Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Britain marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. With its penchant for doing offbeat items every now and then, the Economist (February 24) carries a detailed report on the slave trade.

The sheer scale of the slave trade is mind-boggling: some 20 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic between the 15th and 19th centuries. The question for researchers is similar to the one that those investigating the holocaust the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews asked themselves: how could decent people accept that sort of thing?

One answer, as in the case of the Nazis, is clever concealment. There was no slavery in England itself; it all happened in distant plantations. Those who campaigned against slavery later had to fight hard to produce evidence to convince the public. But that was not all. Another was the use of euphemisms to aid denial.

The means by which sugar lumps arrived on tables in polite society were carefully hidden. The young officers of the African Service who volunteered to man the slave forts and oversee the dungeons were children of the age of enlightenment. They saw themselves as well-endowed with all the refined feelings and sensibilities that could be expected of a gentleman.

Those fine feelings were spared from reality by careful euphemisms. There were no slave-traders; only “adventurers” in the “Africa” or “Guinea” trade. Prints of the gleaming white Cape Coast Castle made it look like a European palace; there was no hint at its real role. Shackles used to string captives together were just “collars”. The “Company of Merchants”, which ran Britain's slave trade, had on its logo an elephant and a beehive—denoting Africa and America—but nothing about slaves.

Of an evening, officers of the African Service might peruse a new work of history or philosophy: an eerie precursor of the Nazi officers who relaxed to the sound of Beethoven after a day in the gas chambers.

But there was still a pervasive feeling that, despite all the evasions, those involved in the trade were doing something deeply wrong. In the courtyard of Cape Coast Castle lies the tomb of Philip Quaque, the chaplain to the officers and men of the castle for 42 years in the second half of the 18th century. During all that time he failed to bring a single officer to the Christian rite of Holy Communion. In a letter he reflected that this had nothing to do with his (black) skin-colour, and more to do with a mood of shame: “The only plea they offer is that while they are here acting against Light and Conscience they dare not come to that holy Table

All the leading nations of the time were involved- Britain, America, France, Denmark, Portugal. For the Africans, some of whom are demanding compensation of one sort or another, the painful part of the story is the role played by their compatriots. The slave trade could not have happened without the active participation of African tribes. Most of the slaves sold were men and women captured in battles between tribes. One of the most notorious slave emporiums, Cape Coast Castle in today's Ghana, stood on land rented to the British by a local chief.

The Economist piece leaves you numb with horror. But, hang on, slavery did not quite end in the nineteenth century. A report in the Financial Times(March 17) tells us that slavery is still alive and kicking. Only, it goes by a more modern name, "human trafficking".

In this 200th anniversary year of the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire, slavery is turning up in surprising places. The trade may have been outlawed, but the practice still reaches into our homes and businesses, perhaps more than we realise. Most of us learn about modern slavery from the bottom up, in the heart- wrenching stories of individuals enslaved in the developing world or trafficked into forced labour in the west. But there is a larger, historic, top-down account that is only now becoming clear as activists and scholars explore the role of slavery in the global economy. With the end of the cold war, human trafficking and slavery have bounced back as businesses.

The United Nations reports that human trafficking is now the third largest moneymaker for criminals, after drugs and weapons. No one is sure how many people were enslaved 50 years ago, but the number is thought to have grown rapidly with the population explosion to an estimated 27 million today. The increase in slavery is also linked to globalisation. But this is not about sweatshop workers existing on miserly wages. Slaves are under the complete, violent control of another person; they are economically exploited, and get only enough food and shelter to keep them alive. For millions of victims, their experience differs little in hardship from that of slaves hundreds of years ago....

With the growth of global markets, some of these slaves are used to produce many of our basic commodities. In Brazil, for example, slaves cut down forests and burn the wood into charcoal to be used to make steel. The European Union imports nearly a million tonnes of Brazilian steel each year to produce everything from cars to buildings to toys. Slavery is in fruit bowls and fridges too. There are documented cases of slaves being used to harvest or produce coffee, sugar, beef, tomatoes, lettuce, apples and other fruit. The list goes on: shrimp and other fish products are suspect, as are cocoa, steel, gold, tin, diamonds, jewellery and bangles, tantalum (used in mobile phones and laptops), shoes, sporting goods, clothing, fireworks, rice, bricks....

In south Asia, hereditary "debt bondage slavery" is common. Loans are made to families in a financial crisis - for example, crop failure - and since they have no assets, all the work they do must serve as collateral until the loan is repaid. The debt is passed from one generation to the next; up to 10 million people are thought to be held in hereditary debt bondage slavery in India, Pakistan and Nepal.

The silver lining, as the report points out, is that slavery is illegal in almost every country and hence can be ended. The only requirement is that the public and governments make ending slavery a priority.

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