Saturday, 24 August 2013

Remembering the slave trade yesterday and today

Am I Not A Man And A Brother?

And The Misery Goes On

The slave trade was an atrocity that shaped the modern world. Without Britain the commercial trade in human beings could never have become such a vast and profitable trans-national industry. Written to mark the 200th anniversary of the trade’s abolition, the following essay by Mark Cantrell pointed out that a modern version of slavery is alive and well and unlikely to be abolished anytime soon 

IT’S a shame that New Labour wasn’t around two centuries ago. The party’s spin-meisters could have enjoyed a field day tacking their ‘progressive’ colours to the mast of liberty, and proclaimed their success in ending the exploitation of a vulnerable and much-abused section of the international labour force.

Imagine the scene, as a disgruntled Wilberforce is barged aside by Tony Blair desperate for any legacy but a 19th Century equivalent of the Iraq War; perceive his finery and mad grinning visage as he proclaims: “We have not so much abolished slavery as modernised it. Er…”

Then wait for the titters, as the audience realise that in his love of ‘modernity’ Blair has caught himself in a tangled web of his own conceit, while the freed slaves accept the minimum wage and Gordon Brown’s sleight of hand tax ‘cut’ through gritted teeth. Of course, after the brutalities of total slavery, the transition to wage slavery must seem like freedom indeed. But that’s by the by.


TODAY, 25 March 2007 [as it was when this essay was first published], the UK celebrates the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade. It brought to an end what had hitherto been a major and profitable British commercial venture. Fortunes were made for a few, misery and death for the many, and the consequences of this hideous business linger to this day.

Racism was born of slavery. So, it gained a new lease of life as the Imperial project took off in the Nineteenth Century with the orgy of colonial land-grabbing, but it was born in the blood and savagery of the slave trade. It was manufactured to justify the trade and the institution, to excuse the brutal treatment, the torture, rape and murder of human beings. While the practitioners may not have thought it through quite so rationally, the academic CLR James put it succinctly in his book The Black Jacobins. In answer to the question, why would traders tolerate so much destruction of their valuable wares, he answered: because clearly and inescapably their captives were human beings – not beasts – and so they had to be broken, abused, physically and psychologically ground into the dirt. It was a brutal and brutalising business.

As a slaver’s manual noted at the time: “Terror must operate to keep them in subjection.”

Conservative estimates say that between 10 and 15 million people were shipped across the Atlantic. Other figures put it as high as 30 million people. Casualty figures amongst the captives are put at around five per cent in prisons and as much as ten per cent once the voyage commenced. As we know of the conditions aboard ship, they were packed into the hold as tight as proverbial sardines. They were kept like that for months, little exercise, little food, with brutal reprisals for disobedience or even the merest hint of rebellion. Sometimes, slaves were killed simply as a warning to the others – who might have been forced to eat a slice of the hapless victim’s organs.

Slaves did rebel of course. Even shipboard, they sometimes managed to slip their shackles and overpower the crews. The film Amistad took its story from one such group of slaves who managed to seize control of the ship carrying them, though it focused on the idealistic reformers who fought for their freedom in the pre-Civil War US courts. It’s telling in two senses, this film, the first in that slaves could and did overpower their oppressors, and in the second that their own actions in the slow, painful death of slavery tends to be airbrushed out of the scene.

On the whole, we who live in the nations that invested in – and profited from – the trans-Atlantic slave trade, find our focus directed towards the white, generally affluent, individuals who campaigned for the end of the trade. As in Amistad, and as in the new released film Amazing Grace, black figures are rendered the recipients of white justice and idealism, with a few token noble and dignified – but otherwise somewhat passive – black faces to play a supporting role.

“Material being produced today to mark the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade makes it appear that white people liberated black – the assumption being that they could not do it themselves,” Ken Livingstone wrote recently in the Guardian newspaper. “In reality, slaves rose against the trade from its inception. This broke it… No one denigrates William Wilberforce, but it was black resistance and economic development that destroyed slavery, not white philanthropy.”

William Wilberforce
The humanity and dedication of men like William Wilberforce is not under question. Without the resistance of slaves, however, without wider disgust at the trade, and without this mode of labour becoming somewhat archaic with the rise of waged labour markets, under the expansion of the industrial revolution’s factories and mills, then such men would have remained voices in the wilderness.

The first recorded slave revolt took place in 1570. In the centuries of the slave trade’s existence, there were over 200 shipboard rebellions. In the Caribbean islands, a brutal and violent society flourished as the slave owners found themselves surrounded inevitably by hundreds of thousands, millions, of enslaved people. Outnumbered, the reign of the day was terror and brutality – but it never stopped revolts and even protracted episodes of guerrilla war as the slaves resisted.

In the wake of the French Revolution, in 1791, when the ideals of the rights of man were lighting fires of idealism across the world, the colony of St Domingue erupted in revolt. At its head was an illiterate slave named Toussaint L’Ouverture. He and his self-liberated slaves went on to defeat the British and the French militaries  – two of the most powerful armed forces in their day – sent to put down the revolt. The only successful slave revolt in history founded the first independent black republic of Haiti. Alas, what military might failed to achieve, in time global economics brought it back under the fold of dominant European-spawned powers.

Toussaint was fired by the ideals of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment (at least those parts of Enlightenment thinking that hadn’t declared him to be a sub-species). He was a believer, and believed that men of reason could talk through their differences, and to that end he travelled to Paris in the hope of negotiating a settlement with Napoleon.

Toussaint Louverture
While there had been hope of peaceful recognition of Haiti by revolutionary France prior to Napoleon’s ascent to power, the dictator hated the idea of losing a French colony to former slaves. Military defeat put paid to his desire to retain what was then a profitable colony, but thanks to Toussaint’s misplaced faith in the universality of human rights, Toussaint ended his days in a French dungeon. A bitter end for such an inspiring historical figure, but in the end it gave Napoleon only a small and somewhat sour victory that could never undo what Toussaint and the former slaves of Haiti had achieved for themselves.

The British arm of the slave trade continued, for a few brief years, until its abolition in 1807, yet slavery itself wasn’t abolished in British controlled territory until 1833, and of course it lingered longer in the United States until the Civil War finally put paid to it. Slavery’s last stand.

In Britain’s northern industrial cities, the denizens of the ‘dark satanic mills’ also played their part in the wider context of slavery’s demise. As the industrial revolution continued its breakneck conquest of human life, subjecting more and more to its rigours and the poverty of market-defined subsistence wages, these workers, these wage slaves, were making connections between their own plight and the plight of the slaves. These men and women perceived a sense of solidarity, as they faced their own brutal punishments for resisting the rising wealth of the captains of industry. Bitter strikes and disputes wracked the urban landscape in Britain. Proto-unions were forming, and often, former slaves and anti-slavery campaigners would find a willing audience among these rough and degraded people who worked the new capitalism of industry.
As the century passed from that 1807 abolition of the trade, many British workers continued their sense of solidarity with their enslaved ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ across the Atlantic. As the Civil War in America raged, the loss of cotton for the mills led to unemployment and hardship for Manchester mill workers, but even so, many supported the war against the Confederacy and its proclaimed aim of ridding slavery for good.

Such solidarity, while it might in practice have had an often contradictory expression, and while the individuals themselves might have been tainted by the racist legacy of the trade, nevertheless played a significant part in the groundswell of opinion that drove slavery to its death.

The struggles of slaves to achieve self-emancipation, coupled with the rise of early working class militancy, religious and moral outrage, and the rise of a new industrial mode of wealth creation, all conspired against the slavers. The trade had its roots in the earliest phase of capitalism, but capitalism as an economic system has no sense of sentimentality or tradition – it eats it own and it helped to destroy what it first helped to birth. In a sense, however, slavery had done its job: it helped to shape the birth of the modern world. By the time the trade ended, the blood of millions of people had bought and paid for the West’s rise to global domination.

Alas, the story of slavery doesn’t end there.


TODAY, on the 25 March 2007 [as was when first published], two centuries after the formal abolition of the slave trade, it is worth pointing out that slavery exists in the context of wider economic forces. It doesn’t float in some abstract sea of abuse – and since a slave is a source of labour then it fits into the spectrum of the exploitation of labour.

As in 1807, so too in 2007, slavery persists.

Whereas it once operated in the full light of day, with those in the trade – at least in the upper echelons – perceived as ‘respectable’ businessmen, it now operates in the shadows of criminality. Economic conditions still play their part, however, for what is a slave but the attempt to obtain and control the cheapest extraction of value from human labour? It remains profitable enough to survive, even if it clings only to the niches and fringes of the mainstream economy.

The trade is nothing like its trans-Atlantic predecessor, of course, but the forms that slavery takes today breed no less misery for the victims. So, in the run up to the bi-centenary, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published Modern Slavery In The UK’, a report into the prevalence of slavery today. It was carried out by a joint team from the University of Hull and Anti-Slavery International. It shows that slavery is alive and well in the UK, particularly as a result of people trafficking, and makes the valid point that the problems exist within an international context that will inevitably make difficult strategies to combat the modern slavers.

“All forms share elements of the exploitative relationships which have historically constituted slavery,” the JRF said when launching the report. “[These are] severe economic exploitation, the lack of a human rights framework, and one person’s control of another through the prospect or reality of violence. Slavery is defined and prohibited under international law. Coercion distinguishes slavery from poor working conditions.”

The latter is surely a moot point; when is coercion not coercion? Of course, we take it to mean direct physical or psychological compulsion to force someone to work for very little or no pay at all. However, in conditions of abject poverty, if someone faces the ‘free’ choice of gruelling toil rather than begging or starvation, is that not a form of indirect coercion?

It’s a question that can distract from the focus on slavery, from the point of view expressed in the report. Inevitably, given its remit, it is the more direct coercion and ‘theft of liberty’ that forms a slave. Otherwise, there is a danger of losing the focus in the myriad forms of social problems faced by people today.

Having said that however, it raises the important point about the context of slavery. It exists in a spectrum of labour relations. If slavery represents the dark and brutal pole of ‘employment’, then the other pole is work as we know it. The kind where we take a job with a going rate, enjoy statutory protections and rights, have the ability to leave that job without fear of reprisal, or indeed withhold our labour in a time of dispute with our employer. Between these two poles is the global context of child labour, sweatshops, economic migrants as they are called, and so on.

Slavery exists in a place where so many factors and issues overlap, forever in danger of falling through the cracks and gaps where overlaps fail to quite mesh. While being an important human rights issue, it is also a matter of workers’ rights. An attack on the rights and protections of one worker is an attack on them all – and let’s face it, the slave is the weakest and most exploited of all labour. For workers, no matter what they enjoy, it is an important issue for the preservation of the wider employment protections. And, in an echo of old, the shipment – or trafficking to give its modern term – across national borders brings in the sphere of immigration policy.

These days, so many countries have little regard for the majority of immigrants; they are a source of fear and loathing and cheap macho politics that it creates a useful smokescreen to mask the trafficker.

According to Anti-Slavery International, there are some 12 million people in slavery across the world. While the International Labour Organisation says that 2.4 million people are enslaved by people traffickers, forced to work for the gangs who smuggle them, often in the sex trade. Not every slave is trafficked by clandestine gangs smuggling them over borders. Some arrive in a country quite legally, but then are violated into the abusive world of slavery, their passports and documents withheld and threatened with violence to themselves or their family members.

Some UK companies, knowingly or otherwise, are relying on people working in slavery to produce the goods they sell, the organisation said. A complex web of sub-contracting and supply chains, managed by agents elsewhere, masks the slavery: a murky screen blinding us to the existence of the abused slave in our midst.

The JRF added: “Slavery in contemporary Britain cannot be seen in isolation. Most of those working as slaves in the UK have come from elsewhere, often legally. This makes slavery an international issue. Many relationships of enslavement trap people by withdrawing their passports or ID documents, making escape unlikely. Evidence shows that those who protest about the appalling working conditions may be beaten, abused, raped, deported or even killed.”

Furthermore, trafficked people are often subjected to forced labour through a mix of enforced debt, as well as intimidation. For those who might escape the clutches of their captors, they also run the risk of finding the UK authorities unsympathetic – perceiving them as illegal immigrants rather than victims. Often, not only is the victim unaware of any rights they may have, so too are the authorities who might subsequently end up dealing with the victim.

Part of the problem in the UK’s approach to tackling trafficking, according to the JRF, is the Government’s view of it as an issue of migration control. In other words, the ever-shifting goalposts on immigration, and the endless changes and confusions bred to keep people out, are assisting the traffickers to control their wares. There is little in the way of joined-up protection for those who fall victim to the slavers.

In part, this is no doubt because our vision of slavery is shaped by the understanding of its classic form abolished two centuries ago, but mainly the hugely negative paranoia and anti-immigrant feeling whipped up by successive generations of politicians out for a cheap headline.

It leaves the vulnerable even more exposed.

“Current protection and support services for trafficked men, women and children are inadequate and there is no specific assistance available to those who are trafficked for labour exploitation,” said Professor Robert Craig. He is one of the report’s co-authors and the Associate Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull.

He added: “A review of the position of most organisations active in this field suggests that formal adoption by the UK Government of the various treaties and conventions in place would be an important first step.”

Frankly, given New Labour’s record on the immigration issue, such as the use of deprivation and poverty as a failed attempt to force asylum seekers out of the country, it is unlikely the Government will take any serious steps to combat the modern scourge of slavery.

Government ministers like to boast of their progressive record, yet as headlines in other topics show, it is becoming ever-more strident in its authoritarianism. In New Labour’s time in Government the gap between rich and poor has widened. Yet the Government likes to boast of the numbers it has raised from poverty, even though such numbers are still swamped by levels of deprivation. It boasts of the minimum wage it introduced, raised recently by a most generous 17 pence an hour, even while the cost of living has steadily risen. To this, add Gordon Brown’s flourish as he – hopes – to graciously accept the keys to No 10: his final Budget. The generous tax cut for the lowest earners, commentators and analysts agree, is anything but.

Gordon gives with one hand and takes with the other, it was said. As with the Budget, so it can be with rights and protections granted to vulnerable sections of the workforce.

Spurred on by cases of abuse experienced by migrant workers who came to this country to work as cooks, cleaners and nannies, the Government introduced legal protections in 1998. They arrived in the country legally to work in their employer’s home. In some cases, they also lived there. Some fell victim to sexual abuse, physical assault and sometimes were kept as an effective prisoner by their employer. Not so much domestic workers, as domestic house slaves.

Under the legislation, they are legally entitled to leave their employer for another job if they are abused and receive basic protection, and also to receive the minimum wage under UK employment law. It was seen as a positive move to end what for some workers had become ‘virtual slavery’.

Some 17,000 such migrant workers come to the UK every year, but now they face losing the protections they gained courtesy of a Home Office plan to introduce new immigration rules, which will drastically curtail their rights. The plan means that such workers can only enter the country on non-renewable business visa and are barred from finding another job if they leave their employer’s service because of mistreatment. The intention is to stop ‘abuse’ of border controls, the Home Office claims.

A Home Office spokesman told the Independent newspaper: “These are not migrant workers but people who are ordinarily employed and resident outside the UK, so changing employers in the UK would not be appropriate. As part of our continued work to combat trafficking, our emphasis will be upon delivering robust pre-entry procedures, including appropriate safeguards, such as the identification of cases of possible abuse at the pre-entry stage to minimise the risk of subsequent exploitation.”

Quite how such bureaucratic procedures can combat the commercial shipping and trading of human beings is quite another matter. As far as campaigners who work with victims of such abuse, it will do nothing to help those who are smuggled in for the sex trade or as illegal workers in other trades, merely leave this group of migrant workers isolated and defenceless. Unless, of course, they wish to present themselves to the authorities and be processed as some kind of criminal. Or, indeed, accept their status as slave.

Naturally, the Government has been accused of hypocrisy.

“Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to slavery and exploitation,” added Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International, who also co-authored the JRF report into modern slavery. “The promotion of regular migration is essential to tackling this problem in the UK, as is ensuring the protection of migrant workers’ rights. Our research indicates that the needs of victims seem to be secondary to Government policy; one interviewee commented that although the police see trafficked people as victims, the immigration service sees them as illegal entrants.”

A lack of joined up thinking, or the result of deliberate policy? The police, of course, deal with the situation on the ground: the actual cases of abuse. The immigration service deals with caseloads and the bureaucratic implementation of policy from ‘on high’. And for all the tabloids foam at the mouth over the issue of the Government’s ‘softness’, this is not an immigrant-friendly government.

On the anniversary of the classic slave trade’s abolition, it might be something for the Government to commit to some drastic and far-reaching endeavour to abolish the modern trade. At least something positive to help the victims who manage to slip their shackles, but for all its vocalised commitment to combat trafficking, it is more than likely that Government deed will contradict Government proclamation. Spin and self-aggrandisement as ever comes before substance.

They can’t even apologise for Britain’s role in the slave trade, it happened so long ago, yet they’ll take a share of the glory of its two-century-old abolition. An apology would cost them nothing, show character, acknowledge that the trade was a terrible crime against humanity. The city of Liverpool was heavily involved in the trade, and in 1999 the council showed the strength of character to formally apologise for its past role. The Church of England Synod followed suit.

In his article in the Guardian, Ken Livingstone, London’s elected Mayor, took the opportunity to apologise for London’s role in profiting from the trade. He called upon the Government to do the same.

“The British Government’s refusal of such an apology is squalid,” he added. “Until recently, almost unbelievably, it refused even to recognise the slave trade as a crime against humanity on the grounds that it was legal at the time… Slavery was the mass murder of millions of people. Germany apologised for the Holocaust. We must for the slave trade.”

One is tempted to suggest don’t hold your breath. Tony Blair, looking to leave No 10 and the ‘ingratitude’ of the nation behind, is seeking to secure his legacy and move on. Doubtless, after gaining the legacy of Iraq, and trying desperately to leave it behind, apologising for the British State’s involvement in an atrocity abolished 200 years ago is perhaps a little too close to the bone. Slavery both new and old is someone else’s problem now.

When it comes to ending the modern trade in human beings, as with the end of the classic slave trade, it is a mistake to expect the ‘great and the good’ to eradicate the scourge and emancipate the victims. While a few sincere and dedicated individuals will take a stand and campaign, putting a public face on the wider grass roots opposition, it is the latter rattling and shaking the chains that will truly end the abomination of slavery. As before, it will be a long hard, thankless struggle.

As for New Labour, no Government of Wilberforces is this; expect them to take the credit and bask in the second-hand glow of glory, but don’t expect any action.

Mark Cantrell,
25 March 2007

This essay was written for, and first appeared on, one of the author's earlier blogs.

Copyright © March 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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