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International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

25 March 2019

For over 400 years, more than 15 million men, women and children were the victims of the tragic transatlantic slave trade, one of the darkest chapters in human history. Every year on 25 March, the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade offers the opportunity to honour and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system. The International Day also aims to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice today.[1]

The Transatlantic Slave Trade was the largest forced migration in history with millions of Africans torn from their homes, transported and sold as slaves.  Slavery has been practised in many forms and in many civilizations since antiquity but given the duration, immensity and consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, it is viewed as one of the biggest tragedies in the history of humanity.

The greatest movement of Africans was to the Americas — with 96 per cent of those captured from Africa arriving at ports in South America and the Caribbean Islands. These millions of captives sold as slaves in the Americas provided cheap labour for plantations of sugar cane, tobacco, coffee and cotton. In the sixteenth century, “[m]ore than half were employed on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and in Brazil, where their life expectancy did not exceed five to six years after their arrival.”[2]

From 1501 to 1830, four Africans crossed the Atlantic for every one European, making the demographics of the Americas in that era more of an extension of the African diaspora than a European one.[3]

The legacy of this migration is still evident today, with over 200 million people in the Americas identifying themselves as being of African descent. Unfortunately, they also make up one of the most marginalised groups in society. The institution of slavery continually denied survivors their native cultural identity. Despite this, music, art, design and literature have been utilised as a form of resistance to oppression. The African-American community is vibrant and thriving, with art being an important avenue for expression of cultural identity and continue to be a force for justice.  The arts provide a significant avenue for expression of cultural identity and continue to be a force for justice by honouring past struggles for freedom and justice, calling attention to ongoing injustices and celebrating the achievements of people of African descent.

The Ark of Return is a permanent memorial at the United Nations in New York to honour the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Designed by the Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon, the memorial’s exterior reflects a vessel or ship representing the millions of African people transported as slaves.[4]

The memorial is conceptually organised in three parts;

  1. a three dimensional map with the African continent at its centre, depicting the global scale, complexity and impact of the triangular slave trade to "acknowledgement of the tragedy.";
  2. a full scale human figure lying in front of a wall inscribed with images of the interior of a slave ship to communicate the physical conditions endured by the millions of African people so visitors may “consider the legacy" of slavery's impact upon humanity; and
  3. a triangular reflecting pool in memory of the millions who were lost "lest we forget" this monumental tragedy.

The Ark of Return is intended to contrast with The Door of No Return, through which millions of enslaved Africans were transported. The Door of No Return is located on Gorée Island, Senegal which is believed to have been the location of the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. As well as the historical symbolism, the memorial stands as a door to action ensuring this tragedy is never repeated. Whilst the memorial stands as an important reminder of the history and legacy of the slave trade it should also encourage us to think about its modern manifestations.

While slave ships and chains may no longer be present, slavery continues to exist today. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that slavery affects more than 40 million people worldwide.[5]

In Australia, slavery and slavery-like practices includes forced labour, servitude, debt bondage and forced marriage (sometimes referred to as ‘modern slavery’). Modern slavery has been found in industries such as agriculture, hospitality, construction, the sex industry, in private homes and in intimate or family relationships. In the past two years, a growing trend of Australian residents fearing trafficking for the purpose of forced marriage has been identified.[6] Despite this, slavery and trafficking in Australia remains scarcely noticed or understood and continues to be “hidden in plain sight”.

Anti-Slavery Australia continues to work to end human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices including forced labour and forced marriage. Anti-Slavery Australia protects human rights through research, policy and advocacy, education and outreach. Anti-Slavery Australia also provides access to free legal and migration assistance to anyone experiencing or at-risk of modern slavery. There has been great progress in recent years and 2018 saw the passage of Modern Slavery Acts in both the Australian and New South Wales parliaments. Both Acts require organisations to address modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains; and government will also be required to assess and address risks of modern slavery in public procurement. The NSW Act also established an Anti-Slavery Commissioner in NSW. Anti-Slavery Australia welcomes these steps and looks forward to continuing to work with government and other stakeholders to end modern slavery.


[2], p.9.




[6] Jennifer Burn (2017) Legal Narratives, Human Trafficking and Slavery in Australia



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