I NEVER got round to doing GCSE history. When I was at school, we did actual history – dates, kings and queens, traitors and heroes, William the Conqueror and Florence Nightingale. Not forgetting Robert the Bruce. If I had done the GCSE version, I would have been taught that Britain was at the forefront of the transatlantic slave trade, got very rich on the back of it, and – mentioned maybe as an afterthought – actually abolished it, thanks to William Wilberforce. So it was a surprise to learn, in a report published in the Guardian, that far from having been abolished, slavery is alive and well, and still making a lot of people very rich.
Historically, between the 15th and 19th centuries, an estimated 13million people were captured and sold as slaves. Some were black Africans, transported to the American and Caribbean sugar and cotton plantations. Many of the slave masters were white men, cruel, exploitative, and profoundly racist. But that was only part of it. The reality is that black African potentates were responsible too, rounding up vulnerable black Africans and selling them to the slave traders, who could be other black Africans, or Arabs, or Barbary pirates, as Robert Tombs details in his magnus opus The English and their History. Then again, many of the enslaved people were white, as described so vividly in Sally Magnusson’s novel The Sealwoman’s Gift, when desperately poor Icelandic people were captured and trafficked to North Africa as slave labour and concubines in the potentates’ harems.
The latest figures published by the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation indicate that throughout the world today one in every two hundred people is a slave, a total of more than 40million. Two-thirds are women, and a quarter are children. Anti-Slavery International defines slavery as being forced to work against your will; being owned or controlled by an exploiter; having limited freedom of movement; or being de-humanised and bought or sold as property.
Far from diminishing, slavery is now a global growth industry. Most forced labourers are exploited through the private sector, as domestic servants, in the garment industry, in agricultural labour, in mining and construction. There are even countries, for example Mauritania, where infants are born into ‘hereditary slavery’.
But the real eye-opener in the UN’s report was where all this is happening. To quote from the report:
Number of victims per 1,000 population
North Korea 104.6
Central African Republic 22.3
South Sudan 20.5
Statistically, slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by Asia and the Pacific. If we discount the dire situation in North Korea, there are five African countries in the top nine exploiters. And the report states that the figures are probably very conservative underestimates. Globally, slavery generates as much as $150billion in profits every year, a third of this in developed countries, including the EU. Because of advances in technology and transportation, modern slave traders can earn much more than their historical predecessors. The one-off cost of a slave today is around $450. From that outlay, a forced labourer generates around $8,000 in annual profit. The sex traffickers can count on at least $36,000 per victim.
So enslavement is flourishing like never before. It may be a consequence of over-population, or economic hardship, or just the sheer inhumanity of the exploiters, who will always be there, because there’s such big money in it: trafficking young girls from Eastern Europe to London brothels; enforced child labour throughout Asia; forced marriages of young girls in traditional Muslim communities and so on.
I don’t think this UN report is going to make very much difference to the situation. Certainly the UK Foreign Aid budget doesn’t seem to be targeted there. But the significant thing is that Britain actually did something about it, thanks to Wilberforce and his supporters. So I get seriously irked when I read about the ‘Rhodes must Fall’ activists, who shout that slavery was all down to European white supremacists. The truth is very different. Certainly the enslavement of black Africans in America is a grotesque and unforgiveable period in world history, but it is only part of a much bigger picture.
I would have a great deal more sympathy for the Rhodes scholars, who are happy to accept the financial support of the foundation but want to smash their benefactor’s statue, if they could produce their own black African or Asian or Chinese William Wilberforce. Because that’s where the action is needed, not on an Oxbridge campus. History is history, and we can learn it, and learn from it. But having read this damning report, it is clear that what is now needed is the kind of affirmative action that would set about abolishing slavery altogether, especially in Africa and Asia. Historically the British have shown the world how it’s done, and I feel very proud that they did. But surely it’s up to all of them now, and it’s time to stop slagging off the Brits. As the Good Book says, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’