Thinking About Slavery

by frankbeswick

People of all nations have been victims, culprits and opponents of slavery.

Slavery has been a world-wide problem that has afflicted countless people of all nationalities and both sexes for millennia. Europeans were major participants in the trade, but there were also European victims. Slavery had a racial dimension in some cases , but there have always been people who were willing to enslave those of their own nation or colour. As an anti-slaver I want to show the scope of the problem and say that it is still an issue today

Image courtesy of Ephraimstochter

Victims, Culprits and Rescuers.

In 1816 a combined British and Dutch war fleet descended on Algiers and began a bombardment.The aim was to force the Dey [ruler] of Algiers to release European slaves taken captive by the infamous Barbary Corsairs, North African pirates who had marauded European waters for hundred of years, often taking ships at sea and sometimes coming onto land to capture slaves, most of whom were never to return home again.  The raid was a partial success, with slaving slowing down, but while in this case the British were the rescuers and in some individual cases the victims, the operation was limited. Black slaves were not rescued and the British colonies still  retained slavery until the 1830s. Count this raid as one small victory in an endless war. Moreover, the British were major players in the Atlantic slave trade that saw millions of black people dragged away into lifelong servitude. While later on Britain took the high ground, intercepting slave ships and releasing slaves, it was only partial atonement for several hundred years of slave raiding. 

Slavery was often quite local even up to 1000 or so AD. This meant that in Europe it was white on white. Anglo-Saxon England used slaves, but it was not a major slave owning society. However, the Vikings were slave dealers on a grand scale, and their raids yielded many captives,many of whom were shipped to the slave markets in Dublin whence they were distributed.This practice continued after the Norman conquest, when probably indebted Anglo-Saxons were seized and sold. But on a grander scale the Scottish raids that followed the Norman wasting of the North resulted in many English being taken. Moreover, some English were not averse to selling their own families. Take the case of St Bathilde, an East Anglian aristocrat whose family lost power  in a political struggle, whereupon her uncharming and victorious relative had her sold into slavery. She finished up marrying the king of Burgundia, but a good end does not justify an evil process.  

Yet the opposition to slavery was local, though motivated by Roman Catholicism. St Wulstan of Worcester preached insistently and vehemently against the Viking slave trade in the period after the Norman conquest, and his work went a long way to making slavery unacceptable in England.  In Scotland Queen Margaret, a Saxon princess wed to Malcolm Canmore, Good King Duncan's supposedly virtuous son in Shakespeare's Macbeth, managed to redeem some English slaves, but it was not easy and many languished unredeemed. 

But in England slavery was transformed into serfdom, not much better, and died out under the influence of Catholic moral teaching. Until the sixteenth century! 

The Sixteenth Century and Afterwards

There was progress and regression in the Tudor period. An English court declared that a runaway Russian slave whose master had pursued him to England could not be sent back to Russia, as a man becomes free when he enters England, for the pure air of England makes slaves free. Great decision, but the aristocracy and gentry ignored it and still brought black slaves to Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Trapped by economics and the power system where could they flee?

However, opportunities  for slaving developed greatly when the Americas were colonised. The great estates being established in the New World had plenty of scope for slave labour, and moreover Africa had internal wars that resulted in captives, all of whom would be sold on to enterprising merchants. There was a precedent, for the Portuguese had been raiding in North West Africa since the fifteenth century and the slaves that they brought back whetted the aristocratic and capitalistic greed for cheap coerced labour. 

Never ones to miss  business opportunity the English muscled in on the racket. Our national "heroes", Drake and Hawkins, were slave traders and raiders, and Scots soon got their share of the profits after the act of union that joined Scotland to England. The British were on the whole middlemen rather than raiders, but be clear, guilt shared is not guilt halved and they were fully guilty of grave wrongdoing. The under-crewed slave ships staffed by poor quality sailors themselves often underfed and little better than wage slaves themselves were not in a position to raid anywhere. In the infamous slave  triangle the British bought African slaves from the African rulers who had kidnapped them from other tribes.  

Slavery always exploits the economic structures of an age, and in the past few hundred years in the Americas the plantations worked by the many for the benefit of the few were run by slave labour. The plantations had revived the old Roman system of latefundia, large farms staffed by slaves with the profits going to their rich owners. The industrial system of Europe used exploited rather than slave labour, though the Nazi military machine enslaved thousands of Europeans during the war. 

But there was opposition. The Catholic religious orders, Jesuits and Franciscans, put up strong opposition to slavery, and in this endeavour they worked with the Trinitarian order which was founded in the Middle Ages to ransom slaves taken by the Muslims. Some opposition developed in Britain in evangelical circles, and the Quakers were adamantly anti-slavery. Finally, the Anti-slavery Society was formed. In 1823 one was formed to fight slavery in the British Empire and in 1839 another was formed to fight slavery worldwide.  The two merged and now are known as Anti-slavery International. We are the world's oldest human right organisation and I am proud to be a member to carry on the work of Wilberforce and Clarkson, great anti-slavery activists.  


Modern Slavery

There were two areas where primitive forms of slavery survived: the ISIS caliphate where female sex slavery was rife; and Mauretania, a pre-modern economy where hereditary slavery is still suffered by some families who undergo dire conditions. ISIS is thankfully destroyed, but Mauretania remains a problem.

The Indian subcontinent remains a problem with debt slavery afflicting whole families who are forced to work for pittances and can never pay off their debts. Sometimes the daughters of such families are sold into prostitution by the owners. This is a form of bonded labour, in which the worker is tied to an employer. Needless to say in such conditions wages are very low.Forced labour is another area in which certain states make citizens work for nothing, Turkmenistan being the prime example with its compulsory cotton picking. Construction projects in certain Arab states employ Philippine  men, who have their passports taken, making them dependent on the employer for getting home. They are in effect slaves  

Women and children suffer badly. Child slaves suffer all that adult slaves undergo. Women are lured into domestic service and underpaid, overworked and sexually exploited. And let us not think that the abuse is always male on female. Many female slaves have cruel mistresses. 

Modern western economies exist in a society of highly mobile people and this is exploited by slavers. Women and vulnerable men are lured to foreign countries on the pretext of good jobs, but often the women discover that their fate is prostitution and the men find that they are tied to farms and construction projects in exploitative conditions. In the UK we suffer the problem that young Eastern European women, from countries where wages are low, are enticed to Britain and then caught in the sex trade. Vietnamese are lured, the women into nail bars and the males into cannabis farms. Another vulnerable group are homeless men, some of whom have been captured by traveller gangs and forced into slave condition in construction work or on unscrupulous farms. There was one Asian girl, deaf and dumb, sent by her family to England for a job. She was for years exploited and abused. The male who abused her got many years in jail, her cruel mistress, his wife, going down for a few years as well.  

What can be done? We all need to be alert. Look out for situations where work is being done by vulnerable people for a price that seems too good to be  true, for this suggests that the workers are slaves. Sign petitions to keep politicians on their toes. Give to charities that help the vulnerable escape slavery. Be careful to source clothes so that you purchase from companies where the supply chain is free from slave labour.

Only when all people are free from greed and the willingness to use violence  to gain economic goods and services will slavery be ended. The price of freedom is endless vigilance, not just for yourself, but for all.

Updated: 12/03/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 03/09/2019

They were free, but many had to pay their own way home,which they could not afford, so they stayed. One such as Henry Morgan became a successful privateer and was eventually made governor of Jamaica.There are adverts for Captain Morgan rum with the key line "Live like the captain." However,living like the captain would involve burning down Panama City and eventually dying of drink, presumably from rum.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/09/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the back- and front-stories and product lines. Veronica asked about what happened to indentured servants once their time was up in the colonies. Bacon's Castle in Virginia, about which I've written, memorialized a rebellion that included concern over former indentured servants and poorer colonists settling the frontiers without protection or resources. In fact, that was a common way of pushing the proto USA ever further westward.

frankbeswick on 12/06/2018

Thanks. However , my commitment to truth has resulted in my annoying people at times.

blackspanielgallery on 12/05/2018

I am afraid students today are getting sanitized history far too often. we must recognize such things from the past. Making history politically correct serves no one. Frank, your work does not hesitate to bring out the whole truth. Thanks.

frankbeswick on 12/05/2018

Thanks for the mention of indentured labour. British people were also sent as slaves to the Americas as punishment for treason. This happened in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

blackspanielgallery on 12/04/2018

Basically,from what I learned in history years ago, women would come to the colonies, generally poor women, and work of the debt for their passage over about seven years. Once there was no debt, they could leave. Think about the old english custom of debtors prison. Only, they were obligated to work off the debt.

Veronica on 12/04/2018

what happened to them after that time was up.?

blackspanielgallery on 12/04/2018

A close but technically distinct thing that happened in colonial America was the indentured servants where people came under slave conditions for a set period of time.

Veronica on 12/03/2018

There has always been the idea that the Irish were under attack from England as indeed they have been . But let's not forget how the Irish raided and kidnapped many English people into slavery for generations.

frankbeswick on 12/03/2018

The tale of Tristan and Isolde [Yseult] in the Matter of Britain recounts a clash between the Cornish and Irish slave raiders. The climax was the clash between Tristan, champion of Cornwall, and the Morholt, the giant champion of Ireland. Tristan won and the Irish [probably Leinstermen] were driven off. Britain in the immediate post-Roman age was a very violent place beset by Pictish, Irish and Saxon raiders.

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