Born free

Lubna Abdel-Aziz , Tuesday 21 Jul 2020

“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.” Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

The task of the historian is to tell the story of the past. 

He cannot lose sight of acts and facts, bitter as they may seem at present. History is a science to be written scientifically, to be studied scientifically.

Re-writing history fades into mere literature or the stuff that movies are made of. Denying or omitting the grim past, prevents us from learning how to create a better future. If anger and chagrin are allowed to misconstrue heinous acts into pleasant fancy, you are deliberately and unintelligently closing your mind.

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell the truth, “to tell people what they do not want to hear”.

Slavery existed in every country for thousands of years. The frenzy of pulling down statues and erasing names of men who owned or traded or exploited slaves does not change one iota of the agony of the past. Thus the story of humanity is denied.

History loses its purpose, its occupation, its dignity, its lessons. A full-dress view of history infused with truth, ugly as it may be, is invaluable.

Unfortunately, that is happening at a cost of millions of dollars, which could be better put to use feeding or housing the poor. We have become frightened of the truth and are being bullied into propagating what is politically acceptable.

A common misconception is that slavery started in America.

It was nearly 9,000 years ago that slavery first appeared in Mesopotamia. Enemies captured in wars were commonly kept by the conquering country as slaves. Verdi’s famous opera Aida lyrically depicts this tragic reality. 

We saw how ancient Egyptians enslaved their captives, and later pagan Greeks participated in slavery for Sparta and Athens. How was the great Roman Empire built? One of three of the population of Italy were slaves. Remember the “Gladiators”? 

Slaves were not always from Africa. There were white slaves, belonging to white owners, Christians, Jews, pagans as was portrayed in movies like Quo Vadis and Ben Hur.

All of Europe was engaged in slavery — so was the Arab Empire which ruled Spain for seven centuries.

By the year 1000 AD slavery had become common in England’s rural agricultural economy, with the poor yoking themselves to landowners through a form of a debt bondage. At the same time the number of slaves captured in Germany grew so large that their nationality became the generic term for slaves: Slavs.

It was not until 1444 AD when the Atlantic trade began and Portugal brought the first large numbers of slaves from Africa to Europe. Almost a century later the Spanish explorers brought African slaves to the New World — what would become the US.

Even Native Americans, like the Cherokees, owned slaves and sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Slavery did not sit well with many Americans. The antipathy became apparent when Quakers set up the Abolitionist Society, in 1775. 

The US Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance outlawing slavery in 1787. Europeans soon followed. Denmark and Norway were the first to bar African slave trade in 1807, followed by Spain in 1820, France in 1847.

As the US neared its third year of a bloody war, Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation: “all persons held slaves with the rebellious states are henceforth free.”

In 1865 the 13th amendment of the constitution outlawed slavery.

Slavery was then and is now illegal all over the world.

The 20th century saw Germany’s Nazis use slave labour in industry, up to nine million — not all Jews.

The 21st century now holds 40.3 million slaves according to the International Labour Organisation, the Global Slavery Index, the Walk Free Organisation, the Human Rights’ Watch and the United Nations.

It was legal in the past. It is illegal today. Yet it is flourishing.

Human beings are kidnapped, sold into slavery in several countries like North Korea, Eritrea, Eastern Europe, Zimbabwe, China, Libya, Nigeria, Thailand and the US among many others. 

Call it human trafficking or exploitation of prisoners, political dissidents, migrants, etc. 

Seventy per cent of women are forced into prostitution, 26 per cent of children forced to beg or steal, 50 per cent minors hijacked across borders for domestic work or in cocoa fields or fishing industries.

Modern slavery is a multi-million dollar industry and growing. In March, 2020, the UK government revealed modern slavery rose by 51 per cent since 2019.

Little can be done as it is all in secret and diplomatic options are few.

Why is not this furore directed towards countries that practise illegal slavery today, instead of against dead men, some heroes, some presidents, who were involved in a trade that was perfectly legal and socially accepted 200 years ago? Not that we condone what happened, but it happened. It is over.

Better still, do these rioters stop to consider who sold those African slaves to Europe? They were African kings, leaders, tribesmen. Rise against them? Are they not co-conspirators in that most nefarious crime?

Yes, men are born free. Men lose their freedom. Why? Poverty. It is the scourge of mankind. 

Focus on poverty, free those slaves in captivity today, do not cry over spilt milk. Let not the legacy of slavery ruin our hearts and souls.

We are not shades of black or white. We are one race — the human race.

Let us seek freedom from hatred, freedom from modern slavery. Let us build a safe present and a secure future.


“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.”

 Charles Dickens (1812-1870)



*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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