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Rights talk, wrong comparison: trafficking and transatlantic slavery

Transatlantic slavery relied on force to move people, while today’s ‘trafficking’ does not. Vulnerable migrants have more in common with those escaping from historical slavery than those entering into it.

‘Human trafficking’, according to Free the Slaves, is the process through which a person ‘is moved from one place to another for the purpose of enslavement’, a definition eagerly seized upon by Western political leaders since it allows them to present their efforts to control borders as part of a moral struggle for human rights and against slavery. But what are the similarities between what is described as ‘trafficking’ and the transatlantic slave trade to which it is routinely compared? There are no modern equivalents of the many fortresses and castles that dotted the western coast of African slave trading regions, in which captured people were held in dungeons, sometimes for long periods, before being loaded and shackled on slave ships. Today, whether queuing outside recruitment offices or waiting for a boat owner to take them across the Mediterranean, those who may or may not end up in highly exploitative and heavily restricted conditions are invariably people who actively want to migrate, and generally have excellent reasons for wishing to do so.

The transatlantic slave trade relied upon overwhelming physical force at every stage of movement. What is dubbed ‘trafficking’ does not. In fact, attention to people’s motivations for moving provokes a very different kind of comparison between past and present. It suggests that contemporary migrants who are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse have more in common with those who sought to escape from New World slavery, than those transported into it.

Keeping chattel slaves in

Though legally constructed as property, those held in chattel slavery remained human beings with wills of their own. This presented slaveholders with a unique set of problems that they did not face with their inanimate property. To enjoy their property rights, slaveholders needed to closely control the mobility of the enslaved. At the same time, it was not in their interest to literally imprison slaves, as a slave held permanently captive in a dungeon would not be a productive asset. Physically constraining them by means of balls, chains and other such instruments also was often impractical, as slaves were often needed to run errands or transport produce, among other tasks.

Slaveholders wanted to simultaneously allow and repress the mobility of their human property, and they relied heavily on the law and law enforcers to secure these contradictory goals. In Barbados, the Slave Code was revised in 1688 to introduce a pass system, making it mandatory for slaves to carry a pass or ticket when leaving their plantation. It also placed the burden of policing this system on all white men, requiring them to whip and detain wandering slaves until claimed by their owners. This system for controlling the enslaved was mimicked and elaborated in slave states of the American South. From 1642 in Virginia, ship captains were prohibited from setting sail with passengers who had no pass. Here and elsewhere, extremely punitive sanctions were incrementally introduced against captains and owners of vessels found carrying fugitive slaves to freedom, and against anyone offering succour and assistance to slaves as they made long, difficult and extremely dangerous journeys by foot.

For escaping slaves, the journey to freedom was often across harsh physical terrain, usually without benefit of map or geographical knowledge. Those fleeing from Texas to Mexico (where slavery had been abolished in 1829), for instance, faced the peril of armed slave hunting parties, getting lost in the desert, and even being captured by nomadic Comanches or Apaches. Sometimes, in exchange for a small sum, Mexicans living in Texas would guide them to the border. Here and elsewhere, escaping slaves also took great risks by placing their trust in a third party. Punishments for captured runaways included whipping, stocking, ear cropping and other mutilations. Though some of those who smuggled slaves to freedom were brave altruists in the mould of Harriet Tubman, others who offered assistance proceeded to cheat or betray them.

Keeping unauthorised migrants out

There are striking similarities between the techniques designed by slave states to contain slave mobility, and those deployed by contemporary states to manage and control migration. For passes and tickets, read passports and visas; for laws criminalising ship captains who assisted fugitive slaves, read carrier sanctions. As Slave Codes historically obliged all white citizens to police the movement of slaves, so increasingly in Britain, the entire community is being mustered to monitor unauthorised movement. Employers, universities, and now hospitals and private landlords are all under a legal obligation to check the status of migrants and report those suspected of living in the country without authorisation or of breaking the terms within which they have been permitted to move. Banks and building societies too face sanctions if they allow ‘illegal’ migrants to open accounts.

In 2002, the Immigration Act in Malaysia was amended to introduce whipping for illegal migrants and for those who employ them. Three years later, a Volunteer Corps was granted powers to arrest irregular migrants. Corporal punishments are not administered to irregular migrants in the EU, Australia or the United States, but their border policies are lethal. Many deaths are attributable to the deliberate actions of state actors. There are also noticeable continuities as regards contemporary states’ methods of limiting the mobility of migrant workers whose entry they do authorise, and the ways in which slave and colonial states simultaneously enabled but constricted the mobility of slaves.

Immigration controls generate markets for migration services (both state authorised and clandestine), and it is true that actors in these markets do sometimes exploit, cheat and/or mire migrants in debt. They may even rape, hold hostage, or kill those they have promised to assist. However, many simply provide a service, albeit often at a high price. Many irregular migrants even receive support and assistance for purely altruistic reasons, or on the basis of kinship or friendship, and not for profit. As was the case for escaping slaves, the motives and practices of those who facilitate unauthorised cross border movement today span the full moral spectrum from thuggery to selflessness. But no matter where they stand on this spectrum, they are criminals in the eyes of state actors, just as all those who facilitated the movement of fugitive slaves were criminalised by nineteenth century slave states.

What have rights got to do with it?

The legal edifice that controls mobility today was no more designed to protect human rights, and is no more compatible with that ambition, than what was constructed by slave states centuries ago. Its object is to deny the ‘right of locomotion’ to certain groups of human beings. Without that right, people are at heightened risk of abuse and exploitation in the course of movement and at the point of destination. Describing those for whom the risk turns into reality as ‘trafficked’ and comparing their situation to that of Africans transported into slavery displays a startling indifference to the historical realities of transatlantic slavery. It also exonerates states rather than holding them accountable for the staggering human cost of the immigration regimes (including anti-trafficking policies) over which they preside.

About the author

Julia O’Connell Davidson is a professor in social research at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. She has a longstanding research interest in work and economic life, which she has explored through studies of employment relations in the privatized utilities, as well as through research on prostitution and on sex tourism. Julia is most recently the author of Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedomnow out from Palgrave (2015). She has published extensively on prostitution, ‘trafficking’, and ‘modern slavery’, and is also the author of Prostitution, Power and Freedom (1998, Polity) and Children in the Global Sex Trade (2005, Polity).


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