Whenever I hear the term ‘Modern slavery’ used in British media and politics I feel an immediate and acute sense of indignation. Part of this feeling stems from the inaccuracy of the term, the other part derives from what I feel its use is consciously, or subconsciously, trying to accomplish. Regardless of any alleged justifications for it ‘Modern slavery’ is a misnomer, which attempts to deflect attention away from an issue which this country has never properly come to terms with – Britain’s role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Its usage should stop until this subject has begun to be addressed.
This year, Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act which aims to strengthen efforts to tackle the growing problems of human trafficking and forced labour in the United Kingdom. Whilst the increased efforts to tackle these problems are undoubtedly commendable, the name of the Act is not. Firstly, the term ‘Modern Slavery’ is inaccurate in so far as it seeks to proscribe the same name to two very different phenomena. The Oxford English Dictionary describes slavery in reference to being a slave, and a slave as “a person who is the legal property of another (especially in the past)”. The key word in this definition is ‘legal’, as it underlines the fact that slavery has historically been a system which was supported by a nation’s laws.
There is perhaps no more quintessential example of this State-sponsored system than the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where the British (and other European powers) passed laws for their colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean which recognized slaves as property and protected the rights of masters over their newly acquired ‘property’. As Justice Roger B Taney reminds us in the seminal United States slave case of Dred Scott v Sandford:
“The opinion thus entertained and acted upon in England was naturally impressed upon the colonies they founded on this side of the Atlantic. And, accordingly, a Negro of the African race was regarded by them as an article of property, and held, and bought and sold as such…”
Whilst forced labour does describe a system where a person is forced to work for another for free, unlike slavery, it is seldom endorsed by the nation in which it takes places and is infact recognized as a crime in virtually every nation in the world except for as part of military service or as a punishment for certain offences. This is not to say that human trafficking and forced labour are not abhorrent crimes, only that they are fundamentally different to slavery.
Some may point to the word “Modern” as differentiating the concepts, however this argument is unpersuasive. The addition of the adjective ‘Modern’ seems to suggest either that it is the exact same practice, just carried out contemporarily, or that the forced labour on the rise today is in some way equivalent to the slave trade. Neither of these denotations are acceptable, as nothing about human trafficking and forced labour equals, or even mildly resembles, the State-sanctioned, State-funded and State-legitimized institution of Slavery which, in the case of the Transatlantic Slave trade, uprooted millions from their homes and sold them into perpetual bondage. The profits from this wicked trade helped shape and mould many of the advanced western nations of today and was particularly important to the development of Britain, who used the profits from its domination of the slave trade to fuel its industrial development.
The second issue that I have with the term ‘Modern Slavery’ concerns what I believe its use is trying either advertently, or inadvertently to accomplish. The Transatlantic Slave trade is not only one of the most harrowing examples of mass suffering and exploitation in human history, but also remains one of the most poorly remembered and redressed. Whilst the Church of England issued a formal apology in 2006 for its role in Slave trade, the British Government has never issued an apology for the part it played and consistently expressed its reluctance to even engage in dialogue with those looking to exhume the remains of our nation’s role in the trade. Ironically, the last time Parliament passed an act with ‘Slavery’ in its title was the Slavery Abolition Act (1833). This act, whilst finally abolishing the Slavery that the British Empire had helped establish and maintain for 400 years, provided for vast sums of compensation to be paid to slave-owners who, as a result of abolition, would be losing their ‘human property’. Slaves on the other hand, were given nothing and these decisions laid the foundations for the social and economic inequality which still plague many Caribbean nations and peoples of Caribbean descent today.
It is astonishing that whilst our Government are not even prepared to engage in the topic of their historical role in the Slave Trade which affected so many and continues to do so today, the word is permitted to be banded around in the political sphere and even given to an Act of Parliament describing what are in essence very different crimes. This is deeply insulting to those still living with the gross inequalities that slavery gave rise to and one cannot but get the impression that it is as if by using the term ‘Modern Slavery’ certain factions are attempting to erase the memory of Britain’s role in one of the clearest examples of Slavery that ever existed, The Transatlantic Slave trade.