23rd August marks the International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery. This date was chosen to commemorate the struggle for the freeing of slaves because, on the night of 22nd – 23rd August, 1791, an organised society of slaves in Haiti and the Dominican Republic (then known as Santo Domingo) rebelled against their French colonial masters. This then inspired a more prolonged revolt, and further spurred on by the sentiment of the French Revolutionaries, the slaves persevered, despite massive losses. By 1801, they had freed themselves and reclaimed control from the French. It was this violent but successful revolution, frequently referred to as ‘The Haiti Revolution,’ which was to tip the balance in favour of the abolition of slavery for the very first time.
UNESCO describes the International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery as
“…intended to inscribe the tragedy of the slave trade in the memory of all peoples.” On this day, the Ministers of Culture of all UNESCO’s member states are encouraged to organise events to educate as much of the population as possible on the effects of slavery.
In Britain, in 1807 the Slave Trade Act was passed. This outlawed the trading of slaves, but did nothing to help those already in a state of slavery. Although there was a strong anti-slavery movement in Britain as early as 1783, it wasn’t until 1833 that the Abolition of Slavery Act was put in place. Even then, it was decades before all slaves across the British Empire became free, as most were forced to work their way slowly to freedom via apprenticeships. During this time of adjustment many men, women and children endured treatment that was just as harsh, or even harsher, than what they had experienced as legal slaves. Further, rather than the slaves being compensated for suffering a lifetime of violence and overworking, it was the former slave owners who received such payment, for their loss of labour.
An article in The Guardian explains, “We can only begin to understand slavery’s influence on Britain today by first allowing 500 years of human history to flash before our eyes. Beginning in the last decades of the 1400s, we see African people kidnapped from their families, crammed into the dark pits of slave forts, and then piled into the bowels of ships. We see voyagers and traders… in the 1560s… make massive fortunes from this trade in kidnapped Africans. By the late 17th century, we see the British coming to dominate the slave trade… Half of all the Africans transported into slavery during the 18th century were carried in the holds of British ships.”
The International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery is also a timely reminder that although slavery is illegal in every country in the world it has not disappeared. A study by Richard Re in 2002 says that “conservative estimates indicate that at least 27 million people, in places as diverse as Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil, live in conditions of forced bondage. Some sources believe the actual figures are 10 times as large.”
Slaves are still bought and sold, many for less than $100, making them disposable. To buyers, sellers and users slaves are objects rather than human beings. They suffer violence, overworking and cruelty just as the slaves of the past did. The major difference now is that slavery is illegal. Obviously this is a positive thing, but it also means that now the trading is done in secret and is mixed up with crime and corruption, rather than the expansion of a business or the cultivation of land, making it harder to stop.
The most frequent form of modern slavery is bonded slavery. This is when a person is forced into slavery to pay off a debt. Migrant workers often find themselves in this position. They are forced to work for those who have smuggled them out of their country, but the fees are so high, and their lives and work valued at so little, that the debt is never paid, and they live a life of slavery.
Children are at the most risk of falling into bonded slavery. A study by the BBC at the turn of the century showed that in India alone poverty and sheer desperation have forced 15 million children into bonded labour. Forced marriage, prostitution and the sexual exploitation of adults and children is rife in the modern slave trade. A task group working for the United Nations in 1998 estimated that around 20 million people were working as slaves, a number which has since increased.
The abolition of slavery in 1833 was a major triumph. The Act led to the slow but eventual freedom of many slaves across the world, and the end of open exploitation. However, as the International Day for the Remembrance of Slavery strives to remind us, the battle against slavery is far from over.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.