France Ô and Arte had broadcast in 2018 “The roads of slavery”, a remarkable series which traces the history of the slave trade from the 7th to the 19th centuries. It shows how the phenomenon of slavery, which would have led to the deportation of some 20 million Africans, has deeply affected African, European and American societies. Meet the co-director Fanny Glissant.
From the outset, to approach the theme of slavery, you dismiss the moral option to place yourself on the economic field …
This is indeed the angle of the series. We started from the observation that there had been useful films on this theme: some with a somewhat victimized position, others with a rather guilty feeling. It feels like they said a little bit about it from their point of view.
For our part, we have chosen a global history approach, from an economic and geographic point of view. Anglo-Saxons are very fond of this type of analysis. They quickly started working on the history of the discriminated against.
And in France ?
It’s very recent. But for the past twenty years, we have begun to see the work of historians, archaeologists, geographers … The Taubira law of 2001, which included the question in school curricula, notably made it possible to bring out a new generation researchers.
How do you explain this delay?
The history of slavery is always the history of others. The human being whom we enslave is different. So it doesn’t concern us. In addition, unlike what happened in the West Indies or Reunion, the history of the slave trade did not directly register in metropolitan territory. She was turned back.
The series recalls that in Europe, slavery already existed during Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. But at first, the slaves often came from the Balkans and the Caucasus. How and why did Africa get into the game?
Initially, the Arab-Muslim expansion, which took place in the north of Africa in the 7th century, sought out its captives in the Caucasus and among the Berbers. These do not yet belong to the Community of Believers (oumma, Editor’s note). But they will go back. And as a good Muslim must free his slave, the new conquerors must look for captives elsewhere. However it turns out that the Berbers traded for a long time with the regions south of the Sahara. As a result, the proportion of slaves from the North will reverse with that of captives from these regions.
In the fourteenth century, Europe discovers, explains the film, that it is on the fringes of Africa, which was then “the largest trading area on the planet”. What are the Portuguese going to do when they storm the seas?
They will massively deport Africans and sell them to Portugal and the regions of southern Europe: Spain, Marseille, Genoa …
At the beginning of the 16th century, 10% of the inhabitants of Lisbon were black. And it is estimated today that 50 to 60% of the population of southern Europe may have African descent. It seems surprising that we don’t talk about it any more …
It is a peculiarity of Iberian societies to consider that bonded blood is impure blood. Result: in their registers, the African ancestors have been erased. It was a money laundering policy that re-emerged in Brazil in the 19th century.
What about the south of France?
Again, there is amnesia in our societies. However, this circulation of populations is noticeable. Look at the head of Moorish of the Corsican flag. France is a land of interbreeding. Speaking of native French is an identity construction.
How is the sugar plantation system in which the slave laborers will be employed set up?
The Portuguese have acclimatized the cane which originated in Mesopotamia in the Mediterranean regions. The rest is a kind of marriage, in the 16th century, between the kingdom of Kongo and them. A marriage of equality between the Portuguese predatory elites and Kongos, in both cases of the rich exploiting the most destitute. The former bring the cane, the latter the labor. However, we do not deport any captives. These are people who know the land and know how to cultivate it. In other words, between the black slave and the cane, it works! But beware, when I mention this, I absolutely do not want to reduce the violence of this enslavement!
The meeting will take place on the island of Sao Tome. It works. But we are witnessing the first revolts of captives who refuse their situation, as throughout centuries of trafficking. The Portuguese will then discover Brazil and its immensity. They dismantle their plantations and install them there with African slaves, thus setting up the first transatlantic routes.
Did the Portuguese also invent the triangular trade ?
Rather, it was developed in the 17th century by the French, the British and the Dutch. Then begins a new phase of trafficking, much more accountable and streamlined. At that time, in Liverpool alone, three slave ships were leaving every week, between 1,500 and 2,000 people. The era is one of mercantilism, the foundation of the establishment of capitalism. The law is that of the market based on supply and demand. The system is supported by banks and insurance companies. Investments are helped by the States. The goods are notably made up of slaves.
The triangular trade and its income make all the economic activity in Europe work: wood, hardware … For the manufacture of boats, but also for products intended for the African coast. We must also mention molasses, which leaves raw from the Americas and is refined on the other side of the Atlantic.
All of Europe, all Atlantic ports are participating in the movement. But also Marseille, Sète…
The series explains that the prosperity of Western Europe was largely built on this system …
Indeed, it has allowed the greatest accumulation of wealth ever known until then by humanity.
Again, why do we talk about it so little?
University circles were already talking about it. But until then, the transmission of knowledge to the general public had not been made. I repeat: it is such a degrading part of our history that we prefer to repress it.
At the end of the 18th century, the slave system went haywire …
Around 1790, everything exploded. For a combination of several reasons. We are witnessing a great slave revolt in Haiti, linked to the dissemination of the ideas of the French Revolution which raises the question of individual freedom. So that of the captives. There is also the beginning of the transformation of the British economy.
That is to say ?
As trafficking money does not circulate, it grows locally in Europe. It is reinvested in the manufacturing economy which could be described as proto-industrial. At that time, we are witnessing a demographic boom linked to the improvement of the general situation in Europe. British factories need a new workforce: what we call the proletariat today. We then go from Uncle Tom’s cabin at Oliver Twist.
You explain that before the establishment of slave societies, the notion of black-white “races” did not exist? What was this distinction for?
It was an economic weapon and social control. It made it possible to impose a relationship of domination on the Caribbean: the White was the master, the Black was the slave. There is a continuum that has returned to boomerang in Africa and in Europe. There, the distinction was developed as a scientific notion, with the White at the top of civilization, the Black at the bottom. So it’s an ideological construct.
What approach can we have today to a system that you describe as “concentration camp”?
When the series talks about a concentration camp system, it is in the literal sense of the term: a system concentrating the slaves. At the end of the 18th century, some 100,000 Africans were deported to the Americas each year. Until 1820, for a European who crossed the Atlantic, there were four Africans who made the same journey.
What approach today? We will have progressed when we recognize slavery as part of our common history. We are heirs and descendants of masters and slaves.
We can be pessimistic when we see, as you say in the series, that the crisis in the Sahel has reactivated the legacy of the slave trade …
It is estimated that today there are 40 million slaves worldwide, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Here, we buy products at very low prices or smartphones, we wear sneakers. We know that they are made by people who work in conditions close to slavery, even by children.
Series The roads of slavery, produced by Daniel Cattier, Juan Célas and Fanny Glissant, is the result of work that has lasted five years. And mobilized a team of around 100 people, including 40 historians from the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. It involves ten countries (and eight locations) on both sides of the Atlantic. One last note: the authors and their teams have looked through 80,000 pages of archives.
It will be screened on France Ô on May 2 (for the first two episodes) and May 9 (for the last two). It will also be on Arte on 1er May (the four episodes).