The exploitation of people happens when we see others as “strangers”.
That International Day to Commemorate Slavery and its Abolition on 23 August primarily commemorates the successful slave revolt against French colonial masters in what is now Haiti. This was part of a more general reaction against slavery in Europe, often inspired by growing belief in universal human rights. This belief undermined the very basis of slavery.
People enslaved others because they were different from themselves, that is, inferior and without rights. Only strangers were made slaves. In most ancient societies in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, people captured in war were enslaved and often sold for a profit. They were property whose labor could be exploited, which had no right to land or marriage, and which in practice could be mistreated and even killed with impunity. They were often viewed as inferior, unreliable, or insidious. This xenophobic attitude of their masters contributed to the mistreatment of slaves.
Slavery was an integral part of the societies seen as defining Western civilization. In Greece, the monuments, laws, philosophical thoughts, plays and poetry that formed the basis of education throughout the Roman Empire were based on the handicrafts of slaves captured in wars with other Greek-speaking states. In Rome, in the early Christian era, slaves made up more than half the population, allowing the empire to expand, prosper its citizens, and cultivate the arts in its leisurely class. Slavery only declined as the empire grew so much that it became more costly to make and keep slaves. Slaves were the invisible others on whom high culture depended.
The early Christians also took slavery for granted. We hear little of Christian slaves, although all households that became Christian would certainly have included slaves. Christians were instructed to treat their slaves well and slaves to obey their masters. Christianity, at best, has narrowed the gap between slaves and those who owned them, but it has not eliminated inhumanity.
After slavery was gradually replaced by other forms of service, it returned when Europeans came to Africa and America. It became profitable when African traders captured slaves and sent them to markets which they sent to the New World to work in agriculture and mines in exchange for goods from Europe. Catholic bishops generally appealed for their humane treatment, insisting that they be fully human. But few questioned the institution of slavery.
The anti-slavery movement, led by Quakers and influenced by Enlightenment insistence on human rights, gained strength in the late 18th century against strong opposition from the people who benefited from it. The beginning of the end of slavery came when the British Parliament abolished it in British colonies, affecting the trade in African slaves. Slavery was later abolished in the northern states of America and, after the Civil War, in the southern states.
However, the abolition of slavery was only the beginning of the actual reconciliation work. The mere freeing of slaves did not affect the attitudes that condemned them to slavery or the contempt that a slave-owning society continued to hold for them. It didn’t even put on the table the minimal bread they received as slaves. They and their descendants were free to starve and were still marginalized by differences in wealth, power, and laws that discriminated against them.
In this respect, the abolition of slavery was only the beginning of a long road. In Australia we see some of the offshoots of this mindset affecting vulnerable young people. These include the sexual exploitation of young people, wage slavery and a lack of accountability in many industries, as well as the lack of protection for temporary immigrants and refugees. In all of these cases, people are viewed as strangers and thus exploited.
Image: Slave Monument in the Caribbean – Getty
Fr. Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant for Jesuit Communications