Slavery remains a tragedy with the United Nations and the Global Slavery Index arguing that at least 40 million people around the world are in some form of slavery. The Global Slavery Index reports that at least 4,000 people in Australia are enslaved.
Recently, I agreed to host a community television five episodes, hour long live to air, on some of the most pressing issues of our time. I agreed to be the host on the proviso that I interview only experts from both the top of the pile and from the coalface. The first episode, December 4, was on slavery in the 21st century. Two of the guests were the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking of Persons, Dr Maria Grazia Giammarinaro and Grace Forrest, co-founder of the Walk Free Foundation.
Dr Giammarinaro described the modes of modern day slavery, the extensiveness, the socioeconomic pressures that underpin modern forms of slavery, the psychological controls over the enslaved as opposed to historical underpinnings of outright physical controls.
Grace Forrest described some of her remarkable work on the ground, and in particular in northern India working with the affected, with communities, with governments in the making of difference in the lives of the abused and marginalised who are enslaved.
Slavery is an abomination. It is a stealing of the days, of the life years on this earth under the sun of human beings. Slavery is a vile sin. For there to be slaves there must be the slavers. The oppressed have an oppressor.
With a significant proportion of my academic work in philosophy, I am reminded of both Schopenhauer and Heidegger, who reflected that many people act as if some people can be the property of people. They argued for the striving that people should never be the property of others, that if people are a property belonging to somewhere then they are the property of freedom.
Aristotle observed the lot of slaves, “From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection.”
Human beings have been commodified as a resource. Today, a significant proportion of the human species are designated as waged labour, paid for service, in a sense indentured. But slavery today is the further exploiting of peoples predominately impoverished and exploited with remuneration that provides no chance of escaping economic deprivations. Slavery is the extreme end of the manipulation of the use of human beings for labour.
There is no contestable discourse that can dispel that to overwhelming extents, class, racism and sexism are both the tools and products of the commodification of human beings for use as labour, as a resource.
Racism has been majorly a tool for exploitation, whether of labour or to dispossess peoples of their lands and to pillage all that is claimable from within what was once their lands. Slavery is the most pronounced, pernicious outright example of the oppressor and oppressed.
Rule, subjection, subjugation and slavery are all mechanisms to control others and they must inculcate disparity and distinctions in order to be enabled. Nietzsche was maddened by the hypocrisies in humans, by the opposing dialectic and behavioural cognitive forces in humans where the majority of the genteel, who are characterised by their pronounced politeness and respectabilities, bent over with kindness to those deemed of their class and to others delved cruelties. In Nietzsche’s Herrenmoral principle, he reflected on how the ‘polite classes’ – the aristocracy – could be kind to their own but cruel to those who they distinguished and condemned as inferior, and justified and compelled into servitude.
The only way to do away with the possibility of slavery is for humanity to do away to do away with any form of subjugation and therefore do away with the classes. The class system, an affront to the presumption of inalienable universal equality, is fraught with dicey permutations, leading to undesirable outcomes and to extreme permutations such as child labour, forced labour, forced child marriages, indentured labour, underpaid labour, sexual exploitation, harvesting of human organ donors, trafficking in human beings..
The Atlantic slave trade was one of the most horrid disgraces in human history and its impacts continue to be felt today and will be felt long into the ages. There remains much unfinished business with emancipation.
For the Americas, particularly Brazil and the USA’s southern states, and the West Indies, the slave trade was the backbone for the plantation economies, producing wealth for many, but damaged the victims psychologically and socially and damaged humanity morally and politically. Scarcity of resources and the brutal force of being, survival of the fittest were sold as mantras. Today, many of the descendants of the slaves of 1700s and 1800s live on the streets, homeless and fill the jails.
What was it with humanity and the bent for slavery? A quick glance at the narrative of slavery confirms its flows uninterrupted for thousands of years.
Slaves underpinned scores of cultures in the ancient world – in Mesopotamia, the Sahara, northern Africa, Greece, Rome and Asia.
Pharaoh Seti I enslaved Hebrew peoples to build grandiose cities.
Solomon forced the Canaanites, Moabites and Ammonites to construct foundries and smelteries on the Red Sea coast. The Old Testament justifies the perpetual servitude of the Canaanites, Moabites and Ammonites.
Babylon’s Hammurabi enslaved people to build temples and palaces. King Hammurabi’s 18th century BC ‘code’ described slaves not as human beings but as “heads”. They were de-humanised, categorised as chattel and ‘animals’. Animal slavery and subjugation, commodification is also an abomination but another article.
Slavery was an accepted institution in many kingdoms. Slavery built kingdoms and empires and slaves were used as the front line of armies; the suicide waves. The Spartans had the helots.
Ancient Greek history has reduced slavery to the romantic. It has minimised culpability by retelling the sin of slavery in a different light. Many history books redeem the slaver in ancient Greece by suggesting that the slaves in ancient Greek households were often loved members of a family. They could be paid, could be allowed to save money, and that there lay the possibility that their slaver could grant them their freedom and that the potential existed for them to become equal members of Greek society. But truth told they were no more than chattel. Their lot, a harsh or kinder life depended on the nature and temperament of their slaver.
In Australia, only a little over half a century ago, the descendants of the First Nations peoples – Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders – were indentured on pastoral estates and exploited for their labour – most were not paid in wages. They were treated like serfs, ‘rewarded’ in rations; flour, tea and sugar, in hand me down rags, etc. Australia’s own history of ‘blackbirding’ is hidden, remains effectively untold. Aboriginal peoples along the Fortescue River in the Pilbara in the 1860s and 1870s were captured and their labour forced to carve out roads, clear lands, and to dive for pearls. By one means or another, the barbaric practice of blackbirding continued throughout northwest Australia into the early 1900s.
But on the eastern seaboard of Australia too there is a history of slavery. Robert Towns and John Mackay were blackbirders. Today Queensland cities are named after them, Townsville and Mackay. The sugar can plantation economies of 19th century Queensland were delivered on the indentured labour of abducted south sea islanders. As there was a trans-Atlantic slave trade so too was there a South Seas Islanders slave trade.
It is estimated 65,000 South Sea Islanders were shanghaied, abducted and exploited as slave labour in Queensland and northern NSW. Towns and Mackay were lauded as contributing to the development of Queensland, but they were the worst of humanity – slavers.
Till relatively recently historians the world over accepted slavery as an institution. Few history books explored their tragedy and even fewer the struggles for freedom. The exception for historians was the freedom fighting slave Spartacus whom books and cinema do portray as a hero on the back of his 73 to 71 BC revolt against the greatest slavers of the time, the Roman Empire.
During the Roman Empire, 2nd century BC slavery reached new dimensions where on the ‘latifundia’, vast agricultural estates, slaves worked in fields shackled together. Slaves were also condemned to hand dug mines and quarries. Men, women and children were chained together, shackled, working in the belly of the earth, in the grimmest conditions. The lash was their lot. In the latifundia agricultural estates of the 2nd century BC history books reckon that slaves outnumbered paid workers three to one.
Petronius in the ‘Satyricon’ says, “Thank heavens for slavery, it made me what you see me now.”
Slavery was a constant in small and large empires that rose and fell throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, Americas for up to two millennia.
It was from the sea, early in the 15th century, that the Portuguese, the first European country to import Moorish slaves, approached the coast of Africa, on voyages of exploration organised by Dom Henrique, son of the Portuguese King Joao I. Dom Henrique intent on pursuing the crusade against the Moors, sought out a dominion for Portugal on the Gulf of Guinea. His explorers in 1441 captured 12 men, women and children from the region and he then foresaw opportunity and met with the Pope and outlined a plan for conquest to which the Pope effectively licenced with a decree, “to all those who shall be engaged in the said war, complete forgiveness of all of their sins.”
Within a decade the Portuguese arrived in Senegal and Gambia and the Arab monopoly of the trans-Saharan trade in slavery had been interrupted. In 1448, 1000 slaves had been secured by the Portuguese. In 1481 the Portuguese built a fort at Elmina on the Gold Coast and this was one of the foundations for the horrific Atlantic slave trade. The Atlantic slave trade bundled 15 million Africans into ships, with an estimated 20 per cent dying before reaching the Americas, many thrown overboard when unwell or when the weight of the boat had to be reduced.
In the historical assumptions of Greek slavery there was presumed an element of humanity that slaves could earn their emancipation. Slaves on occasion could earn freedom as a reward for loyalty but there was none of this for the slaves tortured in the Americas.
Portuguese trafficking in slavery escalated as the Indigenous populations tormented in the new worlds were dwindling and with the Spanish in the 1500s needing Black slaves to take over from the dwindling Indigenous populations in the ‘colonies’, the Portuguese traders filled their ships with Congolese and Angolans destined for the worst of existences as slaves.
The slave traders were helped along with the setting up of puppet supports and the usual number of “sell outs” from within local peoples paid in goods and lauded with false titles. People reduced to turning against their people in order to survive or fit in.
The Portuguese and Spanish slaver traders and slavers were soon followed by the Dutch. The Dutch West India Company formed in 1621 on the back of guaranteed profiteering from prospective slave labour. In capitalising the operation from scratch it took only 1623 with 15,430 Black slaves to Brazil. In 1646, the first Black slaves landed in New Amsterdam (New York), the earliest Dutch settlement in America, on the tip of Manhattan. They had tried to enslave the Manhattan Indians but had failed.
The Dutch had a long aggressive slave trader history throughout the Americas.
In South America, in Surinam, slave revolts were common and in part succeeded in the 1700s with runaway slaves or ‘bush Negroes’ as they were called forming settlements in the jungle.
The Dutch traded for a century with a protected monopoly and supplied slaves to the British colonies but the monopoly was broken on an economic basis by the English through the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The English ended the monopoly and immediately introduced through English agents 144,000 Black slaves into Spanish colonies over a period of 30 years.
Many were killed or died because of their body breaking hard work and terrible lives and living were all that were known to them. Abused and exploited they had no rights. Colonial planters of all nationalities demanded more Black labour. The demand for cane sugar around the middle of the 18th century had the slave trade to the West Indies and America trafficking 100,000 Africans a year. Slavery sustained the prosperity of the slavers and elites and contributed significantly to the making of the new world. Society built by sin.
Running away when caught could mean death and did for thousands, or torture, as it did for millions. There were slaves with belled slave collars. Rewards were offered for the recapture of runaway slaves.
In the USA the state of slavery has led to today’s state of imprisonment. Nearly one per cent of the America’s national population are jailed. American prisoners account for one in four of the world’s prisoners. Nearly half of them of are the descendants of slaves.
There is still a long journey ahead on the road to liberty and equality. In the struggle that is humanity we are ordered to obey from the day we are born. We must rail against wrongs even if laws justify insist on wrongs to be seen as right. The ordeals of humanity are surmountable if we see ourselves as a collective living and not as individual lives. Where we individuate and distinguish we risk tragedies, we leave behind the majority of humanity. The unfolding human journey is longer than its makers whoever or what they maybe could have ever imagined in their crafting of us and of the level of sentience decreed to us. Hope depends on forays into deeper states of being so the worst of humans can be deprived from humans.
The atrocities of the Belgian Congo were the initiative of Belgian elite, of individuals and not anything to do with any collective sense. The atrocities in the Congo were engineered by Leopold II of Belgium. The Congolese were corralled into a rigid supply of rubber to Leopold though in 1908 international opinion forced Leopold’s retreat. So it is assumed. I often argue that it is all theatre. We can be the cruelest species, the most diabolical. The ability to discover the truth is outstripped by the capacity to manifest deceit.
Congolese chiefs were detained and punished until their people achieved expected workloads even if it meant the death of workers. Hostages were taken, women and children imprisoned till the quota of work was delivered. The ‘chicotte’, a raw hide lash, was thrashed on those who had not brought to the post their prescribed amount of rubber. In 1903, Britain’s Aborigines’ Protection Society published Civilization in Congoland, a Story of Wrongdoing.
The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are 46 million people in some form of slavery, in 167 countries. The Index estimates that 58 per cent of the world’s slavery is found in five countries alone.
Lifting people out of poverty would significantly reduce the number of people enslaved and the vulnerability to slavery.