The role of dehumanisation during the Atlantic Slave Trade and the modern day implications

Essay, 2012

16 Pages, Grade: 1:1 (First Class)


Slavery broke the world in half, it broke it in every way. It broke Europe. It made them into something else, it made them slave masters, it made them crazy. You can’t do that for hundreds of years and it not take a toll. They had to dehumanize, not just the slaves but themselves.”[1]

In order to comprehend acts of oppression such as the slave trade, not to mention the atrocities which accompanied it, an investigation into the psychological reasoning of the oppressors must be considered. People are not inherently evil; however, all human beings have the capacity to commit evil acts.[2] Dehumanisation is commonplace in instances of persecution. John Wade describes dehumanisation as a “psychological state and linguistic transition which occurs during conflict which both justifies past behaviour; and encourages future aggressive conflict.”[3] In another definition; to dehumanise is to deprive a person or group of human qualities, stripping them of their personal identity and individuality.[4] In instances of persecution, dehumanisation serves as a justification and rationalisation of past and future behaviour. With these definitions in mind, slavery is the epitome of dehumanisation. Many take for granted the dehumanisation of slaves. However, the power of this psychological spur must be considered in depth, chiefly because dehumanisation is still taking place and leading to disastrous consequences such as genocide and mass murder in the twenty-first century.

Dehumanisation cannot be hailed as the sole psychological motivation of oppression. A plethora of internal (dispositional) and external (situational) factors also go hand in hand with dehumanisation in times of oppression or persecution.[5] The question of how ordinary people can commit extraordinary acts presents the historian with a complex problem. And as James Waller points out, for each complex question, there is a simple, neat and often incorrect answer.[6] Dehumanisation of victims should be considered a small, yet compelling part of the slave trade. The role which was filled by dehumanisation allowed and condoned the continuation of the trade for over two hundred years. Oppression and brutality were made viable by a common consensus which promoted the inferiority of Africans, a consensus which portrayed them as less than human, and often as animals.

The dehumanisation of victims is a theme which persistently rears its ugly head in many instances of persecution; including oppression, genocide and mass murder. It is in fact extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recall an example where dehumanisation has not preceded a genocidal policy or been used to justify inhumane acts in history. As a justification of persecution, dehumanisation is a profoundly effective tool. Successfully serving as an ideology which allows the perpetrator, and indeed society, to avoid guilt, condone actions and override their conscience. If the victim is not human, then the actions cannot be inhumane.

The dehumanisation of victims of persecution has proved so powerful and disastrous an instrument that the shockwaves can still now be felt in modern day society. The repercussions of past ideologies; in particular, the belief that Black people were inferior, incredibly still exists to some degree in the twenty-first century. Dehumanisation of minority groups in the past, gives way to racism in the future.[7] Assumptions pertaining to certain minority groups have stuck like glue. Modern day racism can be traced back to the first instances of the dehumanisation of Black people. Many like to believe our society has grown past these racial prejudices and ideologies. But really, just how true is this statement? The power of ideology is profound. Perceptions, assumptions and beliefs can prove as unshakable as the strongest foundations, as persistent as the strongest will. No one individual or collective people can be blamed for the origin, constancy or evolution of dehumanisation. Its mere existence reflects the very essence of human nature itself and actually champions the presence of morality in the psychological make-up of human beings.

It is not the historians place to judge perpetrators or bystanders of persecution. What needs to be achieved is an understanding of why and how events which we deem immoral today were able to occur then. People are influenced by their culture, upbringing, society and religion. Societies are formed and ideals are shaped through popular culture and ideologies. Assumptions and stereotypes filter down through generations and deep-set beliefs form over many years. As sure as the sky was blue, so too Black people were inferior. The slave owners were not evil, society was not corrupt. Fundamentally, people are a reflection of their culture and environment.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, if only it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us, but the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. It is, after all, only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't."[8]

Dehumanisation successfully acts as a bulwark in times of oppression or persecution, safeguarding the perpetrator from their conscience. In the case of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the merchants and public alike were protected by a sound belief that Black people were not suitable for anything other than slavery. In fact, it was widely accepted that Black Africans were better off under the control of Europeans. Dehumanisation of Black Africans during the slave trade occurred as a result of a psychological need to justify and rationalise the treatment and enslavement of millions of people. The alluring economic incentive meant that Africans were far too valuable a commodity to be slaughtered en masse, a climax which often occurs as a consequence of dehumanisation.


[1] GILROY, P., The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993) p. 221.

[2] WALLER, J., Becoming Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 133.

[3] WADE, J., ‘Negotiation and Mediation Concepts and Terminology’,, September 2000, Bond University, 10 February 2010,

[4] UNKOWN, ‘The Free Dictionary by Farlex’,, Unknown date, 10 February 2010,

[5] WALLER, J., Becoming Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 133.

[6] WALLER, J., Becoming Evil 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007 ) p. 137.

[7] WILSON, C. A., Racism: From Slavery to Advanced Capitalism (London: Sage Publications, 1996) p. 46.

[8] SOLZHENITSYN, A. I., The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (London: Harpercollins, 1974) p. 168.

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The role of dehumanisation during the Atlantic Slave Trade and the modern day implications
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BA HONS Leila Fielding (Author), 2012, The role of dehumanisation during the Atlantic Slave Trade and the modern day implications, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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