|Position||Hope for Justice|
|Institution||History, heritage and law|
My attention was first drawn to the impact of slavery on humanity some years ago whilst conducting research for my MA Heritage Studies – this, combined with a passion ignited during my BA (Hons) History of Art and Design, for the 18th century and my desire to unravel the narrative behind who and what funded the exuberant art collections and architecture we visit as a leisure pursuit every year in this country. As such, my MA dissertation examined the presentation and interpretation of 18th century country houses to establish extent to which these properties acknowledged their links with their slaving past. More recently I completed an MSc in Crime Analysis at Southampton University School of Law – this furnished me the opportunity to revisit the topic of modern slavery in a contemporary setting, but from a legal perspective. My research explored our relationship with historical slavery and our ability, or indeed inability, to identify slavery and human trafficking (I attach a chapter of my work). It is a combination of these themes that I would hope to draw on as the main thrust of my PhD proposal in my ambition to research to what extent we are ‘chained to our past – and do we set the culture or does culture set us?’
Chattel Slavery: the contemporary cargo
History tells us that the practice of slavery predates written records, ‘existing before money or law’ ; it has been accepted as a widespread and legally recognised system in the ancient world and beyond. However, the Anti-Slavery Organisation express the belief, ‘when we think about slavery what comes to mind is the Trans-Atlantic Trade, captured Africans transported to the West Indies and America to work mainly in the sugar plantations’ ; an opinion articulated by many popular editorial publications. Confirmation comes in statements such as, ‘if we said the words ‘slavery’ to you, most people imagine it’s something that happens overseas – or years ago’ . The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was the product of a prolonged and hard-fought victory by British politicians – today ‘slavery is illegal in almost every nation on earth but slavery still exists everywhere’ .
In recent years senior ministers have dredged up the much heralded abolition of slavery to bolster Britain’s self-defined greatness, with political rhetoric enforcing the ideal of the UK as an upholder of rights and justice – a vanguard exertion engendering a degree of national pride; a legacy diverting our attention from contemporary issues. As a potentially cogent lobbying devise it manifests itself as an emotional and historic touchstone, its visceral image makes the Call all the more powerful in stimulating action. If we are to believe that slavery is alive in the 21st century, the continued condemnation of Trans-Atlantic slavery as a mantle of righteousness confers authority upon the spokesperson, or politician. Bravo suggests, ‘this works to delay or prevent questions with regard to methodologies used to combat modern trafficking’ ; it confirms modern trafficking as an aberration, despite our enlightened times. If we are to discuss slavery in historical terms, it serves to mask the structural apparatus facilitating exploitation remaining in place post-abolition.
Whilst chattel slavery was legislatively abolished, as a result of a strong and sustained domestic crusade by abolitionists and a substantial faction of like-minded politicians, reform was only realised in part; due to a re-evaluation of the trade’s economic viability. Similarly, globalisation as an effective means of bringing wealth to developing countries, contemporary economic factors are an adjunct precipitating the rise of the modern slaveholder; enduring slavery-like practices and the power slavers wield is due to a seemingly unlimited supply of slaves. Brewer states, ‘only the implementation of novel approaches geared toward the elimination of human trafficking can the global community and law enforcement institutions stymie the spread of the global pandemic of human trafficking that afflicts humanity’ .
Slavery is central to the development of Britain’s identity, economy and politics; as Hall states, ‘it has shaped our history, many physical remnants are built on slaving wealth and the way in which our commercial and financial institutions where built on the Atlantic slave trade and slavery’ . Notions of slavery are embedded in ‘British culture’ and approaches to defining slavery appear easier to construct within a transatlantic slave-trade setting. Indeed, the history of slavery is repeatedly mined for the promotion of contemporary causes – references to modern day slavery juxtaposed to ‘trans-Atlantic slavery’ are embedded in anti-trafficking discourse with the topic of modern slavery at their heart. As though to demonstrate credibility by identifying with slavery as an almost universally held agreement of an obvious wrong that belongs to the past, many introductory paragraphs adopt a modality comparable to, ‘over two hundred years after William Wilberforce’s successes in abolishing slavery…’ . Modern anti-trafficking relies heavily on the tactic of rhetorical spin – images of Caribbean sugar plantation workers restrained by leg irons and chains are furthered by the media and references to slavery by decent; a form most often associated with the word slavery that belies the voice of the disenfranchised. Joel Quirk states, ‘slavery is routinely dismissed as a historical artifact, but this complacent viewpoint obscures a range of a widespread, complex enduring problems which fall under the rubric of ‘contemporary forms of slavery’. Conceptualising slavery within a historical setting, when slavery was legal is at the expense of the more complicated political and economic dynamics.