Thursday, April 27, 2006

Abolitionist movements

Slavery has existed, in one form or another, through the whole of recorded human history — as have, in various periods, movements to free large or distinct groups of slaves. According to the Biblical Book of Exodus, Moses led Israelite slaves out of ancient Egypt — possibly the first written account of a movement to free slaves. Later Jewish laws (known as Halacha) prevented slaves from being sold out of the Land of Israel, and allowed a slave to move to Israel if he so desired. The Cyrus Cylinder, inscribed about 539 B.C.E., abolished slavery and allowed Jews and other nationalities who had been enslaved under Babylonian rule to return to their native lands.

Abolitionism should be distinguished from efforts to help a particular group of slaves, or to restrict one practice, such as the slave trade.

Portugal was the first country in Europe to abolish slavery, at least in its European territory. This was done by a decree issued in February 12, 1761 by the prime minister, the Marquis of Pombal.

In 1772, a legal case concerning James Somersett established the illegality of slavery in England.

Proclamation of the abolition of slavery by Victor Hughes in Guadeloupe, 1 November 1794There were slaves in mainland France, but the institution was never fully authorized there. However, slavery was vitally important in France's Caribbean possessions, especially Saint-Domingue. In 1793, unable to repress the massive slave revolt of August 1791 that had become the Haitian Revolution, the French Revolutionary commissioners Sonthonax and Polverel declared general emancipation. In Paris, on February 4, 1794, Abbé Grégoire and the Convention ratified this action by officially abolishing slavery in all French territories. Napoleon sent troops to the Caribbean in 1802 to try to re-establish French control. They were successful at doing so in Guadeloupe and Martinique, but the ex-slaves of Saint-Domingue defeated the French army and declared independence. The colony became Haiti, the first black republic, on January 1, 1804. To prevent the reimposition of slavery, the new state broke up the plantations into small private land holdings. However, these also proved too small for economic development, leading to widespread poverty. In France's other Caribbean colonies, where slavery was re-established, abolition did not take place until 1848.

Following the work of campaigners in the United Kingdom, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed on March 25, 1807. The act imposed a fine of £100 for every slave found aboard a British ship. The intention was to outlaw the slave trade within the British Empire. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed on August 23, 1833, outlawed slavery in British colonies. On August 1, 1834 all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but those still working were indentured to their former owners in an "apprenticeship" system, which was abolished in 1838 after peaceful protests in Trinidad.[11]

Around this time, slaves in other parts of the world, aided by abolitionists, also began their struggle for independence. Beginning during the American Revolution, states in the Northern parts of the U.S. began to free their slaves. Pennsylvania passed the first Gradual Emancipation act in 1780, and Massachusetts ended slavery wholesale in 1783 by judicial decree. By 1804, NJ would be the final "Northern" state to end enslavement. Slaves in the United States who escaped ownership would often make their way north with white and black abolitionist support to the northern part of the country or Canada through what became known as the "Underground Railroad". Famously active abolitionists of the U.S. include William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass and John Brown. Disputes over slavery, and its extension into new territories, helped to lead to the American Civil War, which took the lives of more than 620,000 soldiers. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued during the war, and the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865, finally abolished slavery in the United States.

Portugal abolished slavery in its overseas territories in 1869, following British lobbying and prior agreements to the gradual abolition of slavery throughout the Portuguese Empire. Spain abolished slavery in Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1873 and 1886, respectively. The last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery was Brazil, who did so in 1888.

The abolition movement was fueled in part by a growing sense that slavery was morally repugnant, but also for economic reasons. Most of the former slaveowners (those that did not go bankrupt) found they could get cheaper labor costs by simply hiring the former slaves only when they needed them, instead of committing to feeding and housing them in perpetuity. The invention of the electric motor and a myriad of household machinery that had taken most of the drudgery out of housework removed the necessity of household slaves. The invention of labor saving devices has made farming and industrial production so labor-free that slaves are in actuality not cost effective; not considering of course the importance of the equity value involved in slave ownership.

Abolition led to new concerns, notably the question of what to do with the massive increase in the number of people needing work, housing, and so on. To answer this question, Sierra Leone and Liberia were established for former slaves of the British Empire and United States respectively. Supporters of the effort believed the repatriation of slaves to Africa would be the best solution to the problem as well as setting right the injustices done to their ancestors. While these efforts may have been in good faith, and indeed some blacks (notably parts of the Harlem Renaissance) embraced repatriation, there were other motives as well; for instance, trade unions did not want the cheap labor of former slaves around, and racism (i.e. solving the problem by getting rid of the blacks) may have played a role. Regardless of the motives, both efforts were largely unsuccessful.[citation needed]

The 1926 Slavery Convention, an initiative of the League of Nations, was a turning point in banning global slavery. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the UN General Assembly, explicitly banned slavery. The United Nations 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery was convened to outlaw and ban slavery worldwide, including child slavery. In December 1966, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was developed from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 8 of this international treaty bans slavery. The treaty came into force in March 1976 after it had been ratified by 35 nations. By November 2003 104 nations had ratified the treaty.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The economics of contemporary slavery

In the post WWII era debate about the link between economic growth and different relational forms (most notably unfree social relations of production in Third World agriculture) occupied many contributing to discussions in the development decade (the 1960s). This continued to be the case in the mode of production debate (mainly about agrarian transition in India) that spilled over into the 1970s, important aspects of which continue into the present (see the monograph by Brass, 1999, and the 600 page volume edited by Brass and van der Linden, 1997). Central to these discussions was the link between capitalist development and modern forms of unfree labour (peonage, debt bondage, indenture, chattel slavery). Within the domain of political economy it is a debate that has a very long historical lineage, and - accurately presented - never actually went away. Unlike advocacy groups, for which the number of the currently unfree is paramount, those political economists who participated in the earlier debates sought to establish who, precisely, was (or was not) to be included under the rubric of a worker whose subordination constituted a modern form of unfreedom. This element of definition was regarded as an epistemologically necessary precondition to any calculations of how many were to be categorized as relationally unfree.

According to a broader definition used by Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves, another advocacy group linked with Anti-Slavery International, there are 27 million people (though some put the number as high as 200 million) in virtual slavery today, spread all over the world (Kevin Bales, Disposable People). This is, also according to that group:

The largest number of people that has ever been in slavery at any point in world history.
The smallest percentage of the total human population that has ever been enslaved at once.
Reducing the price of slaves to as low as US$40 in Mali for young adult male laborers, to a high of US$1000 or so in Thailand for HIV-free young females suitable for use in brothels (where they frequently contract HIV). This represents the price paid to the person, or parents.
This represents the lowest price that there has ever been for a slave in raw labor terms — while the price of a comparable male slave in 1850 America would have been about US$1000 in the currency of the time (US$38,000 today), thus slaves, at least of that category, now cost one thirtyeighth of their price 150 years ago, although this does not refer to the price of an 1850 slave in Africa.
As a result, the economics of slavery is stark: the yield of profit per year for those buying and controlling a slave is over 800% on average, as opposed to the 5% per year that would have been the expected payback for buying a slave in colonial times. This combines with the high potential to lose a slave (have them stolen, escape, or freed by unfriendly authorities) to yield what are called disposable people — those who can be exploited intensely for a short time and then discarded, such as the prostitutes thrown out on city streets to die once they contract HIV, or those forced to work in mines.


Sporadically there have been movements to achieve reparations for those formerly held as slaves, or sometimes their descendants. Claims for reparations for being held in slavery are handled as a civil law matter in almost every country. This is often decried as a serious problem, since former slaves' relative lack of money means they often have limited access to a potentially expensive and futile legal process. Mandatory systems of fines and reparations paid to an as yet undetermined group of claimants from fines, paid by unspecified parties, and collected by authorities have been proposed by advocates to alleviate this "civil court problem". Since in almost all cases there are no living ex-slaves or living ex-slave owners these movements have gained little traction. In nearly all cases the judicial system has ruled that the statute of limitations on these possible claims has long since expired.

In the United States, the reparations movement often cites the unofficial 40 acres and a mule decree, which was never implemented, as an unpaid claim. Recent effort have also targeted the few surviving businesses that profited from the slave trade or issued insurance on slaves. Almost all these cases have been dismissed and reparations have never been paid to descendants of slaves.

In Africa, the second self-appointed World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission was convened in Ghana in 2000. Its deliberations concluded with a petition being served in the International Court at the Hague for US$777 trillion (more than ten times the annual world GDP, equivalent to about 250 years' worth of the current U.S. federal budget) against the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom for "unlawful removal and destruction of Petitioners" mineral and human resources from the African continent" between 1503 up to the end of the colonial era in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Following Blair's statement expressing "sorrow" over slavery, Esther Stanford, of the Pan African Reparation Coalition called for "various reparative measures including financial compensation" from the British government to the descendants of black Africans transported in the international slave trade. This view was repeated by Anti-slavery International's director Aiden McQuade, who called for "measures of reparation towards the communities and countries which have been impoverished and devastated by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade". Such reparations are not completely without precedent, since descendants of black American slaves sued Lloyd's of London in 2004 for insuring ships used in the slave trade during the 1700s and 1800s. There is widespread disagreement with reparations for slavery among the British public, including anger that such reparations are unilateral (i.e. focus purely on black African slavery by white people and do not take into account slavery within Africa by black Africans over a longer period), single-issue (i.e. do not include other slavery within Britain under, for example, the Romans and Vikings), legally dubious (group responsibility for the actions of forebears has no legal basis under British law) and fail to take into account changing political, legal and moral attitudes..

The idea of reparations for slavery has also been rejected by some black Africans. The president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, has ridiculed reparations by saying he is the descendant of generations of slave-owning African royals. "If one can claim reparations for slavery, the slaves of my ancestors or their descendants can also claim money from me".