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Slavery to-day


What is Slavery? - 5,000,000 Slaves - Serfdom - The Price of Women - Tortures - Slave-breeding - The Mekka Slave Market - Slavery in China - Slave-raiding - Captain Yardley - Herr Gruhl - Sir Arnold Hodson.
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What is Slavery? In practice it means three great evils: Slave-owning, Slave-raiding and Slave-trading, altogether apart from analogous systems such as Forced Labour for private profit and certain forms of Contract Labour. Slave-owning is the root of the whole matter, and Emancipators and Abolitionists alike have for many years realised that until that institution is abolished the demand for slaves will persist and the 'goods' will be provided by slave-trading or slave-raiding. On the evidence available ten years ago, it was estimated that there were 3,000,000 slaves in the world, but on the more extensive evidence now available we know that the former estimate was too low and that the total must exceed 5,000,000,

What is a slave? Until 1925 definitions of slavery reposed upon national legislative enactments or legal opinions. The Anti-Slavery Convention of 1926 for the first time gave a definition accepted by all States Members of the League of Nations: 'Slavery is a status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.' That is, a slave is just a property. The slave thus has no human rights, no rights of speech, no rights of conscience, no rights of property because he or she is a property. The slave has no domestic rights, both wife and husband are a saleable asset, mother and daughter, father and son can have no personal association except at the will of the owner. Parents can be sold away from children, sons and daughters can be sold from parents. Neither their labour nor their persons are their own, they are entitled to no wages and their necessary sustenance is at the arbitrary will of their owner. Finally, their punishments, whether of whip, stock, branding irons or mutilations, are decided and inflicted not by Courts of Justice but subject to the uncontrolled will of the owner of the property.

The figure of 5,000,000 is sometimes challenged because it is not based upon any census. The figure is, it is true, only an estimate, but it rests upon information supplied by persons of authority in most territories. Take first that of China. The most precise figure is that given by Mr. Coates in his book on China, (C. H. Coates, The Red Theology in the Far East.) in which he states that 2,000,000 is a 'very moderate estimate.' That the total is a large one is confirmed by a report from Mr. Russell Brown, the British Consul in Amoy, and published in an official White Paper (Cmd. 3424.): 'Girls are everywhere bought and sold for maid servants or slaves.' The probability is that the total number of slave girls held as a property amongst the 400,000,000 Chinese in China, Mongolia and the outer territories is considerably in excess of the estimate of 2,000,000.

As a slave-owning country on a large scale, Abyssinia apparently conies next to China. The Morning Post of January 9,1926, published an anonymous article by a writer of exceptional authority and experience who estimated that there were at least 2,000,000 slaves in Abyssinia. Another estimate, made by the official of a European Government, is that 'one-fifth of the people of Abyssinia are slaves.' If the total population of Abyssinia is 10,000,000, one-fifth gives again the figure of 2,000,000. A third authority is a British official, Captain Cochrane, who has lived many years on the frontier of Abyssinia. In a letter which is incorporated in a Foreign Office paper he states: 'I will say practically every (but think every) Abyssinian on the frontier has a slave or slaves.' This letter shows how widespread is the system imposed upon the subject races and lower orders by the 4,000,000 Abyssinians of the ruling races and classes. An American writer tells us that some of the Rases or petty kings own as many as 15,000 slaves each. The Emperor of Abyssinia is doing his best, in face of great difficulties, to abolish slavery and has undertaken to do so within twenty years. He is understood to contest the popular estimate of 2,000,000, being of the opinion that the total number of slaves to-day is considerably less than 1,000,000. The only satisfactory method of establishing a correct figure would be to take a census of the slaves.

Exact estimates of slaves in other areas are unobtainable. The population of Arabia is estimated at 7,000,000, and if the proportion of slaves to free people is approximately that of Abyssinia, say one-fifth, there would be 1,400,000 slaves - it is probable that half that number, 700,000, would be a modest estimate.

These estimates give for China, Arabia, Abyssinia, 4,700,000, but that figure leaves out altogether Liberia and certain other areas where slave-owning in one or other of its many forms is known to be deeply rooted in the customs of the country. Thus 5,000,000 appears to be below the actual number of men, women and children held to-day as a property in violation of the Anti-Slavery Convention of 1926.

The systems of slave-owning are indeed numerous, moreover there are several institutions which if they do not cross the borderline come perilously near to it. First come systems of admitted slavery - that is, where ownership is clearly and frankly recognised, as in Abyssinia and Arabia.

Next come those like the 'Adoption' or Mui Tsai systems of China or Hong Kong. There is no question in the minds of any impartial persons that the word 'Adoption,' to quote Mr. Russell Brown, is a mere 'euphemism.' The fact that the girls are called slaves, figure in public documents as slaves, are bought and sold in the market and street as slaves, shatters the flimsy contention of interested apologists. The Editor of the Hong Kong Daily Press has no doubt as to the position of a Mui Tsai: 'There is no disguising the fact that a Mui Tsai is a slave. She is transferred from her natural parents to another family on payment of money, and becomes the property of her purchaser.'

During a debate in the House of Commons on May n, 1931, Sir John Simon greatly impressed members by producing the actual bill of sale of a Mui Tsai. He said: 'I think I can show the Committee that these little girls are frequently the subject of a bill of sale just as the negro slaves were subject to bills of sale in the eighteenth century in the West Indies and the Southern States of America. I have here both the original and the translation of such a bill of sale.' Sir John Simon concluded his forceful speech by appealing to heads of families in the House: If there is any Member now sitting in this Committee who has in his own family a child of that age or a grandchild he will know why some people condemn such an adoption as this. She is sold through the intermediary of an agent, whose name is given - Ho Kwai Tse - to a woman, whose name is given, residing at a particular address in Hong Kong,

The Abyssinian system of slavery is no less widespread and no less difficult to eradicate than those of China and Mongolia. As Lord Noel-Buxton pointed out after his recent visit to Abyssinia, slavery is fundamental to the whole economic and ecclesiastical system of the country. It is probably true that here again many of the slaves are fairly well treated, but that large numbers are the victims of cruelty cannot be doubted. Herr Griihl in Ms book (Max Gruhl, The Citadel of Ethiopia.) on recent travels in Abyssinia has some pitifully eloquent passages upon what slavery really means.

Herr Gruhl says that during his purely scientific studies he often put questions to slaves, the answers to which 'brought before my eyes human tragedies that even the most powerful imagination could scarcely have conceived.' He describes a conversation with what appeared to be a very old woman, whose 'bent back told its own tale and whose furrowed and wrinkled face spoke of a care-filled life.' Instead of her apparent sixty years Herr Gruhl calculated that she was only between thirty and forty years old. This woman slave had been sold from place to place on the way from Lake Rudolf; she had produced many children by different owners.

She could only tell me about two of her children; she knew nothing of the others. She had borne two children to her owner in X, one to another owner in Y, one to the servant of this man, and one to a man who had been staying with her owner in Z, and so on. Long scars showed on her thighs and back - the marks made by a 'chiraf' or whip. On the upper part of her right arm and on her breasts were round scars left by branding-irons. The slaves are burnt with red-hot irons in this fashion in order to 'increase their strength.' At present this 'old' woman of thirty to forty is employed in grinding meal for the servant of her owner. A few more years - and she will disappear, worn-out, a piece of human refuse....

That is what slavery means to-day! Apart from its inhuman cruelty, there is the degradation and demoralisation which always accompanies it and constitutes one of its most repellent features.

The slave-owning systems of Mohammedan Arabia are almost identical with those of Christian Abyssinia. There is probably no greater authority upon the situation in and around Mekka than Mr. Eldon Rutter, who has described the situation in Arabia very fully in his book. (Eldon Rutter, The Holy Cities of Arabia.) Mr. Rutter, writing to the author a few months ago, said that 'Slavery exists in every part of Arabia with the exception of Aden as a normal social institution, but I have seen only one actual slave market where slaves are displayed for sale in a public place like merchandise. This was in Mekka.'

But alas, this does not complete the sorry tale of slave-owning, for beyond the bounds of the estimated 5,000,000 there are the unknown numbers in bondage under 'analogous systems.' First amongst these is peonage, the system which in Putumayo led to individual atrocities more revolting than under any other slave system known to recorded history. The Slavery Commission which the League of Nations set up in 1925 drew attention to the very large areas in South America in which peonage prevails and quoted a recent authoritative statement as follows: 'The peonage system is one of the exacting problems that South American nations must face.' The statement goes on to describe how the peon is 'constantly in debt to his overlord. This debt hanging over him reduces him to practical slavery... the peon is tied to the land... in selling the property the peons pass to the new owner. Theoretically free, they are practically unable to break away from their yoke.' The organ of the Italian Anti-Slavery Society (Journal of the Italian Anti-Slavery Society, August and September, 1932.) has recently published some interesting material upon the system as it is working to-day in certain parts of Central and South America, and the writer thus sums up the main features of the system: It is impossible to give numerical statistics, but they are numbered in their thousands. In llanos of Venezuela each big farm or plantation has often over a thousand of them and in general each farm has some thirty of these families - slaves in all but name.... They are the property of their master, who does with them what he wishes without any control. These slaves rarely have recourse to the authorities, of whom they more often than not ignore the existence, and to approach whom they lack the means. They receive no religious instruction, and no education. They exist, that is all. Work, suffering, illness, drunkenness sometimes, and death are the landmarks of their lives.

The system under which these peons are held is the usual one. As the writer says: They are shown in figures the debts they have contracted for dress and food, and are thus prevented from returning to their homes. If they attempt escape they are imprisoned or severely punished. Prisons are always provided in these big farms and properties. If they manage to escape, the police generally favour their proprietors and bring the fugitives back in chains.

Another 'analogous system' is that of pledging. This obtains in several African territories and probably reached its largest and most deplorable dimensions in Liberia, but it seems very doubtful whether the system there can be abolished or even controlled until something has been done to provide the country with a civilised government capable of keeping order and administering justice.

The situation in Liberia became such a gross international scandal that it was brought to the notice of the League of Nations, and so strong was the pressure of world public opinion that in very shame the Liberian representative himself invited enquiry. A small International Commission, which included Mr. Edwin Barclay, Ex-President of Liberia, Dr. Johnson of the U.S.A., and Dr. Christy, was appointed, and its Report, issued in 1931, not only confirmed the allegations that had been made, but brought to light a state of affairs so serious that, in the emphatic words used by Viscount Snowden in the House of Lords on March 16, 1932, 'the revelations of that Report shocked the moral conscience of the whole world.'

The evidence showed that 2,000,000 natives were suffering oppression and cruelty at the hands of the 15,000 Americo-Liberians and that in the words of a Washington despatch, 'the twin scourges of slavery and forced labour' existed on a large scale. This report shattered the complacency of the defenders of the Liberian Government, whilst their discomfiture was still more complete when the Government itself formally accepted as true the findings of the Commission. One of the charges confirmed was the existence of a system of servitude known as pawning, which in Liberia had become barely distinguishable from slave-owning. A native once pawned could not be redeemed except by a third party - that is, it was made impossible for the person pawned to redeem himself or herself. The local price of a pawn was the local price of a slave. The Commission illustrated this system by quoting several instances, in some of which the Government was clearly involved. A headman near Royesville was fined 18 for failure to attend to the roads, but he could only pay the Government by pawning his wife and child, who had been in pawn five years when the Commission arrived in Liberia; another man was fined 17, in order to pay which he had to pawn his sons, who after two years in pawn still saw no prospect of redemption. Another man was compelled to pawn his son, but as the son ran away, the court increased the fines, which automatically increased the amount for which the boy was held. It was not merely the ordinary natives of Liberia who engaged in the practice, for the Commission stated that the President himself was a party to one such incident, when he fined a chief 20, a sum which the latter could only pay by pawning his child.

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