Professor Trevor Burnard, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, blogs about the history of abolition, the numbers of people currently in forced labour, and the need to continue to combat slavery in the UK and around the globe.
2 December is an auspicious date for it commemorates an important evolution in human history, the acknowledgement that everywhere in the world slavery is illegal.
Making slavery illegal globally came very late. Until the late eighteenth century, hardly anyone questioned that slavery was an important, if occasionally distasteful, institution that generally brought important people wealth and influence and often, as in the eighteenth century British and French empires, was a source of national prosperity.
France was the first nation to abolish slavery, in 1794, at the height of the French and Haitian Revolutions and then reintroduced it under Napoleon in 1802, meaning that its final abolition was only in 1848. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, a hard-fought battle led by both White abolitionists like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson and Black freedom fighters, such as Olaudah Equiano.
It was a matter of great pride for Britons then and often still that Britain led the way in abolishing the slave trade but it took another generation, until 1838, until slavery was formally abolished in the British Empire and even then slavery continued to exist in British possessions in Africa, South Asia and New Zealand. Nevertheless, as has become clear from protests, especially in the Caribbean, surrounding royal visits and around the relationship of Caribbean nations with Britain, the triumph of emancipation in 1838 obscures the fact that Britain did not give any compensation to emancipated ex-slaves while providing considerable financial help to the people who had owned enslaved people continues to rankle. Demands for reparation for the harm done to people during slavery are increasingly frequent and are enhanced by growing knowledge of just how much British wealth was based upon the labour of African-descended enslaved people, growing sugar and other tropical crops in atrocious conditions.
The reparations movement, gaining momentum in the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, and which connects to increasing claims about considering colonialism and the damages of climate change and how they affect the Global South, makes one realise that the historical legacies of slavery remain an important social and political concern. And these political controversies connect us to the reality that slavery, however we define it, whether as coerced labour or human trafficking or sexual exploitation continues to be a growing modern problem.
The number of people in forms of forced labour that amount to slavery is greater now than the numbers who were in slavery when European and American nations abolished slavery in the nineteenth century. It is more also than when nations in Africa and the Middle East formally abolished slavery in the last third of the twentieth century. Fortunately, the number of slaves in the world population of 2022, at around 0.7 percent, is lower than at the height of slavery, around 1800, when perhaps 5 percent of the world population was enslaved. But the numbers of people in forms of enslavement today remain huge and are increasing.
Britain and a few other places have instituted a Modern Slavery Act to try and combat this scourge, with 12,727 potential victims of modern slavery identified in Britain in 2021. The largest number of people identified as subject to slavery in Britain are British nationals, showing that as in the eighteenth century, slavery is not something happening elsewhere but is happening here as well. On this day of commemoration of something that was a signal advance in human history – the abolition of slavery and its transformation into being everywhere a crime – we need to remember just how much work we need to do to make slavery not just illegal but truly a thing of the past.