One of the most beautiful natural phenomena on Tenerife is the Sea of Clouds, whereby a massive bank of cloud can be seen hovering over the ocean, stretching for miles along the horizon in an almost perfect straight line. This is a rare embodiement of the two most important systems driving climate on the planet, winds and ocean currents, both of which merge here. The position of Tenerife close to the African continent, fed by the Canary Current and swept by the Trade winds, famously brings a year-round temperate climate when it should be much hotter, attracting hordes of tourists. But these climatic factors have also brought a darker aspect to the island, linking it to one of humanity’s greatest unhealed wounds. That of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Back in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese and Spanish traders discovered that the prevailing north easterlies of the mid latitudes could blow a ship across the Atlantic Ocean, and even better, the south easterlies on the other side could blow them back again. They soon embarked on a trade that was to last for over four hundred years: the transportation of human cargo to the Caribbean to provide slave labour for the newly established plantations. Portuguese ships would take slaves from the East African coast, then head off to the Canary Islands where they would pick up the Trade winds and currents that would propel them across the Atlantic, and back again with their cargo.
It wasn’t long before other European countries joined in and over the next 366 years, around twelve million Africans were loaded onto around 35,000 ships and trafficked in unimaginable conditions to face a life of servitude and brutalisation. The vast majority would have passed through the Canaries on their way to the Caribbean via the North and South Atlantic. Even with the propulsion of the trade winds, the voyage was at least a month long, sometimes much longer, and full of violence, horror, extreme fear and discomfort. Storms would have been frequent, causing nauseating sea conditions, and navigation uncertain. It is estimated that around one million Africans died whilst crossing the Middle Passage alone.
Thereafter countless millions of Africans were treated as commodities, and worse, by the European powers who saw them as ethical and legitimate sources of wealth and to provide sugar and rum to European tables, and later tobacco, rice, coffee and cotton. Britain in particular was to profit from the trade and it is estimated that for a period of around two hundred and fifty years, from the early voyages of Hawkins up to the abolition of slavery in 1807, a third of all slave voyages originated from British ports.
And how does all this affect us today? What is the legacy of this shocking episode is our collective history? It is of course deep and varied and hard to quantify. On one hand, a handful of Europeans experienced the privilege of great wealth and founded large country estates, bequeathed libraries and sponsored the arts, all of which still exist today. For Africa, the legacy is entirely negative. In addition to the emotional and psychological scars inflicted by slavery and racism, there were also huge economic and cultural consequences. The continent lost its strongest and healthiest men over a sustained period, and tribes were deliberately rifted and set against each other, crippling economic growth at a time when other nations were booming. Communities were ripped apart by the constant trafficking, and as European slave traders relied on Africans themselves to round up captives and bring them from the exterior to the coast, warfare and division was deliberately encouraged. It was the prisoners of war who were sold by the captors, so the tools of war, i.e. guns, were provided by Europeans for Africans to use against Africans. Which they did, in the name of profit.
With the advent of the ages of steam and later technologies,
we have almost forgotten the role that the Trade winds played in the Transatlantic
Slave Trade. But as we collectively try to move forward and establish a future
based on our grandest and highest vision of ourselves, we can ill-afford to forget
the human impact. European reluctance to
take full responsibility for fear of reparation payments, and African
reluctance to look at their own part in providing themselves as slaves are
keeping these wounds fresh today, resulting in vulnerability to yet more
corruption and exploitation, particularly in the heart of Africa, which is also
geographically the heart of the world.