Legacies of the Slave Trade

(The image is from the British Library; Slaves cutting the sugar cane on the Island of Antigua 1823)

This Sunday, 23rd August is the International Day for the remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. 

Four-hundred-and-fifty-eight years ago, in 1562, is when the first British voyage to West Africa to capture people for slavery, was recorded.  By 1698, the London-based trade had captured over 100,000 African people for slavery. The ‘trade’ was making huge profits from the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Other ports, followed in London’s wake, and Bristol and Liverpool soon also became leading slave-trading ports.

The campaign to abolish the slave trade was the first example of mass public protest in Britain.  People from all walks of life came together to protest, and along with African activists in the UK, and slave revolts in the colonies, the trade came to an end.

Britain’s economy and it’s rise as an industrial nation, had much to do with the huge contribution that the slave trade made. The cotton production in America fed textile mills in England, and helped to transform what had been smaller towns, into vast industrial cities. People from all walks of life came together to protest, and along with African activists in the UK, and slave revolts in the colonies, the trade came to an end.


Imagine knowing your ancestors were

Treated as chattel, considered as property

To be bought and sold,

With little chance of you living to be old.

Imagine having no control of your life,

Being given as a birthday gift

To a child; answering to their every whim,

When you may be not much older than him.

Imagine a female slave, giving birth;

Your child when born, taking its first breath

Will automatically become enslaved,

Even their children’s children, and onwards to the grave.

Imagine when captured and torn

From your family and loved ones,

Stripped of your uniqueness, your name,

Henceforth known by your owners’ surname.

Imagine the feeling, hundreds of years on

Centuries after the abolition of slavery,

Unaware of your ancestor’s place of birth,

Reliable records, a complete dearth.

Imagine living with the loss of family identity,

Your name inherited from a slave owner, to boot;

A continuing insult with which to contend,

For some, never easy to comprehend.

©Lis McDermott 2020

How the legacy of the slave trade affects us today.

Sadly, the legacy of the slave trade still affects us today. The ideology of racism, set up to justify the enslavement of Africans, can still be seen in aspects of modern-day racism.

This is what the #blacklivesmatters marches were about and was set up as a peaceful movement to fight against injustices and racism towards black people.

It is the first time in the US, since the civil-rights marches of the 60’s that both people of colour and white people have been out on the streets together, protesting about the same ideology.

One thing that kept cropping up during the height of the marches, was white people saying ‘all lives matter’. 

Ideally, yes, they should, but how can they, when so many people of colour around the world are being treated unfairly, and with racism and disrespect purely due to the colour of their skin?

This is where that ideology of the ‘black man’ not being an equal of the ‘white man’ still remains in certain aspects of society, particularly in America.  However, I’m not saying that the UK is free from racism, it certainly isn’t, but compared to the US, it is not so explicit. Here, there is systemic racism in the establishment.

Racial profiling and racial mapping are recent policies by the Metropolitan police, which specifically targets black people. The inequality of this has been shown by the recent cases, where innocent people have been targeted purely for the offence of owning high performing cars, or living a lifestyle the police assume is paid for by involvement in criminal activity.

This poem is about ‘white’ people not understanding why they are being called ‘privileged.’

We are not being called white privileged in the sense of being richer financially, but because we don’t ever have to think twice about how we behave or where we go, and no one is going to question that we can’t afford the car we drive.

Referring back to the previous poem ‘Slavery’, the part about surnames is an interesting one.

Even as ‘white’ Europeans, many of us probably can’t reliably trace our ancestry back to find out exactly where we came from, but we can get close. 

Caribbean’s have little to no chance of tracing their ancestry at all.  When their ancestors were taken from Africa, their names were removed, and they were given their slave owners name.

Not only were slaves treated badly and sold as chattel, we also removed their identity.

But I’m not a racist, I’m married to a black man!

How can I be a racist when the man I love is black?  Hopefully I’m not, but every single one of us has an unconscious bias and try as hard as we might, there are times when bias rears its ugly head.

Often, we don’t even consider what we say as being racist, but if you question the reasoning behind what you’ve said you might surprise yourself.

Recently my husband met someone who regularly sees him in his place of work. The person commented to my husband, “I didn’t know you lived here. It’s an expensive place to live isn’t it?”  My husband told him we’ve lived here for over 18 years. The person then asked, “We’re you a Squaddie, then?”

Probably without any malice, or thought, this person’s unconscious bias was kicking in. 

Firstly, as a black man, how could my husband afford to live where we do, and secondly, if he can, it must be because he was in the Armed Forces, and had a good pension on leaving. 

This may not seem like racism to you. Surely, it’s just an innocent question.  But would this person have made the comment about where we live being expensive, had my husband been white? 

The white man making the comment lives in the same town as us, so if it isn’t too expensive for him, why should it be for us? He obviously doesn’t see my husband as his equal.

This is the hidden type of racism that is ingrained in the white population.  Not because we are bad, or mean people, but because, sadly, it is an unconscious bias that we have probably developed, growing up in this country, where we are the predominant population.

What we shouldn’t forget though is why this country is so wealthy, and how many people of colour have lived here for years and also, it being their country, have contributed to society.

N. B.  With regards to surnames: our surname, McDermott is often questioned, and people wonder how my husband has Irish ancestors!  We have never yet met anyone white, who understood why.

For a fascinating read about ancestry, and just how complex it is, read:

“How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality” by Adam Rutherford.

“Race is real because we perceive it. Racism is real because we enact it. Neither race nor racism has foundations in science.

It is our duty to contest the warping of sceintific research, especially if it is being used to justify prejudice.”

Dr. Adam  Rutherford