Human RightsNorth AmericaSecurity and Defense

Slavery, Anti-Slavery and Anti-Slavery International

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By: George Sochan, Senior Analyst at the Council On Hemispheric Affairs, and Professor and President of Humanities & Technology Association, Department of History and Government at Bowie State University

Slavery, as a word, is generally understood, but its specific history, even in a narrow sense, is usually unknown by the wider public.  For many North Americans, slavery means the institution that existed during the Antebellum Period, often designated as encompassing the period of 1820-1860. The Civil War (1861-1865), which erupted in 1861, closes the Antebellum Period, and for contemporary Americans this means the eradication of slavery.  Many persons in the United States connect the institution of slavery in nineteenth century USA with the centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  They are also aware that the country’s involvement in the international slave trade legally ended in 1808 when Congress, acting on a provision in the Constitution, prohibited the trade. These two episodes—Congress’s banning of the slave trade and the slaves’ emancipation at the end of the Civil War—are only a small part of the entire story of slavery and anti-slavery in world history.  While a total picture of slavery’s history and the efforts to remove slavery from humanity is difficult to gain from any one orientation, a British perspective on this history may offer a more comprehensive view than an American one.  Whether one looks at slavery from the shores of the United Kingdom or from that of the United States, a few persons in both countries recognize that slavery still exists in the world of the twentieth-first century, including, in certain forms, in both of the aforementioned countries.[1]  An organization that is dedicated to combating slavery is Anti-Slavery International, which was founded in early nineteenth century Britain as the Anti-Slavery Society. This organization links the slavery and the anti-slavery of the past with the outcropping of new forms of slavery in the world today.  Some of that connection will be given in this essay.

Scholars who write on slavery in the Western Hemisphere and especially on the abolishment of slavery in this part of the world provide an overview, and sometimes even more than that, of Britain’s role in abolition.  In his book on slavery and human trafficking, Joel Quirk devotes three chapters to Britain’s role in campaigning against slavery and the British effort to internationalize anti-slavery as a concerted worldwide effort.  The three chapters highlight certain key events, like Britain’s abolition of the British slave trade in 1808, the emancipation of the slaves in the British Caribbean colonies, and the British campaign against the slave trade throughout much of the world, especially the trans-Atlantic region, as well as Britons’ efforts to cultivate anti-slavery sentiments throughout the world.  Much of the content in these three chapters is based on the work of historians, like Seymour Drescher and David Bryon Davis, who have successfully argued that the force within British abolitionism was a moral sentiment that proffered individual liberty as a universal norm and slavery as a peculiar institution that should be abolished.[2]  In his book, Quirk proposes an “Anti-Slavery Project” that will establish an analytical framework that distinguishes between legal abolition and effective emancipation, that spells out the various forms of bondage, and that provides for analytical categories of bondage which are distinct from merely being an “evocative expression.”[3]  Knowing the history of this topic from the middle of the eighteenth century up to the present is crucial to understanding the varieties of enslavement and the means used to combat them.

Regarding the history of slavery, the role of Britain in the nineteenth century is very significant.  Today, since the mid twentieth century, the notion of human rights and a recognition of certain acts as crimes against humanity are commonly accepted and understood.  For example, during the 1990s there was considerable interest in bringing Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milosevic before an international court of justice for crimes against humanity.  The justification for such tribunals is the so-called universal principle that allows international jurisdiction “of certain offenses considered particularly heinous or harmful to humankind, such as genocide, war crimes, slavery, piracy, and the like.”[4]  Many persons consider the Nuremburg Trials of Germans after the Second World War to constitute the origins of international courts of justice, but the origins of international human rights laws and the courts to enforce such laws occurred with the British campaign against the slave trade during the nineteenth century.  Before the nineteenth century, European legal theorists had established that those who practiced piracy were hostis humani generis, or enemies of mankind; the Royal Navy had been hanging pirates as such enemies throughout the eighteenth century.  In 1824, Parliament equated slave trading with piracy and at the same time began to badger other countries to sign treaties with Britain against allowing the trade.  Britain used its navy to stop slaving ships on the high seas, and even in coastal waters, and then to bring the captain and crew to mixed courts of commission (the origin of international tribunals) which would adjudicate their fate.  During the decades of Britain’s anti-slave trade campaign in the trans-Atlantic region, the navy and the courts released about 80,000 persons from enslavement.[5]

It should be noted that it was the navy as well as the courts that helped to establish international jurisdiction over slave trading.  The navy was the force behind the black-robed, bewigged men who sat in judgment over those who trafficked in human beings.  Sometimes this force was violent as when British sailors fought slavers off the coast of West Africa, near present-day Nigeria, in 1822.[6]  Further examples of Britain using force against the slavers occurred in Brazil’s coastal waters in 1850[7] and against Zanzibar in 1890.[8]  In closing the evidence at this point, it should be noted that the ending of the movie, Amistad, is factually accurate in showing the British navy with its marines destroying the slavers’ stronghold.  At that time, there were those in Britain, like Royal Naval Captain John Denman who believed that “[the slavers] are the greatest scoundrels on the face of the earth.  They are accustomed, in their daily course of life, to commit murder, and to regard human life as of no more consequence than the lives of pigs or dogs.”[9]  Today there are those who regard contemporary slavers, now known as human traffickers, with very much the same antipathy.  In Not For Sale, author David Batstone discusses the trafficking of young women and even girls across Southeastern Europe into Italy by a group he denotes as the Russian Mafia who sells these victims into the sex trade. This criminal enterprise, he asserts, “has a reputation for the ruthless use of violence when it feels threatened or betrayed.”  The account centers on a Romanian girl, called Nadia in the book, who was forced into numerous sex acts per night with multiple men as she made a harrowing passage across Southeastern Europe.[10]  Nadia’s ordeal, as related in the book, would certainly solicit sympathy of even the casual reader, and many would consider what happened to her to be evil.  Beginning in the late eighteenth century, abolitionists have successfully reoriented the perspective on slavery so that it is taken from that of the slave and not that of the slaver.  This means that slavery is presented as a morally flawed enterprise that is seen to exploit persons and is rarely presented as a system that can be economically justified as it once had been.[11]  In effect, Nadia’s story today as recounted by a narrator and received by an audience is like that of the fictional characters, Eliza Harris and Uncle Tom, in the nineteenth century novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  While evocations of revulsion against the traffickers and strong sympathy for Nadia can be readily understood, it is also important that slavery be analytically understood.  “Slavery [has been] traditionally defined using a combination of individual ownership, property rights, and extreme exploitation.”[12]  Since the late twentieth century, theorists, using models from the nineteenth century, have been redefining slavery and slave trading (now trafficking).  In Nadia’s case, she seems to have been an “innocent victim” caught up in the sex trade and forced into prostitution, but Joel Quirk asserts that not all situations are like hers.  For one thing, some persons seem to engage in prostitution willingly, or at least to have accommodated themselves to a life on the streets, and should not be considered slaves, even if they undergo rough treatment from a pimp.  In some countries, persons engaged in prostitution are not even called prostitutes but are considered sex workers.[13]

A significant part of the history of modern slavery, especially in regard to anti-slavery, is the role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).  One of the most important of these has been and still is Anti-Slavery International.  Beginning as the Anti-Slavery Society in Britain in the early nineteenth century, this organization has been an integral part of the so-called anti-slavery project since Britain’s campaign against the slave trade and slavery.  Some of the force compelling Britain to take more and more measures against slavery came from this organization.  Shortly after Parliament had banned the British slave trade, abolitionists in Britain mobilized to end slavery in the empire, especially in Britain’s Caribbean colonies.  The Anti-Slavery Society was started in this epoch, during the 1820s and the 1830s, with 1839 usually given as the date of origin, as an NGO that mobilized the population and pressured the government of the day to suppress the slave trade and slavery, first, in the trans-Atlantic world and then elsewhere as British influence expanded throughout the world.[14]  By the late nineteenth century British influence had extended to much of Africa: it was at this time that Britain, along with many European countries, scrambled to grab much of the continent.  The European takeover of the continent of Africa was justified as bringing civilization there by removing slavery, but European governments tackled slavery slowly and “it was only pressure by the metropolitan governments and international organizations that compelled colonial administrations to suppress the slave trade and to promote freedom, even if only limited freedom, for Africans.”[15]  Anti-Slavery International, called the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society during the time of Britain’s colonial rule, played a consequential role as an NGO during the early years of the twentieth century.  Today the horrors of the so-called Congo Free States are relatively well known, thanks to Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, but it was the work of a few persons, primarily Roger Casement, Edmund Dene Morel, and John Alice Harris, who exposed the brutal exploitation of a new form of slavery in Leopold’s Congo so that persons like Hochschild could write books about this.  In a subsection of her book, entitled “The Power of Humanitarian Agitation,” Suzanne Miers discusses how these persons mobilized many others, both within Britain and elsewhere, to force King Leopold to stop some of the abuses.  Eventually, this humanitarian campaign even forced the king to relinquish his personal control over the Congo.  For many years the Harrises served as joint secretaries of Anti-Slavery International.[16]

Through the course of the twentieth century, as Miers has shown in Slavery in the Twentieth Century, Anti-Slavery International provided many services in combating slavery throughout the world.  Despite the difficulties, one of those ways was in furnishing information on slavery of good quality for anti-slavery commissions.[17]  Referencing a statement in Scientific American, Kevin Bales provides this criticism of many reports of slavery: “We worry that the study of contemporary slavery is more of a proto-science than a science.  Its data are uncorroborated, its methodology unsystematic.  Few researchers work in the area, so the field lacks the give and take that would filter out subjectivity.”[18]  Since NGOs have a vested interest in ending human trafficking, their reports may be conveying too much outrage (evocative expressions) and too little factually based analysis.  Bales believes that Anti-Slavery International is a leader in providing factually accurate reports.  He also refers to the organization’s “well organized and well cared for” archives in London.  On its website Anti-Slavery International provides information on slavery and human trafficking in the various regions of the world.  For instance, on December 12, 2014, there were six reports on the “contemporary forms of slavery” in six South American countries.[19]  The report on Brazil consisted of twenty-two pages that covered the following areas: forced labor in the Amazon, trafficking, and child domestic work.[20]  Bhavna Sharma’s assessment of forced labor in Brazil is similar to case studies provided by Kevin Bales and Joel Quirk in their books.  Beginning in the late twentieth century, agri-businesses have been pushing their operations further and further into the tropical rain forest.  As these operations deforested the region and displaced indigenous groups who live a traditional life style there, the companies brought in tens of thousands of laborers to produce rubber and charcoal for the global market.  Most of the workers are persons living in poverty who receive money from company representatives to travel to the forest for agricultural work.  In effect, they fall into debt bondage from which it is very difficult for them to escape.  Debt bondage is probably the most prevalent form of slavery in the contemporary world; just in India, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the estimate for indebted slaves was eighteen to twenty-two million.[21]  Sharma’s report shows that Brazil’s government is attempting an innovative way to end slavery while at the same time providing something beneficial for those who have been enslaved.  A February 2004 proposal in Brazil’s congress would allow the government to expropriate land, without compensation, from companies that have exploited their laborers in slave-like conditions.  The expropriated land would then become part of the government’s reform program so that the emancipated laborers would have access to land as freed persons in order that they do not fall again into bonded labor.[22]  According to an article in The China Post, dated June 10, 2014, Brazil’s constitution was recently amended so that property anywhere in the country “where slave labor was exploited, as described by law, will be expropriated and destined to agrarian reform and popular housing projects, without any compensation to the owner and without prejudice of other lawful sanctions.”[23]  This constitutional change should mean that land once owned by slave owners would become that of the ex-slaves.  While it is too soon to tell what will ultimately happen, the article’s author pessimistically predicts only augmented governmental regulation in the life of Brazilians with little benefit for ex-slaves.

So, what can be concluded at the end of this brief essay on a complex topic?  First, slavery and the trading of humans still exist in the world.  This is true, despite the fact that nearly every state in the world has denounced this institution and has passed laws to proscribe it.  Quite simply, there is a difference between the legal abolition of slavery and its effective emancipation.  Today criminals operate the human trafficking whereas three hundred years ago men who postured as businessmen enslaved persons whom they sold to other men who had the support of governments to use slave labor.  In some ways, the enslavement of persons in the twenty-first century has become confusingly complex.  “Where slavery is legally recognized one can tell who is a slave, but how does one describe the situation of people who seem to be exactly like slaves but who, in the eyes of the law, cannot be so because the law says nobody can be legally enslaved.”[24]  For one thing, to deal with contemporary slavery, one must set aside certain images of the past that have rows of black slaves toiling in the southern cotton fields of the United States and legally carrying Africans across the Atlantic Ocean during the eighteenth century.  However, the past cannot be completely abandoned because some of these memories can be useful for confronting slavery in its contemporary forms.  That human trafficking is now primarily operated by criminals is not too different a situation from what it was in the nineteenth century, certainly not from a British perspective.  Beginning in the early nineteenth century, Britain began to criminalize slave trading activities in more and more parts of the world.  The British equated slaving with piracy and used its navy to suppress both activities.  Britain’s campaign against slavery, as well as the activities of northern American abolitionists, advanced notions of human rights while imposing the perception of slavery as something peculiarly evil.  While the means of combating slavery need not always be through force from a national state, as shown by Britain’s navy in the nineteenth century, a determined stance against this evil is necessary.  Sometimes one person, without using too much violence, can achieve much good.  An iconic hero from the past is Granville Sharp who made a citizen’s arrest of a slave captain on the London docks so that he could not return Jonathan Strong to slavery in the Americas.  A few years later Sharp initiated a case in England’s highest court that won the freedom of James Somerset and eventually laid the foundation of freedom for all the enslaved in England.[25]  There are persons today who live their lives like a Granville Sharp.  Former Homeland Security agent Tim Ballard has set up an organization called Operation Underground Railroad that rescues children caught in the sex trade.  In October 2014, he helped Colombian authorities to set up a sting operation that rescued fifty-four children and caught five traffickers.  Ballard characterized his work as horrifying because in order to set up such stings, he has “to smile in the face of evil.”[26]  Finally, the propagation of factually accurate information is as important now as it was in the past.  People in the western countries, who seemingly live far away from any kind of slavery, need to be enlightened to the repellant reality that there is a modern form of slavery operating even in their own country.  In the area of supplying information, Anti-Slavery International has performed significant service.  This NGO now has a sister organization in the United States, which is Free the Slaves and is headquartered in Washington, DC.  Just recently, in December 2014, students at Bowie State University initiated a chapter of Anti-Slavery International on their own campus.  At this time they are in the process of attaining formal recognition from the university.  They wish to join the campaign “to eliminate all forms of slavery around the world.”[27]

By: George Sochan, Senior Analyst at the Council On Hemispheric Affairs, and Professor and President of Humanities & Technology Association, Department of History and Government at Bowie State University

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.


Featured image by: Tim Brauhn. Taken from:

[1]Kevin Bales,  Understanding Global Slavery: A Reader,  (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005),  183-186.

[2]Among the many studies the interpret British abolitionism as a moral force to transform societies, see:

Seymour Drescher,  Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolitionism  (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 1977).

Seymour Drescher,  Capitalism and Slavery: British Mobilization in Comparative Perspective,  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

David Brion Davis,  Slavery and Human Progress,  (NY: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Christopher Leslie Brown,  Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism,  (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.)

Donald A. Yerza, ed.,  British Abolitionism and the Question of Moral Progress in History,  (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2012).

[3]Joel Quirk,  The Anti-Slavery Project: From the Slave Trade Through Human Trafficking  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011),  6-14.

[4]Adam Isaac Hasson,  “Extraterritorial Jurisdiction and Sovereign Immunity on Trial: Noriega, Pinochet, and Milosevic—Trends in Political Accountability and Transnational Criminal Law,”  January 7, 2015.

[5]Jenny S. Martinez,  The Slave Trade and the Origins of International Human Rights Law,  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012),  67-76 and 114-116.

[6]Martinez, 7-12.

[7] Herbert S. Klein,  “The End of the Atlantic Slave Trade,”  in The Social Dimension of Western Civilization  Volume 2: Readings from the Sixteenth Century to the Present,  ed. Richard Golden  (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003),   306-308.

[8]George Sochan,  “The Afro-Arab Slave Trade in Nineteenth Century East Africa,”   Journal of African Social Sciences and Humanities Studies,  (Winter 2006):  20.

[9]Martinez,  129-130.

[10]David Batsone,  Not For Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade—and How We Can Fight It,  (New York: Harper Collins, 2010),  155-170.

[11]Bales,  27-32.

[12]Quirk,  138.

[13]Quirk,  234-240.

[14]Quirk,  51-53.

[15]Sochan,  21.

[16]Suzanne Miers,  Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem,  (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 2003), 51-53.

Bales,  73-75.

[17]Miers,  373-376.

[18]Bales,  87.

[19]“Slavery in Latin America Reports”  December 9, 2014.

[20]Bhavna Sharma,  “Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Brazil,”  December 9, 2014.

[21]Bales,  184.

[22]Sharma,  4-5.

[23]Valdenor Junior,  “Land expropriation in Brazil serving only the gov’t, not the people,”  The China Post,  January 9, 2015.

[24]Quirk,  1.

[25]Adam Hochschild,  Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves,  (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005),  43-50.

[26]Elaine Quijano,  “One man’s mission to rescue child sex-trafficking victims,”  CBS News,  January 9, 2015.

[27]“What We Do,”  Anti-Slavery: today’s fight for tomorrow’s freedom,”   January 9, 2015.