The slave trade has been in the news and on screen

People are thinking about the slave trade a lot this year because of Black Lives Matter and the arguments about statues. There was also the film Twelve Years a Slave. I have seen a series Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson. People say the sight of reenactments of historical incidents or just of life on a plantation might bring the story home more than mere words. I applaud such dramas for some of the same reasons as I believe schools should teach black history , as I have¬† said before. I also recognise that moving pictures are more moving generally than written words. The images of the slave trade in The King’s Justice are probably less effective than those on TV or at the cinema.

Why did images of the slave trade not shock me?

I thought Twelve Years a Slave was a good film but a bit overrated. The story did not intrigue me and I thought it did not say anything new. Enslaved did teach me some new things. Brazil was the principal destination for the transatlantic slave trade. Many of the incidents were new to me. Strangely, some of the things the presenters found most shocking, I watched with interest but little emotion. The jettisoning of human cargo at sea. This was mainly because I already knew a lot about the subject and because I had seen Roots, many years ago – a great series. But there’s something else.

Why else do images of the slave trade not shock me?

To be involved in the slave trade or to own slaves, you have to think of them as property not people. Once you make that mental leap, anything is possible. They have no rights. Nothing need constrain you, legally, morally, socially. You do what you want with your property. When the ship was in danger, one option a captain had to consider was to jettison some or all of the cargo. If that cargo was slaves,,, what do you expect? Slaves were always expendable. Work them to death. Split up a family. They exist only to be useful to their owners. Obviously, abusing, either sexually or in any other way, your own property was as acceptable pruning roses or spraying weeds.

Cover of Highwaypersons, Book II: The King's Justice, where the slave trade is described in words.

The slave trade is described in words not pictures here

Does this apply only to the slave trade?

Of course not! There are lots of situations where people regard others as less than human. War is the obvious example, but not exclusively. I have heard people talk about illegal immigrants, the police, the IRA, prisoners, suspects, travellers, LGBT people and anyone on the other side of a particular political or religious divide, as if they did not matter. They should not have human rights. (Who’s on your list?). If any action or policy harms one of these ‘inferior’ creatures it doesn’t matter. It should!

So what about us?

If we are shocked at images of the ill-treatment of slaves, let us not turn blind eyes to the inhumane treatment that goes on today, especially where the victims are outside our concept of ‘people like us’.

Whenever you point a finger, make sure there are not three pointing back at yourself.