Trafficking, Gender and Slavery: Past and Present, Orlando Patterson

Trafficking, Gender and Slavery: Past and Present

Orlando Patterson*

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

It is now commonly, and increasingly, held that contemporary trafficking in persons and all forms of forced labour constitute modern forms of slavery. This view was given official support in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s introduction to the Department of State 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) when she stated: ‘we have seen unprecedented forward movement around the world in the fight to end human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery’. Clinton was here echoing similar claims by numerous experts and policy advocates, including the authors of her department’s authoritative TIP Report.

My objective in this chapter is to address the serious problem of defining slavery in the modern world that currently bedevils most writings on the subject. I will argue, first, that standard arguments making the claim that all trafficking in persons and, even more broadly, all forms of forced labour, constitute forms of slavery are problematic because they embrace too many of the world’s migrants—internal and external—and too promiscuously conflate slavery with forms of exploitation not considered slavery in most non-western societies or in any historically informed and conceptually rigorous use of the term. At the same time, I will argue that the worst forms of child labour and domestic servitude as well as international and domestic sexual trafficking, all easily satisfy a polythetic1 definition of slavery in their close family resemblance to the institution as it has existed throughout history. I will proceed by first reprising and bringing up to date my own definition of slavery, developed in my work Slavery and Social Death and extended in later writings. I will then closely examine the definition offered by the most prominent and widely cited author on the subject of contemporary slavery, Kevin Bales. I single out Professor Bales, not simply because of his influence, but because he has explicitly contrasted his definition with my own and has argued that while my definition might have properly described what he calls ‘the old’ slavery it is no longer adequate for our understanding of contemporary slavery. In contesting this view, I hope to show that, to the contrary, the definition of slavery developed in Slavery and Social Death and refined in later works, is of far greater relevance to our understanding of slavery in the world today, especially its fastest growing form: the trafficking of women and girls for commercial sexual purposes.2

The remainder of the chapter explores the gendered nature of slavery in both traditional and modern times. I begin by demonstrating this through an examination of statistical and anthropological data on traditional societies. I show that slavery has always been a highly gendered relation of domination and examine the complex interplay of economic and socio-cultural factors in such societies. I then attempt to show the gendered nature of slavery in the major contemporary forms of the institution, focusing on the sexual domination and exploitation of women.

A. The Nature of Slavery: Traditional and Modern

Conventional definitions of slavery emphasize its economic and legal aspects and are still largely variations on the 1926 League of Nations statement which, according to Allain ‘remains the established definition in law’, namely: ‘the status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised’.3 In Slavery and Social Death I questioned the utility of this narrowly conceived Western approach which applies mainly to modern, capitalistic, slavery in which the slave is quintessentially a commercial chattel. I pointed out that in various parts of the world many categories of persons who were not slaves could be sold, for example, brides in societies with bride-price arrangements (to be examined later), debt-bondsmen, indentured servants (including those in seventeenth and eighteenth century US and the Caribbean), serfs (as late as the nineteenth century in Russia and Eastern Germany), concubines and children. At the same time, many types of slaves, especially those born into slavery or who had given birth to a child with their masters, could sometimes not be sold.

Slavery, it was argued, is best understood as a form of personal, corporeal domination, by the slaveholder or his agent, based on the exercise or threat of physical and psychological violence. It is characterized, first, by the absolute power (in practice) of the master over his slave, the latter becoming merely an extension of the will and household of the former. The master’s power excluded all claims or powers by the slaves in self, things or persons. Whatever the slave possessed ultimately belonged to the master; at most, she was permitted its usufruct or peculium. Similarly, the slave had no claims in her children, who belonged to the master and could be moved away or sold at his will. Because the master owned the progeny of the slave, the condition of slavery was usually inherited, although societies varied widely in the rules determining the pattern of inheritance.

The second prototypical feature of slavery was the deracination and socio-cultural isolation of the slave, which I referred to as her natal alienation. Slaves were originally uprooted from their ancestral homes then incorporated into the household or estate of their masters. They and their children were precluded from any formal attachment to, or claims on, the community of their masters. They were ‘people who did not belong’, quintessential ‘others’ or outsiders, reflected in the term for slavery in many lands from ancient Mesopotamian times to nineteenth-century West Africa, but most strikingly in the common root, slav, for the term in all the West European languages (Spain: esclavo, German: sklave, French: esclave, Dutch: slaaf, Swedish: slav), which came about because the typical slaves in medieval Europe from the eighth century onwards were outsiders—Slavs trafficked to Western Europe4—a tragic historical pattern repeating itself in the current massive trafficking of Slavic women into West European sexual slavery.5 There were many ways of expressing this isolation: in small, kin-based societies without developed legal systems, slaves were regarded as ‘kinless’, people who had no recognized place in the lineage system. In more advanced societies such as the ancient Romans they were considered legally dead: pro nullo, without rights or duties, or any legal capacity, under the complete dominium of their masters. The descendants of slaves, even though born in the homeland of their masters, continued to be natally alienated in that they had no rights deriving from birth and were considered not to belong to the societies in which they lived. They belonged instead to their masters with their existence as recognized social beings entirely mediated through them.

Today, because slavery is no longer legally sanctioned, the closest approximation to traditional natal alienation are persons who find themselves illegally transported to foreign countries where they are fearful of seeking the protection of law enforcement and other state authorities and are isolated from familial and social ties. Persons who are trafficked and enslaved in the country of their birth, while they technically have the right to state protection, may be terrorized into fearing such authorities by their slave-holders. We will use the broader term social isolation, rather than natal alienation, to take account of the non-legality of modern slavery. Nonetheless, the psychological reality of the modern slave’s isolation may be no less devastating than that suffered by the natal alienation of traditional slaves.

Psychologists have now come to identify the need to belong, to gain acceptance and avoid rejection, as the most fundamental of five core motives that underlie human behaviour. Alan and Susan Fiske summarized a long tradition of scholarship showing that this basic need underlies the other fundamental human motives: ‘to maintain socially shared understanding, a sense of control over outcomes, a special sympathy for self, and trust in certain in-group others’.6 In other words, blocking the activation of this most basic human motive, as the slave-master and his community did, crippled the capacity of the slaves to be fully human. It is hard to imagine a better description of the everyday sociological and social-psychological reality of slave life throughout the world, past and present, than that they are people who are inhumanly prevented from developing stable, shared understandings of their world, any sense of control over their lives, any deep confidence in and sympathy for themselves as autonomous, self-cherishing and self-confident persons capable of self-improvement, and any deep trust in others.

The third of the prototypical features of slavery is the absolute degradation attached to slave status, the fact that the slave is a person without honour, having no dignity that any free person is required to respect, and that this dishonour parasitically aggrandized the power and honour of the slave-holder. What JanGeorg Deutsch wrote of the Swahili of East Africa holds for all slaveholders of all times: ‘the number of the owner’s dependents determined the degree of honour and respect they could command in their respective communities’.7 Injuries against slaves in nearly all slave-holding societies were compensated with payments to the master, not the slave. Tragically, slaves themselves come to consider their condition one of dishonour and this sense of degradation is often used by the slaveholder as a means of maintaining his hold on the slave and as a way of parasitically enhancing his own sense of power and mastership. Additionally, the degradation of slavery defines the slave as the ultimate ‘other’ in the eyes of non-slaves—someone beyond the pale, base and irredeemably dishonoured—which, in turn, enhances her isolation, a key element in the control of the master over her.8 For many poor and disadvantaged non-slaves the otherness of the slave also offers the parasitic sense of pride in not being among the lowest of the low, even a sense of freedom.

An important additional feature of historical slavery which, we will see, is of great relevance to the situation today, is the gendered nature of slavery and the centrality of the body in the slave relation. Throughout the ages of slavery, women were not only the main and preferred source of slaves in most slave-holding societies, but the condition of non-slave women provided the psychological, socio-economic, legal, and physical model of enslavement. In numerous societies, slaves were ready substitutes for non-slave women, in labour and in bed. And, as several scholars have noted, the male–female and especially the marital relationship often provided the model for the master–slave relationship, a point first made by the nineteenth century student of comparative slavery, Tourmagne.9 The economist Frederic Pryor has argued that there is a parallelism ‘between dominant husband and exploited wife, on the one hand, and a master and his slave, on the other. The exploited wife and slave (either male or female) fulfil the same role, namely, to exercise power’.10 Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch has gone even further: ‘Particularly in the most patriarchal of the patrilineal societies’, she writes, ‘the function, if not the status, of a free wife differed little from that of a slave’.11

However, beyond the sheer exercise of power, I would add the peculiar claim of possession of the body of another in both kinds of relations of domination. The ownership of the slave, unlike other forms of domination, was quintessentially carnal. Aristotle gave us one of the earliest and most chilling expressions of this view: ‘The part and the whole, like the body and the soul have an identical interest; and the slave is a part of the master in the sense of being a living but separate part of his body’.12 The master owned not just the labour of the slave, but her corporeal being, with the power not only to use and enjoy its fruits (typically, the kiSwahili generic term for slave is mtumwa, meaning ‘one who is sent or used’13), but as the ancient Romans put it, the power to ‘use it up’ (ab-usus).14 All slaves, but especially women, were held in this distinctive ‘bodily subjection’, a ‘vocal instrument’ always answerable with their bodies, in antiquity as they are today.15 Sharifa Ahjum, drawing on the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis to decipher the relations of power in Cape Colony slavery, as revealed in contemporary writings on the subject, found that ‘slave women became intelligible solely through the contradiction engendered by their corporeal desirability, on the one hand, their visibility as body, and on the other hand, their erasure in the phallocentric economy of desire’, the latter being the domain of legitimate marital relations, the foundation of community and social order for free persons.16

In the long annals of slavery no slave-owner wrote more prolifically and candidly about the brutally gendered nature of slavery and its consequences for female, and male, slaves than the mid-eighteenth century Jamaican Thomas Thistlewood, who kept a diary of his sexual and other corporeal using up of his slaves over a period of 37 years during which he engaged in 3,852 sexual acts with 138 slave women. Although he had an average of 14 different partners per year, some of whom he raped, most of whom he compelled into casual relations, he nonetheless developed close physical relations with several of them, who served him as stable concubines or ‘wives’, in exactly the way a successful ‘mack-pimp’ today has a special woman from his stable of slave prostitutes. In spite of this, indeed because of it, Thistlewood was as savage to his slaves as the other planters: ‘Thistlewood whipped slaves; rubbed salt, lemon juice, and urine into their wounds; made a slave defecate into the mouth of another slave and then gagged the unfortunate recipient of this gift; and chained slaves overnight in the bilboes or stocks’.17 As his own and other independent sources indicate, his was quite normal behaviour in Jamaica. This was the real face of slavery as it existed everywhere: the intensely personal nature of domination and the very gendered nature of its execution. As Burnard perceptively commented, masters:

molested slave women in part because they could do so without fear of social consequence and in part because they constantly needed to show slaves the extent of their dominance … institutional dominance … had to be translated into personal dominance. Slave owners needed to show that they were strong, violent, virile men who ruled the little kingdoms of white autocracy that were Jamaican plantations as they pleased. What better way for white men to show who was in control than for them to have the pick of black women whenever they chose.18

One important consequence of my definition of slavery is that it sharply differentiates the relation from other forms of domination, in contrast with modern usages which have tended to confound these different forms. Thus, it makes clear the distinction between slaves and persons in debt bondage and serfdom. The medieval and modern East European serfs were not natally alienated or socially isolated and, however diminished, had some honour that could be defended. It was often the case that medieval serfs went to war with their lords in defence of their common homeland. Similarly, today it is not usually the case that debt bondsmen are natally alienated or socially isolated persons. As Ruwanpura and Rai have noted, ‘in South Asia there are notable links to religious, cultural, and caste-based social relationships and skewed land-ownership patterns, which is closely related to the local social and economic structures’.19 And all over Latin America, it was the deeply rooted native Indian populations who were reduced to peonage by outsider Hispanic elites,20 a classic case in point being the Diriomenos of Nicaragua who became peons, sometimes willingly, to the owners of the coffee fincas.21 If anything, it was their very integration in their communities that partly facilitates their entrapment in poverty. Furthermore, as Dore documents in the case of the Diriomenos of Nicaragua, it is economic impoverishment, coercive labour laws and the political power of patriarchal elites, sometimes interacting with the gendered inequality among the peons themselves, that are usually the causes of persons entering into, and remaining in, debt bondage, whereas economic necessity, while certainly an indirect cause, is often not what directly leads to slavery. In Pakistan, where debt bondage has spread from agriculture to the highly decentralized industrial sector, people are driven into debt bondage by the combination of wages below subsistence level leading to shortfalls in household incomes and expenditure ‘spikes’ such as deaths and marriages, the latter incurring costs that are, on average, 80 per cent of labourers’ annual income.22 People, both in past and present times, are usually either forced into slavery or trapped into it by fraudulent means.

Further, in general, bonded persons are not corporeally owned or possessed as slaves traditionally were. There was, to be sure, an element of this in traditional debt bondage in South Asia, especially in agriculture where landowners from the upper castes maintained unequal patron–client relationships with lower caste share-cropping and other landed labourers, vestiges of which remain today. Thus Ramphal, a 28-year old (in 2004) Indian who was born into bondage, recalls cases of women being raped and burnt by their exploiters.23 Dalit bondswomen in India and Nepal are especially prone to sexual violence, one Tamil Nadu government official observing that ‘no one practices untouchability when it comes to sex.’24 However, such actions are clearly illegal (as they were not in traditional slavery). Modernization is changing this pattern into one in which labourers are increasingly alienated from traditional contractual relationships and are instead recruited by middlemen contractors and sub-contractors many of the latter from the exploited labourers own kin-group and castes. According to Khan, indebted and bonded factory workers, like their counterparts in the modernized farming sector, ‘have little or nothing to do with the recruitment of labour, apart from the few regular employees that make up the formal workforce’.25 In both Latin America and South Asia traditional, pre-capitalist labour exploitation has mutated under modern capitalistic pressures into new patterns of exploitation collectively designated ‘neo-bondage’ by scholars of the process. Basile and Mukhopadhyay summarize as follows: ‘While bondage in pre-capitalist economy is a form of interpersonal and permanent link, “neo-bondage” refers to a form of “less personalized, more contractual and monetised” bondage that does not provide, as in the past, “protection” and a “subsistence guarantee” to bonded workers’. Rather it is ‘rooted in the asymmetry of power relations between capital and labour’ resulting in ‘a form that is intermediate between the autonomous commoditization of wage labour and the heteronomous commoditization of slavery’.26

A fourth feature of traditional, legally sanctioned slavery applies less to modern times. It is the fact that slavery was hereditary and permanent. Now while, again, one can cite many cases of children taking on the debt burdens of their parents, especially in South Asia, not only is such inheritance illegal but the overwhelming tendency, even among adults, is toward short-term contracts. In Latin America the vast majority of such contracts last no more than one harvest.27 In India the younger generation has adopted a simple solution to the burden of their parents’ debt: they walk away from them, creating what Jan Breman calls the ‘footloose proletariat’ who choose with their feet the ‘more risky but freer life of a day worker’.28

To conclude this section, we define slavery as the violent, corporeal possession of socially isolated and parasitically degraded persons.

In its traditional form the master’s power was legally enforceable and absolute, the slave’s status usually, though not always, heritable and the slave’s social isolation amounted to a state of natal alienation, meaning that he or she had no legal personality or formally recognizable membership in the society of their enslavement. Viewed in monothetic terms, such an institution no longer exists. However, in polythetic terms, there are relations of domination today that have enough of these properties to justify being designated slavery.

B. Kevin Bales’s View of ‘Old’ and ‘New Slavery’: A Critique

In a series of recent works, Kevin Bales has attempted to distinguish between traditional and modern-day slavery as part of his effort to redefine nearly all forms of modern forced labour as slavery, which he claims to be now more widespread than at any other time in history, his estimate of 27 million slaves today being the most widely cited figure on the subject.29 I need hardly add that this critique of Bales is in no way meant to diminish the extraordinary work he has done in promoting the modern abolitionist cause. To the contrary, by correcting this error in his work, it is hoped that the effort to achieve the aims we both share will be strengthened.

‘The basic fact of one person totally controlling another remains the same’, he writes, ‘but slavery has changed in some crucial ways’. He argues that there are seven basic ways in which the ‘old’ slavery differs from the ‘new’. First, in traditional slavery legal ownership was asserted, whereas today there is no attempt to do so, especially in light of the fact that slavery is now illegal in most societies. Second, it is claimed that slaves were relatively expensive previously, whereas the purchase cost today is very low. Third, that previously, slavery provided very low profits, whereas today slavery is an extremely high-profit business. Fourth, that there was always a shortage of potential slaves in older systems, whereas today there is a glut of potential slaves. Fifth, that slavery previously was a long-term relationship, whereas today it is a short-term one. Sixth, that slaves were maintained by their owners as long as possible in traditional slavery, whereas today slaves are disposable commodities. Finally, he argues that under previous systems of slavery there were important ethnic and racial differences between masters and slaves, whereas today such differences are not important.

Bales attributes the rise of the new slavery and these important differences to the rapid increase in population after the middle of the last century, especially in places where slavery was already prevalent; as well as government corruption. Available resources could not meet the needs of all and hence the price of humans decreased. A further factor accounting for the increase, and cheapening, of the value of slaves was the growth in inequality due to modernization, especially in rural areas where small-scale subsistence farming was replaced by labour-saving techniques. More generally, globalization has not only exacerbated the above trends, but has made transportation much cheaper both between and within countries, thereby facilitating the growth of trafficking and slavery.

Most of the above distinguishing features argued by Bales are open to question. Bales’s fundamental error is to equate what he calls ‘the old slavery’ with the capitalistic slave systems of the Americas, especially the United States South. However, it makes little sense to so confine the old slavery, especially for Bales, whose work is, in the main, concerned with the global nature of the new slavery, facilitated by the processes of globalization. As he himself notes, these modern developments are most prone to worsen the condition of people in traditional, non-western societies which already harboured many forms of forced labour.

The claim that legal ownership is asserted in the old slavery whereas it is not today is the only one of Bales distinguishing features that stand up to some scrutiny. We have already noted the importance of legality as a distinguishing feature of traditional slavery, but even this must be carefully qualified. While it is true that almost no society legally condones slavery today, the situation under previous systems of slavery varied widely. In some more advanced societies with established legal systems, rights of ownership were indeed sanctioned as they were in ancient Greece and Rome and in the modern Americas. However, most traditional societies had no such formal systems of law and it is anachronistic, as well as legally ethnocentric, to claim that legal ownership was generally asserted in the old systems of slavery. Exclusive legal ownership is a distinctive principle originating in ancient Roman law and is not attested in many traditional systems of law.30 As defined earlier, the concepts of corporeal possession, violence and of extreme power over another are more appropriate terms in defining the slave relation which, as it happens, also facilitates its application to certain modern forms of domination.

A further qualification is that, while slavery is declared illegal in nearly all societies today, it is not entirely the case that all extreme forms of modern forced labour are illegal or that laws, including those against slavery, are taken seriously. The legal scholar, Jane Kim, has forcefully argued that the trafficking of women via the foreign-bride industry is legal practice in the US, and nearly all countries of the world, in spite of the fact that the condition of these women often amounts to modern enslavement.31 In many countries laws against servitude are often dead letters. This is true of Niger, Mauritania and Sudan, where traditional slavery persists.32 And although Pakistan (in 1992) and Nepal (in 2000) declared bonded labour illegal in response to international pressure, local elites and often the government have ‘systematically failed to honour or defend the fundamental rights of the working population to live in freedom’.33 But the simplest and most effective way in which laws are rendered ineffective is by the recruitment of foreign trafficked labour. Thus, in Thailand, the country with one of the worst records for both sexual and non-sexual forced labour, all the pertinent international instruments against trafficking and forced labour have been duly ratified but are then made moot by virtue of the fact that migrant workers in the country are prohibited from organizing to improve their labour condition, in contravention of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 122 which bars such practice.34

The claim that modern slavery is characterized by the low purchase price of slaves compared with the high purchase price under former slavery is simply incorrect once one goes beyond the Americas. There was, in fact, wide variation in the price of slaves in different times and parts of the world, as is true today. In the Ancient Near East, medieval Ireland and Iceland, and some traditional African societies such as the Mende, slaves were often used as units of value and could, indeed, be relatively expensive. A ‘big, strong thrall’ was worth 24 cows in medieval Iceland, not cheap. However, in many other areas, the price of slaves could be incredibly low: the price of a good horse in sixteenth-century Burma was 40 Indian slaves, and in 1872 in the glutted Bagirimi slave market of the Sudan women were being sold for $5, a single cow valued at 10 slaves and young males were going for as little as six chickens a head.35 As with present times, the price and supply of slaves depended on factors that influenced the state of the market such as warfare, internal conflicts and post-conflict conditions, unemployment, age, gender discrimination, famine or other sources of economic distress.36

The same holds for profits. Contrary to Bales’ claim, the old slavery could be very profitable, and this includes, most notably, the very society on which he based his assertion: the plantations of the US South, contrary to what was once the common view, were highly profitable, as were those of the West Indies right up the near the end of slavery.37 Highly profitable, too, were the sale and use of slaves in pre-Columbian West Africa and the Sahel.38

There was no shortage of potential slaves in most traditional slave societies. Here Bales was completely misled by his reliance on the US case which, between the ending of the slave trade and the abolition of slavery was exceptional among comparative slave systems in the growth of demand for slaves at a time when external supplies were cut off. Such shortages, however, were rarely true even of the other slave societies of the Caribbean up to the end of the slave trade in 1807. As late as the late nineteenth century, slave markets in the Sahel and what is now western Nigeria were often glutted especially following the Fulani jihad and the collapse of the Yoruba Oyo Empire.39 In the nineteenth century, when Cuba began to rapidly expand its slave plantation system, slaves were so abundant in West Africa that Cuban planters had little difficulty buying and greatly expanding their stock of slaves, in spite of the embargo of the British Navy against slave trading after 1807.40

Whether or not all slavery today can be characterized as short-term relationships is questionable. Millions of the debt bondsmen in Pakistan and India, considered to be slaves by Bales, inherited their status and original debts, which both accumulate and are passed on from generation to generation. The modern restavek system of child slavery in Haiti is certainly a long-term relationship, as is the well documented cases of child slavery in the cocoa and other farms of West Africa. Other forms of domestic servitude, including many documented by Bales himself in more recent work,41 are also very long-term. The focus, it appears, is too narrowly on sexual trafficking in some modern Western societies where trafficked prostitutes are sold from one trafficker to another. However, even here, one can cite numerous counter-cases in which trafficked prostitutes maintain long-term relationships with their pimps and masters. This is especially true of prostitutes trafficked domestically in the US, but there are many cases of internationally trafficked women who are held in long-term slave-like relationships.

Two kinds of case will suffice. First, there is the growing problem of forced marriages, especially in China, to which we return later. In addition, it has now been well documented that many East-Asian women who marry foreign servicemen are forced into prostitution upon returning to America with their husbands, this being true of hundreds of Korean ‘army wives’; others are similarly held in long-term bondage and prostitution, amounting to slavery, after being recruited as mailorder brides.42 Second, there are many cases of long-term relationships in Europe and the US today involving both commercial sexual exploitation as well as other forms of labour exploitation. Thus in both the US and Britain, many Asian ‘Snakeheads’ such as the notorious ‘Sister Ping’ maintain long-term relationships with their victims who incur human-smuggling debts often amounting to over $50,000 which may take the better part of a lifetime to pay off.43

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