Motion Detector No. 21: Slavery – a matter of everyday life in Europe?

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

In the Motion Detector series, the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK, Museum of European Cultures) shows objects from its collection and loans on current topics that are moving people in Europe. The 21st Motion Detector deals with the traces of the enslavement of African people in everyday objects from Europe. The presentation can be viewed in the lobby of the MEK until January 2023.

In 1998, UNESCO declared 23 August as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. On this day in 1791, enslaved people revolted against their oppressors on many plantations in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. In 1801, after years of fighting, the revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture proclaimed an autonomous constitution: the first in the world to recognise the fundamental equality of all people. Three years later, Louverture's successor Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared the Haiti’s independence from France.

These events contributed significantly to the condemnation and, ultimately, to the official abolition of slavery. However, there was still a long way to go. In vast parts of the Americas, the brutal exploitation of enslaved people continued well into the 19th century. Those who survived the dreadful journey overseas were sold on Caribbean slave markets. Subject to the violent behaviours and whims of their “owners”, enslaved people faced extremely poor conditions during their work on fields, plantations and in mines. By the end of the 19th century, over 12 million women, men and children had been deported from different African regions.

Traces of transatlantic slavery are still present in all European countries. They are fragments of a history of racism, colonial oppression and early capitalism. The Remembrance Day reminds us that many people profited from this type of forced labour.  The majority of European trade was linked to slavery. Profits from the trafficking of enslaved people were not limited to the prosperous port cities such as Amsterdam, Bordeaux or Liverpool. Low production costs enabled also the Europeans in peripheral regions to consume products from the global South in ever-greater quantities. The emergence of new food, the increased use of luxury goods such as tobacco and sugar, or the spread of bourgeois customs such as tea ceremonies and coffee tables serve as evidence for the close connection between slavery and everyday life in Europe.