Opinion: Slavery is of all times

POSTED: 07/4/11 11:53 AM

The traditional commemoration of the abolishment of slavery came too early this year, professor emeritus in the history of European expansion and migration at the University of Leiden wrote in an opinion piece in the Volkskrant yesterday. The independent public broadcaster NTR starts in September with a series about the slave trade and slavery. It would have been fitting, Emmer wrote, to bring the first episode on Emancipation Day.

Slavery was not uniquely western, Emmer stated. What was unique was the outrage about it and the campaign to abolish it. This is an abridged version of his opinion.

“Thirty years ago we still thought that only Europeans were able to organize a massive forced migration. But today we know that the trade was as massive elsewhere. Within Africa slaves were traded on a large scale and many Africans have been sold into slavery to the Middle East. In Asia and Indian America there was also a lively slave trade while at least one million European slaves (the kidnapped population of some coastal regions in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, soldiers captured during wars and ship crews) ended up in North-Africa.

Still the western slave trade and the colonial slavery have a unique character because the European traders and slave owners, other than their Arab, African and Asian colleagues, did not know slave trade and slavery at home. That double standard led after 1750 to large scale public outrage and to the establishment a of a very effective abolishment lobby.

That outrage and the abolishment campaign that was based on it were also unique. That is a second important difference with before, when many studies belittled the humanitarian character of the abolition, because the slave trade and slavery were not profitable anyway. These days we know better. If it had been left up to market forces these very profitable institutions would have existed for decades longer and only the west had put a stop to this. Asia and Africa did not.

But what were then the consequences of the abolition? That the slave owners suffered damages we already knew, but about the pros and cons for former slaves much less is known. That has changed in the meantime. More and more studies show that by far not all released slaves were better off in the material sense or that their incomes diverged sharply. The abolition was an abrupt end to a system wherein owners were forces to offer their slaves more and more food, better housing and healthcare, not only for their best workers, but also for the handicapped, the elderly and the child slaves who did not work.

Those improvements were largely forces by actions from slaves. By giving in the owners were hoping to keep the peace and to take arguments away from slavery opponents.

On many plantations in Suriname small hospitals were established, the doctor visited regularly, the working hours were limited and the slave owners established for that time a generous maternity leave.

The abolition brought this system to an abrupt halt. For former slaves who were in their prime this did not matter because they could generate sometimes more income than before as day laborers or as small farmers. But this did not apply to orphans, the sick and the elderly.

Should slavery then have been kept in place? No, because slavery is not compatible with the human dignity. With the abolition the western world finally recognized that. But that the abolition put a stop to a unique western injustice is incorrect. Slave trade and slavery are of all times and of all places. In the first half of the nineteenth century, when slavery was abolished in the New World, thousands of parents in India decided to sell their children as slaves hoping to save them from death by starvation. The nineteenth century English Anti-Slavery Society changed its name to Anti-Slavery International. Under that name it campaigns against modern slavery among laborers in the Ivorian cacao industry and among children in the textile industry in Bangladesh.”


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