Three women enslaved in an ordinary London house for 30 years: This is shocking. However, it should not be a surprise. In the modern world, the trade in human slaves is booming — indeed, by some calculations, slaves alive today outnumber those stolen from Africa from the 16th through the 19th centuries.
In the ancient world, slavery was an unquestioned fact of everyday life, essential to the economy and society of most early civilizations. It developed after the emergence of three ideas: the concept of personal property; the realization that humans, like domesticated animals, could enhance an individual’s industry; and the principle of nations, which led to the possibility of peoples at war, and therefore prisoners of war, who were then used as slaves. In early African societies, slaves were a symbol of power, wealth and status. The slaves were prisoners of war, debtors and criminals, used for domestic purposes, rather than commercial gain.
In 1444, a few hundred men, women and children were grabbed from the African coast by the Portuguese, baptized on arrival in Portugal, and sold by public auction. By 1460, 1,000 African slaves were imported annually.
The subsequent plunder of the new world’s natural resources meant a labor force was needed for the gold and silver mines (and later plantations). Slave hunters turned to the UK, and for a while, the streets of Bristol, in southwest England, proved dangerous territory for the young and gullible after dark.
However, the slaves of Africa distinguished themselves. They were skilled craftsmen, knew how to domesticate animals and were immune to European diseases. In 1518, the Spanish government issued a contract to a Flemish merchant, authorizing him to deliver 4,000 African slaves annually to Spanish colonies. In Brazil, the Portuguese reached the same conclusions: They had to have slaves; they had to come from Africa.
The engine for the transatlantic slave trade had started. It was the largest international business of the time, with African slaves providing the labor that drove a new global financial system. It transformed the world, and our view of slaves and slavery, which became equated with Africa. Before the transatlantic trade, there was no apparent racial dynamic; as the trade developed, a racist ideology emerged to justify it.
England entered the slave trade late, but become the largest slaving nation on Earth. Everyone was involved: royalty, parliamentarians, churchmen, the celebrities of the age.
The campaign to end the slave trade was the first human rights campaign of its kind, and set the template for all such campaigns. In 1833, 180 years ago, the British parliament passed a bill making slavery illegal. Slavery was dealt a blow. However, it has recovered well.
Kevin Bales, lead researcher on the Global Slavery Index published last month, has calculated that the price of a slave (on average US$90) is at a historic low. Although slavery is illegal everywhere, Bales says 29.8 million people are trapped in slavery — in debt bondage, slave labor, sex trafficking, forced labor or domestic servitude. This compares with the estimated 12.5 million sent across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean — though, of course, the impact of transatlantic slavery over centuries cannot be downplayed.