Home > Guest Posts > How Seventeenth-Century Slavery Foreshadowed Slavery Today

This guest post was written by John Donoghue, Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago and a longtime supporter of Historians Against Slavery. Professor Donoghue is the author of "Fire Under the Ashes:" An Atlantic History of the English Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which examines the early origins of antislavery ideology in the republican radicalism of the English Revolution. He is also coeditor of the forthcoming volume Building the Atlantic Empires: Slavery, the State, and the Rise of Global Capitalism, 1500-1945 (Brill, 2014).

David Brion Davis was certainly correct in concluding that in the long sweep of slavery’s global history, the enslavement of Africans in the Americas represented “the ultimate form of inhuman bondage.” But the horrific exceptionality of racialized slavery in the early modern Atlantic should not stop us from making comparisons between slavery past and present. Indeed, too much has been made concerning the differences between “historical” and “modern” slavery.

Comparing the spectrum of plantation servitude in the early English Atlantic (ca. 1620-1720) to the wide-ranging conditions of modern slavery reveals the shortcomings of such rigid distinctions between human bondage past and present. The more familiar system of racialized, chattel slavery, which by the 1720s had crystallized in the West Indies, the Chesapeake, and the Carolina Low Country, grew out of an earlier, seventeenth century system where multiple forms of chattel servitude existed side-by-side.

Although race always defined the line between temporary and lifelong bondage in the colonial period, race did not always define the line between slavery and freedom. In fact, up until the mid-seventeenth century in the Caribbean and for the better part of the seventeenth century in the Chesapeake, most people reduced to chattel servitude entered the condition due to their sheer vulnerability to enslavement, not by virtue of their race, which in the modern meaning of the term did not yet exist. The vulnerability of these people to “indentured servitude,” or “bond slavery” as contemporaries also called the condition, existed as a function of their impoverishment.

Importantly, their poverty had been created, or manufactured, through English colonialism in Ireland and/or the dislocations rendered by capitalist-styled economic and social changes, principally in England. Working primarily as unskilled field hands in the early plantation complex, at least one third of these unfortunates died during their terms of service. As many historians have noted, however, those who survived their service rarely rose out of poverty (lowball estimates of mortality rates put the figure at one-third). To take a term from modern slavery studies, freed servants became the “disposable people” of the seventeenth century, living on the margins of colonial society, mostly as casual laborers and small tenant farmers.

Today, slave owners exploit their slaves as long as local conditions allow them to and as long as the work of their slaves remains profitable. For instance, in 1998, the Halliburton corporation, following the completion of its subcontracted pipeline in Myanmar, dismissed the workforce. The workforce consisted of people forced from their distant homes by corrupt officials in the Myanmar government to labor as slaves on Halliburton’s pipeline. Once dismissed, the pipeline workers found themselves even poorer and hundreds of miles from home and vulnerable to other forms of labor exploitation, including re-enslavement.

Turning to another modern-day example, brothel operators and pimps throughout the world frequently enslave children and young adolescents for prostitution. As long as these young people remain desirable to pedophiles, they remain profitable for their masters. When the children succumb to disease, depression, or flat out physical exhaustion, they are abandoned by their pimps and forced out of the brothels and onto the street, where they are forced to fend for themselves. For enslavers in both the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, the cost effective profitability of mastering disposable people overshadowed and continues to overshadow the human cost of such greed.

While there are important links between the “disposable” condition of seventeenth century bond slaves and the slaves of the twenty-first century, the connections between “human trafficking” in the two eras might be even more revealing. For example, in the seventeenth century English Atlantic, adolescents of European descent who worked as unskilled field hands in the early plantation complex usually found their entrée into colonial servitude through force or fraud. For the most part, they did not enter such service, as free market ideologues posing as economic historians are fond of telling us, through free and fair contractual negotiations. New words such as “kidnapper” were coined to provide a lexicon for the transatlantic trade in unfree plantation workers that developed rapidly in mid-seventeenth century Britain and Ireland. Also called “spirits,” kidnappers worked illegally in gangs, using stealth, deception, and coercion to supply young people for merchants and ship captains who legally sold them as temporary chattels to colonial planters.

Human traffickers today use similar coercive and fraudulent methods to acquire their victims, which though illegal, supply “disposable” slaves for commercial, mining, and manufacturing operations that feed global supply chains. Like the tobacco plantations of the seventeenth century Virginia, the commercial citrus growers of twenty-first century Florida, to take just one of many modern examples, depend on human traffickers. The trade in human beings to the Florida citrus groves, again like the seventeenth century, often flows across borders; once sold, the forced labor of these people is exploited to produce a product traded on today’s international markets.

In the seventeenth century, the transatlantic “servant trade” sent bond slaves to the colonies where they formed the first foundation of a plantation workforce that produced cash crops on a scale that came to dictate early modern consumption patterns. Human trafficking networks today provide the unfree labor for the supply chains used by corporations engaged in commercial agricultural and retail and wholesale food sales which determine the consumption patterns of the global economy. Although illegal in both the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries, these forms of human trafficking proved and continue to prove to be indispensable to the profit maximization formulas of commercial farmers and merchants past and present.

We have already “abolished” slavery—that’s one essential difference between the past and present of human bondage—but we haven’t ended it. Unfortunately, the very persistence of human bondage in our own time can be explained in part by another link between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries: the lack of the political will to cleanse slave labor from global supply chains. To change this state of affairs, the modern abolitionist movement must continue to move beyond consciousness-raising and into direct political engagement, to pressure legislatures around the world to replace their idolatry of the “free market” with real versus rhetorical reverence for human freedom.

Image source: Tobacco Planters and Slaves, Barbados, 17th cent., by Carel Allard, Orbis Habitabilis Oppida et Vestitus (Amsterdam [1680?]), number 88, Image NW0017 in The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record.

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