Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Trans-Atlantic slavery and contemporary human trafficking

Are we learning from the past or exploiting it? It is easy to obscure the similar economic rationales and incentive structures, as well as the participation of ‘legitimate’ enterprises and institutions, in both trans-Atlantic slavery and contemporary trafficking in humans.  

Karen Bravo
10 October 2014

Image from University of Oxford Archive, c. 1930We should learn from the past, and not merely exploit it for emotional gain. 

References to ‘modern-day slavery’ and comparisons to ‘old slavery’ are embedded within the anti-human trafficking discourse. However, the approaches we use to relating current human trafficking to the trans-Atlantic slavery of Africans are exploitative and superficial, and do not lend insight for combating human trafficking.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade formally ended in the nineteenth century, and since then states and international institutions have committed to legally enforcing a global prohibition against slavery. Nevertheless, slavery is said to have re-emerged worldwide in the form of ‘human trafficking.’ Today’s industry is said to be worth billions.  Growing numbers of victims are described as enslaved by modern day human traffickers.  Tricked by employment schemes, kidnapped, or sold by parents or other authority figures, men, women, and children around the world are deprived of freedom while being physically and psychologically violated.  The scope of contemporary human trafficking is not known: however estimates range from four to 27 million worldwide and victims are assumed to be located in every country in the world. 

Maybe the world and human-to-human exploitation has not changed as much as we would like to believe since the era of trade in African slaves?  Are we, like those consumers of Caribbean sugar in the eighteenth century, equally dependent on the abhorrent exploitation of others?

Comparisons with trans-Atlantic slavery tend to fall within the following categories:

1.     The emotional exhortation to action

 In the most common use of the comparison, Trans-Atlantic slavery is used as an emotional and historic touchstone. Contemporaryhuman trafficking is compared with earlier slavery in order to stimulate the audience to action.  The visceral image makes the call more powerful, and the audience is more likely to support the analyses of the speaker.

2.     Diminution of the horror of trans-Atlantic slavery

 This category builds upon the emotional exhortation to action.  Here, the speaker once again evokes the touchstone of trans-Atlantic slavery, assuming the audience’s revulsion at the slave trade, but implicitly or explicitly diminishing its horror.  The message, in effect, is “as horrible as you know the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery were, an even greater horror is fully-fledged in our time, in our country, in our lives.”

3.     Assumption of the mantle of righteousness

The speaker invokes her country’s past actions against and continued condemnation of trans-Atlantic slavery.  The mantle of righteousness confers authority upon the individual spokesperson or country. It works to delay or prevent questions regarding the methodologies proposed or used to combat modern trafficking. After all, who would [and why would they?] question the activities of a country or person with such an impeccable anti-slavery lineage, and proven methods of combating the scourge?  This turns the tables, and the historically victimized – African countries whose territories were sources of trans-Atlantic slaves – become contemporary victimizers.

4.     Distancing our enlightened times

In distancing our modern times from the centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the speaker assures us of our own virtue and progress. She distracts us, so that we lose track of the structural and systemic similarities between contemporary human trafficking and trans-Atlantic slavery.  As a result, today’s polity believes that it is not complicit in or a beneficiary of the modern traffic in humans.  In addition, because the modern traffic in humans is presented as an aberration in our enlightened times, we do not understand that we should question the systemic structures and assumptions that undergird our society, economy, and political systems.

5.     Mythic slaying of the dragon

The speaker, using triumphalist rhetoric, acclaims the historic abolition of trans-Atlantic slavery.  The speaker then declares the wisdom of abolitionist techniques as the path to eradicating modern trafficking.  However this invocation of the past denies the reality that trans-Atlantic slavery did not end with abolition. (For example, as a result of the continued necessity to secure cheap labor and the racial hierarchy that had sustained trans-Atlantic slavery, the much-celebrated abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire was followed by the introduction of indentured servitude to Britain’s Caribbean colonies.)

Together, these approaches serve to hide the fact that that the structural apparatus facilitating exploitation remained in place after its legal abolition.  In doing so, it obscures the similar economic rationales and incentive structures, as well as the participation of ‘legitimate’ enterprises and institutions, in both trans-Atlantic slavery and contemporary trafficking in humans. 

The integral connection of contemporary human trafficking with the global economic system thus remains unexamined by the listener.  Yet, analysis of the economic roots and structure of the two forms of exploitation reveals that modern trafficking in human beings is as much an interconnected and central component of contemporary economies as the trans-Atlantic trade and slavery were in former times.

The discursive methodologies we use demonstrate how deeply ingrained images and interpretations of trans-Atlantic slavery are in the fight against human trafficking. It was a revolting, tragic, and never-to-be-repeated error in human history.  However, such depictions ignore the fact that, at the time, the exploitation of trans-Atlantic slave trade victims was widely considered normal and mundane. They thus obscure the Atlantic slave trade’s essential similarity to the mundanity and visibility of the victimization found in contemporary human trafficking.



Beyond Slavery

This article is from the Beyond trafficking and slavery editorial partnership, supported by King's College London, the University of Nottingham and the University of the Witwatersrand.

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