Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image

Reform Magazine | June 14, 2024

Scroll to top


No Comments

A good question: Can slavery end? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Can slavery end?

One question, five answers


‘Ultimately it is up to us to have the will’

I was educated to believe that slavery was an ancient scourge which had been eradicated in the 19th century. I find it difficult to wrap my head around the notion that today there are an estimated 40 million enslaved people in all countries of the world.

Britain, my adopted home, has an estimated 10,000 enslaved people. And, of course, we benefit from the labour of enslaved people through our consumption of goods and services.

How can this be? How did we lose the 18th and 19th centuries’ wars for emancipation so badly? And why didn’t we know we had lost?

The truth is complex. In one sense, the war was won. At the beginning of the 19th century, in most countries, slavery was legal and accepted as regrettable but necessary. Today, it is illegal nearly everywhere and is abhorred as a reprehensible practice by nearly everyone. But it is possibly more widespread than it ever was. Why?

A major difference between slavery in the two eras is that in the 19th century, you could quite easily recognise a slave. In the 21st century, slavery is invisible. We pass enslaved people in the street and don’t know who they are. Nobody actually calls them slaves, but they work on farms, in factories, in the sex industry, for little or no wages, unable to leave because they or their families are threatened with deportation or violence.

For both eras, money is the main underlying support for slavery. People believe that they gain economically when they use slave labour to produce goods and services. This seems quite logical on the face of it. If you don’t have to pay your factory workers, or your domestic labourers, then you would appear to have saved money which makes you more prosperous. But it could be argued that decently paid workers would be able to expand your markets. Anybody sane would want to ensure that people are as happy and healthy as possible. Slavery destroys the families and communities from which the enslaved people come, and creates instability and unrest where enslaved people work.

Slavery will only be defeated when ordinary people recognise it, whether it is near at hand or in far-off production supply chains. We need to vote with our wallets and refuse to buy anything that is produced by slave labour. We need to lobby to ensure that people do not remain in the crushing economic situations which put them in peril of slavery.

This is a tall order. Can slavery end? I don’t know. Ultimately it is up to us to have the will to do away with it.

Dr Rachele (Evie) Vernon O’Brien is theological adviser to United Society Partners in the Gospel


‘It can, but true abolition requires carrot and stick’

In his 2011 book, The Honour Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah looked at the abolition of slavery in Britain and its colonies in the 19th century. Appiah argues that the moral arguments against slavery had been established and attracted widespread support long before there was a mass movement to ensure abolition actually happened. What made the difference was the emergence of a broad consensus that slavery was shameful and inconsistent with Britain’s honour. A crucial component in this consensus came from the emerging industrial working class, for whom ‘nothing more firmly expressed the idea that labour was dishonourable than Negro plantation slavery in the New World. And labour was what defined them.’ By fighting slavery in the colonies, the British working class fought for their own honour and dignity at home.

Appiah emphasises that abolitionism in Britain – and in other countries – often went alongside racism, albeit a racism that did not require racial others to be enslaved. This, I think, offers us an important lesson – and not just for those who wish to eradicate slavery today.

Campaigners for social justice often have a naive faith in the power of moral consensus. If we publicise the fact of the suffering that slavery causes, then surely those who perpetrate those evils will be shamed in the eyes of the world. This does not account for moral diversity. Not only is slavery not seen as wrong in some societies, the opprobrium of those who think otherwise does not necessarily cause a change of heart.

Of course, global criticism does have some effect but that is just as likely to involve sophisticated ways of camouflaging slavery than truly abolishing it. In the Gulf States, impenetrable webs of subcontractors ensure that workers building football stadiums and hotels can be treated as little more than indentured labourers. This ‘slavery that is not slavery’ ensures that the conscience of Fifa and global corporations can be salved, while still allowing local oligarchs at least some of the benefits of slave ownership.

Slavery can end but true abolition of slavery requires carrot and stick. Slave ownership should be aggressively fought on a global level. At the same time, slave owners need to feel that it is in their interest to end it, otherwise they will simply perpetuate slavery under other names. That self interest may come from a changed sense of honour, by moral conversion or by material incentives. It matters less how it happens, than that it does happen.

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociology writer and lecturer. His latest book is Denial: The unspeakable truth (Notting Hill Editions, 2018)


‘It can end when economic conditions change’

The short answer is ‘yes’. However, it’s easier said than done. Slavery has existed in many forms. It has been a condition of human civilisation since biblical times, differing in its manifestation.

Slavery in its current form does not resemble the slavery of the past but it does share features of the past in the way in which it is presented – as an inevitable human condition. Slavery finds support in economic conditions. It can end when those conditions are changed.

Trafficking people, for their bodies or their labour, is seen as economically viable by those who benefit from it. The cost of human labour compared to mechanical labour is cheaper, because human life is seen as disposable.

Christians are exhorted to strive for justice at all times. Social justice isn’t a fad, or a secular trend, it is the heart of our faith. Slavery robs a person of their dignity. To own another person is not only immoral but also unchristian. Slavery embodies everything our faith is against when it comes to respecting life. To know that the food on our tables or the clothes on our backs were made by people who died to produce them is an uncomfortable reality. The people who are engaged in such work can ill afford even the basic necessities of life.

In light of the Windrush scandal, discussions about reparations for descendants of slaves are all the more urgent. I don’t view financial reparation as a ransom, or the case for reparations as a means to induce guilt. Arguments for reparations are legitimate demands for justice. To enter into such discussions is an act of repentance. Acknowledging the crimes of the past and the current hostile environment as part of a generational history can help redeem the past and create a better, more just present.

Spectres of colonialism continue to haunt Britain, as the Windrush scandal cases have shown. The generational trauma caused by the events of centuries ago refuses to fade away. Racism in Britain is part of that continued trauma. Unless it is addressed, modern-day slavery will only be discussed as a problem people of colour face.

Our Christian tradition teaches us to introspect, repent and seek forgiveness in order to do the will of Christ. Fighting for social justice is a part of that process. With Christ, all things are possible – even the end of slavery.

Dr Sonia Soans is an academic, editor and artist. She tweets at @PSYfem

‘It is possible to end slavery in our lifetime’

Nelson Mandela once said: ‘It always seems impossible, until it is done.’ Stopping the transatlantic slave trade must have seemed impossible. But after a long fight, it was done.

Today, there are more enslaved people than at any other time in history – more than throughout the whole 200 years of the transatlantic slave trade. Right now, 40 million people around the world are being abused, raped, starved and beaten in brothels, factories, farms and quarries – often to produce the everyday products that you and I buy. One in four enslaved people are children. If you are shocked, you are not alone. The sale, or ‘trafficking’, of humans is one of the top three most profitable criminal activities in the world, generating $150bn USD every year.

To put this into context, Mallesh was just six years old when he was sold into slavery on an Indian rose farm. Denied food, sleep and healthcare, Mallesh’s small hands, that should have been holding pens in school, were instead being torn by rose thorns as he picked flowers for his owner to sell. The chains of modern slavery may not be the physical ones we associate with historic images, but they are no less real. They are chains of violence, deception and fear.

Ending slavery is no mean feat. The people who profit from children like Mallesh are violent criminals, and not people many of us would want to stand up to. But the good news is that it’s possible to free children like Mallesh. It is possible to end slavery in our lifetime.

International Justice Mission (IJM) is the world’s largest anti-slavery organisation. We partnered with police in India to rescue Mallesh and to bring his captor to justice. He’s now doing well in school and building a better future.

Whilst slavery is more prevalent than ever, it is also more stoppable than ever. Traffickers and slave owners aren’t especially courageous. When courts prosecute and punish, crime can dry up quickly. IJM has found that the number of children available for sexual exploitation in the Philippines and Cambodia, for example, plummeted in just a few years after working with local government and law enforcement to ensure that police were equipped, trained, mentored and motivated to enforce the law.

We know that slavery can end – especially when we have the God of justice on our side. But we must all say no to slavery, and choose to act.

Molly Hodson is Communications Director for International Justice Mission UK.


‘We still live with slavery’s legacies’

Has historic slavery’s impact ended? No. Colonial slavery helped shape modern Britain and we all still live with its legacies. Many of these legacies are hiding in plain sight – from houses built with the profits of the slave economy to the banks and insurance companies developed with heavy involvement in the Atlantic trade.

Between the 1640s and abolition in 1807, over three million Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic on British-owned ships to a life of chattel slavery, hard labour and brutal punishment on British-owned plantations. We have privileged our national memories of Britain’s involvement in abolition over and above an acknowledgement of Britain’s involvement in colonial slavery.

For example, David Cameron’s rousing 2013 speech referenced abolition, challenging ‘anyone to find a country with a prouder history’. On his trip to Jamaica in 2015, Cameron said that Jamaicans should ‘move on’ from slavery’s ‘painful legacy’. Cameron used the same trip to reject calls from Caribbean nations for reparations – without mentioning the £20m already paid in compensation to slaveowners for the loss of human property after abolition. More recently, there are signs that our unwillingness to address the past is changing. There are plans to acknowledge Edward Colston’s role as a slave trader on his statue’s plaque in Bristol, for example.

In the 1661 Barbados Slave Code, ‘negroes’ were described as ‘heathenish brutish and … dangerous’. Consequently, people of colour were forbidden to testify in court, and white people were permitted to torture, mutilate and even kill enslaved people with no legal consequences. The slave code instigated perhaps the most pernicious legacy of colonial slavery – the codification of ‘race’ on the basis of skin colour. Of course, xenophobia and fear of the unknown existed before slave economies, but justification for the slave system required British law and society to develop and cement the notion of ‘blackness’ as being on a par with ‘brutishness’, and to legislate against people described as biologically unworthy of freedom. Here we are, 357 years later, witnessing controversies over Black Lives Matter and the targeting of Windrush-generation people who have lived in Britain for decades and whose documentation was destroyed by the Home Office.

Our responsibility for the slavery of the past continues in the way we address these legacies today. Can slavery eventually end? I hope so.

Rachel Lang is co-founder of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project.


This article was published in the October 2018 edition of  Reform

Subscribe to Reform



Submit a Comment