Unfree labour in the Angolan coffee economy, 1830-1960

Wilberforce Institute Webinar, Thursday 20 May 2021, 4PM – 6PM BST

Dr Jelmer Vos

Lecturer in Global History

University of Glasgow

jelmer.vos@glasgow.ac.uk

We hope you will join us for the last of our Wilberforce Institute Webinars for this academic year. On Thursday 20 May, at 4pm (BST), Dr Jelmer Vos of the University of Glasgow will share with us some of his latest research on the history of forced labour in Angola.

The first coffee estates in Angola using enslaved workers emerged in the 1830s. African smallholders long remained the dominant producers of coffee in this Portuguese colony, but in the 1930s and especially after World War Two settler production based on a system of forced wage labour expanded dramatically, making Angola one of the largest producers of robusta coffee in the world. Forced labour became a prominent feature of colonial life in Angola, and eyewitnesses and historians have long debated the continuities between this form of labour coercion and proto-colonial slavery.

This paper intervenes in this literature with three propositions. First, Angola differed from other colonial coffee economies where foreign planters played a dominant role (Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Kenya) as the Portuguese government, despite fierce international pressures, was unwilling to withdraw their support from the settler economy. Second, forced labour resembled ‘modern slavery’ as described by Kevin Bales, in the sense that the system treated African farm labour as ‘disposable’. Third, despite this, its roots lay not so much in proto-colonial slavery, but rather in the equally old system of compulsory porterage. 

To sign up for this event please click on the link below:

https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/6900012022283361804

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Southern Africa Information Group (Ottawa), and Komitee Zuidelijk Afrika (Amsterdam). Coffee for Canada Means Blood for Angola. Don’t Buy General Food. 1972.

Modern Slavery and Conflict: The Drivers and the Deterrents

Dr Alicia Kidd

Postdoctoral Researcher

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

a.kidd@hull.ac.uk

Dr Alicia Kidd, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Wilberforce Institute, talks about her forthcoming research monograph, Modern Slavery and Conflict: The Drivers and the Deterrents, after securing a contract with Oxford University Press. Her book will run in the Clarendon Studies in Criminology series.

This book developed out of my PhD thesis on the relationship between conflict and modern slavery, which I completed at the Wilberforce Institute in 2019. I had come to the subject in response to my experience as a practitioner in the field where I identified a real gap in research and knowledge regarding the root causes of modern slavery. In bringing an academic focus to practitioner experience, my book injects new material into the field of modern slavery, which is an area in which interest continues to grow amongst academics, practitioners and members of the public alike. This growing interest in modern slavery has also led to large public debates about immigration and asylum which are topics that my book engages with, particularly in relation to the discrepancies between the UK government’s declared intention to lead the way in defeating modern slavery whilst simultaneously imposing a restrictive and hostile environment on those seeking asylum.

By looking beyond just the individuals involved in cases of modern slavery – the victims and the perpetrators – my book will consider the ways in which states facilitate, and sometimes even actively encourage, situations of modern slavery to occur. While there is growing visibility of modern slavery, the portrayal of modern slavery cases inevitably focuses on an unwilling victim, tricked or deceived into exploitation by a criminal perpetrator looking to benefit from the victim’s misfortune. My book will challenge this conception of modern slavery by questioning the common assumptions that a) victims of modern slavery are all entirely distanced from the fate that awaits them and b) that modern slavery is a relationship simply between a victim and a perpetrator.

With a broad definition of conflict as an organising concept, I consider the ways in which conflict can facilitate modern slavery by generating unsafe conditions, disrupting support networks and encouraging displacement. Using first-hand accounts, comparisons are made between those who fled conflict to the UK in relative safety, and those who fled but then experienced modern slavery. My book contextualises these stories in order to understand why some people appear to be more at risk than others when escaping a conflict situation. The book also considers the lives of people after they have fled conflict and arrived in the UK. With the belief that they have left danger behind, arriving in the UK brings hopes of safety. However, by drawing insights from interviews with those who have experienced the UK immigration system, I am able to make observations about how the UK government and its restrictive and hostile immigration policies actually put people at increased risk of modern slavery once they are in the UK.

The strength of my book lies in its unique empirical focus on a comparison between first-hand accounts of people fleeing conflict to safety, and those fleeing conflict and experiencing modern slavery. It offers rare personal insights into the experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and victims of modern slavery and the specific aspects of their journeys that made them vulnerable to exploitation. I hope to have the first edition available in print in 2022.

In this blog, Professor Oldfield talks about the collaboration he was involved with between the Wilberforce Institute and the British Library.

Wilberforce Institute Postgraduate Open Evening

Thu, May 6, 2021 6:00 PM – 7:00 PM BST

If you haven’t yet thought about what you will do in September, take a look at our brand new taught Masters course on the subject of contemporary slavery and victimology to see what it could offer you. You will find details at:

https://www.hull.ac.uk/study/postgraduate/taught/contemporary-slavery-studies-and-critical-victimology-ma

To give you the opportunity to explore in more depth how our MA in Contemporary Slavery Studies and Critical Victimology can help you develop your professional and academic careers in this area of work, we are holding a virtual postgraduate open evening on Thursday 6 May at 6 pm (BST). To book your place click on the link below.

https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/95111468670692880

At the event, you will have the opportunity to learn more about the MA in Contemporary Slavery Studies programme and ask any questions you might have about continuing or returning to study, how to apply, and your funding options.

In addition, you will be able to:

• Meet and speak to tutors involved in the delivery of the MA

• Hear from existing postgraduate students at the Wilberforce Institute and University of Hull

• Get all the details about the application process and how we support our postgraduate students at the Wilberforce Institute

The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain

Professor John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

In this blog, Professor Oldfield talks about the collaboration he was involved with between the Wilberforce Institute and the British Library.

In August 2020, I was approached by Katie Adams at the British Library [BL] to write an essay for the BL website. I would be lying if I said I did not hesitate for a moment. The brief was ambitious: a short 2000-word piece, tentatively entitled ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain, c. 1787–1838’, that would provide readers fourteen years of age and above with an accessible, up-to-date and academically rigorous introduction to the BL’s anti-slavery collections.

Having accepted the commission, I began to sketch out a plan. In conversations with Katie, we agreed that what was needed was an ‘integrated’ history of British anti-slavery, one that not only highlighted the achievements of William Wilberforce and his supporters but also took account of black resistance, whether in the Caribbean or here in the United Kingdom [UK], as well as the involvement of women in the abolitionist campaigns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, we wanted to make space for international perspectives and – if the word limit permitted – to say something about the legacies of emancipation (1833/1838) and the UK’s reckoning with slavery.

In early November, I submitted a first draft, which remarkably came in at just over 2,000 words. It soon became apparent, however, that we needed more space, not just to plug some of the obvious gaps but to tweak the argument and – in places – to make it more accessible. This was not all. The essay also had to fit within a suite of BL web pages, which inevitably meant that some degree of cross-referencing was necessary. As a result, the original draft began to expand, so much so that we set ourselves a new target of 3,000 words, including further reading and footnotes.

Late in December, I submitted a final draft, which Katie then built into web pages, complete with the relevant links. If you are interested in seeing the results, you can access the pages here:

Abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain – The British Library (bl.uk)

Commissions of this kind are never easy or straightforward. They inevitably involve making decisions about what to include (and what to leave out), about tone and about register. They also involve understanding your client’s needs, which is why dialogue is so important. To a large extent, the whole process is about testing ideas, while at the same time being aware of the obvious constraints. None of us likes word limits but they can also be a way of focusing the mind, demanding a different kind of discipline that can be strangely liberating.

While my name appears as the author of ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in Britain’, the article should properly be regarded as the result of a collaboration between the Wilberforce Institute and the BL, and one that, for me, proved immensely rewarding. I am very grateful to Katie Adams for her expertise, support and encouragement, as I am to her colleagues at the BL. The essay is all the better for their input.

St Vincent’s volcanic crisis – failing to learn from Montserrat

Saphia Fleury

Falling Through the Net PhD Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

The eruption on 9 April of La Soufrière volcano on the Caribbean island of St Vincent followed months of smoke plumes and other warning signs. At the time of writing, some 20,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, about one fifth of the island’s population. Some are temporarily housed in shelters, others on cruise ships or neighbouring islands. On 14 April, the United Nations launched an emergency appeal after shelter capacity was breached and supplies of drinking water and other essentials ran low. Overcrowding also threatens to spread Covid-19 among the displaced.

To anyone with a long interest in the region or of volcanology, this may all sound familiar. In 1995, La Soufrière’s namesake – the Soufrière Hills volcano – erupted on the island of Montserrat, another former British colony in the same island chain. The southern half of the island, including Montserrat’s capital, were evacuated several times before temporary resettlement eventually became permanent. Around two-thirds of Montserrat’s original population of 10,600 inhabitants eventually relocated overseas, most in the United Kingdom [UK].

The volcanoes themselves also seem to be following similar patterns: eruptions of ash, debris and gases following a period of seismic activity and heavy ash falls that blight everyday life and pose a risk to health. Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills lava domes continue to rumble to this day, although the last major eruptions occurred between 1995 and 2010. Likewise, La Soufrière seems set to pose a threat to Vincentians for some time to come. Yet in my own research into the disaster on Montserrat, I found that neither the UK Government (Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory) nor the Government of Montserrat had been prepared to respond to an eruption, despite warnings from scientists, eruptions on neighbouring volcanic islands, and increased seismicity. Considering that St Vincent suffered three major eruptions in the twentieth Century, and like Montserrat is subject to other natural disasters such as hurricanes, the lack of preparedness and international support appears inexcusable.

To minimise disruption from displacement, and prevent more serious harms such as trauma, exploitation and poverty among displaced people, temporary accommodation must provide for an adequate standard of living. Despite St Vincent’s history of volcanic activity and months of warning signs, it appears that the government did not have enough shelters, hygiene kits or beds, and no adequate contingency for providing clean water and sanitation. The Montserratian government made similar oversights 30 years ago; as a result, 19 people who had returned to the relative comfort of their homes in the exclusion zone were killed by a pyroclastic flow on 25 June 1997.

The inadequate response of the UK Government to an unfolding catastrophe in its overseas territory caused further hardships on Montserrat. My analysis of Hansard records shows little interest in the situation among UK parliamentarians and government until the tragedy of June 1997 forced the issue into the spotlight. By this time, islanders had struggled on in cramped and insanitary conditions with limited access to food, education and health care, for almost two years. Eventually, the British government opened an assisted passage scheme to help Montserratians leave the island, with several thousand ultimately relocating to the UK. Yet the privations and indignities continued when many of the evacuees, who were supposed to be treated as British citizens, were denied National Insurance numbers and other basic support in the UK. Meanwhile the impacts of the late-1990s eruptions continue to be felt on the island to this day, with many Montserratians still lacking adequate housing and employment opportunities.

As the UN launches its emergency funding appeal, Britain, the former colonial ruler of St Vincent, has pledged just £200,000 of support. It is inevitable that the crisis on St Vincent, like La Soufrière itself, will rumble on for some time to come. To prevent a severely reduced quality of life for the relocatees, and potential tragedy if people opt to return home rather than suffering the misery of inadequate shelters, the British government must do more. The international community too should consider routes for safe and legal passage off the island for those who choose to leave, either temporarily or permanently, to reduce pressure on the limited available services. Such relocations should be carried out with dignity and with respect for the wishes of the evacuees.

Montserrat and St Vincent and the Grenadines sit in an increasingly vulnerable position as climate change warms the neighbouring seas and air. More forceful hurricanes and rising sea levels put the islanders at greater risk from future natural disasters. Heavy storms triggered by climate change can also increase the risk of, and dangers from, volcanic eruptions in the region. The sad inevitability that natural catastrophes will become more severe and frequent should prompt policymakers in the Caribbean nations and their former colonial rulers to step up their disaster preparedness and response. Sadly, for the currently displaced population of St Vincent, the window of opportunity may already have been missed.

The volcanic eruption plume of La Soufrière on St Vincent, during explosive eruptions on 9 April 2021. ©ItsMeOni (from @_ItsMeOni on Twitter) 

Insurance Covered! A look at the Zong Massacre

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

trevor.burnard@hull.ac.uk

Insurance Covered! offers a series of podcasts on all matters relating to insurance, created and compered by Peter Mansfield, a partner with the law firm RPC (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain). As part of this series Professor Trevor Burnard was invited to discuss the most notorious insurance case in history, Gregson v Gilbert (1783), commonly known as the Zong Massacre. In the podcast Professor Burnard places this case in its Jamaican historical context, explains why the case came about and notes its importance in the burgeoning British abolitionist movement.  A summary of the podcast is provided below.

The Zong massacre, long recognised as a notorious event in insurance history, involved the despicable murder of enslaved people in an attempt to claim back losses in insurance. During November and December 1781, the crew of the ship named the Zong threw more than 120 enslaved captives overboard in order to claim insurance on these ‘losses’. This took place only a month after Britain had lost the American Revolution with the Battle of Yorktown. French ships were at that stage just moving in towards the Caribbean, and it looked like Jamaica would be conquered by the French fleet. At that point, Jamaica, which was Britain’s most valuable and important colony, was in a terrible state. The great majority of Britons were invested in the slave trade and Britain was the greatest slave trading nation in the world.

The Zong was a ship captured in Ghana by the Gregson family, Liverpool slave traders, who used this captured ship to transport a very large number of captives to the West Indies, ideally to Kingston, but with only a very small crew. The ship encountered trouble en route, found itself off course and running low on supplies. With not enough water to go round the crew had three choices. The first and the most obvious was to wait for water to arrive, in other words, rain, or another ship, and to sail for Montego Bay as quickly as possible. The second was to batten down the hatches so the slaves could not escape, accept that some would die from dehydration and disease and then to try and sell as many as they could for whatever price they could get when they got to Montego Bay; that’s what normally happened on slave ships in this sort of situation. The third, and the one they chose to take, was to throw 54 women and children overboard in order, they claimed later on, to stop an insurrection; this took place on 29th November 1781. A further 42 individuals, all men, were thrown over on 1st December and sometime after 6th December the crew threw over another 26; 10 Africans threw themselves overboard. This equates to the abhorrent murder of 122 captives and a total of 132 deaths.

The Gregsons then put in an insurance claim, citing the action taken to be lawful to prevent insurrection and rebellion, which at the time was a common claim to make. The underwriter however refused to pay out on the claim. This is thought to have been because the actions of the crew made him doubt that this was a legitimate claim – it looked more like a scheme to maximise profits and make up for the poor return on the voyage. The decision was then left to the courts to decide. Initially the decision went in favour of the slave traders, but on appeal, Lord Mansfield reversed the decision. There were two key reasons for this: the manner in which a number of captives had thrown themselves off the ship;  and the claim that a lack of water had been the reason for insurrection, when in fact there had been heavy rain before, during and after the massacre. Despite Mansfield’s ruling the story has an unsavoury ending: the Gregsons may not have won their claim but they ultimately got away with 122 murders. The case of the Zong was nevertheless of key importance in helping to kickstart the abolitionist movement.

You can view the podcast via the following links:

Acast

iTunes

Spotify

‘The Slave Ship’ by J. M. W. Turner (1840). In the background, the sun shines through a storm while large waves hit the sides of a sailing ship. In the foreground, enslaved people are drowning in the water, while others are being eaten by large fish. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

‘Casually Lost’ and Commonly Stolen: Slave Stealing in American History

Wilberforce Institute Webinar, Thursday 22 April 2021, 4PM – 6PM BST

Dr Laura Sandy

Department of History,

University of Liverpool

l.sandy@liverpool.ac.uk

We hope you will join us for our next webinar on Thursday April 22 at our usual time of 4pm (BST). The speaker will be Dr Laura Sandy, Senior Lecturer in the History of Slavery and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery at the University of Liverpool. Dr Sandy studies the history of North America, the Atlantic World and slavery, and has undertaken archival research in every former slave state in the southern United States. She has looked at plantation management, resistance, free people of colour, voluntary enslavement, the theft of enslaved people and the laws of slavery. Her most recent work investigates the illegal trafficking of the enslaved in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and this will be the subject of her talk.

The practice of slave stealing spans the history of American slavery. The theft of human property was clearly a complicated crime and those involved in this ‘underground slave trade’ came from a variety of backgrounds and had an array of motives.  By uncovering these histories and integrating them into the broader narrative of slavery, Dr Sandy will provide fascinating new insights into the ‘peculiar institution’ and its evolution over time and space. More broadly, this research enhances our understanding of the multifaceted, internal and external challenges to slavery in the nineteenth century and leading up to the Civil War. Indeed, it argues that slave stealers shaped antebellum southern political thought and made a significant contribution to the rising sense of insecurity over the future of the institution, which led to the growth of sectionalism and the outbreak of war.

To sign up for this free event please click on the link below:

https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/3037076929184758029

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

Notice concerning a white man being put on trial, imprisoned, and branded on the hand with ‘SS’ for slave stealing

An Holistic Approach to Contemporary Slavery and Climate Change

Saphia Fleury,

PhD candidate, Falling Through the Net PhD Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

CALL FOR PAPERS: Wilberforce Institute Workshop, October 11, 2021.

Slavery is often considered to be a problem of the past, while climate change is seen as a threat to our future. Yet the two issues present a real threat in the here and now, and often interact with exploitative and dangerous consequences.

Climate change poses an immediate and existential threat to many of the most marginalised communities on the planet. All over the world, the impacts of this global emergency are being felt right now in the form of both sudden-onset disasters and slow-onset events. When combined with ongoing deforestation, pollution and resource scarcity, the impacts of these occurrences, which are making livelihoods ever more precarious for millions of people in the poorest countries, lead to increased levels of migration and displacement.

This situation has clear implications for development and human rights. In the words of former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, climate change is ‘likely to challenge or undermine the enjoyment of almost every human right in the international bill of rights’. Among the human rights issues that emerge most strongly are those linked to exploitation such as forced and unfree labour, human trafficking and slavery.

Meanwhile, research demonstrates that slavery in industries such as mining, fishing, brick-making and timber production can raise greenhouse gas emissions and drive other forms of environmental degradation. It has even been suggested that the climate crisis could be averted completely by putting an end to contemporary slavery.

Yet to date, the relationship between climate change and contemporary slavery has received relatively little attention in the policy, advocacy and academic fields. Furthermore, mainstream approaches to both issues have traditionally favoured technocratic or legalistic approaches that place these issues within ‘siloes’, disconnected from their political, social and economic contexts.

On Monday 11 October 2021, the Wilberforce Institute with support from Anti-Slavery International will host a one-day inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral workshop to break down these siloes and explore the relationship between these twin ills. Submissions are welcome from all sectors, including academics, activists, NGO practitioners, policy makers, journalists, PhD students, and others.

We welcome proposals relating to all aspects of these complex and wide-ranging issues, including intersecting or intervening themes such as: migration and displacement; conflict and insecurity; land, livelihoods and natural resources; ethnicity, gender and race; colonial and neo-colonial legacies.

We are interested in submissions that contribute to breaking new conceptual, methodological, and empirical ground in this topic area, and in particular those that advance novel recommendations for tackling these issues at the levels of policy and practice.

Abstracts for proposed papers or presentations (200-300 words) should be sent with a short bio to Dr Chris O’Connell, Dublin City University at christopher.oconnell@dcu.ie  and Saphia Fleury, Wilberforce Institute at s.fleury-2019@hull.ac.uk

The deadline for submission is 30 June 2021. We aim to inform successful candidates by late August. There is no fee for attendance or participation in this event.

For any enquiries, please contact Chris O’Connell or Saphia Fleury.

Mural depicting the era of the rubber boom from an Indigenous perspective in the town of Nauta, Loreto Province, Peru (Photo: Chris O’Connell).

Living with the consequences of slavery

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

i.d.arce-zelada-2020@hull.ac.uk

Jen Nghishitende

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

n.j.nghishitende-2020@hull.ac.uk

Mavuto K. Banda

PhD student on the ‘Living with the consequences of slavery’ cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

m.k.banda-2020@hull.ac.uk

Five months in, our three newest PhD students, Isabel Arce Zelada, Jen Nghishitende and Mavuto Banda, reflect on their collective agenda and their individual research projects so far.

We started our PhDs in the midst of a pandemic and as a cluster we have had little opportunity to work together and understand how our projects interlink. However, through various zoom calls and physically distant interactions we are beginning to understand where we belong in this cluster as a team as well as individually. As a cohesive unit we found that we each speak about the way various institutions constantly ask groups of people with different experiences of exploitation to present themselves as victims. This establishes a uniform ‘humanitarian’ response to problems that involve a multiplicity of experiences, and in the process creates and recreates the model of what a victim is and what they need. At the core of all our projects are individuals who constantly have to prove themselves to be victims in order to get some level of assistance. As such, we are, as a collective, critically investigating what we mean when we say ‘victim’ and what solutions we need to achieve to assist this group of individuals. 

Isabel

In asylum processes the idea that the nation-state is providing safety to a person seeking persecution has a long and complicated history. As an institution asylum has always led to wide networks of power in which many other institutions are involved. In the UK, the rise of nationalistic sentiments, detention centres and hostile environments have led to an awkward paradox in which the UK saves the asylum seeker, yet also condemns them for a role in the demise of the British nation. At the same time, the asylum system keeps its humanitarian role by supposedly saving the true refugee. I am therefore researching the many violent tactics of distrust and retraumatization that are present in the UK asylum process. 

Jen

My research deals with women and children who have survived modern slavery in the UK and as such, I will be focusing on those people who have already either been accepted or rejected as ‘victims’ by the UK Home Office. In recent years, the spotlight has been placed on survivors’ accounts, their tales of slavery and their eventual escape or rescue; scant attention has been placed on what happens to survivors after slavery, especially in the long term. My research will therefore examine the long term trajectories of survivors in the UK, all the while looking at the laws, policies, and processes that are in place to assist them with rehabilitation and reintegration into society in order to  regain their rights and dignity.

Mavuto

My research looks from a different perspective at the children that have become the victims of modern slavery. In adhering to Fairtrade standards and safeguarding their corporate image, Malawi’s commercial agriculture has banned the employment of under-18 year olds in its plantations, as it seeks to prevent and rescue children from the evils of ‘child labour’. Once the work of under-18 year olds in commercial tea and tobacco plantations had been defined as ‘child labour’ this ban became necessary. My study therefore aims at exploring the impact of ‘child labour’ bans in commercial tea and tobacco estates with respect to youth employment and livelihoods in rural communities of Malawi. It will try to understand the socio-cultural dynamics of life in Malawi, and how communities view children’s participation in the labour market.

Henry Ford once said, ‘Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.’ Our continual working relationship will therefore lead to the collective success of our cluster as well as our individual successes in our research projects. We also look forward to hopefully meeting and working with everyone soon in person at the Wilberforce Institute. Our shared hope for the future is that victimhood, with the pressures of presenting oneself as the perfect victim, is scrutinized, and the assistance that is needed is given without requesting trauma as payment for it.

Protective medical mask on laptop. https://www.flickr.com/photos/156445661@N02/49799314177

Debt and labour coercion in historical perspective

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

As an academic, it’s always good to be invited to give a talk. Thanks to Shebanee Devadasan, President of Durham Justice Society, I was asked to join the Modern Slavery panel as part of their annual Human Rights Conference for this year.  I was in excellent company as my fellow panellists were Gary Craig,  Parosha Chandran and Meena Varma. My contribution was to provide some historical perspective on the role of debt as a method of labour coercion, as this is often a key mechanism through which modern forms of slavery operate.

Over the last decade I have been thinking hard about the relationship between debt and slavery in historical and contemporary societies. Exploring the transatlantic slave trade, I found that in the colonial records of the Portuguese government in Angola, discussions about debt slavery were an important part of the contested framework of enslavement between those areas under Portuguese law and those under African rule. As I discussed in my talk, European societies by the early modern period did not generally allow citizens to recover their outstanding debts through the enslavement of debtors. This had been a common route to enslavement in antiquity, and documentary evidence of such activity survives in the ancient Near East, Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean from the end of the third millennium to the middle of the first millennium BCE. Under the influence of Roman and biblical law, medieval societies in western Christendom increasingly rejected such practices. By the sixteenth century, debts were recovered on goods, livestock or lands, or through imprisonment until the debt had been repaid. The practice of debt bondage, in which the debtor agreed to work for the creditor until the debt had been repaid (also of ancient origin), was retained, however, and was used by early modern migrants from western Europe to the Americas who signed up to an agreed term of labour as a way to repay the cost of their passage. A very similar system remains in operation today. Siddharth Kara’s work on contemporary migrants shows how a formal debt agreement, which covers costs associated with travel and arranging work, has to be paid off on arrival through labour. But what Kara’s work also shows is that additional debts are imposed on migrants after travel and costs manipulated to keep them in debt and under control.

Debt slavery has been prohibited by international convention since 1926, and in 1956 a supplementary convention added debt bondage to the list as an institution or practice similar to slavery. Debt bondage as defined in this latter treaty refers to agreements in which the value of the labour that is performed is either not applied towards reducing the debt or has no defined time limit. A classic example is hereditary collateral debt bondage in South Asia, in which the debt rolls over to the next generation. Yet examples of debt bondage, also referred to as bonded labour and debt servitude, continue to exist around the world. There are good reasons for this, and working off your debt is not in itself against the law. The idea of being able to repay a loan through your labour offers those in need of resources, who have no other way of repaying their debt, a valuable as well as pragmatic solution. However, because this is often the only way funds can be raised it can encourage creditors to exploit their debtors and extend the labour-debt relationship indefinitely.

In my studies of the connection between debt and slavery I argue that the idea of debt is one of the most powerful sources of social coercion we know, and one of the earliest. There is a longstanding myth, as Graeber’s book articulated, that all debts have to be repaid, even though we recognise that this is not always the case. The idea of debt provides the glue that creates the social relationships that allow us as individuals to work with others for the benefit of us all. This cooperative strategy is not fool-proof, however, because not everyone obeys the rules. Debt as a social construct can also be weaponised as a way to force some to accede to the demands of others, and when debt can be recovered by using the human body, the impact can be devastating. During the transatlantic slave trade debt was used as a pretext for ensnaring its victims: if you could create a debt, no matter how small, you could call it in and claim a slave.

Today it is through the binding of labour rather than sale into slavery that debtors become trapped. Kevin Bales’ work on brick kiln workers in Pakistan revealed how dishonest managers could exploit the illiteracy of their labourers to ensure that the number of bricks they made did not cover the debts they had accrued. As a result the family had to return to work in the kilns the following year. The idea of debt may have most traction where labourers are involved in illegitimate activities. The extortionate interest rates that workers are charged in illegal gold mines in southern Ghana means they are quickly trapped into long hours of work as they try to repay their debt. They work because they are desperate and because they believe they must honour their borrowing agreements – their debts have to be repaid.

Brick kiln labourer. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.