The Slave Trade and Slavery: How to Reconcile the Ethics of Commemoration and the Marketing of Cultural Tourism?


By Ali Moussa Iye (UNESCO)

The preservation and valorization of heritage linked to the slave trade and slavery – which are finally recognized as crimes against humanity by the international Community – has become an important issue in countries and regions that were affected by this tragedy. The role that heritage can play in the commemoration of this history and in the education of general public, on the one hand, and in national reconciliation and the construction of social cohesion, on the other is increasingly recognized.

The reflection on the duty to remember has advanced significantly in recent decades, highlighting the liberating and cathartic virtues of the approach used to confront this past, however painful or shameful it may be. Thus, visiting the scenes of the crime – the very places where certain acts of this tragedy took place – has become crucial to evoke emotion, provoke questioning and raise awareness.

The inscription of this history in national geographies and topographies constitutes one of the ways of combating not only forgetfulness, but also denials and falsifications. In recent decades, efforts have been made in many countries to make an inventory, preserve and promote sites and places related to the slave trade and slavery with  the view of creating itineraries for what is cautiously named “tourism of memory”. These initiatives were inspired by the holistic approach of natural and cultural heritage introduced by UNESCO through its various Conventions, (the 1972 Natural and Cultural Heritage Convention, the 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention, the 2001 Underwater Heritage Convention and finally the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions). These initiatives respond to the demands and aspirations of the most concerned communities who strongly expressed their wish to recover ownership of their history and memory and participate in the management of the related sites in their localities.

Since its creation in 1994, UNESCO’s Slave Route Project: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage has understood the importance of the sites of memory in educating general public and in particular young generations. In partnership with the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) the Project launched in 1995, in Accra, Ghana. It is a cultural tourism program on the slave route in Africa, to encourage the identification, rehabilitation, restoration and promotion of sites and places of memory throughout the African continent. In addition to the necessity to break the silence on this untold history, the aim was to promote a concept of tourism that could reconcile the ethical and moral demands of preserving this painful heritage with the economical requirement of cultural tourism. A similar program was launched in 1999, in Sainte Croix (American. Virgin Islands), in order to celebrate the historical, symbolic, cultural and economic importance of the slave trade and slavery’s heritage in the Caribbean.

In order to help these countries formulate appropriate policies, The Slave Route Project has developed a methodology for the identification and inventory of sites of memory. It contributed to the realization of inventories in Africa, Europe, islands in the Indian Ocean and the Latin Caribbean.

The project is in fact developing a Guide based on the lessons drawn from these experiences in order to enhance the skills of the managers of sites and places of memory. The purpose of this Guide is to provide clear orientations for professionals who wish to promote sites of memory and transform them into itineraries for tourism of memory, and preventing them from falling into some of the usual pit-falls, such as the “fascination for aged stone buildings”, and the oblivion of the enslaved people who built them.

It is worth stressing that in most experiences of memory tourism, primacy is generally given to built heritage, such as fortifications, houses, factories and furniture which, because of the dominant criteria on to the value of heritage, leads many to honor the achievements of the slave-owners rather than the memory of the victims. This became a serious concern in some islands of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean that are major tourist destinations. The commercial obligation to satisfy tourists – who mostly come from Western countries – sometimes leads tourism professionals to overvalue colonial legacy.

It often happens that when showing the rich houses of slave-owners, some touristic guides forget to mention that these mansions, forts and facilities were built by enslaved people, with their knowledge and skills. Thus, these experiences of tourism of memory run the risk of not achieving the main goal of itineraries of memory, which is to pay, above all, tribute to the victims of this crime against humanity, to their resistance against oppression and to their social, cultural and economic creativity to survive the dehumanization to which they were destined.

The Slave Route Project therefore invites tourism professionals to reconsider the prevailing criteria used to appreciate the aesthetic, historical and touristic value of the heritage generated by this history. Indeed, it is important to reflect and consider criteria that take into account the specificity of this memory and the particular views and perceptions of the concerned communities on the symbolic, aesthetic, memorial and social value they assign to the sites of memory.

Countries, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, of the Mediterranean and in the Indian Ocean are increasingly interested in the inventory and preservation of the heritage linked to this history. In most cases this heritage is in danger because people are unaware of its existence and historical value. This heritage is victim of the negligence due to lack of funds, but also of the greed of some economic operators who are only interested in the real estate value of these sites.

Faced with this situation, countries have adopted different strategies to preserve their heritage. Some decided to include their most emblematic sites of memory in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which grants them a special status and establishes obligations to preserve and promote them. Others have chosen to include these sites in their national cultural heritage, which also guarantees some protection. In some cases, autonomous community’s initiatives and/or local authorities engaged in bold action to protect some sites and places and establish itineraries of memory without waiting governmental assistance. Finally, other countries use all these different solutions simultaneously.

The Slave Route Project’s action on sites and itineraries of memory aims at highlighting the cartography of the slave trade and of slavery and linking the countries and regions of the world that share this history. Its ambition is to gradually create a global mapping of these sites and places and facilitate the development of an inter-regional tourism of memory, not only as an income-generating activities but also an expression of a new solidarity and dialogue between Africa and the countries which benefitted from the contributions of people of African descent. The project has just launched a new logo “Site of Memory Associated with the Slave Route”, which will be granted to all partners who follow the approach and methodology developed by the project. The logo will be put on the plate to be placed on the concerned sites.