Quest to find roots of slave trade

March 6, 1998

Academics involved in Unesco's Slave Route project have called for a reform of European archives on the slave trade. Most of these archives are kept in Europe (France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom) and in the United States.

In its report after a meeting in Copenhagen last month, Unesco's International Scientific Committee said the lack of common criteria for classifying archives on the slave trade was a problem.

Other difficulties were the accessibility, translation, transcription, conservation and preservation of archaic scripts, the dispersed nature of holdings, the physical state of archives in the tropics, the decay and destruction of archives, cash restraints, lack of trained personnel and obsolete technology.

"It is all a question of money, continuity and will," said Jean-Michel Deveau, professor of modern history at Nice University and a member of the Unesco team.

"For years, those who have worked in this sector have been marginalised. Attitudes are changing slowly. The collaboration between researchers in the scientific committee shows we can work together. Enormous progress has been made but concerning public opinion, it is difficult."

Unesco officially launched the project in 1994 to study the motivations, methods and consequences of the transatlantic slave trade.

Since then it has pushed for the setting-up of specific research programmes in all African and European countries involved in the trade. These include the networking of information (it is designing a website at culture/ch/ch342a.htm); the establishment of a submarine archaeology research programme; and the collection of oral traditions and the examination of the need for new teaching texts on a subject that is barely touched on in many countries. "In Europe, it is hardly written into the school curricula, when it was the motor of the world economy during the 18th century," said Professor Deveau.

Doudou Diene, director of Unesco's division for intercultural projects, said the archives were fundamental.

"The main questions of the slave trade - how many people were taken from Africa; which ethnic groups they came from; which countries; how many died - we can't answer any of these questions without working on documentary sources," he said.

"Our mandate in the combat for human rights, for democracy and for peace, is also a combat for remembrance.

"Modern slavery exists, we believe, precisely because this huge organised and structured transatlantic trade has not been sufficiently studied or understood. Our combat is also against racism. We're not launching a tribunal, this is an attempt to understand the roots of discrimination and how they have manifested," he added.

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