“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ‘ cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.”
The above phrases from the hugely popular American folksong ‘Sixteen tons’ were written and first recorded by Merle Travis at the Radio Recorders Studio B in Hollywood, California on August 8, 1946.It was sung by many male vocalists like Johnny Cash and Tom Jones, portraying the difficult life of coalminers in the United States of America.
Though it sounds like a satire it has the deep meaning of ‘bondage to the job’ of poorly paid manual labour in coal mining and agriculture like cotton farming. In hindsight it portrayed hidden slavery.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in the British Empire with the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and in the Dutch colonies in 1833.Nevertheless, did it ever really end? The above mentioned figure of more than 40 million people living under forced labour or forced marriage, the two main forms of ‘Modern Slavery’, clearly shows that slavery never ended. Nowadays called ‘Modern Slavery’ takes six main forms: domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced and bonded labour, child labour and forced marriage.
The Universal Declaration of Rights of 10.12.1948 states in Article 4: ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’
Slavery’s long-lingering Past and Present day persistence
The dark past of Trans-Atlantic Slavery is well known and in addition to the still not fully told human suffering and misery, caused a forced migration of Africans to the Americas and parts of the Middle East and Asia. Even after multiple generations descendants of trafficked slaves, e.g. African-Americans are still struggling to come to terms with their past. Many blame their disadvantageous status quo in North American society on their slavery heritage, while others see the discriminating attitude of their Caucasian country men and women as cause of their situation.
Unfortunately that goes for a large majority, but is increasingly not the rule of the day.
Many if not most African-Americans honour their African descent, but live by the present in which your destiny is what you make it to be, irrespective of who you are.
New ways of research and advanced technology and an attitude of respect and moderated emotion make it possible to bring more of slavery’s dark past into the light and forms the basis for ‘understanding’ and education.
Slavery had existed in Europe from classical times and did not disappear with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Slaves remained common in Europe throughout the early medieval period. However, slavery of the classical type became increasingly uncommon in Northern Europe and, by the 11th and 12th centuries, had been effectively abolished in the North. Nevertheless, forms of unfree labour, such as villeinage and serfdom, persisted in the north well into the early modern period. In Southern and Eastern Europe, classical-style slavery remained a normal part of the society and economy and trade across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard meant that African slaves began to appear in Italy, Spain, Southern France, and Portugal well before the discovery of the New World in 1492. From about the 8th century onwards, an Arab-run slave trade also flourished, with much of this activity taking place in East Africa, Arabia, and the Indian Ocean. In addition, many African societies themselves had forms of slavery, although these differed considerably, both from each other and from the European and Arabic forms.
Although various forms of unfree labour were prevalent in Europe throughout its history, historians refer to ‘Chattel Slavery’, in which slaves are commodities to be bought and sold, rather than domestic servants or agricultural workers. Chattel Slavery is the characteristic form of slavery in the modern world, represented by trafficking of women for prostitution and men for low paid or non-existing jobs.
Most recently the world was shocked when International News Agency CNN showed how African migrants trying to travel to Europe were caught and held in detention camps in Libya and sold like modern slaves. Though this is indeed an inhuman act and blatant disrespect of human rights it is the tip of the iceberg finally coming in sight.
Slavery in Africa
Slavery has historically been widespread in Africa, and still continues today in some countries. Systems of servitude and slavery were common in parts of Africa, as they were in much of the ancient world. In many African societies where slavery was prevalent, the enslaved people were not treated as chattel slaves and were given certain rights in a system similar to indentured servitude elsewhere in the world. When the Arab slave trade and Atlantic slave trade began, many of the local slave systems began supplying captives for slave markets outside Africa.
Slavery in historical Africa was practiced in many different forms: debt slavery, enslavement of war captives, military slavery, and criminal slavery were all practiced in various parts of Africa. Slavery for domestic and court purposes was also widespread throughout Africa. Plantation slavery also occurred primarily on the eastern coast of Africa and in parts of West Africa. The importance domestic plantation slavery increased during the 19th century due to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Many African states dependent on the international slave trade reoriented their economies towards legitimate commerce worked by slave labour.
Slavery in Africa was a lot different than the European slavery. Slavery was not an idea of racism, but a way to meet economic means. Africa did not know that something that they saw as pure economics would turn into pure horror and oppression.
The New Abolitionists
New Abolitionists is much more than a collection of photographs. It is a campaign that teaches that slavery is neither a historical artefact nor something confined to distant lands. Sex and labour slavery happens in our midst to our girls and boys, to our women and men. Some of the victims are brought here from other parts of the world. Often lacking English and immigration status, they are at the mercy of the criminals who buy and sell them. Many more, however, are born and raised in our communities and enslaved by traffickers from our communities, usually for sexual exploitation that typically starts when the victims are young teens. Through the link below you will see the photographs of survivors, activists, lawyers, senators, and actors, all committed and playing their part to End Slavery Now.
How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy – National Geographic
In a second excerpt from Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture, Howard Dodson looks at how slavery gave the United States a role in the global political economy. … By 1850, 1.8 million of the 2.5 million enslaved Africans employed in agriculture in the United States were working on cotton plantations.
The Statistic Portal shows that India and China have the largest number of people in Modern Slavery, respectively more than 18.3 and 3.3 million, followed by Pakistan’s 2.1 million.
As for Africa Nigeria has 875.500 and D.R. of Congo 873.100, while Egypt’s ‘Modern Slavery’ accounts for 572.900.Each of these numbers represents people living under inhuman conditions, with untold suffering, hardship and often no prospect of improvement in their future.
Though the designation ‘Modern’ may give the impression of improved it still is the ultimate crime against humanity happening right under our nose. What are we doing about it?
*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org