01/03/2013, by CLAS

Research on contemporary slavery: events on campus

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the US Emancipation Proclamation. Signed and issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War on January 1, 1863, the order proclaimed free all those enslaved in the Confederate States. Yet President Obama marked this anniversary not with celebratory remarks or a visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Instead he gave the longest speech about slavery by any U.S. president since Lincoln himself and used the anniversary to issue a new executive order about contemporary global slavery and to announce a platform of new antislavery policies and funding. For in 2013, 150 years after U.S. emancipation and more than 200 years after the end of the British and American transatlantic slave trades, there are more slaves alive than ever before in human history.

Around the world, there are 27 million slaves alive today; as many as were seized from Africa in 350 years of the Atlantic slave trade. Put another way, today’s slave population is greater than the population of Australia and almost seven times greater than the population of Ireland. These are individuals forced to work for no pay, unable to walk away, held against their will through violence or its threat, sometimes trafficked across borders for exploitation. The biggest part of the 27 million slaves is located in South Asia, and slavery is also concentrated in Southeast Asia, in Northern and Western Africa, and in parts of South America. People are also brought into North America and Europe for enslavement. In the U.S., a conservative estimate is that there are 40,000 people enslaved at any one time and the State Department estimates that, each year, 14,000-17,500 new people are trafficked into the country, then enslaved through force, fraud, or coercion.

There is a growing recognition of the problem and scope of modern slavery. Scholars have begun to shape a field of research and governments and citizens are awakening to the fact of a new phenomenon: a slavery where slaves are cheap and disposable. My own research looks at the narratives of former slaves and also at the use of historical memory by contemporary antislavery groups—their attempts to learn from the successes, failures, rhetoric and visual culture of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement.

On 13 March, Nottingham hosts the world’s leading expert on this topic of contemporary slavery, Professor Kevin Bales, who will deliver a public lecture co-sponsored by American and Canadian Studies, the Institute for the Study of Slavery and the Centre for Advanced Studies, in Highfield House at 6.30pm. Further highlighting our research strengths in this area, three Nottingham researchers will take part in a panel session at 5.30pm that day. These events will challenge simple commemorative celebrations of the Emancipation sesquicentennial, underscore that slavery isn’t yet history, and advance debate on the scope, definitions and causes of contemporary slavery, as well as possible ways to end it.

Zoe Trodd
Professor of American Literature, Department of American and Canadian Studies

Photo: Slave in Indian Carpet Loom, by Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department. http://www.gtipphotos.state.gov/photos.htm

Posted in American and Canadian Studies