Contemporary Slavery

Celebrations planned to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade 200 years ago will do little to highlight the global growth of the trade today.

On 7 November 1775, Lord Dunmore, while governor of the Virginia Colony in America, made a proclamation whereby he offered freedom to black Africans if they joined the King’s Army and took up arms against the Patriot Militias. Hundreds of slaves, men and women, ran toward the British lines. Dunmore then formed an 800-strong company of soldiers that became known as the Ethiopian Regiment. After Dunmore’s retreat from Virginia and back aboard British ships, many of the Black soldiers and families contracted smallpox. On departure from Virginia, Dunmore put ashore the sick and dying to fend for themselves and retreated from Virginia to New York with the remaining 300 men of the Ethiopian Regiment.

By 1787, a movement in Britain had begun to take shape that was determined to work toward the abolition of the trading in slaves. The movement was spearheaded by key members of the Clapham Sect: Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce are among the key celebrated figures in the history of the abolition movement in the UK. Finally, on 25 March 1807, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed and the trade in slaves within British territories ended. It was not, however, until 23 August 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, and slaves did not get their freedom until 1838. As part of the deal, Caribbean plantation owners were paid over £20 million in compensation.
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Over the past couple of years, cultural institutions across the UK have been planning activities to mark the bicentenary of the 1807 Act. The Department for Culture Media and Sport’s website claims that:

‘A wide range of activities by cultural, faith and community organisations are already being planned to mark the bicentenary in 2007. Local authorities and cultural bodies in Liverpool, Bristol, Hull, Birmingham, London and across the whole of the United Kingdom will all be playing an important role. The Heritage Lottery Fund has already awarded over £16 million [US$32 million] to individual projects closely connected to the bicentenary, with more awards to be made in the months ahead.’

To some degree, it’s going to be difficult to avoid engaging with this historic anniversary.

Tony Blair’s carefully worded interview in the New Nation newspaper sparked a media frenzy over his refusal to make a full apology for Britain’s role in the trading of slaves. It was excruciatingly embarrassing listening to the minister of culture, David Lammy, on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme defending the government’s position against Esther Stanford, vice-chair of the Pan-African Reparation Coalition, who made a strong case for reparation. It’s difficult, even with a basic understanding of Human Rights, not to agree with Stanford that a formal apology would be an appropriate stance for the government to adopt as part of the lead up to the March 2007 ‘celebrations’.

We should not, however, be surprised that the current government did not take the opportunity to issue a full apology. It was only a few years ago, in 2001 at the United Nations Anti-Racism Conference in Durban, South Africa, that the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal were accused of jeopardising the conference by not supporting a Belgium-led initiative – championed by 11 other EU countries and something the African countries had been demanding throughout the conference – pushing for a full apology for slavery. The underlying core issue is not the act of apology itself but the fear of protracted, politically sensitive legal issues related to possible claims of compensation. ‘Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ said the US philosopher George Santayana over a century ago.

The events planned for 2007 will, no doubt, do much to raise awareness in relation to 1807 and Britain’s role in the trading of slaves. However, many of them will do little to highlight the fact that an estimated 27 million people are today living as slaves throughout the world.

Slavery is on the increase and, as in the past, it is global economic conditions and world market forces that create the conditions for slavery. Many activists believe that trafficking in people is the fastest growing criminal activity in the world. There is a growing number of people who simply cannot find work and for them, the chance to work abroad, even under the harshest of conditions, is a matter of survival rather than opportunity. International criminal gangs of traffickers exploit the weak and vulnerable, who are shipped along with their dreams of a better life into a trap of abuse and violation, often under threat of death. Eighty per cent of victims trafficked across international borders are women; 70 per cent of these women and girls, according to the US State Department, are trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Millions of people throughout Asia are caught up in systems of bonded labour, a system that was also used as a method of colonial labour recruitment for plantations in Africa, the Caribbean and South East Asia. Today, people with relatively no means of income are offered loans and then forced to work in order to pay off the debts. People are effectively tricked into working for little or no pay, kept under surveillance, threatened and abused. Whole families and generations are caught up in the spiral of bonded labour.

Recent global conflicts, especially in Africa, have seen an increasing number of children being abducted and forced to become soldiers: traumatised and forced to kill. According to Save the Children:

‘Around 300,000 children, some as young as seven, are fighting in wars around the world. Most are boys, but girls are also forced to fight, are often sexually abused and forced to ‘marry’ adult soldiers. Both government and rebel armies use child soldiers. Some children see fighting as the only way to escape from poverty. Even the offer of regular food is enough to make some children sign up.’

In Sudan, researchers are concerned about the return of a racially-based slave trade. Typically, in raids by northern militias, men are killed while women and child are abducted, sent north and sold.

The common denominator in many of the factors governing the re-emergence of global slavery is economics. Globalisation and the oppressive economic conditions and policies of the World Bank and the IMF effectively recreate the conditions of the slave trade by creating trade slaves. Loans are made on condition that countries adopt economic policies that force the opening of markets to international companies, this reduces the support to domestic producers, drives through privatisation of state enterprises and devalues currencies. The outcome effectively turns whole regions of the world into cheap sources of labour for the production of cheap goods that are sold back into Europe and North America for maximum profit. In a recent interview, professor Kevin Bales explained eloquently that:

‘We live in a global economy, so slavery is more globalised than ever before. It also tends to be more temporary – slavery for a limited amount of time as opposed to slavery over generations. And it used to be that ethnic differences were important: whites enslaved blacks, for example. Now ethnic differences are secondary to economic considerations.’

Most important, perhaps, there are now many more people enslaved. In fact, there are more slaves alive today than were brought over from Africa on the middle passage. The population explosion, combined with the economic and social vulnerability of large numbers of people in the Third World, means that there is a glut of slaves on the market. The result is that they have become cheap – far cheaper than at any other time in history.

It is hard to enter into the spirit of the 1807 bicentenary ‘celebrations’ without pausing to reflect on what has actually happened globally over the past 200 years in relation to the abolition of slavery without some recognition that the wretched conditions of slavery in many instances have never really left us.
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Published in Photoworks Issue 8, 2007
Commissioned by Photoworks

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