Monday, 7 November 2011

Zanzibar - Slavery in the 21st century

Whilst most of us are well aware of the history of the 19th-century slave trade in West Africa and the Americas, I think that many people will be less aware of the thriving slave trade on the east coast of Africa, during this period, which centred on Zanzibar and its links with Oman and the Arab world.  As I'm blogging about Zanzibar this month, I thought it would be a good opportunity to have a look at slavery, not just in the past, but also in the 21st century. 

Slavery in the modern world

Slavery has existed, in one form or another, since time immemorial and, despite the reforms of the 19th century and the abolition of slavery world-wide, the number of people living in slavery today, an estimated 12-20 million, is higher than it's ever been at any other point in human history.  Just last month, in Bedfordshire, England, a man was charged with slavery offenses, when a group of 24 English and Eastern European men were released from 'servitude' at a caravan site where they had been kept, either by force or dependency.

Slavery is a massive subject area and there is a lot of information out there.  Organisations like Anti-Slavery work hard to campaign and inform the public about modern slavery around the world.  I can only hope to scratch the surface of this topic area in this blog post, but it's something I'd like to research in more detail at a later date.

Slavery by Quadelirus
The Language of Slavery

The word 'slave' comes from the Greek, σκλάβος 'sklavos, which is also the origin of the word Slav/Slavic.  It's believed to have come from a verb meaning 'to strip the body of a slain enemy'.  When we talk about slavery today, it's a term which is incredibly loaded, historically, and one has to find a balance in the use of this word, that recognises the more complex nature of modern slavery but, at the same time, doesn't trivialise the oppression and suffering experienced by slaves in the pre-modern age.

Whilst chattel slavery, ie. the explicit ownership of slaves (chattel from the same root as capital, ie property) is less common nowadays, there are many other forms of slavery that have taken its place.

Unpaid work

A wider definition of slavery could refer to anyone who does work that they are not paid for.  Whilst this is hardly the same as being chained together and sent across the Atlantic in ships and being denied even basic freedoms, the form that modern slavery takes is complex, but no less repressive.

The most common form of slavery is Bond Labour, ie when someone is required to work for no or little pay, to pay back a debt, often one that has been handed down from their parents.  It's estimated that 40 million people in India are bonded workers paying off a debt.  Whilst bonded labourers are free to marry and lead their own lives, they are, nevertheless, trapped in an endless cycle of work and debt that binds them to their 'employer'.

The enslavement of women

Perhaps enforced marriages could be seen as a kind of slavery?  If we're talking about unpaid labour, I can't think of many countries in the world where the labour of keeping a home and rearing children (generally work done by women) is paid for and women still suffer enormous oppression and 'enslavement' to the needs and decisions of their husbands/brothers/fathers.

Petitioning Downing Street by 38 degrees
Human trafficking

Although slavery is illegal throughout the world, the law is often not enforced, especially on the International scene and most readers of this blog will be familiar with issues around human trafficking and will have heard of cases in your own country where people moved from somewhere else, with the hope of creating a better life for themselves, only to fall into the hands of traffickers, having their passports taken away and being forced into unpaid or low-paid labour or, in extreme cases, into a life of prostitution.

Other examples of unpaid labour

When I was teaching in Uzbekistan, I had to cancel a whole month of lessons during October, as almost all of my students from the university were sent off to pick cotton for the State.  As far as I know this was unpaid labour and I heard some horror stories about appalling working conditions in the cotton fields.  Anyone with a bit of money would try to buy their way out of this obligation, but poorer students had no option but to sacrifice a month's study to bring in the cotton harvest.

Perhaps military service could also be seen as a kind of slavery?  Again, in lots of countries I've lived in, including France and Russia, young men go to great lengths to get out of this obligation - often damaging themselves mentally or physically, so they won't be put in uniform and lose their freedom (usually up to a year or two years).  Young men from ethnic minorities or men who are gay or bisexual fear military service most, because of the terrible hazing of new recruits.  A shocking incident occurred when I was living in Russia, were a young recruit lost both of his legs because of the cruelty of his commanders.

Wage slaves

In a more abstract sense, being a wage slave is also incredibly oppressive and limiting.  21st-century society in the West functions in such a way as to discourage you from giving up your job and the wages you receive for the work you do, so that many people find themselves trapped in lives that are unfulfilling.  Let's face it, most of us are slaves to the capitalist system.  Our jobs, livelihoods and living conditions depend on the whims of the global economy and the actions of a handful of incredibly rich people.

Are we any less enslaved that people in the 19th century?  Well, I guess it's an unfair comparison as we do get paid for our work and we do have the option of changing employers or changing the direction of our lives (however difficult that might be), something that wasn't an option for slaves in the 19th century.

The abolition of slavery

William Wilberforce, anti-slavery campaigner
Slavery was abolished in Zanzibar, when it became a British protectorate in 1897.  I think Britain has played an incredibly important role in the abolition of slavery around the world and reformers like William Wilberforce paved the way for a world where individuals would have more control over their lives.  It's obvious that slavery is not a thing of the past, however and modern generations should continue to campaign and educate others on the nature of slavery, as it exists in the world today.

A small number of countries, like Japan, have no real historical baggage relating to slavery, although even Japan in the 21st century is a centre for human trafficking, especially of young women who move from places like Thailand and Columbia and are forced into prostitution.

Iceland abolished slavery as early as 1117 (previous to that, most slaves in Iceland had been kidnapped from Ireland and Britain and taken to the island by force).  Other countries have been much slower to catch-up, especially in the Arab world, where slavery was still legal in Yemen and Saudi Arabia until 1962 and in Oman until 1970.  Mauritania (in west Africa) was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981. 

Image credits:

The image of the young slave girl statue was taken by flickr member Quadelirus - the original image can be seen at

The image of the petitioners was put on Flickr by a UK-based campaigning organisation called 38 degrees - you can find out more about their campaign work at their website.

The image of William Wilberforce is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.

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