18th, 19th and 21st Century Slavery

Back in November, fellow WordPress blogger Pip Marks did a two-part series on Slavery in Australia, where the sugar industry caused tens of thousands of South Sea Islanders to be transported and then to work in appalling conditions. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 had supposedly abolished the slave trade within the British Empire, and required the Royal Navy to suppress the international slave trade through inspections and fines for ship owners, but this mostly affected the triangular route known as the Atlantic slave trade. Kidnapping labourers for the sugar cane plantations of Queensland was another matter entirely. ‘Blackbirding’, as the coercive recruitment of indentured labourers was known, was a very lucrative business in the mid-19th century, aided by corrupt government officials.

The city of Hull, not far from where I live, was the birthplace of William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a prominent anti-slavery campaigner. We’re proud of our most famous son, and we celebrate his work: visit Wilberforce House, or come for the annual Freedom Festival.

While he certainly had a lot of advantages in life (you needed them if you were to become a Member of Parliament, back in the 18th century) Wilberforce was a man of strong moral convictions. Eschewing party politics, he remained an independent throughout his career and voted his conscience: something that burdened few of his counterparts, it seems. His efforts to end the slave trade were defeated time and again; too many members of parliament profited indirectly from industries that depended upon slave labour.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (Hull City Museums and Art Galleries)

Teamed up with the lawyer and fellow abolitionist James Stephen, a change of tactics led to a bill aimed an banning British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies; this fitted well with the political climate of the time, and the act was passed on March 25th 1807 – by which time Wilberforce had been campaigning for twenty years. It did not actually outlaw the ownership of slaves, and full emancipation had to wait until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. (Aged 73, Wilberforce died three days after that bill’s final reading.)

It would be another decade before slavery was abolished within the territory of the East India Company, though, and as we have learned something very similar to slavery continued in parts of Australia for decades. This seems to be the trouble with slavery: stamp it out in one place and it springs up elsewhere, a hydra-headed monster. In fact, with the number of people living in slavery or slave-like conditions today commonly estimated to be somewhere between twenty and thirty million, there are more people suffering these miserable conditions today than there were in the days of William Wilberforce.

The modern face of slavery is a little bit more subtle than that of the 18th and 19th centuries, although still liable to provoke disgust. In October 2014 a man was jailed for four and a half years, having pleaded guilty part-way through a trial in which he stood accused of keeping a vulnerable man performing unpaid hard labour on his farm for thirteen years: not in some far-flung land, but in Newport, South Wales. There was also a case in Bedfordshire, England back in 2011, involving twenty-four victims, some of whom had been held for as long as fifteen years.

Pip Marks’ second post includes ten questions from Anti-Slavery Australia that are meant to identify a victim of slavery or forced labour, such as “Do you have a debt or contract?” and “Has your identification or documentation been taken from you?” These ten simple questions are all that is needed to expose modern-day slavery. You don’t have to be a sex worker or the victim of a religious cult to end up in forced labour; in fact, the conditions of low-status crew on some cruise ships should arouse similar concerns. (More about that at some point in the future.)

Now, the supply chain: modern manufactured goods are made from an awfully large variety of materials, from all over the world. How can we be sure that the products we buy and sell aren’t at some level dependent upon forced labour? The short answer is that it’s very difficult, although efforts are underway to tackle the problem. The Walk Free Foundation, in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, is encouraging businesses to commit to “slavery-proof supply chains”, by providing information and a range of tools for risk assessment and remediation.

Modern Incidence of Slavery

Modern Incidence of Slavery (Walk Free Foundation, 2013)

As customers, we need to take an interest in this as well. How many slaves prop up your standard of living? Long-time readers might recall the ‘ecological footprint’ test that I recommended, indicating one’s share of the Earth’s resources. There’s something similar to assess your ‘slavery footprint’ here. Apparently, thirty-seven slaves were involved in the supply of my food, electronic gadgets and clothing.

As Wilberforce himself said:

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never again say you did not know.”

The naming and shaming of specific brands isn’t yet possible, but that’s the goal of the Made in a Free World movement, and they’re making headway. They’re getting a lot of attention on the Internet, and they’re refining their models, looking specifically at the supply chains on which we all depend. Sometime soon, all our models of sustainability are going to look outdated if they fail to address the issue of forced labour.

The potential for scandal greatly exceeds that previously seen in relation to child labour, and news of it could spread around the planet at the speed of light. Has your company done everything it can to ensure that its suppliers are acting ethically?

We shall see.

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4 thoughts on “18th, 19th and 21st Century Slavery

  1. I assume you have seen the film ‘Amazing Grace’? Trailer here:
    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6Cv5P9H9qU) I had no idea that the poem/song was written by a reformed slave trader before I saw it. The DVD had an interesting bonus clip that drew on parallels between the British sugar trade & climate change nowadays in terms of threats to the national economy & personal fortunes of many influential people at the time.

    • Yes, that’s a great film. Quite a few writers and thinkers have pointed out the similarities between modern oil-dependent thinking and the plantation owners’ reliance on the “energy source” of their age. Will there ever be a William Wilberforce for action on climate change, or are emissions still seen as a victimless crime?

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