Just how modern is Modern Slavery?
Posted on 16th March 2017 at 11:56
A Brief History of Slavery
The abolition of the Slavery in the 19th Century was an historic achievement in the face of stubborn resistance . It might be argued that the formal abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, specifically the ownership and sale of black African slaves, has been perceived as an end to this brutal and inhuman trade (Quirk 2006). In reality it has given way to the illicit and more diverse slave market that is referred to as Modern Day Slavery. The history of slavery is complex; it has changed and adapted through time and is influenced by politics, cultural, social and moral or religious values, migration, war, colonialism and natural disaster and economics. If there has been one constant characteristic of slavery it is the exertion of power and control by the strong over the weak.
Historically slavery has been integral to the development of societies and civilisations. In ancient Greece and Rome slavery was an important functional component of the economy and social order itself. underpinning the development of strong military societies and systems of government (Cliff, 2009). Slaves were a part of daily life and their work was as diverse and even included craftwork, work in the civil service and management of other slaves. In Roman systems a citizen could be entered into slavery in order to work off an unpaid debt. Slavery could also be a judicial sanction for non payment of taxes (Scheidel, 2010). It is interesting to note that within these structures slaves often received some form of payment and could even own property; their position in society was openly recognised. With Roman expansion dependant upon a vast army the working population at home was reduced. Thus the demand for slaves increased with the growth of the Roman Empire and this demand could be met in part through conquest and the commercial trade of the vanquished.
In Europe during the Middle Ages serfdom emerged as a form of bonded labour, effectively reducing significantly, if not putting an end to, slavery (Hague, 2012). A serf worked his plot on a Lord’s (landowner's) Manor andcould grow crops to feed his family but was also expected to undertake work for the Lord, pay him rent or taxes. Crucially serfdom was heredeitary, binding generations of families to the landowners as the serf could not change his circumstances or position without the landowner's permission, a condition that is a fundamental part of the modern definition of servitude .
In the UK serfdom was in decline by the late Middle Ages and its final demise came with the Black Death which decimated the population. The reduced populace also meant that resources such as food were better distributed and men and women were in a position to demand better pay and conditions in exchange for their labour (Benenson, 1998). Unlike war or natural disasters that reduce populations, the Black Death did not destroy property or infrastructure; rebuilding was not necessary but the social order was changed and ownership of wealth and economic power was redistributed, creating new opportunities for economic growth, development and inevitably the need for labour.
By the 15th Century Britain and the rest of Europe were expanding overseas and reaching Africa and with this expansion began the transatlantic slave trade. Initially this involved trading goods for slaves but eventually European slave raiding parties were kidnapping Africans. However, kidnapping by other Africans for the purposes of slave trading was not uncommon. A 19th century study of the origins of freed slaves found that 30% had been kidnapped by Africans. 11% had been sold into slavery by a judicial process (e.g. for adultery), 7% had been sold to pay debts, 7% had been sold by relations or friends and 34% (the largest proportion) had been taken in war and sold as slaves (Hague, 2012).
During the 17th century and parallel to the Transatlantic Slave Trade was the Barbary Coast Slave trade, often referred to as “White Slavery”. Barbary Corsairs (African Pirates) were authorised by their governments to attack ships from Christian Countries and kidnap their passengers and crew for the purposes of slavery. So called “White Slavery” became a pre-occupation of Europe and America with many spurious accounts and images of the tragic yet heroic white virgin, abducted, abused and enslaved by the Arab (usually portrayed as a bizarre, frightening primitive savage (Baepler, 2003). This image would endure well into the 19th and 20th centuries (Stauter-Halstead, 2015). Nevertheless, the Barbary slaves suffered tremendous hardship and cruelty.
Despite the eventual outlawing of slavery it has continued, hidden and ill defined. Since abolition it has adapted and changed according to social structures, politics, economics and demographics. It has always been associated with war and migration but its past overt nature meant that it was always identifiable and therefore could be described and understood. Modern Slavery is a hidden phenomenon with both victims and perpetrators coming largely from hidden communities. Its forms are as diverse as those found in the Greco-Roman period and is as brutal and squalid as the licit, legal transatlantic and Barbary coast models of slave trading. The diversity and adaptability of modern day slavery has made it hard to define (Quirk, 2006) and perhaps even harder to understand.
Historically, slaves have been able, in some contexts to gain a degree of social status or authority: Even in the Barbary Coast system of slavery, a slave may have found emancipation through conversion to Islam and it was not unheard of for slaves from Christian Countries to achieve a position of overseer with power and control over other slaves (Davies, 2011). In modern slavery also, children and adults can transition from victim to offender as they may have to adapt by aligning themselves with their captors as a survival strategy, they may be used to recruit and control new victims or actively seek affiliation with offenders.
The discourse surrounding modern day slavery may be influenced by concepts that are more closely associated with the old model of the transatlantic slave trade. The statutory prohibition of the slave trade was a testament to a major shift in social attitudes and the general belief that slavery was inherently wrong but slavery has retained many of its classical characteristics but has adapted and developed and remains deeply embedded in all societies; and is facilitated through corruption, the market pressures for cheap goods and services, the prevalence of extreme poverty and widespread indifference to its presence. Modern technology and communications have contributed greatly to the logistics of slavery in all of its forms but the forces that drive it do not seem to have changed greatly.
Adi, H. (2012, 10 05). Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from BBC History: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/africa_article_01.shtml
Baepler, P. (2003). White Slaves, African Masters. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities , Islam: Enduring Myths and Changing Realities, 90-111.
Cliff, U. (2009). Slavery in Ancient Greece. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from CLIO a journal for students of history in the Australian Capital Territory: https://cliojournal.wikispaces.com/Slavery+in+Ancient+Greece
Benenson, A. S. (1998). Review of King Death: The Black Death and its Aftermath in Late Medievasl England. The Journal of Public health Policy , 19 (2), 232-234.
Hague, W. (2012). William Wiberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Campaigner. Harper Press.
Phillips, W. D. (2014). The Traffic in Slaves. In Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Quirk, J. (2006). The Anti-Slavery Project: Linking the Historical and Contemporary. Human Rights Quarterly , 28 (3), 565-598.
Scheidel, W. (2010). Slaveryini the Roman Economy. Stanford University. Princeton / STanford Working Papers in Classics.
Stauter-Halstead, K. (2015). Sex Trafficking and Labour migration: Genesis of a Panic in Eastern Europe. Trafficking, Smuggling, and Illicit migration in Historical Perspective. London: Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London.
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