Ignored No More? –
The role disabled people played in the road to the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade
(Presented at the Disability Capital Speech for Greater London Authority on 08 October 2007)
Thank you for allowing me to have the opportunity to present my research.
This has been one of the hardest and most challenging pieces of work that I have embarked on – why?
was to embark into a personal and emotional space. You will find when I speak there are moments of deep emotions. This is not a subject that one can talk about and not become emotional especially knowing that your fore-parents, brothers and sisters were murdered, brutalised and raped and not considered as a human being.African people were kidnapped from their homeland and transported across the Atlantic to foreign countries to work for free labour.
Once captured they were forced to take on new names which was the name of their master and prohibited to practice any of their traditional customs. This must and can only be heart rendering to know that your fore-parents, brothers and sisters was to endure such inhumane treatment in order for power, wealth and land.
- I was to experience barriers after barriers as the information was not always forthcoming or easy to locate. Anyone who has tried to research into this area of disabled African slaves and their experience from a political point view will find that little research has been carried out.
So, why is there a need for this research? It would appear somewhat bizarre to think that the experiences of disabled people have been ignored from this debate given that the conditions of slavery amounted to many captured and enslaved people acquiring their impairments. How then can we talk about our history and not reflect the wholeness? The story – his-story must be inclusive and include our [disabled people] experiences.
It was the intention of the research to look at the experiences of disabled people in the following areas:
- The middle passage
- The plantation fields
- Our struggle for freedom – I asked the question – what role did enslave African disabled people play in their struggle for freedom?
The research also wanted to establish if there is a legacy focusing of the experiences of Black disabled people and if so are we living in the legacy of slavery in Britain today?
I now will share with you a few key observations from the report:
- Mass murder occurred during the middle passage. The sick, ill and disabled captives were put to their death for financial gain.
- The slave laws permitted and justified the most barbaric forms of punishments and mutilations which without a doubt either killed or left a slave with life long impairments. For example, a runaway slave would have most definitely had a limb amputated.
- Slave masters would not invest in an enslaved person that had no value as a commodity therefore the slave would be left to perish or put to death. This would have impacted predominately on disabled and sick slaves.
- Enslaved people were exposed to the worst forms of physical, psychological abuse and punishment often resulted in life long impairments.
- Slaves were forced to work in the most dangerous conditions resulting in serious injuries. Many life’s and limbs were lost for tending to the mills and crushed in machinery.
- In terms of work, daily activities and routine there was no difference in the expectation of disabled and non-disabled African slaves from masters
- Exceptions were applied to the nature of work allocated to those slaves defined as ‘useless’ chronically sick, aged or disabled, and they were assigned tasks such as looking after the young, sick or animals. Mary prince who was a disabled slave said “Sick or well, it was work – work –work!"
- Freak shows were used to reinforce the notion that African people were far from human beings and nothing more than monsters and savages. Disabled slaves impairment were the butt of jokes and used as the focal point of entertainment. For example, George Alexander Gratton a young boy with a skin condition was brought to Britain from the Caribbean to appear in freak shows (refer to image).
It is evident from the research that many slaves became disabled as a result of the brutality associated with slavery. And many disabled slaves impairments came about because of their resistance to bondage and therefore we cannot continue to exclude the role in which disabled slaves played in the road to freedom.
We then must recognise and must not continue to ignore that fact that:
- Enslaved disabled African people played a key role in the development of the new world.
- Enslaved disabled African people did play a pivotal role in the struggle for their freedom
It was a must for enslaved African people to overturn the system of 400 plus years of human abuse and a must to make a better world for their next generation of children.
We are now 200 years on since Britain passed the Slave Trade Act 1807. And therefore we must continue to fight for some of the equalities and oppression that are still very much alive today.
And finally, I conclude by dedicating my work to all slave’s particularly disabled slaves that fought to overturn the system that was riddled by systemic human abuse, genocide and torture.