Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The presence of the past: lessons of history for anti-trafficking work

Those fighting against modern slavery draw inspiration from the abolitionists of yesteryear, but their misappropriation of the transatlantic slave trade is dangerous.

Julia O’Connell Davidson
19 October 2017

'#DCFerguson Solidarity With Baltimore' march. Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

A longer version of this piece along with all the articles from the Anti-Trafficking Review’s special issue ‘The lessons of history’ may be read for free on the journal’s website.

The transatlantic slave trade has been used since the turn of the millennium as the primary touchstone of the anti-trafficking movement. It is the great historical comparative that gives campaigns against human trafficking and ‘modern slavery’ their evocative power. These campaigns have played a significant role in shaping public and political discourse around these issues, and their liberal use images and texts recalling the transatlantic slave era have served to emphasise the severity of these phenomena as human rights violations. The message has been communicated so effectively that, although slavery is seen in international law as only one possible outcome of trafficking, by this point few policy agencies and NGOs strongly differentiate between the two – trafficking is now frequently said to be ‘modern slavery’. As the anti-trafficking NGO Free The Slaves puts it, human trafficking is “the modern day slave trade—the process of enslaving a person”.

Taken as a whole the discourse of ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ displays a fairly spectacular disregard for historical reality.

The primary lesson contemporary antislavery actors draw from the history they reference concerns the importance of antislavery activism. Today, as in the past, they say, activists can play a central role in educating the public about the horror of slavery, mobilising communities and states against it. The learning, unfortunately, ends there. Little attention has been given to the historical details of Atlantic World slavery, and taken as a whole the discourse of ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ displays a fairly spectacular disregard for historical reality.

The large-scale, profitable, and legally sanctioned business of shipping human beings from Africa into chattel slavery in the New World relied on overwhelming physical force at every stage – from the moment of kidnap, through the journey to the West African coast, detention in the dungeons of fortresses and castles prior to shipment, during the Middle Passage itself, and on arrival. There are some contemporary cases of people being snatched from home or street, forcibly moved across borders or to other regions of their home country, and then brutally exploited.

But if the term ‘human trafficking’ was applied only to such cases it would be a numerically small phenomenon, far removed from the estimates of hundreds of thousands or even millions that are routinely touted by state and non-state actors involved in anti-trafficking work. The vast bulk of what is described as trafficking involves individuals who actively want to move and/or seek work in another region or country or at sea. And unlike the Africans who were transported into chattel slavery, these more recent individuals typically have compelling reasons for wishing to migrate, so much so that many take on heavy debts in order to do so.

At the point of departure, the story of trafficking and that of the transatlantic slave trade could not be more different, and the situation faced on arrival is also unlike that of the Atlantic World chattel slavery in many important respects. Kevin Bales, one of the world’s most prominent anti-slavery activists, has characterised contemporary slavery as “a relationship between (at least) two people” and “assert[ed] that the key and central attribute, the core, of slavery is the condition of potentially violent control of one person by another”. But Atlantic World slavery was much more than simply a relationship between individuals. ‘Slave’ was a status ascribed by the state. It conferred on the enslaved a double status as both ‘things’ (property) and ‘persons’ criminally responsible in law for any effort to escape or resist their owners.

It was because Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic World were given this double character in law that ‘free’ people could trade them as property and exact labour from them as household dependents. Slavery designated “a relation to law, state, and sovereign power; a condition of disfigured personhood, civil incapacitation, and bare life”, as Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman put it. Asking questions about who today stands in similar relation to law, state, and sovereign power might teach us a great deal about relations of exploitation, and about heavy, often violent, restraints on freedom in the contemporary world. Such questions are, however, absent in dominant discourse on ‘modern slavery’. The focus remains on the power individual ‘modern slaveholders’ exercise over individual ‘modern slaves’, not on the structural conditions that produce the asymmetry of power between them.

Abolition of what, precisely?

The dominant discourse has such wide, politically crosscutting appeal precisely because it employs such a hollow description of transatlantic slavery. Almost everyone can agree that it is wrong for one individual to kidnap or falsely imprison another, starve, rape and beat her or him, and/or use violence or its threat to force them to labour for little or no pay and prevent them from escaping. But there is no consensus regarding what should be done about the legal, political, social and economic machinery that makes some groups, not others, vulnerable to these forms of violent exploitation. Nor is there consensus on the kinds of freedoms that should be universally enjoyed by those who are rescued from such situations. And therein lies another feature of the history of Atlantic World slavery that goes unremarked by today’s antislavery campaigners.

In the eighteenth century, many white Europeans and Americans decried the cruelties of slavery and the vicious or licentious actions of individual slaveholders. They stopped short of arguing for slavery’s abolition, however. They only pushed for its amelioration. Those few who, from the late eighteenth century onwards, did argue for abolition did not share a vision of the forms of economic and social relationships that should replace it, or of the freedoms that should be enjoyed by emancipated slaves.

For many the goals of the abolitionist cause stopped long before the prospect of living alongside each other as equals came into view.

Not all abolitionists considered the coercive and servile relationship between slave and master as a fundamental wrong of slavery, for example. Industrial wage workers of the same period also had masters to whom they were often bound, to varying degrees, by highly coercive legal as well as pecuniary pressures. In Britain, many of the antislavery movement’s key figures were themselves employers with strong views on the need for servants to be industrious, diligent, sober, faithful, and respectful to their masters. As David Bryon Davis points out, “a denunciation of colonial slavery … implied no taste for a freer or more equal society”.

Likewise, only some antislavery activists struggled for racial equality as well as an end to slavery. William Wilberforce, memorialised as a saintly figure by contemporary antislavery activists, was so concerned about the capacity of enslaved Africans and their descendants to exercise freedom that he sought to end only the transatlantic slave trade, rather than slavery per se. “[O]ur object”, he is quoted in Michael Jordan’s book The Great Abolition Sham as saying, “was by ameliorating regulations, and by stopping the influx of uninstructed savages, to advance slowly towards the period when these unhappy things might exchange their degraded state of slavery for that of free and industrious peasantry”.

For many the goals of the abolitionist cause stopped long before the prospect of living alongside each other as equals came into view. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, originally favoured a policy of deporting emancipated slaves, either to Haiti or to colonies in Africa: “it would be better to export them all to some fertile country with a good climate, which they could have to themselves”. According to the historian Robin Blackburn, even Granville Sharp, one of the more radical figures of the British antislavery movement, is reputed to have actively discouraged English gentlemen from offering support to destitute black people in London on grounds that “charity would blind them to their own best interest” and discourage them from embarking for Sierra Leone, a British colony founded for the purpose of receiving Africans ‘rescued’ from illegal slave ships.

The differences of opinion over the fate of emancipated slaves resonate with contemporary debates on trafficking, and the rights that should and should not be extended to those redeemed from ‘modern slavery’. But these are not the echoes of the past that capture the attention of today’s antislavery campaigners. They do not sit well with the celebratory story of liberal modernity that underpins contemporary abolitionist thinking. That narrative glosses over the fact that Atlantic World slavery was modern slavery – it emerged and flourished alongside liberalism into the period generally thought of as well and truly modern – and remembers only that modern liberal states abolished slavery in the nineteenth century. It sees only liberalism’s emancipatory aspect, forgetting the central paradox of its history, namely that liberal ideology can and has been marshalled in support of the violent subjugation of truly immense numbers of people. This partial and selective approach to history matters for the present, for at least three different reasons.

The dangers of selective memory

The first concerns race. The idea that race divides flesh and blood human beings in terms of their capacities, moral worth, and rights is inextricably bound to the history of Atlantic World slavery. In the course of that history the binary of free versus slave came to overlap with an imagined racial binary of white versus black. Certain rights like citizenship became coded as white as a result, and therefore became impossible to attain for those racialised as black, whether or not they were enslaved.

Race persists as a system of domination to this day, more than a century after slavery was abolished. It continues to privilege white lives while devastating black lives in the contemporary world. The discourse of ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ actively deflects attention from this. Claims like “there are more slaves today than at any time in human history” minimise the scale and nature of the atrocity of transatlantic racial slavery, and to dissociate it from the specifically anti-black racism it fostered. It thus produces a lens that occludes the relationship between white privilege and the on-going devaluation and endangerment of black lives in the United States, Brazil and other former slave and colonial states.


John Nakamura Remy/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Second, simplistic analogies between wrongs past and present often hamper, rather than facilitate, efforts to secure rights and protections for people in vulnerable positions . Take trafficking, for example. Recognition as a victim of trafficking should, in theory, be extended to all individuals who meet its definition as laid out in the (2000) Palermo protocols – in a nutshell, someone moved (by means of deception, coercion, etc.) for purposes of exploitation. Yet who has counted as a victim has always been selective, and much has ridden on how much physical suffering someone has endured.

Legal challenges to workfare schemes in the UK as forced or compulsory labour have failed, in large part because they cannot be demonstrated to be equivalent to slavery.

It was not long after the ink had dried in Palermo that the most countries began to focus exclusively on women and girls in prostitution. The status of ‘victim’ however, was not readily granted and it became something of an achievement to make it through all the hoops. To become one of the few who were officially recognised as ‘victims’, and thereby to receive some sort of protection, migrant women and girls had to demonstrate two things: first, that they had never consented to selling sex, and second that they had been subject to immense violence. “Trafficked women” were, as Claudia Aradau put it, “dis-identified from categories of migrants, criminals or prostitutes by the emphasis on raw physical suffering”. The focus has broadened over the past decade to include what is termed ‘labour trafficking’ as well as what is dubbed ‘sex trafficking’, but the emphasis on suffering remains. Migrant workers who are exploited and deceived, but have not been bodily shackled, or locked into their squalid accommodation, or raped or beaten or threatened with death, are ignored in the design and implementation of anti-trafficking policy.

This emphasis on the extreme colours the imaginations of frontline actors, shaping and restricting understandings of who can be a victim, and who a perpetrator. It undermines concern for more everyday forms of exploitation, and effectively blocks those experiencing them from redress. In the US, Janie Chuang observes that “strategic use of slavery imagery by defense counsel in trafficking prosecutions can raise jurors’ expectations of more extreme harms than anti-trafficking norms actually require. That not only undermines prosecutorial efforts, but it renders accountability and redress for victims even more elusive than they already are”. Likewise, Brenna Bhandar notes that efforts to legally challenge workfare schemes in the UK as forced or compulsory labour have failed, in large part because they cannot be demonstrated to be equivalent to slavery, indentured labour, or other forced labour systems employed in colonial settings.

Third, the false analogy between trafficking today and slavery historically encourages policies to restrict rather than protect migration. The death toll in the Mediterranean has repeatedly been laid at the feet of ‘people traffickers’. Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister of Italy, wrote in the New York Times that “human traffickers are the slave traders of the 21st century, and they should be brought to justice”, and journalists as well as politicians use ‘trafficking’ interchangeably with ‘smuggling’ as catch-all terms for the facilitation of movement across borders without state sanction.

Represented as such, any and all means employed by the state to suppress unauthorised movement appear morally justifiable. Even those who illegally facilitate the mobility of people who desperately want to move, including those fleeing war, persecution, and other threats to life itself, become legitimate targets of state violence. Even some far-right groups mobilising against black and Muslim presence in Europe by disrupting humanitarian efforts to save lives in the Mediterranean claim to be acting with the noble aim of protecting migrants from trafficking – the contemporary slave trade.

Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois remarked that history is indispensable to the task of making sense of contemporary experience, observing that “the past is the present; that without what was, nothing is”. But as he also noted, different stories can be told about history, and the histories we choose to tell (and to hear) can produce very different understandings of the present. The new issue of Anti-Trafficking Review, that I guest edited and that is published free of charge by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, takes a critical look at the use and abuse of the history of transatlantic slavery in anti-trafficking discourse. Its contributors explore the dangerous political consequences of the frequent repetition of the false analogy between the transatlantic slave trade and trafficking, and offer insights into other histories that may have more useful lessons for those engaged in anti-trafficking work today. I warmly invite you to read their work.

The lessons of history issue at a glance

Black suffering for/from anti-trafficking advocacy
Lyndsey P. Beutin

Our lead author analyses images from the original abolitionist movement that have been reused by a contemporary anti-slavery project to show how black suffering has been appropriated without an acknowledgment or endorsement of the on-going black liberation struggle. The current trend, Beutin argues, of incorporating anti-trafficking exhibitions into institutions that preserve the history of slavery and abolition also serves to conceal the racial logics that underpinned transatlantic slavery and survived its abolition to produce anti-blackness and white privilege in the present.

‘The new order of things’: immobility as protection in the regime of immigration controls
Nandita Sharma

Nandita Sharma examines the successor system to slave labour in the British colonies – indentured contract labour – to demonstrate how ‘the immigrant’ came into being as a person to be regulated, in order to assure a continuing supply of cheap and malleable labour in a world without slavery. Paradoxically, the regulations that severely constrained this new workforce were legitimated as a form of protection against slavery, and Sharma finds powerful echoes of this in contemporary ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ discourse.

‘Bound coolies’ and other indentured workers in the Caribbean: implications for debates about human trafficking and modern slavery
Kamala Kempadoo

It is commonly assumed that modernity initiated the incremental growth of freedom, as serfs, slaves, and servants gradually threw off the shackles that bound them to establish free wage labour as the norm. Kempadoo’s article alerts us to problems with that linear tale, and to the particular light that Caribbean scholarship can shed on questions about labour and freedom, given the many forms of unfree labour historically experienced in the region. The multiple and often simultaneous histories of slavery and servitude also hold important lessons on gendered and racialised dimensions of freedom and unfreedom.

Anti-white slavery legislation and its legacies in England
Laura Lammasniemi

Laura Lammasniemi details a series of interrelated legal interventions enacted between 1885 and 1905 ostensibly designed to protect women and girls from so-called ‘white slavery’. These interventions did nothing to protect women from exploitation. But, she concludes, because they framed ‘white slavery’ as a matter of criminal or immigration law, they did lead to closer controls over the lives of migrant women and of sex workers – much like present-day anti-trafficking initiatives.

Historicising ‘Irregular’ Migration from Senegal to Europe
Stephanie Maher

Senegal has a centuries long tradition of migration, yet Europe’s recent drive to control and restrict migration has effectively rendered such movements, and the people who undertake them, ‘illegal’. The constriction of options for legal mobility, Stephanie Maher argues, has made journeys more treacherous, and more likely to generate the kind of dependencies that leave people vulnerable to exploitation. Once again, restrictions on mobility are presented as a humanitarian project to ‘protect’ the vulnerable from ‘modern slavers’.

‘Shock and Awe’: A critique of the Ghana-centric child trafficking discourse
Samuel Okyere

Samuel Okyere addresses the unintended and extremely negative consequences of ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ discourse for children in Ghana. Okyere outlines the long history of youth and children’s independent labour migration in Ghana, and its connections to the country’s wider history of colonisation, as well as to its more recent history of structural adjustment, enforced free-trade policies, land grabs, and the human insecurities all these have engendered. Far from stimulating interventions that might better protect the rights and freedoms of Ghanaian children and youth, ‘child trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ discourse has become “another mechanism of coercion and control wielded by relatively richer, powerful states” against a relatively poorer and weaker one.

A longer version of this piece along with all the articles from the Anti-Trafficking Review’s special issue ‘The lessons of history’ may be read for free on the journal’s website.

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