What would you do to survive? Voluntary enslavement and the fear of death

Dr Judith Spicksley

Lecturer in Economic History

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

judith.spicksley@hull.ac.uk

The arrival of COVID-19 has not only delivered us a sharp reminder that human existence is fragile and impermanent, but raised it to a new level of priority, as politicians in many parts of the world privilege the survival of their citizens in ways that only a few months ago would have been unimaginable. From the opposite perspective, we as citizens expect it. The role of government is in the first instance to protect those it serves from external threat.   The classic statement of this is perhaps Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which describes a world of unrelenting insecurity in the absence of a government able to protect its citizens from each other as well as from foreign attack. As we now know only too well, that attack can take biological as well as military form.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand why societies in the past not only allowed the enslavement of some of their citizens but legislated for it. Roman civil law is interesting in this context. It ruled that slaves, or servi, were given this title because generals in war did not kill their prisoners but allowed them instead to survive (from the Latin servare). This linguistic derivation may have been spurious, but it seems that those who were saved from death were understood to owe their lives to those who spared them, and as a result became slaves for the rest of their lives.

This brings me back to today. Though there is no sense that we owe our government a debt for saving our lives, those who leave hospital having beaten COVID-19 are keen to reveal how much they owe to the medical staff who brought them through. There is no understanding that such a debt requires repayment, however, nor would the medical staff expect it: the utterance is an expression of gratitude rather than a recognition of obligation. Those who feel particularly strongly have been known to act, usually by engaging in money-raising ventures for organisations that saved their lives or the lives of their children, but we all know that a life debt can never be adequately repaid.

Or do we? What if we were able to offer up our lives in exchange for the opportunity to survive? What would that look like? In reality, as the Roman example above reveals, we already know – enslavement.  The idea of slavery in exchange for survival is a consistent theme throughout the period in which slavery existed as a legal institution. Those taken in war tended to have slavery thrust upon them, but there were also cases in which such actions were undertaken voluntarily. Some of this, as we might expect, took place in a religious context. In the demotic papyri of Ancient Egypt we find a woman offering herself, her children, and her children’s children to a deity to secure her good health, for example. But illness could also encourage individuals to enslave themselves to healers as a way to access the medical care they needed.  Chanana, who examined slavery in Ancient India, found stories in the ancient texts of a mother who offered herself as a slave in return for the cure of her eye disease, and a sex-worker who did the same to save her life. Widespread episodes of infectious disease could also instil such high levels of fear that individuals were prepared to give up their freedom for the chance to stay alive. ‘People caught in an epidemic offer themselves to Jivaka, the famous physician, if only he were to treat and cure them.’ (See D.R. Chanana, Slavery in Ancient India, New Delhi; People’s Publishing House, 1960, 67.).

Such practices offer a whole new slant on the fear of death and the power of medical knowledge, as well as a reflection on the distance we as a species have travelled.  Not all the stories have concrete evidential bases in the form of contracts or agreements, but they point to the existence of an idea in which control over the life of an individual could be exchanged for the opportunity to live. And it’s not just that; such stories indicate that in life-threatening circumstances, a transfer of this sort could have been expected, even demanded. For much of human history, it seems that a loss of authority went hand in hand with survival, and those who faced death with no power to evade it often had little alternative but to accept enslavement, if they wanted to remain alive.

Image: Anthony Wildgoos, In Divine Meditations on Death (1640) https://search.proquest.com/docview/2240871183?accountid=11528 (accessed July 25, 2020).

A Way Forward for Colonial Heritage in Europe?

Dr Cristina Clopot

Postdoctoral Researcher

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.e.clopot@hull.ac.uk

John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

A headline in the media in recent weeks brought to the fore the lingering role of colonialism in current affairs. In a media show in France, two scientists were invited to reflect on the ongoing health crisis and the quest for a vaccine. The scientists are reported to have suggested at some point that the best testing ground for a vaccine study would be Africa, where weaknesses in local health systems might lead to more accurate results. While the reaction of the two scientists is solely reflective of their own views, not of their respective institutions or countries, it still raised some harrowing and, at the same time, interesting reflections on the persistence of colonial mentalities. In a press briefing, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, condemned the comments of the two scientists as racist, adding that: “the hangover from the colonial mentality has to stop”. Part of the challenge we have set for ourselves on the EU-funded ECHOES project is to suggest some improvements in the way we address Europe’s colonial past, so as to hopefully prevent such embarrassing public displays in the future.

Heritage diplomacy at the centre
On the ECHOES project, we work mainly with the concept of ‘heritage diplomacy’ (for conceptual discussions see Winter 2015 or Clarke 2018[1]). We relate this to the currently used term ‘international cultural relations’ (ICR), or ‘culture in external relations’. Whereas the latter inter-related concepts have the potential to bring about significant change in engaging with partners across the world, our research has highlighted that official discourse and related practices in both EU institutions and member states’ representative institutions still reflect Eurocentric discourses.

We argue that drawing on long-standing narratives of European exceptionalism can be detrimental to addressing the deep wounds of Europe’s colonial past. Moreover, such narratives run the risk of occluding the experiences, knowledges and memories of those groups who might be described as the ‘victims’ of colonialism. It is for this reason that we believe alternative strategies are needed to address these pitfalls, while at the same time maintaining fairer international partnerships based on reciprocity and trust. For further details, please see our policy brief.

Official and unofficial agents
The ECHOES’ understanding of heritage diplomacy builds on a complex network of agents that operate at different levels. Relating our work on ECHOES with what we are currently experiencing in the ongoing health crisis, it is evident that information-sharing is not only happening at state level, but that scientists, medical research institutions and others are finding ways to collaborate that were not previously considered.

Similarly, a complex web of museums, artists and NGOs or community groups working on the ground can bring about significant changes in collective understandings of colonial heritage’s legacy. Addressing issues such as persistent racial inequality or disparities between North and South comes naturally to these agents, as does accepting and working through the resentment generated by former colonial relations. With current digital technologies, even individuals can spark international reactions, as the example presented at the beginning of this post shows.

On this point, we recommend that policy makers should ‘revise existing models for collaboration for heritage diplomacy to include networks and movements that are influential at local, national and international levels’. Research in ECHOES from different countries has highlighted time and time again how changes are brought about by such unofficial agents (see more in our prepared outputs).

Indigenous knowledge
One of the domains in which a Western bias is maybe most clearly seen is that of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledges are often relegated to the margins and while official positions have been presented by different indigenous groups’ representatives, these have limited reach. In relation to the recent health crisis, the Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues within the UN remarked:

“Indigenous peoples can contribute to seeking solutions. Their good practices of traditional healing and knowledge, such as sealing off communities to prevent the spread of diseases and of voluntary isolation, are being followed throughout the world today.”

The impact of such declarations is difficult to measure, as Western representatives and institutions dominate public opinion and knowledge production. In our work we emphasise the importance of intercultural dialogue that can bring new forms of collaborations to the fore.

Conclusion
At first glance, we are currently experiencing a health epidemic, yet its implications are much wider, spilling over into different fields of activity. Although ECHOES deals mainly with cultural heritage, we have found many parallels with the current situation. This is fittingly so, as different indigenous knowledge systems often emphasise holistic approaches, while at the same time rejecting Cartesian divides between nature and culture, or clear demarcations of scientific fields. The ongoing crisis with its impetus for international solidarity can therefore present a further opportunity to reflect collectively on the importance of colonial legacies in shaping behaviour and policy.

The ECHOES Project logo

[1] Clarke, A. (2018) Heritage Diplomacy. In Handbook of Cultural Security, edited by Yasushi Watanabe, 417–36. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Covid-19 and Modern Slavery: Historical Perspectives

Trevor Burnard

Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

trevor.burnard@hull.ac.uk

The study of historical epidemics is not an esoteric subfield for the interested specialist but is central to understanding historical change in general. Infectious diseases are as important to understanding societal development as economic crises, wars, revolutions and demographic change.

Throughout human history, infectious diseases have been far more devastating in their medical and social effects than other causes of illness. Their history is far from over.

We have been terribly complacent about infectious diseases. In 1969, the US Surgeon General declared the end of infectious diseases. This mood of optimism led to the closure at top universities like Harvard and Yale of departments of infectious medicine. There are some counter-currents, such as the US establishment of the Center for Disease Control and the great effort of the World Health Organisation and other international agencies against SARS, but the longstanding belief that pandemic disease was both controllable and could be consigned to the past has been noticeable, including in works of history. Our optimism has had catastrophic results.

Similarly, we were highly optimistic in the mid-twentieth century that slavery would disappear, after discourses of human rights were established in the late 1940s and slavery was made illegal everywhere in the world from the late 1970s. On the contrary, forms of modern slavery have increased and mutated (not altogether dissimilar to infectious diseases like SARS, Ebola and Covid-19) since the beginning of this century so that now many millions of people, mostly in the developing world but also in developed countries, experience precarity and vulnerability in their working and personal lives. That the increase in modern slavery and in the social effects of infectious disease have occurred simultaneously is not an accident.

Many of the features of a globalized society render the world acutely vulnerable to pandemic disease and the re-emergence of slavery: population growth, climate change, rapid means of transportation, the proliferation of megacities with inadequate urban infrastructure, warfare, persistent poverty and widening social inequalities.

Epidemic diseases are not random events, let alone ‘acts of God’, but medical events which reflect underlying social structures, standards of living, and political priorities. They need to be studied as major social events with significant economic and political consequences, conditioned by political choices. Medical crises have a significant impact, in particular, on the lives and political power of marginalized groups – in the past that has led many in those vulnerable groups into enslavement.

One way to think of pandemics as medical events with social causes and consequences is to adopt the term ‘syndemic’ which was a term developed by medics and medical anthropologists in the AIDs crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. A ‘syndemic’ occurs when two or more diseases form a cluster of epidemics affecting a given population in social contexts that perpetuate that disease and exacerbate its effects. Covid-19 is an excellent example of a syndemic as it interacts with underlying health conditions and seems to be disproportionately dangerous for specific sectors of society, notably people with underlying medical conditions and who are poor and vulnerable. Classic syndemics in the past include the Black Death and the ‘destruction of the Indies’ as measles and smallpox entered populations that had no resistance to them. The effect of these syndemics was to change the relationship of Europe with the rest of the world.

History is both a guide to epidemic disease and a means of realizing that what we are doing today – shutting down much of the economy in an attempt to restrict the spread of the disease – is unprecedented. In the past, we either did not have the ability to stop or reduce an infectious disease epidemic or else, as in recent years, the epidemic never got large enough to affect significant numbers of the population.

Public authorities draw on previous epidemics to fight new ones. Over the centuries, they have invoked strategies from the past to fight new threats. Doing this gives the impression of a forceful and energetic response, thereby providing the population with some sense of protection. What is seldom done is for authorities to consider the long-term effects of disease on such things as slavery, forced labour and the impact of disease on the poor and the vulnerable.

Epidemic disease has had an enormous social effect and has coincided with slavery in numerous ways, such as the following:

  • The Black Death 1348-53 ended serfdom and slavery in late medieval north-western Europe
  • The reduction of the population of the Americas by as much as 90 percent after the arrival of Columbus in 1492 meant that European settlers turned to millions of important Africans as chattel slaves
  • Continued disease in the Caribbean made that region dependent for centuries on the Atlantic slave trade
  • The death of thousands of European soldiers from disease was a major factor in ending slavery in Saint Domingue in 1804, which led to the creation of the world’s first black republic of Haiti
  • The Spanish flu of 1918-20 contributed to a sense of crisis in Germany, fuelling the rise of Hitler and the eventual restart of slavery in slave labour camps in Europe during World War II.
A hospital in Kansas in 1918 during the Spanish flu epidemic.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/medicalmuseum/3300169510/