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'White slavery': the origins of the anti-trafficking movement

A nineteenth century drive to protect the morality of white women created the concept of ‘human trafficking’, and its legacies live on in border control systems and slavery-based campaigning.

Kendra Miller/flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (UN Trafficking Protocol), adopted in 2000, is often credited with the first international definition of human trafficking and with marking the beginning of the regulation of trafficking in persons, both in the domestic and international spheres. History shows us otherwise. The foundation of modern anti-trafficking legislation in England was created during the years of 1885 and 1912 through a series of legal interventions in both the domestic and international spheres. The legacies of those laws are still present.

The dominant white slavery discourse at the turn of nineteenth century was largely constructed around the crude juxtaposition of dangerous, foreign men and innocent, white women. The similarities with modern-day anti-trafficking rhetoric are striking. Both narratives, particularly in popular culture and the media, toy with details of innocence and ruin of the victim, coupled with the demonisation of foreign men. Anxieties about race, nationality, and immigration underpinned much of the debate on trafficking. Indeed, the racially neutral term 'traffic' only replaced 'white slavery' in international law in 1921, with the League of Nations International Convention to Combat the Traffic in Women and Children.

From ‘white slavery’ to trafficking

In England, the campaigns against white slavery culminated in a rally in Hyde Park, London, in August 1885, when tens of thousands of people demanded that white slavery be outlawed and the age of consent for girls be raised. The measure that was adopted first was the Criminal Law Amendment Act (CLAA) 1885.

The CLAA 1885 was significant for creating a definition of a trafficked girl – the involuntary prostitute.1 It made it an offence to procure “any girl or woman under twenty-one years of age, not being a common prostitute, or of known immoral character, to have unlawful carnal connexion”. By including the words “not being a common prostitute, or of known immoral character”, the section excluded from the scope of the law not only those working in prostitution but also any women considered promiscuous or not respectable.

The CLAA also outlawed domestic and international trafficking by making it an offence to procure a woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution abroad or within the UK. However, if a woman was already living in a brothel, she could not be procured or trafficked, reinforcing the division between ‘prostitutes’ and victims. In a number of ways, then, the act created a distinction between virtuous virgins who embodied social purity, and the Other – the “common and immoral prostitute”.


In the Grip of a White Slave Trader by the National Vigilance Association, 1911. Provided by author.

Anti-white slavery associations, such as International Bureau for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, stemmed from anti-white slavery organisations in England and were also active in continental Europe. Their campaigns resulted in the Agreement for the Suppression of the ‘White Slave Traffic’ 1904 (the 1904 Agreement) and later, the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic 1910.

These agreements included measures to tackle procurement and traffic, but their focus was strongly on border control. They allowed charitable organisations, such as the International Bureau, to be responsible for the enforcement of border control and to establish port patrols. The International Bureau, for example, had national committees who were responsible for port control operations in different countries across the world. The committees patrolled railway stations and ports, where they greeted girls suspected of being white slaves – or indeed foreign prostitutes – and then reported back on their progress. While the most oppressive aspects of the white slavery agreements, such as the repatriation of foreign prostitutes, were formally introduced later, the national committees provided funds and campaigned for the repatriation of foreign prostitutes even prior to the ratification of the 1904 Agreement.

Defending morality by securing borders

The focus shifted at the beginning of the twentieth century from the protection of girls to protecting the state and society from the threat posed by foreign girls through border control. This was enabled by the international agreements and domestic legislation that was introduced at the same time.

England was the first to introduce formal restrictions on immigration with the Aliens Act 1905. The Aliens Act was carried through by anti-Jewish sentiment, yet it had a profound impact on foreign women working in prostitution. It set in place the framework for immigration control that in the following years was tightened, particularly in relation to alien prostitutes. These domestic laws, together with the international white slavery agreements, created complex powers of surveillance and repatriation over foreign women suspected of prostitution.

Legal responses to trafficking today are arguably even more invasive than they were at the height of white slavery hysteria.

The lives of all women who would today be described as migrants and sex workers came under deeper control with every new legal intervention. The legislation did not, and could not, provide protection against the exploitation of women within prostitution and otherwise, as it focused on procurement and immigration rather than continuing acts of exploitation. It framed white slavery as a matter of criminal or immigration law, but did not acknowledge the wider structural factors behind female poverty and inequality – much like present-day anti-trafficking initiatives.

The legacies of white slavery legislation at the turn of the twentieth century are inescapable in the present day. The language of slavery has entered the public and legal discourse again, the debates on criminalisation are as divisive as they ever were, and legal responses to trafficking are arguably even more invasive than they were at the height of white slavery hysteria. The Home Office has introduced an anti-trafficking strategy that allows for questioning young women in their home countries before they even attempt to migrate. Furthermore, the Salvation Army, a Christian non-profit organisation that was active in the field at the turn of the twentieth century, now operates as the main government contractor for victim assistance services, echoing the role evangelical organisations had at the turn of twentieth century.

In the present-day, the term ‘modern slavery’ is commonly used in the UK as an overarching term to describe human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage and child labour. While ‘modern slavery’ implies the offence is a new one, it is clear that the legal and policy responses adopted today are remarkably similar to those adopted over 100 years ago.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 9.

Read more about 'white slavery'

Sexual surveillance and moral quarantines: a history of anti-trafficking
JESSICA R. PLILEY

  1. This piece uses historical terms such as white slavery and prostitution rather than modern-day terms of trafficking and sex work as these terms were part of legal language 1880s-1920s. ↩︎
About the author

Laura Lammasniemi is a senior law lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University. She has recently obtained her PhD from Birkbeck College, University of London. Her thesis was entitled The Origins of Anti-Trafficking Legislation: Codifying female victimhood and criminality in England, 1880–1920s. Her research focuses on regulation of gender and class, mainly from a historical perspective.


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