The United Nations on Wednesday remembered the millions of victims of the largest forced migration in history with the unveiling of a slavery memorial on its visitors plaza before global ambassadors and Jamaica Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.
Designed by Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon, The Ark of Return memorializes the estimated 15 million African men, women, and children who died during the transatlantic slave trade and the millions of others forced into plantation slavery in the Americas. Leon beat out 310 architects and designers for the chance to design the permanent structure at the U.N.’s New York headquarters.
Leon said the triangle-shaped marble structure was inspired by the theme, “acknowledge the tragedy, consider the tragedy, lest we forget.” He and his team drew inspiration from the maps of the triangular slave trade, which are etched in the structure; the ships that ferried Africans to Europe and the Americas, and the experiences people underwent through the “door of no return” — a door at a castle on Gorée Island in Senegal where many slaves were kept before they were shipped to the Americas.
“We felt it was very important for us to counteract that experience and pay homage to their legacy,” Leon said.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the memorial stands as a reminder of not just the brutal crossing across the Atlantic Ocean but also recognizes “the significant contributions that slaves and their descendants have made.”
“This poignant and powerful memorial helps us to acknowledge the collective tragedy that befell millions of people,” he said during the outdoor ceremony. “It encourages us to consider the historical legacy of slavery and above all, it ensures that we never forget.”
The U.N. has declared 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent. Ban called slavery “a stain on human history,” and the monument allows all a chance to reflect on the causes and consequences of racism “so we may eradicate prejudice and intolerance.”
“I hope The Ark of Return will also serve as a call to action against the many contemporary manifestations of slavery, from human trafficking and sexual enslavement to debt bondage,” he said.
The memorial project was conceived more than five years ago and led by African and Caribbean nations. The Permanent Representative of Jamaica, Courtenay Rattray, served as chair of the Permanent Memorial Committee and noted that several nations, along with UNESCO, helped raise more than $1.7 million for it.
Jamaica is a member of the 15-member Caribbean Community, which is currently pursing reparations claims against European nations that engaged in the slave trade.
Simpson Miller did not raise the reparations issue in her remarks but spoke of slavery’s enduring legacy. She noted that even after Britain passed a law on March 25, 1807, abolishing the slave trade, slavery continued.
“For us freedom came after a long journey,” she said. “Freedom was not gifted to us but rather earned by the sweat, blood, and tears of millions of our forebears on whose back the economic foundations of the New World was built.”
Speaking at an earlier press conference, Professor Jean Crusol of Martinique said the memorial also stands as a tribute to the many freedom fighters who struggled to end slavery. Among them, he noted Louis Delgrès and Solitude of the French Caribbean. He also singled out Queen Nanny, the Maroon leader in Jamaica, and Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti, which became the first nation to break the shackles of slavery and declare itself free from France in 1804.
Recalling France’s 2001 recognition that slavery was a crime against humanity, Crusol said it was time for “international recognition of this crime as a crime against humanity. This is our challenge. This should be the test, the collective goals of the near future for this family of nations.”