Blog , Society

Forgive but Never Forget: Lessons from the West African Slave Trade

Posted on Thursday, December 7, 2023
by Outside Contributor

By: Scott Sturman, M.D.

Forgive but never forget written on post it notes with chalkboard backdrop

West Africans endured slavery for 400 years, when 15 million human beings were forcibly captured and sold into bondage. During this era, the world’s major secular and sectarian institutions regarded slaves as no better than animals, but modern West Africans look to the future, adopting a philosophy of forgiving but never forgetting.

Unlike many first world countries, where activists attempt to expunge the past by destroying monuments and revising history, Africans understand that to forget is to dishonor the memory and sacrifice of their ancestors. Monuments to the past serve both as a remembrance and a warning of the proclivity of demagogues and elitists to deprive others of personal freedom.  

In a dimly lit room of the museum Casa do Brasil in Ouidah, Benin, an illustration lying beneath the protective glass of a tarnished display case provides the key to the institutionalization of widespread human rights abuses. Slavery and less evident means of repression cannot occur without the cooperation of the diverse institutions and the perverse assertion that these actions are morally justified.  

The drawing depicts the varied participants involved in the slave trade, all of whom worked in synchrony to profit from the brutal commercialization of human trafficking—representatives of the Portuguese crown, wealthy merchants, a Catholic priest, African slavers from the Dahomey tribe, a priest of the voodoo python cult, and behind the scenes, the banking and insurance interests that infused capital and stratified risk, which over the centuries allowed trade to expand and prosper.  

All sit apart and above slaves, who crouch on their knees on the rough floor with their arms and legs bound and mouths gagged. These are the final moments in Africa, as they await to be sold and then led in shackles to the Gate of No Return, where they are shipped as human cargo to the Portuguese colonies in the New World.  

In what was once Ouidah’s old slave market, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Concepcion, the voodoo Temple of the Pythons, and the mansion of the de Souza family sit in close proximity and serve as a reminder of the presence of multi-institutional cooperation. 

The scion of the de Souza family, Felix de Souza, an Afro-Brazilian merchant, is considered one of the predominant slave traders in the history of the Transatlantic slave trade. The family’s slaving empire enjoyed harmonious relations with nearby African tribes, who willingly participated in the capture, transport, and sale of other African tribes.    

In nearby Ghana, the former Gold Coast, two castles, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, stand as memorials to the Africans who were sold into slavery, then beaten, starved, raped, and tortured into submission.  The Portuguese built St. George Castle in 1482 in Elmina to safeguard the lucrative West African shipping lanes and later used it as a holding facility for imported slaves from Benin in exchange for gold and ivory.

The Dutch captured the castle in 1637 and for 177 years under the auspices the The Dutch West India Company transported an estimated 30,000 slaves per year through the Door of No Return to Brazil and the Caribbean. Known as ruthless slavers, the Dutch nevertheless nurtured amicable relationships with the local African tribes that abetted the slave trade. During incarceration the slaves were held in filthy, overcrowded dungeons and punishment cells in the sweltering heat in full view of the Dutch church that was once Catholic in the days of the Portuguese. 

From nearby Cape Coast Castle the British conducted a thriving slave trade, and like the Dutch, used charter companies to conduct the business. Although Great Britain was a parliamentary monarchy based on the rule of law, its treatment of the slaves was no less cruel than their predecessors. In the attempt to legitimize the unsavory business of enslaving human beings, an Anglican church stands within the castle walls only meters from the entrance to the dungeons.  

In an era when proselytizing religion served as the foundation of the European colonial system, slaves generally were not given the opportunity to convert, since this act raised a moral dilemma regarding enslavement of fellow Christians. Branding Africans as soulless pagans, who were beyond redemption, furnished the justification for abject dehumanization.

Presently, West Africans do not sanitize the injustices and recriminations of the past. They recognize the multiple layers of historic culpability, but due to relaxed restrictions on freedom of speech and the desire for an independent identity, they have turned their attention to the soft repression of their former colonial masters and indigenous leaders whose primary loyalties are not congruent with the citizens they ostensibly serve.

In 2006 when France met Portugal in the FIFA World Cup Soccer semifinals, Togolese fans wildly cheered for the Portuguese, despite the bitter experiences of times past. Such is the animosity toward the French, who are resented and mistrusted for the imposition of soft colonialism, where natural resources are acquired at bargain prices, banking and finance laws favor foreign interests, and Africans are relegated to perpetual poverty by being denied plentiful, cheap energy. In rural Togo and Benin the absence of electrical power lines is striking and results in the unintended consequences of deforestation to provide for the basic needs of a rapidly expanding population. 

In a provincial city far from the capital, a Togolese intellectual holds a cellphone in full view and explains that it represents free speech: the enemy of propaganda and the conduit of information nourishing West Africa’s reawakening. Africans crave the opportunity to strike an independent course that rejects neocolonialism, its inherent condescension, and long history of subjugation. Free speech is the guardian against manipulation and the oppressors’ favored tactic of playing to emotions and pitting one faction against another for ulterior purposes.

Artist Emanuel Sogbadji’s murals are conspicuous throughout Togo’s capital, Lomé, and they celebrate the preeminence of peace and cooperation. The essence of West Africa’s intellectual, cultural, and economic renaissance highlights one of human nature’s most difficult tasks—to remember past, unpleasant events in order to prevent recurrences, while sincerely forgiving the offspring of those who perpetrated these heartless atrocities.  


Republished with permission from the Brownstone Institute.

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Casey C Matt
Casey C Matt
4 months ago

Man, you really have to dig into this article with squinty eyes to discover it was African natives that sold fellow African natives to the middlemen who then transported those unlucky folks to places westward.
And what a sorry future those slaves had. I mean look at black Americans now in comparison to the majority black African populace. But don’t look if you consider yourself to be “woke”

John Beach
John Beach
4 months ago

The institution of economic slavery has been replaced by the more subtle practice of “raising the debt ceiling” and increasing the amount of indebtedness by “continuing resolutions,” the euphemistic, ongoing rule of law that obviates the law but, vainly, practices “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The cost of ending slavery and the Dutch feudal system was many hundreds of thousands of lives, during and after the Civil War. Our ancestors took “full responsibility” for their actions and paid the price, regardless of which side they were on in that war. The tragic fact is that, hypocritically, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, made assertions in it regarding the “created equality” of “all men,” endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—-which were, already, alienated. Those were not accorded to African slaves when the colonies threw off the yoke of imperial rule, winning the Revolutionary War.
Since we can do nothing to compensate the dead, we apologize to their descendants for the injury and insult which they endured. While having no immediate ancestors who owned slaves, some of their cousins did. I had three great-great grandfathers and a great-great uncle who, all, served in the Union Army, one of whom was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg and another who was disably discharged from it. They must have, all, been very good marksmen since they, all, returned home.
Blacks, contemporarily, do themselves no favors by constantly referring to an era that, literally, nobody alive remembers and all the information concerning which is recorded history that is passed down. “Be sure your sins will find you out.” However, they are not our sins.

anna hubert
anna hubert
4 months ago

Do you mean that slavery is a thing of the past and only white man is guilty? Slavery is as old as the mankind This obsession with the white man guilt is pathetic There is not a spot on the planet where slavery at one point did not exist and still does today it is called human trafficking Who is guilty? Where are the human rights groups and who is using the slaves? Not a whisper about that one

4 months ago

Less we forget – thousands of while northern men died to free the slaves. And to this day has there ever been any appreciation from those freed, then or now, to the families that lost their loved ones?

4 months ago

The minority of Africans taken as slaves and sent to America were lucky compared to their brethren. Southern slavery was easily the most benign. If you are concerned about African slavery and the forgive-and-forget BS, it still exists and the numbers are not trivial. The videos below are just two of many. Thomas Sowell also does a good one. Educate yourself.

4 months ago

And NO mention of the fact that the blacks selling blacks were not Christian but Muslims! From 1000AD to today, Islam is the dominant African religion.

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