interview with 7Dnews Thompson said, “To imagine that we can simply move on, forgetting the injustice, which laid the foundation for the racism that is alive and well in our time, that laid the foundation for the human trafficking that we see today; to avoid a recall of those centuries of injustice would be to reinvent, revise and re-do the injustice to those forbears.”
Undoubtedly, the fear and hatred of migrants is something about which we are particularly concerned today, as it finds its way into migration policies, institutional practices and public attitudes that reinforce division and make life unnecessarily difficult for some. It can be argued, Thompson told 7Dnews, that it is the fear and hatred of migrants and ignorance about why people of African descent are in the UK that led to the Windrush scandal, the forcible removal of nationals from the UK and the closed door policy that prevented their return.
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