“We are here for a vitally important reason, the remembrance of the slave trade and it’s abolition… We are talking about one of the darkest chapters in the history of the world, in British history.”
This strong reminder comes from Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. We are at an event at London’s City Hall, ‘Remembering the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Its Abolition’. The event is to mark the UNESCO-listed International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition.
The official date is August 23rd and from the jokes made by Dr Michelle Asantewa, who led the proceedings, we understood that there was a previous commemoration attempt in August. But a few references to some exciting fire evacuations explained that proceedings had to be cut short.
The event was both sombre yet celebratory and the word that resonated strongly for everyone was ‘resistance’.
Historian and TV presenter David Olusoga spoke in beautiful prose about the constant resistance to the slave trade at every point. Reminding us that this aggressive act was not something that those kidnapped and transported accepted passively. At all points there was the threat of rebellion.
Referring to the shackles and chains that restrained the slaves, “The chains are a symbol of not just captivity but of rebellion… The crews of a slave ship lived in constant fear of rebellion and they were right to do so. No nation has ever accepted slavery passively,” Olusoga said.
The ceremony drove home the sombre, uncomfortable and distressing facts of the slave trade and also the lack of education around this dark period of history. The focus in education and the media has been on white European abolitionists rather than the slaves’ own acts of rebellion.
This night was about reclaiming the narrative of history and remembering those who fought slavery from the inside.
Founder of Slavery Remembrance, Shezal Laing, read a passage from the writings of Olaudah Eqiano, an abolitionist and free slave who was able to buy his freedom after which he campaigned tirelessly to end the slave trade. His book ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’, describes the horrors of transportation as witnessed and experienced first-hand.
Calypso musician, Tobago Crusoe, also gave a performance. Singing a haunting and painful song, he rendered another first-hand account of life as a slave.
The 1791 Haitian revolution was at the forefront of every conversation. The uprising that ended slavery on Haiti and saw the creation of a new nation. A game-changing moment in history that went on to fuel the eventual abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
Deputy Mayor, Debbie Weekes-Bernard gave the closing remarks. She spoke of the lasting impact of the slave trade and how its trauma is still present today.
The event ended with a performance by AkomaAsa Performing Arts, a western and African Diasporic performing arts group. The children, aged between 7 and 18, brought a strong, powerful and lively energy to close the event. Harnessing their culture, strength, skills and abilities, they brought energy and vitality to the proceedings.
Some of the most memorable words of the night came from Olusoga. He brought home the importance of teaching and acknowledging the vital and ongoing role that the slaves themselves played in the abolition, making specific reference to Samuel Sharpe, the leader of the 1832 Christmas rebellion in Jamaica.
He said, “I think of a world where the name of Samuel is as well-known as the name of William Wilberforce.”