Sputnik France, May 15, 2019
by Christine H. Gueye
translated by Dennis Riches
The fourteen centuries of the Arab-Muslim slave trade have remained a taboo subject, relative to the study of the better-documented trans-Atlantic slave trade. Sputnik France asked Karfa Sira Diallo, president of the group Mémoires & Partages (Memories and Sharing), to explain why we now see sub-Saharan migrants following the old routes of the Black slave trade across the Sahara.
This year again, French-Senegalese Karfa Sira Diallo chose to appear on all fronts, and notably in Africa, for commemorations aimed at making the younger generations understand the aftermath of the slave trade. Present in Dakar on April 27, 2019, for the third commemoration of the abolition of the Black slave trade, the president and founder of Mémoires & Partages came to remind African leaders of the necessity of confronting this painful past.
So far, only Senegal has passed a law, in 2010, under the leadership of ex-president Abdoulaye Wade, that made slavery and the slave trade crimes against humanity.
On May 10, 2019, Karfa Sira Diallo was back on his home turf in Bordeaux, where he has lived since he was a student. In contrast with Africa, the 14th National Day of Memorial of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Their Abolition was marked throughout metropolitan France. The memorial was (or will be) held in overseas departments and territories on other dates (Mayotte—April 27th, Martinique—May 22nd, Guadeloupe—May 27th, Guyana—June 10th, and Réunion—December 20th) according to the local history of the abolition of slavery in those places.
The theme taken up this year by Mémoires & Partages is The Sahara and Slavery. According to the organizers, it aims to give voice to the “remarkable creators and researchers of May 3 to May 30” in Bordeaux and other cities that were ports in the slave trade. A part of this event is the holding of conferences and expositions in Morocco to carry out a debate about the role played by North African countries in the Black slave trade.
At a press conference on May 2nd, 2019, Karfa Sira Diallo explained, “Mémoires & Partages chose to put the Black slave trade in the Sahara the at the center of the conference, along with the consequences of this history for today’s migrants. This issue has seldom been broached in citizens’ movements. Nonetheless, the Mediterranean has been marked for a long time by slavery. Today, it is where migrants go in their quest to reach Europe, and they often lose their lives in the attempt. Our metropolis, Bordeaux, is a memorial site of the colonial slave trade. As the leading port serving the colonies, and the second largest port in the slave trade, Bordeaux carries the stigma of yesterday and receives the migrants of today.”
The reason, contrary to what is taught to young Africans today, is that Europe did not have a monopoly on the slave trade. There were other trades, as important, and perhaps more important, such as the Oriental and trans-Saharan trades organized by Arabs. These were just as violent and devastating for Africa and their descendants as the trans-Atlantic trade. They were supported by Islam in the same way that Christianity justified the enslavement of Blacks for a long period.
An Exploitation Lasting Fourteen Centuries
Since the decision taken in 2006 by Jacques Chirac to recognize the misdeeds of colonialism, May 10th has become the occasion for France to honor and remember the resistance of slaves and to commemorate the abolition of slavery across the Atlantic. For its part, UNESCO chose August 23rd to commemorate the “International Day of Remembrance of Black Slavery and its Abolition.” August 23rd is the date of the 1791 insurrection of slaves in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). That event was the prelude to the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Begun at the end of the 16th century, with the arrival of the first Portuguese ships on the African coast, the trans-Atlantic slave trade spread throughout Europe, prospering at port cities, notably in France which made large profits on trans-Atlantic commerce.
Since the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots, which told the history of the author’s family’s arrival in America after having been sold as slaves in Africa, numerous essays, novels and films on this topic have become known worldwide—notably 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film in 2014.
The anthropologist and economist Tidiane N’Diaye wrote in his book The Veiled Genocide (Le génocide voilé) that the trans-Atlantic slave trade lasted four centuries, but for thirteen centuries, without interruption, Arabs raided sub-Saharan Africa. The book was one of the first scholarly studies to break the taboo regarding this Arab-Muslim slave trade and its widespread practice of castration. Furthermore, the author reminds us that the first victims were “Slavs that Venetians and Marseillais captured during raids of Central and Eastern Europe and then sold in the Arab-Muslim world.”
During an interview in 2015, Professor N’Diaye noted, “Most of the millions of people that were deported disappeared due to inhumane treatment and the widespread practice of castration.”
Another hidden layer of the tragic history of the continent concerns the “complicity of African monarchs, which is a confirmed fact,” he adds. “The Arab-Muslim and Oriental slave trade would not have been possible without the active collaboration of Africans.”
In an interview with Sputnik France on April 26th, 2019, Karfa Sira Diallo—a native of Thiaroye, the French military camp where Senegalese sharpshooters were massacred after the Second World War—paid homage to the work of his compatriot, Tidiane N’Diaye, who, he said, took great care in his book “to not use the history and the memories to divide communities or create a hierarchy of victimization.”
On the other hand, again today sub-Saharan migrants are being sold as slaves in Libya. The president of Mémoires & Partages remains outraged:
When one observes such scenes, like those broadcast by CNN two years ago, in which one can see an Arab in the market in Libya discussing the price of a few hundred dinars for a Black slave, one wonders if certain Arab countries have the capacity to modernize their approach to and their comprehension of human rights. Tunisia is the exception in North Africa (Maghreb), as they officially abolished slavery on January 23rd, 1846, two years before France.
Solidarity of the Vanquished
Mr. Diallo says what is more widespread than the “annoyance” and the “silence” is the “voluntary amnesia” of Africans when it comes to the slavery that was inflicted on them by their neighbors. He says there was a “common colonization” by Westerners that Blacks and Arabs were subjected to:
What we experienced at the time of independence was the solidarity of the vanquished—North Africa having been colonized as well. The urgency of the moment was the emancipation of peoples, political liberty, sovereignty, etc. Thus the creation of divisions was avoided. In addition, Arab colonization used religion as a tool of conquest, so there was Islamization of Africans. Now, in the mentality of Africans today, it is very difficult to associate “the evils of colonization” with “Muslim religion.” This explains the difficulty of qualifying these facts, even though they have been denounced for decades by historians such as the rector of the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, Ibrahima Thioub.
For Mr. Diallo, the present stigmatization of North African countries is explained by the fact that young sub-Saharans who want to emigrate to Europe find themselves in the same trap as their ancestors:
Because this history has been swept under the carpet for centuries, we now see it as the return of the repressed. There are many young sub-Saharan migrants who want to go to Europe, and they do it clandestinely, following the same trans-Saharan routes as their ancestors. Reduced to slavery from the 7th to the 20th century, they were taken, often against their will, to Europe. Now their descendants, without knowing it, are subjected to the same stigmas and racist prejudices of the past when they fall into the hands of unscrupulous traffickers.
Mr. Diallo says this modern slavery persists in North Africa as well as in other African countries like Mauritania and Mali. It should be denounced, he says,
…everywhere as soon as it appears. It is the role of our group to make Africans conscious of these practices which are no longer tolerable in this era. We also fight against the abuse of domestic workers, whom we teach about their rights while we also work to make sure those rights are recognized. This is because when it comes to fighting against discrimination, everything is connected.