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Slave Trade and continued existence of slavery today
By Mukami McCrum - 'an African mother and grandmother'
Commemoration of Abolition of Slave Trade 25 March 2007

I have heard it said that discussions about slave trade do not serve any purpose in the 21st Century. We are living at a challenging time when human kind is facing untold calamities of wars, poverty, violence and injustices beyond comprehension. Each of the human wrongs competes for attention from the powerful people, countries and nations but somehow their cries appear not to really care. This makes it difficult for many people to imagine the horror of slave trade and of slavery. It was an evil that lasted for three centuries and caused miserly to millions of Africans.

Today any discussion about the slave trade evokes highly charged emotions mostly of guilt and denial on one hand and blame on the other. In many cases the debate becomes an academic exercise that reduces everything into an economic lesson about profit and numbers. For me this reduces the whole nasty experience into a banal debate which homogenises the victims of slave trade, turns them into faceless and unfeeling 'commodity', and strips them of their individuality and humanity. The debate masks their real experiences: miserly, powerlessness, humiliation, pain, anguish and desperation. Behind the statistics were real men, women and children.  Somebody's mother, father, daughter, son, sister or brother. The numbers hide the inhumanity and the cruelty of denying parents the right to family life, and also deny mothers the right and the joy of motherhood.

However, there are many stories that speak about this miserly. As a child growing up in East Africa, my grandmother used to tell us scary stories as a warning to make us stay within our homestead. She told us that there were people who came by boats, bigger than houses, and stole children and young people who were never seen again. She told us how the miserly of losing their children drove some women mad and they spent many years looking for their children in the forest and calling out their names. Nobody knows what happened to the women, but sometimes, when the wind blows, you can hear the mothers wailing and the sobbing. These stories frightened me but I learnt later that they were based on true stories about slave traders on the East coast of Africa.

As an adult I was comforted and encouraged by stories written in the slave narratives such as the Incidents in The Life of A Slave Girl by Harriet A Jacobs, who lived from 1813 to 1897.  Stories about the resistance, the strength, resilience and the staying power of the women who endured all manner of hardship in order that they could survive and protect their children. Harriet's story is a good example of how the abolition of slave trade did not mean the end of the injustices of slavery.

In 1835 Harriet was sent to work in the plantation as punishment for refusing to become her master's concubine. As if this was not bad enough, the master threatened to take her son and daughter from her grandmother's house. She knew his cruelty knew no bounds and he would hurt the children to punish her. She vowed to rescue them from plantation and slavery, and therefore decided to run away thinking that her absence would make her children troublesome and the master would sell them. For many years she hid in her grandmother's attic, a tiny space nine by seven feet with the highest space only three feet, which she describes as 'having no air or light and infested by rats and mice'. Through a tiny hole she drilled through the rafters, she could see and hear her children but could never touch them, which she longed for so much. She endured great pain and illness from lack of exercise and mobility in the tiny space but she watched over them and planned and plotted to protect. She wrote:

'I suffered for air even more than light but I was not comfortless. I heard the voices of my children. There was joy and there was sadness in that sound. It made my tears flow. How I longed to speak to them. I was eager to look on their faces but there was no hole or crack through which I could peep'.

After drilling a hole in the rafters: 'At last I heard the merry laugh of children and presently two sweet faces were looking up at me as thought hey knew I was there and conscious of the joy they imparted. I longed to tell them I was there!'

One day, when she learned that the father of her children was leaving the area she risked everything for a chance to speak with him and ask him to free her children. In her weak state she crawled out of the den and waited by the gate. She pleaded with him but when he left she was too weak to walk and she had to be carried back to the attic. All this time, the cruel master was still hunting for her believing she was in New York. To keep him guessing she sent letters to be posted from New York and pretend that she lived in Massachusetts which was terribly feared by slave hunters because many freed slaves lived there and they were ready to protect themselves and others. The following extracts from the book show some of the injustices slaves faced on daily basis

Slaves had no rights over their children:  Harriet's master often threatened to sell her children when she refused to accept 'his kind offers'. Although their father was white and a free man the children were slaves because the law dictated that the children followed the status of their mother not father thereby denying the children rights to inheritance and freedom.

Women suffered additional hardships: Harriet was sad when her daughter was born. "When they told me my newborn was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men but it is far more terrible for women…. they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own".

The legacy
Violation of human rights
: As we commemorate the Abolition of Slave Trade 200 years ago, we must not forget that the Act abolished the trade by British subjects but it did not abolish slavery. The abolition of slavery came much later in 1833 but the damage and the effects of centuries of cruelty and violation of human rights, lasted for many years and continues to affect human relationships today. Slave trade is often described as evil episode that happened centuries ago and it is best left to the history books. The Slave trade was a shocking reality that happened at a time when there was no Human Rights Acts, no UN Declarations and International Conventions to protect people and no global civil societies to support the victim. Sadly the seeds of inhumanity that were planted during the slave testify to the horror of the ongoing slavery in spite of the legal instruments we have today. Slavery, exploitation, abuse and violence continue today. What is the excuse?

Divided families: Today, immigration laws in many countries of the world make it very hard for people from poor countries escaping abject poverty or conflict to enjoy the right to family life. Immigrants, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees face harsh laws on top of the discrimination they face from individuals in the society. The laws and political climate are often a signal to society of the low status attributed to these people. Mothers are forced to leave young children behind when they leave home to seek employment and others become separated when running away in times of conflict.

I am often vexed by people who make the case for allowing migrant workers, refugees and asylum seeker into UK today by pointing out that refugees and asylum seekers are useful to the country because of their skills and high qualifications, skills and vast experience. What about their basic human right to life, freedom of movement and association? What about the poor souls who never got a chance for education and training? Does this make them less human? It is indeed a sad day when entitlement to human rights is measured by the contents of a CV.

Human Trafficking today bears the hall marks of slave trade. Anti Slavery movement defines it as involving the movement of people though violence, deception or coercion for the purpose of forced labour, servitude or slavery like practices. It is slavery because traffickers use violence, threats and other forms of coercion to force the victims to work against their will. Nobody knows the actual number of people trafficked but it is assumed that millions world wide. The issue is not about numbers but about the miserly and violation of human rights. It is an abuse of human rights and denies people the right to: life, physical and mental well being, freedom, security, family life, torture including inhuman and degrading treatment, and choice.

There are many ways in which people are coerced to work and live in slave like conditions. Poverty forces people to work in sweat shops, factories and dangerous building sites for a meagre wage and without employment rights to protect them. The most vulnerable people are women and children due to their powerless and low status in the world. They are forced to work in the dangerous, dirty and low paid end of the labour market as domestic workers, labourers or cleaners. Perhaps the saddest of all is the number of children who are killed or maimed in factories and building sites and nobody is brought to account. The exploitation goes on under the noses of governments who have signed and ratified international instruments to protect human rights. Does it mean that the criminals who perpetrate such evil acts are more powerful than governments? How can I explain to my grand daughter that it is easier for the police to catch and prosecute people for road traffic offences than for human trafficking crimes?

Harriets of Today
At this moment, in a remote village somewhere in Africa, Asia or Latin America, a woman is crying for her lost child or grand child - one of many children and young people who go missing through trafficking or other evil reasons every year. Mothers who have that distant look in their eyes. Eyes that are always searching, and scanning crowds of people while their ears listen for voices of their missing children. Mothers who answer and turn round when they hear the words, 'mum or mama' from a child's voice. All they see are startled faces of children's, baffled by her answer. The waiting and the expectation turns to stress and depression. "It is the waiting and not knowing that destroys me", said one grandmother.

The poor woman cries and wails because she does not know what to do? She believed the nice woman who promised education and a good future for her child in the city. She was told money would be sent to help her with the other children. She did not ask what the child would do in return for such kindness. It seemed rude to ask and when you are poor, you do not have many choices. Asking too many questions could have implied lack of trust. She now wishes she had asked the questions.  No money has come yet and she has heard rumours about bad things happening to the children in the city. She has heard that sometimes children are sold to people abroad. Deep down she feel that she will never see the child again but she dare not let go. Hope keeps her going.

Desire to be free: Slaves desired and longed for freedom. As Harriet said she wanted - no chain round the neck of her baby girl.  Today, poor people, refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers - in deed all of them want freedom. Harriet explained this very well after the christening of her baby girl:

"When we left the church, my father's old mistress invited me to go home with her. She clasped a gold chain around my baby's neck I thanked for this kindness; but I did not like the emblem. I wanted no chain to be fastened on my daughter, not even if its links were of gold. How earnestly I prayed that she might never feel the weight of slavery's chain, whose iron entereth into the soul!"

This is my prayer too!

Mukami McCrum March 2007

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