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Maintaining the Ignorance
Sophie Boukhari
The Triangular Slave Trade Project (TST)

Organized by Jon K. Møller

Shame, guilt, racism and incognizance: for all these reasons textbooks in Europe, America and Africa deal lightly, and inaccurately with the slave trade.

"In France and elsewhere in Europe, the slave trade is considered a marginal subject of study, It is hardly written into school curricula even though it was the motor of the world economy during the 18th century, " says French university professor lean-Michel Deveau, who recently started examining the need for new teaching tools on the slave trade. "What's more, the trade is referred to in a completely ignorant manner Textbooks are stuffed with stereotypes such as 'the blacks were bought with trinkets'. Its very racist: it insinuates the Africans were complete idiots who sold themselves for worthless objects. Most of all, it's false. The slaves were exchanged according to a highly delineated protocol, for textiles - which represented 70% of slave ships' cargo - iron bars, fire arms, utensils such as metal basins and, in some sectors, for alcohol. Merchandise without value such as glass jewellery and parasols was effectively part of the deal but it served as a kind of bonus, These texts also refer to great African states as 'little kinglets'.
France is not alone. "In the United Kingdom, the trade is referred to essentially in the context of abolition, " adds Deveau. "They may have decreed it first... but they do not say how many expeditions they led, nor that they were the biggest slave traders on the planet. "

The under-representation of the slave trade in Portuguese textbooks may appear "less shocking" in the sense that it reflects "a step forward" explains Isabel Castro Henriques, from Lisbon University. "We've caught up with the European norms and that's already something. After having been totally avoided, the slave trade issue appeared about 15 years ago when schoolbooks were revised to get rid of colonial ideology. However the trade occupies less space than events of Portuguese expansion judged to be more noble, like the great discoveries. "
"This gap has its roots in the general ambience surrounding the problem, " explains Deveau. "There's a willingness to disguise, there's western guilt. We were slave-holders, torturers and we don't want to admit it. We have to start by breaking this silence and schools will follow. The trade also goes back to Africa, which is weighed down by racist parameters that we are far from being rid of. Another element: school textbooks follow research. We are very few in Europe to study the trade. In large French ports, university staffs don't want to touch it because it would alienate the local bourgeoisie. "
On the American side, if slavery is treated in schools, the trade and its African context remain shadowy areas. It is anobservation as valid for the United States as for Brazil. "Slavery is taught everywhere, with more or less insistence, as a part of American history," explains Joseph Harris from Howard University in Washington. "It's difficult to generalize because the programmes differ according to whether the school is private, religious, public... In most of the black schools, slavery is getting stronger treatment, while in the south, certain teachers rush over it. "For Harris, the theme is still "under-represented " because it has been developed out of context: "when you teach a lesson about the settlement of the Europeans in the United States, - you speak of their back ground. It should be the same with the Africans. And " vet in the vast majority of schools, we start with slavery as if it signalled the beginning of black history.
In Brazil. researcher Joel Rufino dos Santos stresses that"when teachers want some information on the history of Africa,they refer to French textbooks. The trade is hardly mentioned. We only speak of slavery, and always in an ideological manner; either blacks were reified - presented as the pawns in a new international division of labour - or children are told that Brazilian slavery was 'soft', less cruel than that of the United States. "
Paradoxically, the place occupied by the trade in African education is hardly larger. "It is certainly not with lightness of heart that we speak of these capture wars and the slave traders who brought men, women and children to the coast, " recognizes the Guinean historian Djibril Tamsir Niane. The same goes for Senegal, according to historian Mbaye Gueye, "you get the impression that people refuse to speak about it. However Africans must accept to study their history. Because when you carry a past without acknowledging it, everything you take on in the future is cast in doubt. "

The question is compounded in Africa by "editorial problems and limited means, " continues Deveau. "The countries are so poor they can't pay for either authors or books. As a result, textbooks are very old, apart from exceptions like in Benin, which made an effort to revise and produce one or two extracurricular works on the slave trade. Moreover, these countries don't have the means to pay researchers nor to send them to Europe where most of the archives are found. Information provided orally and gathered on tape hasn't yet been used because the priority was to collect it before it disappeared. "
"Secondary school teachers, who should benefit from university research, do not have access to it, " adds Mbaye Gueye. Very few theses have been published in the various states since their independence, imported books are exorbitantly expensive and libraries don't work. " However "tongues are starting to untie in Africa to speak about this ignominious commerce, and the archives in Europe are opening," concludes Niane. "We are emerging from an era of shame. "


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