Why Won’t Slavery Go Away?

Why won’t slavery go away? For the best part of 150 years it has been outlawed, in one way or another. Yet it pops up regularly in the media. Fresh evidence regularly emerges of slavery’s durability and amazing ability to survive – despite legislation, global prohibitions and even military action. Newspapers periodically find new examples of slavery to puzzle and appall us. Slaves in the logging industry in South America, domestic slaves in Saudi households, women enslaved and trafficked from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, child slavery in India and Africa. These and similar stories periodically drift across our screens and create fleeting newspaper headlines – but then vanish.

No serious student of slavery doubts that forms of slavery survive, indeed in many places thrive. Organizations committed to combating the scourge of slavery – Anti-Slavery International with its roots going back to the early 19th century, being the oldest and most distinguished – have their work cut out to combat human trafficking and slavery. Yet there is universal agreement that slavery is a moral and human outrage. Indeed the examples of modern slavery seem all the more outrageous in the light of global condemnation of slavery. What may have seemed understandable in the 17th century seems totally abhorrent today.

One major problem is the definition of the institution: what exactly do we mean by slavery? If we use the yardstick of the best-known form of slavery – the African slavery that dominated the Atlantic economy for more than three centuries – then we might be hard pressed to find modern equivalents. But even then, when slave status was reserved primarily for Africans and their descendants, there were other forms of slavery. What about white Christians, enslaved by Barbary pirates? And what about the loss of freedom endured my armies of prisoners, indentured servants, to say nothing of slave systems at the same period in Asia?

No scholar today would doubt the enormity of the Atlantic slave trade. The enslavement of countless millions, and the landing of some eleven million African survivors, destined for the plantations of the Americas is accepted as a critical element in the shaping of the Americas and the development of the modern western economies. But it also created a defining image of what we mean by slavery and slave trading. Ask most people to describe slavery, and they are likely to point to Africans on an Atlantic slave ship, or working on a sugar or cotton plantation. They are unlikely to talk about Asian slaves, or slaves in classical Greece, or in the Roman Empire (except, perhaps - courtesy of Kirk Douglas, to Spartacus.) Slavery and the slave trade means, in the popular mind, the Atlantic slave trade and black slavery across the Americas.

It is easy to see why this association has developed, not least because the descendants of that system form so visible and prominent a part of the western world’s demographic make-up. It is hard to look at the human face of the Americas, and more recently, at immigrant communities in Europe, without seeing the shadow of slavery. But our awareness of Atlantic slavery has also been fostered by the astonishing rise of scholarship in the field, and the rapid percolation of those findings to the grass roots of society on both sides of the Atlantic.

A half-century ago, we knew very little about Atlantic slavery. Today we are swamped by the details. Moreover those details, and the broad outlines, have become universally known and accepted – via formal education, television, radio, novels and movies. Only this past year, two major Hollywood best-selling movies, Django Unchained and Lincoln, have focused on different aspects of slavery. Next year Twelve Years a Slave, another blockbuster, will be released.

And yet, despite a battery of laws passed by individual states and by international bodies slavery persists today. The simple truth remains that slavery is rooted in deep poverty. The desperation of the world’s poor often sees them consigning themselves or their offspring to employers and to gangs as the only escape from desperate circumstances. And where there is a need, there are people willing to exploit that need; recruiting the poor, young children, women, for trafficking elsewhere – to labour in prostitution, enslaved gangs and unpaid labour in a host of manual tasks – often great distances from their homes. All this may seem far removed from the historical slave systems we are most familiar with: the African slaves of the Atlantic economic. But the links and connections are direct and unbroken. Slavery simply won’t go away.

James Walvin