Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Shadows of slavery: refractions of the past, challenges of the present

The past of slavery has many presents, and the present of exploitation many pasts. This collection brings together five years worth of research into how the legacies of 19th-century enslavement interact with contemporary bondage and exploitation.

Laura Menin Marco Gardini Alice Bellagamba
15 August 2018

Refraction. GETaiwan NTU/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

Interest for slavery, the slave trade, and abolition has grown steadily since the 1990s, when UNESCO launched the Slave Routes Project in order to turn this past of violence and sufferance into a path to inter-cultural dialogue and collaboration. Historians, literary critics, feminist thinkers, political philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists have all deepened our understanding of the key role slavery played in different periods of human history, and in the making of Western modernity. Public awareness has broadened through museum exhibitions and commemorative initiatives, as well as through a rising concern for forms of human bondage and exploitation that continue to thrive today.

Emotionally and politically charged, the issue of ‘modern slavery’ has, over the past three decades, prompted a discussion on the present importance of past slave systems and the slave trade, and the historical roots of contemporary world inequalities. Everybody agrees on the need to explore these interconnections, but how to do it is a different issue entirely.


Download this collection as a PDF

Activists, governments, and international organisations engaged in the struggle against ‘human trafficking’ and ‘modern slavery’ have their own style. To rally political and popular support, they draw heavily on the iconography of the Atlantic slave trade. They celebrate the abolitionist traditions of the North Atlantic, and downplay the deep involvement of countries such as the United Kingdom into the global history of the slave trade. Moved by powerful motivations (to end slavery, to rescue humanity, and to protect the vulnerable victims), their approach echoes a benevolent paternalism that risks, paradoxically, perpetuating oppositional representations of the ‘civilised’ West and the ‘savage’ Rest, while “tacitly minimizing, or otherwise legitimating, the much larger excesses of global capitalism”.

The conversations on slavery in the Global North and Global South are very different. While the Global North tends to emphasise its leading role in the nineteenth and twentieth century struggles against slavery, the regions of the Global South that experienced plantation slavery or served as slave-reservoirs for other areas of the world prefer to discuss reparation. This is a topic that always gets conveniently pushed into the corners of international politics as the world leaps from one crisis to another. Even the expression ‘modern’ slavery, which the UK Modern slavery Act sanctioned in 2015, is historically ambiguous. North Atlantic slavery is ‘modern’ compared to that of Antiquity and the Mediterranean world; and the ‘modern’ slaveries of today are new in relation to the slave systems of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that abolition wiped out.

Establishing long term continuities in today’s reductive anti-slavery rhetoric displaces the causes of contemporary dehumanisation and exploitation into a remote and stereotyped past. At the same time, claiming discontinuity between the historical and the contemporary obscures the morphing of historical slavery into other types of unfreedoms, such as nineteenth century apprentice and indenture contracts in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, or twentieth century social stigma, racial discrimination, and political marginality attached to slave ancestry.

Interrogating the present in light of the past

This collection is an outcome of five years of collective research and discussion aimed at bringing the legacies of nineteenth century enslavement together with examples of contemporary bondage and exploitation that may or may not fall under the rubric of ‘modern slavery’. It demonstrates one way of creating a contextually balanced understanding of how the past and present connect with each other, and do not. It interrogates, in the first place, which past matters in specific situations: is it the centuries-long past of the Atlantic slave trade, or the nineteenth century histories of regional and interregional enslavement?

Between 2014 and 2018, under the auspices of the ERC grant ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737), a group of anthropologists directed by Alice Bellagamba investigated the shadows of slavery, and their specific ethnographic manifestations, in Africa and beyond. In particular, Marta Scaglioni, Valerio Colosio, Marco Gardini, Alessandra Brivio, Laura Menin, Antonio De Lauri, and Gloria Carlini carried out fieldwork in Southern Senegal, Tunisia, Chad, Madagascar, Ghana, Morocco, Pakistan, and Southern Italy. Other researchers have joined this conversation on the shadows of slavery with fresh case-studies from Mauritania (Ann McDougal, Giuseppe Maimone), Tanzania (Joanny Bélair), Santo-Domingo (Raul Zecca Castel), Italy (Irene Peano), Costa Rica (Layla Zaglul), Yemen (Luca Nevola), and the Emirates (Anonymous). Moreover, the contributions of Michael Dottridge, James Esson, Nicola Phillips, Benjamin Selwyn, Susan Ferguson and David McNally have provided a conceptual frame to deconstruct the common wisdom of capitalist development as gateway to freedom.

All together, these contributions ‘descend’ into the everyday worlds of people who live the consequences of historical slave systems or who happen to find themselves ‘trapped’ in novel forms of socio-political inequality, racism, labour exploitation and sexual and moral violence. We seek to interrogate their stories in ways respectful of histories and contexts. Often, discussions on the continuities/discontinuities between ‘old’ and ‘modern’ slavery end up being constrained by terminological disputes, as if terminological clarification may clear consciences of the disquieting similarities (and differences) between yesterday’s slave systems and today’s examples of dehumanisation, indignity and exploitation.

We engage with lexicons of slavery to disclose the shifting meanings and practices hidden behind contemporary usages of indigenous terms that, back in the nineteenth century, identified the slave in contexts such as Southern Senegal, Mauritania and Madagascar. We consider critically the notion of ‘modern’ slavery, and posit the relation between past and present as an ethnographic and theoretical question. For sure, the present appropriates the past if not for declared political agendas, at least to make sense of on-going processes. But the past weighs on the present of individuals and creates collectives by shaping habits, thoughts, and life paths either explicitly or implicitly. With this collection, we begin to develop a comparative reflection on the multiple challenges the past of slavery and the slave trade poses to our understanding of present situations of discrimination, exploitation and unfreedom.

The past of slavery has many presents, and the present of exploitation many pasts.

Lessons from the field

Our experience of interrogating the shadows of slavery in a variety of regions inside ad outside Africa has taught us three lessons. The first is the importance of 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. In the last decade, African slavery studies have taken great care in uncovering the perspective of the enslaved and their descendants, and have discussed at length the potential and limits of this approach.

We have joined this effort by meeting people of alleged slave ancestry in Southern Senegal, Tunisia, Chad, Madagascar and Mauritania. It is alleged slave ancestry because, in the words of Benedetta Rossi, there is often not direct evidence that these people hail from enslaved ancestors though they endure the consequences of being grouped among the slave descendants in societies in which these origins are liability.

Which historical reading do they provide of their predicament? How has their understanding of slavery and freedom changed over time? Once we start approaching the past and the present of slavery ‘from below’ – from the perspectives of the people directly involved in these dynamics – we quickly found that focusing on evolving ideas of, and aspirations toward, freedom might be much more theoretically inspiring that academic discussions over whether or not this or that experience fits within the boundaries of ‘modern’ slavery.

The second lesson is that the study of the past is illuminating only if we accept that its teachings are varied and disturbing. It does not provide clear-cut and definitive answers, but instead opens up further questions. There is not, in other words, one reassuring answer to the key question of the legacies of centuries-old histories of slavery and the slave trade in the contemporary world, but many different answers depending on the place and the history. This is perhaps because contingent and contextual dynamics of slavery and emancipation have left a highly diversified legacy, or legacies, that articulate at different levels. 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.

The third and most important lesson is that we cannot fully understand the present manifestations of socioeconomic inequality, political marginalisation, and individual or group-based exploitation in contexts marked by past histories of slavery without historicising the ways a slave-dealing and slave-holding past refracts in post-slavery contexts. These refractions can be the result of explicit political efforts, and even misleading in terms of historical accuracy.

Furthermore, we cannot fully understand the extent to which slavery continues to cast a shadow over the present if we lose sight of the global dynamics of poverty, of how entire regions have been re-structured to suit global economies, and of how certain modes of production require very specific ideas of the human being in order to function. Living in the shadows of slavery and the slave trade also means experiencing the lived effects of broader socio-political historical and contemporary dynamics – from the processes of colonisation and nation-state building to the impact of structural adjustment plans imposed by the World Bank and the subsequent neoliberal restructuring of economies and class structures worldwide.

Themes and contexts

Four major streams of discussion have attracted our attention for their potential in problematising the past and the present of slavery.

The first, lives and experiences (part 1), looks at the current predicament of people of slave ancestry and of people who dwell in, or hail from, regions that served as slave reservoirs for the African internal slave trade of the nineteenth century. Thanks to scholarly efforts, and the contribution of West African organisations such as the Initiative pour la résurgence du mouvement abolitionniste in Mauritania, Timidria in Niger, and Temedt in Mali, the struggles of people of slave ancestry for social and political recognition have gained visibility over the last two decades. Other aspects, however, deserves attention. These include the effects of rural poverty on both slave and master descendants, the depreciative stereotypes attached to migrants hailing from former slave reservoirs, and the ways freedom is conceived of by people of alleged slave ancestry. Often, their emancipation has paved the way to other kinds of dependencies, which reframe freedom in terms of relatedness rather than individual autonomy.

Our second stream, race, colour and origins in North Africa and the Middle East (part 2), touches on the sensitive issue of the racial legacies of slavery in North Africa and the Middle East. This specific geographical focus enables us to grasp the multifaceted ways in which descent-based and racial discrimination have developed out of the ashes of historical slavery and the slave trade to involve also the people originally from areas of sub-Saharan Africa that served as historical slave reservoirs for North Africa. The crucial point is how these legacies combine with current political and social developments to create specific racial prejudice and racisms, as well as forms of activism and political awareness.

The third stream, labour exploitation in global agriculture (part 3), focuses on the working conditions and the dynamics of exploitation in the globalised agricultural sectors of Tanzania, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Costa Rica, Chad, and Madagascar. It brings together contributions that explore past and present causes of the everyday abuses experienced by migrants, women, small farmers, and sharecroppers who find themselves trapped on the wrong side of local and global agricultural labour chains. From the impact of current large scale agricultural investments to the long legacy of plantation systems that associated slavery with agriculture, from the gendered nature of labour exploitation to the forms of social and economic subordination experienced by slave descendants, migrants, and small farmers, the cases presented here illustrate how the shadows of slavery interlace with processes of capital accumulation to create a history of never-ending sufferance and misery. At the same time, these cases offer fresh ethnographic insights into the different, often hidden tactics that people activate in order to reinforce their rights or simply to survive.

Last but not least, our fourth stream, global capitalism and modern slavery (Part 4), focuses on the relationships between global capitalism and labour exploitation. It does this by exposing the limits of the category of ‘modern slavery’ in understanding the extent to which contemporary examples of unfreedom and labour exploitation are the result of a global system of production and capital accumulation. The common agenda of all our contributors is to show how the past of slavery has its many presents, and the present of exploitation its many pasts. It is precisely to the complex, and often unexpected, interweaving of historical and contemporary dynamics that this collection is dedicated.


This editorial project, and the research leading to the contributions of Alice Bellagamba, Marta Scaglioni, Valerio Colosio, Marco Gardini, Alessandra Brivio, Laura Menin, Antonio De Lauri, and Gloria Carlini were funded by the European Research Council as part of the ERC project 313737: Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond: a historical anthropology. We wish to thank Giulio Cipollone, Sandra E. Greene, Bruce Hall, Eric Hahonou, Martin A. Klein, Baz Lecocq, Paul Lovejoy, Ann McDougal, Ismael Montana, Julia O’Connell Davidson, Benedetta Rossi, Joel Quirk, Cameron Thibos and all the  Beyond Trafficking and Slavery team for the intellectual and moral support throughout these five long years. Without the assistance, the patience and the friendships of the many men and women we met while carrying out fieldwork in Africa and other regions of the world, the results we achieved would have been unthinkable. We thank them all. This collection is in memory of Ugo Fabietti. He established the study of cultural and social anthropology at the University of Milan-Bicocca; his contribution will continue to define our evolving field. His personal kindness, humor and sympathy will be with us always.

The Beyond Slavery Newsletter Receive a round-up of new content straight to your inbox Sign up now


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData