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Living in the shadows of slavery

The past of slavery has its many presents, and the present of exploitation its many pasts. Bridging the study of the historical and the contemporary can ask questions about the meaning of each.

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Everybody agrees on the importance of bringing together the study of ‘old’ slave systems with research on the contemporary marginalities and exploitation that fall under the category of ‘modern’ or ‘new’ slavery. But how to do so is a different question entirely, since each step paves the way for disagreement. ‘Old’ and ‘modern’, for example, are in quotes because they are relative terms: north Atlantic slavery is ‘modern’ compared to that of Antiquity and the Mediterranean world; and the ‘modern’ and ‘new’ slaveries that anti-slavery organisations target are new in relation to the slave systems of the 18th and 19th centuries that abolition wiped out. Yet not all agree on this naming.

And controversies do not end here. Those who agree that ‘modern’ or ‘new’ refers to the slavery of our times, themselves split into two groups. Some argue that there exists a clear-cut division between ‘old’ and ‘new’ slavery, and claim that we risk obscuring the significance of the former when we ‘blend’ it into the latter. Others, by contrast, remark that ‘old’ slavery only transmogrified after abolition – although legally it died, it was born again in many varieties of unfreedom that underpin today’s ‘modern’ slavery: social stigma, racial discrimination, restraints on political participation, economic marginality, and labour exploitation.

Whichever way you cut it, there’s unlikely to be resolution in these debates any time soon, since one of the historical constants of all slavery is its ability to fuel moral, social and political contestation. This week’s pieces, however, are all agreed on two core principles. First, that it is always worth listening to what the people who live the consequences of past slave systems or experience conditions close to ‘modern’ slavery have to say about their lives and trajectories. Second, that the study of the past can bring clarity only if we accept that its lessons will be varied and disturbing: they do not provide clear-cut and definitive answers, but instead open up further questions.

One of the things we learn from approaching things in this way is that we should all spend far more time exploring people’s evolving ideas of freedom than we do quarreling over whether this or that contemporary experience can be defined as ‘modern’ or ‘new’ slavery. Another is that the levels of continuity and discontinuity to disentangle are many: one single past of slavery can be at the source of multiple and diverging presents, as much as one present of exploitation can result from multiple past processes. Through a bottom up approach that privileges the experiences of individuals, families and communities, the contributions this week will bring these messages out loud and clear. They offer multiple perspectives on freedom developed by people who experience the outcomes of past slave systems or who fall (or have the potential to fall) into the category of ‘modern’ and ‘new’ slaves, but who are not necessarily willing to accept that label.

We should all spend more time exploring people’s evolving ideas of freedom than we do quarreling over whether this or that contemporary experience can be defined as ‘modern’ or ‘new’ slavery.

What exactly is the present lived by individuals, groups and regions that in the past experienced enslavement? The answer is that it depends and will change over time along with changing ideas of social recognition, political participation and freedom. Marta Scaglioni focuses on the issue of generational differences in Tunisia, Valerio Colosio on that of local politics in Chad, and Ann McDougall on the multiple freedom experiences of individuals of slave ancestry in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

For her part, the case of northern Ghanaian girls moving south in search of work offers Alessandra Brivio the chance to show how ‘free’ choice often exists against the backdrop of broader structural constraints – the girls she meets in Accra’s markets face biases that stem from a long history of slavery and exploitation, and these biases in turn legitimise their further exploitation.

Marco Gardini, by contrast, uses life-histories to explore what happens when the present of bondage and the past of slavery collide in the biography of one particular individual: Fanja and Mirana each endured severe restrictions on their personal freedom as domestic workers abroad in order to support the emancipation struggles of their families at home: their bondage today was a pathway to their freedom from yesterday. And Marco, the external observer, agreed with Fanja and Mirana, the insiders, that the continuity between the past enslavement of their ancestors and their own present bondage was striking.

Interestingly, a number of our protagonists saw their bonded present as a step towards a better future. The workers that De Lauri meets in Pakistani brick kilns use their debt bondage to attain a modicum of security in their precarious lives and achieve a minimum degree of participation in the social world through the display of consumer goods. They are bonded to their employers as much as they are to their social duty and an idea of freedom as the ability to buy what capitalism has to offer on the market. This idea roots in the twentieth century history of the North-Atlantic. Many of them are migrants escaping equally debt-burdened lives in the agricultural sector.

Migration policies also pave the way for labour exploitation in Morocco and Italy, as much as to the activation of memories associated with a slave past. Yet the reactions of migrants in these two contexts is very different. Sub-saharans stuck in Morocco on their way to Europe use the idea of slavery to contest their working and living conditions, while Ghanaian workers on the tomato fields of Italy’s south, refuse the label of slavery in the name of their dignity. Two things emerge very clearly from each of these pieces: in addition to the North Atlantic, it is time to push the study of the afterlives of slavery to other regions of the world; and second: these afterlives of slavery are many, and they are varied.

The articles in this Guest Week week present the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team have researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. They invited Ann MacDougall (University of Alberta) to participate in the discussion.

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