Mar 242007

I have written on slavery before in a more general sense, but this time it is more about how media represents slavery at a time when slavery is in the news because Sunday is the 200th anniversary of the British attempting to abolish the slave trade as the first step in abolishing slavery which is something that is still not finished.

Well, actually the campaign for the abolition of slavery in Britain/England is actually quite a bit older than that act in 1807; the first step was allegedly the abolition of serfdom in 1102. There were many steps forward and many shameful steps backwards (such as the start of the transatlantic slave trade). But I’ll stop there before I get carried away and just point you to the Wikipedia article on the history of slavery … [w:History of Slavery]

What this little rant is about, is how the media portray slavery as an institution where only blacks were slaves and only whites were slave owners and traders. Wrong!

Even ignoring the earlier history of slavery, it is clear from various statistics that slaves could be white or black :-

Group Number
Africans in the transatlantic slave trade 11.6 million
Africans in the Eastern slave trade 11-16 million
Europeans in the Eastern slave trade 1-1.5 million

These figures are hardly likely to be accurate … slave traders do not appear to be good record keepers for some reason, but it would appear that from these figures approximately 6% of the slaves in early modern history were European. That seems like a relatively small quantity in comparison to the number of African slaves taken from their homes, but each individual forced into slavery is a crime against humanity, and a tragedy for the individual whether the individual was black, white or any other colour.

These figures probably vastly underestimate the number of slaves throughout history even if we exclude serfs (a serf is a slave owned by the land and not a person … a distinction likely to make a difference to a lawyer but not the serf). The colour of a slave is irrelevant; it is the fact that he is a slave that is important (and important to free him). The colour of a slave owner is irrelevant; it is the fact that she owns slaves and abuses them that is important (no matter how kind a slavemaster is, she is still abusing other humans).

It is easy to overlook the African involvement in the slave trade … we are given the impression that it was solely white Europeans who threw black Africans into chains. There was certainly plenty of that going on, but in the early days at least many black Africans were involved in the slave trade.

The media needs to stop getting carried away with the easy job of portraying the transatlantic slave trade where images are relatively easy to come by, and make it plain that all slavery is wrong and that it was not just black Africans abused in this way. Given how widespread slavery has been in the past, it is almost certain that everyone alive today is descended from someone who was a slave and probable that they are descended from slave owner.

There are those who say we should compensate the descendants of slaves for the crime against their ancestors. If everyone is a descendent of a slave, this could be somewhat expensive to do! However there is some that we must do and that is to do everything we can to stop present day slavery … yes it still goes on. I am sure that many if not all of history’s dead slaves would cry out that any money that could be put into compensation should be first spent on stopping anyone else being subject to slavery in any form … that is the first priority.