Slavery: Then and Now
The Slavery Perversion
Although prostitution is deemed the oldest trade, slavery was never far behind; prostitution itself considered a form of servitude and exploitation (the human trafficking of sex slaves).
Like most perversions perpetuated by humans, slavery in its various forms was likely the result of other inequalities and injustices that ancient societies grappled to manage.
Solutions put in place to meet societal concerns were eventually twisted by the unscrupulous to fulfil only self serving interests. From the following examples of legitimate attempts at humane problem solving, the wicked slave trade was birthed.
In the ancient world of tribal conflict and violence, what does one do with captives of war? Experience showed that if released, they only returned for further conflict? Solution: Kill them ...or, enslave them until they become absorbed into society.
What laws could be made to protect lenders from being robbed of repayment, and ensure debtors had every opportunity to repay?
Solution: Forced servitude for an agreed period until debts are met.
What could be done to protect the starving destitute? Remembering that ancient civilisations lacked modern social-security safety nets. Therefore, In a world without government welfare, an acceptable Solution: voluntary bonded servant-hood (a legal agreement). In exchange for your labour, a master would shelter, feed and cloth you, or your wife, sons or daughters until such time as you could provide for yourself.
Many practices throughout history seem harsh and unfair to the modern western reader -and many were- but seen from the perspective of the ancients, some of those practises had understandable, though morally imperfect, beginnings.
But, as is man's tendency, those well intentioned beginnings were perverted, often quickly, into something foul.
And foulest of all?
The Trans-Atlantic Experience
The experience of African slaves abducted from their country, their tribe and their family. Only to be shackled like criminals, herded like beasts, tormented by inhumane cruelties and to live and die as anothers property in a land far from what they remembered as home.
The Atlantic slave trade was the auctioning and shipping of Africans into slavery within the New World. It is sometimes called the Maafa by African Americans; meaning holocaust or great disaster. The slaves were part a three-phase economic cycle; the Triangular Trade and its infamous Middle Passage.
It was a trade that encompassed four continents, four centuries and brought misery to millions of people.
And what started it?
A shortage of labour in the new world.
The Heart of the Problem
Which do you think precipitated most toward the trans-Atlantic Slave Trades existence?
Due to Aboriginal population decline (being decimated by European brutality and disease) and European immigration to the colonies stagnating (despite incentives such as indentured servitude & the promise of free land) a situation arose in which there was far more work than workers.
These labour demands, especially in such areas as mining and plantation work, eventually turned European traders to seek slaves from Africa.
Ironically, it was powerful coastal or interior African States that sourced and sold their countries people to traders in exchange for European goods.
Notably, slavery had been a staple of African political lifelong before the coming of Europeans. Africans were rarely kidnapped by Europeans.
These African States sourced the slaves from several channels:
- Captives of war; usually civilians but sometimes defeated warriors.
- Convicts of Crime; few prison systems existed, therefore criminals were usually sold.
African slaves were loaded into extremely cramped ships and given only minimal amounts of food and water. It is estimated that fifteen percent of slaves died in the voyage over the Atlantic.
Was The Civil War About Slavery?
Where did all the slaves go?
The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is the most comprehensive shipping record available. It calculates that between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World. 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean and South America.
It may surprise some to learn that of those 10.7 million, only 388,000 were shipped directly to North America.
The overwhelming majority being shipped directly to the Caribbean and South America. See the table below for slave distribution statistics.
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Distribution
Spain / Uruguay
Portugal / Brazil
Denmark / Baltic
Differences between Trans-Atlantic and modern day slavery
Trans-Atlantic Slavery 1619-1865
Modern Slavery Today
Slaves were an expensive investment often costing three times the average workers yearly wage.
Slaves today are cheap and disposable.
Owners held similar legal entitlement to their slaves as to to their property.
There is little buying and selling at public slave auctions today, nor does legal title enter into enslavement.
Colour and descent of origin were the common denominators of slaves in Colonial America.
Today, slaves are taken from any disadvantaged, indigenous or marginalised people trapped by poverty and powerlessness.
Slavery was legally validated, widely socially supported and economically integrated
Slavery today continues mainly because of an absence of laws or, more often, failure to enforce existing laws that protect people from inequality and exploitation.
Similarities between Trans-Atlantic and modern day slavery
Slaves are still held in captivity, usually through means of force or threat.
Slaves are forced to work, under threat if they fail to obey.
Slaves lives are controlled by others (their owners or "employers"), again this control is via threat and abuse.
Human liberties are restricted or removed, as you would find in a prison for criminals.
The Perversion Persists
And so we now have modern slavery, and though there isn't a country on earth who legalises the practise, it thrives globally.
Internationally, slavery is outlawed -at least on paper- through various human rights treaties and labour rights agreements. Most counties have adopted these documents as law. Far fewer actually enforce them. And, no doubt, once again, it is corruption that perpetuates such negligence.
Key International Anti-Slavery Treaties
With obvious limited success, the following treaties exist to abolish slavery globally.
- The 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices similar to Slavery, banned ‘institutions and practices similar to slavery’: debt bondage, serfdom, servile marriage, child labour, servile domestic works, forced labour and servitude for ritual or domestic purposes. Governments are under obligation to take urgent action to prevent these.
- The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Poverty remains key to the problem
As it has been throughout history in every country, the most exploited have always been from among the poor.
Government schemes aimed at sufficiently assisting the destitute are absent in many parts of the world; much like the ancient world. In such a worlds, the reality is that a person who is thoroughly in debt and unable to support their family can agree to become the bond (debt) servant of another; until their debts are paid and/or their circumstances improve. Though undesirable, the alternative for them is worse--watch their children starve.
From this perspective such servitude may undoubtedly be seen as a life-saving solution. And I think most of us can at least appreciate that such options, though far from ideal, are plausible, even necessary.
Sadly, however, as plausible as it might appear, it is an option easily manipulated by the unscrupulous among us; being used as carrot, more often than not, to trick the needy into an ever deeper rut of perpetual debt.
One such example of this is Venkatesh's
Of course, such examples remind us of the despicable acts that were the fruit of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which people were violently seized and branded as property, robbed of all freedom, whipped, beaten and treated as beasts of burden, only to be cruelly used for whatever selfish whim a "master" may have.
We baulk at the thought of one person owning another's life and liberty, let alone committing such atrocities; and rightly so.
But the concept of ownership does merit some consideration. Ownership of someone can be understood in different lights. I can own someone's time because I paid for it, and I can own the produce of their labours because their time is mine; most modern workplaces operate on this understanding. In some employment, e.g. the military, you can own someone's life; in the sense of having the right to put it on the line.
However, the form of ownership we find in Venkatesh's story, and within America's slavery atrocities, is far more than one person declaring rights over another.
What we object to in these relationships is the presumption of forcibly and-or callously exploiting someone's life, with only selfish interests as motive and with no benefit given to the disenfranchised.
So what can we do?
Teach your children about the problem
Some suggested resources include:
- Free the Slaves
Includes charts, games and exercises
Join the Anti-Slavery Effort
Supporting the effort can be as simple as sharing your awareness of the truth of slavery with others. Or it can involve providing monetary aid, or even providing feet on the ground in those places where such presence is needed. here are some ideas;
- Subscribe to the Free The Slaves newsletter
- Organise a Modern slavery awareness fundraiser event through your work, club, church.
- Mobilise people of your faith community to dedicate time to understanding and work toward a world without slavery.
Ensure your business operates ethically
Some suggested resources include:
- Slavery in supply chains: what companies can do - from the Institute for Human Rights and Business
Resolving slavery in supply chains is not easy. Few global corporations choose consciously to enslave people. Multinational companies are legitimately uncomfortable being associated with slavery, but the real question is what they can do about it?
© 2014 Richard Parr