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Uncomfortable silences: anti-slavery, colonialism and imperialism

The history of anti-slavery is replete with lessons, but those commonly cited by the new abolitionists are not the right ones.

A 19th-century engraving of African captives yoked and walking to the coast for sale. Everett Historical/Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved.

Take up the White Man's burden,
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile,
to serve your captives' need; To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild-
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.

—Rudyard Kipling, 1899

In a major address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003, President George W Bush described the fight against contemporary slavery and human trafficking in the following terms:

We must show new energy in fighting back an old evil. Nearly two centuries after the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and more than a century after slavery was officially ended in its last strongholds, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time.

Few people noticed it at the time, but this statement contained a basic historical error. It has not been "more than a century" since slavery officially ended. While legal slavery in the Americas ended in the nineteenth century, in many parts of the globe legal abolition took place during the first half of the twentieth century. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, which is my main focus here, slavery remained legal in Sudan until 1900, Kenya until 1907, Sierra Leone until 1928 and Ethiopia until 1942. This more recent history is important, because it leads to a series of uncomfortable and difficult questions about the motivations behind—and practical effects of—the anti-slavery cause, with the elephant in the room being the close relationship between anti-slavery, imperialism, and European colonialism.

This theme is familiar to most historians of slavery, but has been almost entirely overlooked by modern activists. Whenever "modern-day abolitionists" look backwards into the past, they tend to selectively focus upon the history of anti-slavery activism in Britain and the United States. Within this context, the history of abolition has been chiefly approached as a source of instruction and inspiration. When it comes to instruction, the main focus has been the tactics and techniques used by mostly white Anglo-Saxon pioneers, such as petitions, novels, publications, networks, boycotts, lawsuits, meetings, and artistic icons. When it comes to inspiration, the early history of anti-slavery has been celebrated as a key illustration of the power of ethical leadership, collective action, and personal commitment. These themes are often found together, most notably in relation to the often uncritical celebration of the personal virtues of "great emancipators", such as William Wilberforce, whose name has recently been linked to anti-trafficking legislation, anti-slavery awards, documentaries, and television specials.

This selective approach to history suffers from any number of flaws. One notable problem has been a widespread tendency to focus upon the history of abolition, rather than the history of slavery. As numerous scholars of slavery have demonstrated, the forced migration and forced labor of enslaved Africans played an fundamental role in both building the Americas and enriching Europe. The severe hardships and systemic abuses that millions of slaves both endured and resisted over the centuries have too often been lightly passed over. In addition, the legacies of historical slave systems remain with us to this day, yet this is once again an issue that "modern-day abolitionists" rarely have time for. There are now thousands of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking organizations in Europe and the United States. Very few of these have included the legacies of slavery amongst their activities or advocacy.

While much more could be said on this topic, my main focus in this piece is the uncomfortable relationship between anti-slavery, imperialism and colonial conquest. As is well known, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were defined by an unprecedented period of colonial conquest. By 1914, Europeans are said to have occupied as much as 85% of the globe as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths. It was also during this period that racism was at its most "scientific", with European and American intellectuals offering "proofs" of their own innate "superiority", ranging from social Darwinism to the measurement of head size. In addition to this self-serving pseudo-science, European pretensions to superiority were said to contain a "moral dimension", which was most famously encapsulated by the idea of the "white man's burden".

It is within this context that the anti-slavery cause frequently played a key ideological and political role in justifying colonial conquest and other imperial interventions directed against "lesser races". This theme was especially important in much of Africa, where the continued existence of slavery within Africa—which had often expanded in part thanks to centuries of previous demand from European and American slave traders prior to the 1860s—played a key role in the development of a popular and political script that cast both Europeans governments and European peoples in the role of "civilized saviors," and Africans in the role of "uncivilized savages" in need of paternalistic protection.

The status of slavery was central to this binary between "civilized" and "uncivilized." Rather than being motivated by a commitment to human or racial equality, the anti-slavery cause was instead primarily understood in terms of the moral obligation of 'superior' Europeans to protect "inferior" Africans. This racist formula reduced Africans to a "child-like" status (with adult men routinely being described as "boys" into old age), who were said to be fundamentally incapable of looking after themselves. Colonial conquest and colonial rule were a logical outgrowth of this self-appointed "civilizing mission." Seeking justification and legitimation for their colonial ambitions, Europeans repeatedly turned to the cause of ending slavery and slave trading across Africa to marshal support for numerous colonial projects.

The most notorious example of this larger historical trend concerns the Congo Free State, where King Leopold of Belgium both sought and received European and American endorsement of his conquest of most of the Congo River Basin primarily on anti-slavery grounds. The King even hosted a high profile international anti-slavery conference in Brussels in 1889-1890, which saw a caucus of predominantly European signatories declare their intent "to put an end to the Negro Slave Trade by land as well as by sea, and to improve the moral and material conditions of existence of the native races." Leopold's anti-slavery rhetoric impressed many of his contemporaries, but it sadly had no connection to actual practices. The Congo Free State proved to be tragedy of the first order, with a multinational contingent of European criminals destroying millions of African lives in the pursuit of tremendous rubber profits.

At the time, European critics of the Congo Free State mostly regarded this catastrophe as one of a small number of deviant exceptions, which were held to be in no way representative of colonial rule more generally. Instead of questioning whether the "white man's burden" was legitimate, they instead treated cases of abuse as isolated failures to uphold the "civilized" standards expected of colonial rulers. It is now clear, however, that the Congo was more representative then deviant. Rubber profits also inspired the French to use similar policies and practices in some of their territories in Equatorial Africa. The Portuguese ostensibly abolished slavery in their colonial territories in the late nineteenth century. They then, however, disingenuously substituted forms of indentured servitude and forced labor that former slaves are reported to have regarded as little different—or perhaps worse—than the slavery that the Portuguese congratulated themselves on legally abolishing. The British periodically criticized the Portuguese, most notable via a short popular campaign focusing upon Cadbury chocolate. But the British government was reluctant to push too hard, thanks to their own widespread use of indentured, forced and migrant labor schemes, which sometimes involved laborers from Portuguese territories.

There were many occasions when anti-slavery was little more than empty rhetoric, but even in cases where it involved more significant political commitments it still remained relatively limited in scope. Even the most committed European abolitionists were still products of their time, and therefore tended to accept certain assumptions about the inherent limitations of the "natives" they ruled. They therefore usually accepted that forced labor was legitimate, at least in some circumstances, owing to the "fact" that Africans were "lazy" and "unwilling to work." In many cases, forced labor was even justified as a positive good, since it was said to have an "educative" and "civilizing" effect. In theory, colonial labor regimes were substantially different to slavery.

In practice, the differences were not so obvious. Colonial settlers and administrators in need of porters, laborers, and even soldiers used violence and the threat of violence to compel Africans into their service on highly unfavorable terms, which frequently involved people being worked to death. Given the poor terms on offer, most Africans were understandably reluctant to volunteer, but rather than improving the terms and conditions on offer Europeans blamed "laziness," and resorted to further measures in order to force Africans to work on their terms. These measures included the wholesale appropriation of land, the manipulation of "vagrancy" laws, controls on mobility and property ownership, forcing farmers to grow specific crops, and the introduction of taxation and labor requirements designed to compel Africans to work for Europeans. Despite official commitments to the anti-slavery cause, forced labor and related forms of compulsion reached unprecedented dimensions in Africa in the first half of the twentieth century.

This history has far-reaching ramifications for thinking about both slavery and anti-slavery in our own times. As we have seen, modern activists and public officials have frequently reduced the history of anti-slavery to a hollowed out "feel good story", whose chief role is to help legitimate their pre-existing personal beliefs, policies and approaches. The types of historical "lessons" generated from these highly selective historical excursions tend to be fairly generic, as they most commonly relate to either personal virtues (perseverance, faith, etc.) or familiar political strategies that have already been further improved and expanded by later generations of activists (petitions, boycotts etc.). These generic "lessons" rarely teach people anything that they don't already know or believe (or at least can't find out by consulting existing works on social movements and political activism). If we are serious about looking to history for insight and instruction, we need to engage in a process of critical reflection that results in pathways that end up being different to an already pre-existing set of plans.

It is here, I would argue, that this uncomfortable relationship between anti-slavery and imperialism needs to become part of the conversation. The history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is replete with lessons about what not to do. Rather than taking the "humanitarian" credentials of anti-slavery supporters at face value, we instead need to interrogate and reflect upon how, why and where anti-slavery rhetoric aligns with other ideological, economic and political agendas, and what consequences can follow from these alignments. Rather than taking anti-slavery legislation at face value, we instead need to reflect on how and why states that are ostensibly committed to the anti-slavery cause continue to favor legal regimes and policy responses that promote forms of systemic abuse, vulnerability, discrimination and exploitation. Rather than treating slavery as a singular and exceptional category, we instead need to approach slavery as but one manifestation of much larger patterns of exploitation and exclusion. Rather than assuming that "freedom" is always sharply differentiated from slavery, we instead take into account the ideological and political effects associated with declaring a person to be "free", and the types of constraints that "freedom" can gloss over.

I began this piece with a speech from George Bush in 2003, where he called for more action against human trafficking. This was not the only topic that the president covered in this speech. Before talking about trafficking, President Bush spent most of his time seeking to justify his then recent invasion of Iraq. To help defend his actions, he rhetorically divided the peoples of the globe into opposing camps:

those who seek order, and those who spread chaos … those who work for peaceful change, and those who adopt the methods of gangsters … those who honor the rights of man, and those who deliberately take the lives of men and women and children without mercy or shame.

These self-serving binaries echo the ideological division between "civilized" and "savage" that was so popular in the late nineteenth century. While colonial rule no longer enjoys public legitimacy, it should be evident that the underlying thinking behind the colonial and imperial project continues to have considerable ideological and political currency. As far as President Bush was concerned, the military coalition that invaded Iraq stood on the side of "order," "peaceful change," and "honor[ing] the rights of man." Once again, this rhetoric sadly had little or no connection to actual practices. Once again, the people of Iraq were reduced to helpless supplicants in need of salvation and paternalistic protection from a benevolent United States. Once again, the numerous problems with US policy can be regarded as being representative of larger patterns, rather than as isolated or exceptional cases.

While opponents of the invasion of the Iraq may feel comfortable distancing themselves from this specific disaster, it is essential to recognize that these underlying binaries between "civilized" and "backward" have all kinds of applications. Ideological and political divisions between Western saviors and non-Western supplicants have played a key role in shaping recent and ongoing anti-slavery and anti-trafficking efforts. This "white savior industrial complex" is particularly evident in terms of the politics of rescue, but also finds expression in the construction of slavery and trafficking as "exceptional" problems on the "irregular" margins of the global economy and "civilized" society.

The global history of slavery and abolition has much to teach us about the challenges and prospects of our own times, but these historical lessons should not necessarily be easy or straightforward ones.

This piece was originally published 13 February, 2014 on Historians Against Slavery.

About the author

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research focuses upon slavery and abolition, human mobility and human rights, repairing historical wrongs, and the history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa. Joel is currently a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project, where he serves as Rapporteur. Your can follow him on twitter at @joelquirk.


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