Slavery Routes | 14 Centuries of Slave Trade Systems

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About Story

This is the story of a world whose territories and own frontiers were built by the slave trade. A world where violence, subjugation and profit imposed their routes. The history of slavery did not begin in the cotton fields. It is a much older tragedy, that has been going on since the dawn of humanity. From the VIIth century on, and for over 1,200 years, Africa was the epicenter of a gigantic traffic of human beings traversing the entire globe. Nubian, Fulani, Mandinka, Songhai, Susu, Akan, Yoruba, Igbo, Kongo, Yao, Somali… Over 20 million Africans were deported, sold and enslaved. This criminal system thrived, laying the foundations of empires around the world. Its scale was such that for a long time, it has been impossible to relate it comprehensively. And yet, it raises a fundamental question: how did Africa end up at the heart of the slavery routes?

Producers’ Statement

When shootings specifically target the black American community, like in Charleston; when the police shoot down an unarmed black man in Ferguson; when nearly 2/3rd of the poor in Brazil are blacks; when the “statues of shame” still adorn numerous French cities… It is time to question the roots of evil and to understand why racism and anti-black discrimination remain so persistent.

In June 2015, Barack Obama stated that “The legacy of slavery […] casts a long shadow, and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. […] It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. […] societies don’t overnight completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”

Too often, we reduce black slaves to the status of mere victims

Too often, we reduce black slaves to the status of mere victims and, conversely, consider the responsibility of Western societies only in terms of guilt and moral fault. Beyond this binary frame, a third way of analyzing this issue is possible: it consists in describing slavery as a process, a universal shockwave whose tremors we still feel some 200 years after the official abolition of the trade.

In order to comprehend this massive phenomenon – in its duration, its extent, its lasting consequences – it seemed necessary for us to adopt a systemic approach. In other words, to understand the question of slavery from its territories and the commercial channels that were drawn by the different trades. To question the geography of slavery is to measure its internal dynamics, with its areas of exchange and breaking points.

Slavery is not a marginal historical phenomenon but a central issue in the history of the world

Slavery Routes is a collective work. The meeting of three visions, three personal stories where Africa, the Caribbean and Europe converge.

This multiplicity of perspectives enabled us to comprehend slavery as a whole, by going beyond stereotypes and preconceptions about the culture of the other.

With these four films, we wanted to fight against the collective oblivion that feeds ignorance, prejudice, resentment and hatred.

Revealing the truth on this common heritage, and recalling that slavery is not a marginal historical phenomenon but a central issue in the history of the world, is a means by which we can protect ourselves from the crimes of the past. And progress in the struggle against all types of inequalities and discriminations.

Daniel Cattier, Juan Gélas, Fanny Glissant

Slavery Routes Ep. 1 |476 – 1375: Beyond the desert

In 476 AD, Rome fell under the pressure of barbarian invasions. On the ruins of the Roman Empire, the Arabs founded an immense empire that stretched from the banks of the Indus to the South of the Sahara. Between Africa and the Middle East, a huge slave trade network was forged, that would last for centuries. At the heart of this continental network, two major merchant cities stood out. In the North, at the crossroads of the Arabian Peninsula and Africa, Cairo, the most important Muslim city and the main commercial hub of Africa. In the South, Timbuktu, the stronghold of the great West African empires, and point of departure of the trans-Saharan caravans. In this epic and documented story, the first episode of Slavery Routes tells 700 years of history and reveals how the sub-Saharan populations have become, over centuries, the main “raw material” of the greatest deportation in history.

Slavery Routes Ep. 2 | 1375 – 1620: For All the Gold In the World

At the end of the Middle Ages, Europe opened up to the world and discovered that it was at the margins of the main area wealth generation on the planet: Africa. The Portuguese Conquistadores were the first to set out to conquer Africa. They went to get gold, and came back with hundreds of thousands of captives to sell in Europe. Between the African coasts, Brazil and their trading posts, the Portuguese set up the first colonies entirely populated by slaves. Off the coast of Gabon, the island of São Tomé became the testing ground for the most profitable exploitation system ever to exist: the sugar plantation…

At the end of the Middle Ages, Europe opened up to the world and discovered that it was at the margins of the world’s main area for wealth generation: Africa.

Portuguese explorers were the first to set out to conquer Africa’s gold. When explorers reached the coast of West Africa, they saw its people as a supply of labour and the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade was established.

Economic ambition coupled with a religiously driven effort to expand Christendom Pope, Nicholas V morally endorsed the Portuguese enterprise and a legal framework for the enslavement of Africa.

“This was an extremely violent economy of predation,” explains Antonio De Almeida Mendes, University of Nantes, France. “The Portuguese would disembark and rush arms in hand to capture the inhabitants of these African coasts, starting with Mauritania and then Senegal, where poor fishermen lived. They were captured with nets.”

The Portuguese set up a triangular trading system off the coast of West Africa – between Elmina, Sao Tome and the Kingdom of Kongo.

They traded European goods for slaves in the Kongo and slaves for gold in Elmina. São Tomé was developed into a sugar plantation. 4,000 Africans were brought to São Tomé as slaves to work the sugar plantation every year.

It was the start of a system that later expanded across the Atlantic and thrived in the Americas.

The Portuguese were the uncontested masters of the slave trade by 1620. European ships picked up slaves from West Africa, transported them to Brazil and the Caribbean and then returned to Europe with vessels full of produce for sale.

By 1789, 7.7 million Africans were deported to the Americas.

All of Europe joined Portugal to take control of African gold and slaves including Flemish, German, English, Genoese and Venetian merchants


Slavery Routes Ep. 3 | 1620 – 1789: From Sugar to Rebellion

XVIIth century. The Atlantic has become the battlefield of the sugar war. French, English, Dutch and Spaniards fought for the Caribbean to cultivate sugar cane. To satisfy their dreams of fortune, the European Kingdoms opened new slavery routes between Africa and the islands of the New World. With the complicity of banks and insurance companies, they industrialized their methods and brought the number of deportations to unprecedented levels. Trapped, nearly 7 million African were caught up in a gigantic hurricane of violence.

Slavery Routes Ep. 4 | From 1789 to 1888: The New Frontiers of Slavery

In London, Paris and Washington, the abolitionist movement was gathering momentum. After the slave rebellion in Santo Domingo, and facing the public opinion’s growing outrage, the major European powers abolished the trans-Atlantic trade in 1807. Yet Europe, in the midst of the industrial revolution, could not do without the slave workforce. To satisfy its needs in raw materials, it pushed further the frontiers of slavery and turned a blind eye on the new forms of human exploitation in Brazil, the United States and Africa. At a time when legal trade was finally prohibited, the deportation of African captives would explode, and become more important than ever. Within 50 years, nearly 2.5 million were deported.

Reproduced from:

6.04.2018 – Social and Human Sciences Sector

Watch the documentary series “Slavery routes” on TV

This initiative is the fruit of an extensive historical investigation. It is based on consultation with Salah Trabelsi, expert and member of the International Scientific Committee of the Slave Route Project; members of the Scientific Committee of the General History of Africa: Elikia M’Bokolo; Doulaye Konaté ; Paul Lovejoy et Catherine Coquery Vidrovitch ; and scholars, such as Edward Alpers, Isabel Castro Henriques, Miriam Cottias and Suzanne Schwar.

The Belgian TV channel RTBF will start broadcasting the series on 27 and 28 April, followed by ARTE on 1 May, and France Ô on May 2 and 9. A screening of the episodes 3 and 4, and a debate with the directors, Fanny Glissant and Juan Gélas, is held at the Cinéma l’Ecran, in Saint-Denis, France, on 26 April 2018.

In partnership with the Ligue de l’Enseignement Fédération de Paris (French Education Network of Paris) and ten town halls of Paris (France), several screening sessions for students and the general public will take place from 2 to 25 May. Each screening session will be followed by a debate with a member of the filming crew or a historian.

The documentary series, and its wide dissemination in the media, to the general public and in schools, meets the objectives of the UNESCO Slave Route project and invites us to act together to combat all forms of slavery.

Catherine Coquery Vidrovitch, historian and advisor during the documentary, will launch « Les Routes de l’esclavage : Histoire des traites africaines VIe–XXe siècle » (“The roads of slavery – History of African Treaties VI – XXth century”), published by Editions Albin Michel and Arte Editions. This reference book will be in bookstores as of 2 May 2018.

Watch the trailers below:

Organizer: Compagnie des Phares et Balises

Alexandre Roux
Responsable Marketing et Communication
CPB INTERNATIONAL- CIE des Phares & Balises
108 av Ledru Rollin, 75011 Paris-France

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