Legacies of Slavery - Introduction

An ethical project

To translate this declaration of principles into concrete action acknowledging a tragedy that had been ignored for too long, UNESCO launched the “Slave Route Project” in 1994. The aim was to study the slave trade, slavery and its abolition in different regions of the world, from the perspective of intercultural dialogue and the culture of peace. The project is structured around five key fields of activity: scientific research, the development of educational material, the preservation of written archives and oral traditions, the promotion of living cultures and contributions by the African diaspora and, lastly, the preservation of memorial sites.  

The actions stemming from UNESCO’s commitment to reveal the contribution of African cultures to humanity’s heritage and its overall progress will serve as starting points for implementing the objectives of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), proclaimed by the United Nations in 2014, with the theme “Recognition, Justice and Development”.
From a duty to remember… to the right to history

In highlighting and reappraising the contributions of African cultures to the enrichment of societies in other regions of the world, the preservation, appreciation and promotion of tangible and intangible heritage constitute important challenges in the societies affected by the slave trade and slavery.  This is why UNESCO, as part of its “Slave Route Project: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage”, has launched a programme responding to the imperative of “[forging] a close link between the ethical exigency of preserving the memory of the slave trade, which historians now consider to be ‘the biggest single tragedy in the history of man on account of its scope and duration’, and the current requirements of economic and social development” (Accra Declaration, Ghana, 1995).  

Heritage plays a crucial role in raising public awareness and educating young people in the commemoration of this tragedy, as well as ensuring national reconciliation and building social cohesion. This role is increasingly acknowledged and asserted and is at the heart of remembrance policies. Indeed, reflection on the right to remember has underlined the cathartic, liberating values of facing the past, however painful it may be. Visiting memorial sites thus takes on critical importance for provoking necessary thoughts on the notions of humanity, dignity and freedom, ethical awareness and civic engagement. Furthermore, the inclusion of this history in national geographies and topographies has emerged as one of the best ways of combatting omission, denial and distortion of the facts.

In recent decades, actions have therefore been made in multiple countries to identify, document, preserve, enhance and link emblematic sites and monuments of the slave trade and slavery with a view to creating remembrance routes. These initiatives have been inspired by the expansion of the concept of culture and by the holistic approach to cultural and natural, tangible and intangible heritage developed by UNESCO’s reflection and normative action in the cultural field.  
They address the wishes and aspirations expressed by communities most concerned to reclaim the sites of their history and participate in their management, governance, development and promotion. Without the mobilization of these communities and the perseverance of researchers and activists, these initiatives would have never taken shape.

Today, it seems necessary to steer the partners wishing to identify and promote memorial sites, and warn them against certain risks, such as the over promotion of monuments. Indeed, the prime importance given to build heritage, such as fortifications, dwelling places, factories and furniture - developments that should demonstrate the wealth of the heritage, according to key criteria - often has the opposite effect, honouring the exploits of the slave system rather than the memory of the victims. In certain popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, this risk is very real, since the commercial obligation to satisfy tourists is strong and sometimes encourages the over promotion of colonial heritage. When one shows the houses of slave masters and what they produced but forgets to mention that the houses, fortifications and settlements were built by the slaves themselves, people miss the main purpose of developing historical and memorial heritage, which is to pay homage to the victims of this crime against humanity, their resistance against oppression, and their social, cultural and economic creativity in surviving the objectification that was their fate. It is therefore important to ensure a balance in presenting different experiences of this history, including different historical and memorial sites. It is equally useful to review the key criteria for appreciating the aesthetic, historical and tourism value of the heritage bound to this history. The criteria used should take better account of the distinctive features of this memory and the particular views and perceptions of the victims and their descendants on the symbolic, aesthetic, memorial and social value attached to the memorial sites.

By offering its support to the most relevant initiatives, the Slave Route project intends to promote the preservation, management and development of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage originating from this history, and establish memorial sites and routes at the national, regional and international levels, by not only recreating the paths of slavery but also providing a link between the countries and the regions of the world that share this history. Its ultimate ambition is to build a world map of memorial sites and routes, to encourage the implementation of remembrance initiatives and promote the development of new solidarity between Africa and countries where its Diasporas are located.
Ali Moussa Iye

Chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section Coordinator of the “Slave Route Project: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage”, UNESCO

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