The 25th March 2007, we’ve been led to believe recently, was two hundredth anniversary of the end of the slave trade. The anniversary was celebrated with reminders of how Britain led the way in abolishing the practice through the ‘Abolition of the Slave Trade Act’ passed on 25th March 1807. But slavery was an institution that Britain fostered and grew for over three hundred years and on the back of which it expanded and maintained its empire. It was a practice it found very difficult to leave, for it was not for another century after the Slave Trade Act that slavery, in real terms, was banned. Legislation and parliamentary acts aside, many of the practices that made slavery what is was continued, often by its original perpetrators, and are still with us today.
To believe that Britain’s legal prohibition of slavery somehow ended the practice is naïve if not dangerous. The act of 1807 outlawed the slave trade but not slavery. Slavery was made illegal in 1834. But it continued in all but name: former slaves were hired by their former owners in slave-like ‘apprenticeships’. The vacuum created by emancipated slaves eventually led to the need to identify a new labour force. The replacement came in the shape of two and half million Indians who were ‘indentured’ – contracted to work on plantations – but who were treated no better than slaves were.
Indentured emigration went on until 1917, demonstrating that slavery certainly wasn’t over when we are led to believe it was. Today, the NGO ‘Free the Slaves’ believes that we have the largest number of people that has ever been in slavery at any point in world history and are being paid the lowest price that there has ever been for a slave in raw labour terms.But slavery was marked by a number of practices that have continued and still plague the world, often practiced by the same nations that claim to have brought slavery to an end.
The slave trade was built on the belief in the inferiority of those it enslaved, through which it justified appalling treatment, abandonment of rights, strict control of behaviours and practices and the consideration of people as property. These practices still exist as do the underlying beliefs and language upon which slavery was built.
For example, the belief amongst many western politicians and commentators is that the west is a civilising force; that its engagement in the world can only be for the betterment of those under the west’s tutelage. The resurgence of cultural imperialism and liberal interventionism - that the west has the right and indeed moral obligation to interfere and dictate matters for other nations - hark back to the day of the empire and are premised on the inferiority or lesser civilisational status of those it seeks to ‘correct’. It is upon this premise that the west has and continues to engage with the rest of the world.
Economically, the world remains under the grip of aggressive capitalism and western policies that dictate domestic economic policy for a large chunk of the world which often better serve the west than they do the countries themselves. The pernicious use of interest bearing loans, IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programmes, and western manipulation of markets through the use of subsidies have turned natural resource-rich countries poor. With the burden of debt, compliance to the terms of repayment, aid packages and imposed domestic programmes and polices, poverty and unemployment are driving poor countries to measures that are even more desperate. This economic situation still drives forced labour and western multinationals continue to employ workers in third world countries for a pittance and in despicable working conditions; human trafficking and sex slavery, an increasing problem in the west, also highlights the human tragedy of pressures born out of economic slavery. The irony is that the docks in east London which sent ships to colonise huge swathes of South Asia and Africa, enlisting hundreds of thousands of slaves, have now been replaced by the shining towers of global financial institutions which unleash a similar economic stranglehold.
Political slavery is the intricate and careful control of proxies through the perpetual threat of sanctions, war or abandonment, maintains a litany of western supported tyrants in the Muslim world who are unable to act independently or break away from the foreign agendas that sacrifice the progress of their own people.
These despots in turn ensure their citizenry do not challenge their master-slave relationship with the west through brutal security measures and archaic laws and political systems. Take Hosni Mubarak’s new legislation that bans parties based on religion in a country that is a huge Muslim majority. The political slavery of the Middle East continues to deny the region the ability to independently move forward, prosper and appoint representative leaderships to govern for not despite them. The victims of slavery have called for apologies and reparations.
The British, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese have blocked an EU apology for the slave trade. The litigation that would follow would certainly be colossal, if the pay-outs from Holocaust cases are anything to go by, and may explain the west’s reluctance. Even if it were to apologise for the past, the present is still plagued by a culture born out of colonialism and slavery. While some argue that modern slavery is perpetrated through private, not governmental, bodies, it is for governments to act not remain silent over these crimes.
The challenge is not merely to seek apologies, but to redress a global political and economic situation which is likely only to entrench the debilitating situation in the non-west. Governments have underplayed this crime in a shameful way. It is easy to see how the memories of the Second World War, the holocaust, terrorist bombings are remembered year after year, ‘lest we forget’. Time has not made this crime, of genocidal proportions, any less disgraceful.
An ideological divide – Islam works against slavery.Slavery is a human problem that has existed for millennia. People were enslaved in war, by piracy and as a punitive sanction for crime. Slaves had no rights; societies did not institutionalise the rights of these people to be treated justly. When Islam came to the world, slavery was widespread yet Islam created a profound change by laying down laws defining a way of treating slaves justly as human beings as well as affording them rights that were previously unheard of. There were major encouragements to free people from slavery as well as numerous obligations in this regard. The various means through which people came to be enslaved were ended – including during the course of war. Hence, at a systemic level a series of rules came to weaken the institution of slavery, as well as rules to regulate the treatment of slaves.
For example, regarding the treatment of slaves, the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) said: “Fear Allah in regards of those whom your right hands possess. They are your brothers whom Allah placed under your hands (authority). Feed them with what you eat, clothe them with what you wear and do not impose duties upon them which will overcome them. If you so impose duties, then assist them” and moved to change the language that have previously subjugated slaves saying, “One of you should not say: My slave (abd) and my slave-girl (amati). All of you are the slaves of Allah and all of your women are the slave-girls of Allah. Rather let him say: My (ghulam) boy and my (jariyah) girl and my (fata) young boy and my (fatati) young girl.” Islam gave the slave the right to marry, divorce, study and to be a witness upon others, in a society where they had no rights.
Regarding the encouragement to free slaves, the Prophet (SAW) said: “Whichever man frees a Muslim man, Allah ta’ala will liberate for each of his organ an organ from the Fire”. Islam further obliged the freeing of slaves under certain circumstances and made the freeing of slaves an expiation for a great number of sins, such as breaking oaths, if one had killed accidentally, incorrectly breaking a fast during Ramadhan as well as many others. Furthermore, the state treasury of the Islamic state, the Bait al-Mal, dedicates a section of its funds to the freeing of slaves, from the words of Allah (SWT) in the Qur’an:
“Verily the sadaqat is only for the poor, the indigent, those who work upon it, those whose hearts are to be reconciled, for (riqab), debtors, for the way of Allah and the wayfarer, an obligation from Allah and Allah is knower wise”, the statement “and for (riqab)” referring to freeing slaves.
Islam further prohibited the enslaving of free people in a decisive way including captives of war. The Prophet Mohammed (SAW) said:
“Allah ‘azza wa jalla said: Three (persons) I will dispute with them on the Day of Judgement: A man who gave in My name then he betrayed, a man who sold a free man and ate his price, and a man who employed an employee who fulfilled for him but he did not give him his wage”.
By contrast, Capitalism embraced slavery and grew the institution. The value of profit was given a higher status than the value of human life and dignity. The slave trade bred a racism that permeates till today. Never before, whether in Asia, China, Africa, the Middle East or indeed Europe, had slavery been solely associated with one race. The slave traders selected black people viewing them as inferior.
Furthermore, the brutal treatment and the industrial levels of enslaving people were characteristic of the Capitalist system, which invented battery farming. Those who called for the end of the slave trade were individuals out of step with that system which had embraced it. By a similar vein those in the Muslim world who participated in the enslaving of people, and were complicit with the slave traders were individuals out of step with the Islamic system – a system which had legally closed routes to enslavement, and effectively worked against it.