Colonialism and the expansion of empires

Other human rights issues

by Dr Alan Rice

'Europe's destruction of the 'inferior' races of four continents prepared the ground for Hitler's destruction of the Jews in Europe... It created the habits of thought and practical precedents that made the way for new outrages, finally culminating in the most horrendous of all, the Holocaust.' Sven Linqvist

The horror of the transatlantic slave trade continued for 400 years. Some commentators have controversially talked about it as an African Holocaust  a wicked act of the same size as the infamous Nazi Holocaust. Comparisons of the two make some sense.

They were both acts of the most evil inhumanity. The murders of 6 million Jews, Romanies, homosexuals, the mentally infirm and political opponents, many of them in gas chambers has come to define ‘inhumanity' in the modern world.

Of comparable inhumanity was the treatment of enslaved Africans. Over 12 million of them were forced out of Africa. Uncounted millions died before they were forced onto the slaving ships. Over 1.5 million did not survive the journey on the ships to the Americas. The horrendous conditions both on the ships then subsequently on the plantations led to short lives at the service of a cruel system of forced labour.

However, Sven Linqvist makes an even more important point in showing that the racist thinking of slavery and colonialism enabled the rise of such a racist, fascist despot as Hitler whose supporters were willing to join him in horrendous human rights abuses.

‘Racial science' which developed in the eighteenth century alongside the Enlightenment meant that its proponents conceived ideas based on the inferiority of non white people. These ideas helped to justify the abuses of slavery and killings by colonial powers in the British, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese Empires.

The display of Saartje Baartman the so called ‘Hottentot Venus' as a freak show to crowds in London and Paris in the early nineteenth century is evidence of the abuse of human rights that ‘racial science' encouraged. She was displayed as an exhibit in London from 1810 and yet she was baptised in Manchester 1 December 1811. Other strong evidence is the live dissection by a medical doctor on John Brown who was enslaved in Georgia in 1840 'to ascertain how deep my black skin went'.

These early forms of ‘racial science' developed into the notorious eugenics movement. This movement helped form Hitler's crude ideas of a master race. The abuse of enslaved women and the selling of images of this abuse in illustrations that were an early form of pornography can be compared to the modern abuse of women in the sex trade. Many people say that this modern sex trade is a twenty first century version of the slave trade, as poor Eastern European and women from less developed countries are routinely transported and sold for the 'pleasures' of men in the countries of Europe and America.

'My father's house was full of female slaves, all objects of his lust; amongst whom he strutted like Solomon in his Grand seraglio or like a bantam cock upon his own dunghill... By him my mother (Rossanna) was made the object of his brutal lust... My father ranged through the whole of his household for his own lewd purposes; for they being his personal property, cost nothing extra for sexual favours... In short, among his own slaves my father was a perfect parish bull; and his pleasure was the greater, because he at the same time increased his profits when these women became pregnant.' Robert Wedderburn 1824