While highlighting the widespread agony, stigmatization, and injustices caused by the tragedy, the pastor from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania says African people’s role in the trade is part of the hard and uncomfortable truths that must be told. This comes as some western governments offer apologies for slavery and colonial era crimes. Academics and activists, however, want the governments to go further and offer reparations.
“Africans were protagonists in this trade. Sometimes you wonder who is more to blame—who actually enabled slavery,” says Mwombeki in a paper titled “The Other Side of Slave History: Untold Stories and Hidden Truths.” He made the comments in an address to a gathering of the members of the Mission Forum of the Council for World Mission who are meeting in Nairobi.
“White people never had expeditions to Africa’s hinterlands to catch slaves. They could not, and in some places where chiefs refused, there were no slaves sold,” he said.
European traders purchased millions of slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries, and shipped the men, women, and children to the Caribbean and South America. The slaves provided domestic services and artisanal trade, but the majority worked in plantations producing cash crops for national and international markets.
Scholars estimate that between 12-12.8 million slaves were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in 400 years. About 1.2- 2.4 million died during the voyages, while millions of others lost their lives in seasoning camps (period of adjustment that slave traders subjected the slaves to).
Mwombeki says in reality, Africans sold their fellow Africans to both Arabs and European traders. He states that it would be unfair—yet is often done—to depict European and Arab nations and races as the only the protagonists in the slave trade.
“There is absolutely no justification to see Africans only as victims,” says the ecumenical leader.
He explains that while slavery was there before, when it shaped into a commercial enterprise, African coastal kings and traders became protagonists.
“Africans need to acknowledge this fact, particularly now when we were committing the same mistake of exporting our own people into slavery again,” said the Lutheran pastor.
Abolition of slave trade was a legal battle that took many years, but systematic slavery has not ended, he explains, and the sad truth is that the tragedy still happens today to Africans.
He points out that unjust economic systems are causing systematic slavery, where people are not chained in slave castles, but are treacherously lied to by their own. With a promise of jobs, good life, and safe travel elsewhere, the people are convinced to leave their countries where economies are crumbling.
“We hear of people dying in the Sahara (Desert), and those who get to Libya and Morocco find themselves in similar conditions as their forebears—waiting for ships to cross the ocean. That today modern day slaves do so, ignoring all warnings against the journey, even paying to go there, defies logic,” said Mwombeki.
Instead of shipping companies, he explains, there are recruitment companies, which are fully supported by governments to promote modern day slavery as employment opportunities.