Agonising over the Past, Ignoring the Present

While atoning for ties to slavery of centuries ago, what of slavery today?

By David E. Kaplan

It is most admirable that two major British companies – Lloyd’s of London and Greene King – have acknowledged their historic ties to the slave trade and felt the need to atone for past sins by pledging to financially support black and minority ethnic communities. “Mea Culpa” is resonating across the UK for crimes committed centuries ago, led by the world’s oldest insurance company and the UK’s largest pub retailer and brewer, who are taking steps to make their businesses “more racially inclusive”.

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Deposing Edward. British protesters push a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol’s harbor. (Photo by Giulia Spadafora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Jostling in the queue to the public confessional, were two other major British banks, Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) which also issued statements acknowledging their roles in the slave trade  and committing to do more to foster a fully inclusive environment.

Until recently most proud of its impressive trading history over three centuries, this month, however, Lloyds suddenly revealed there “are some aspects of our history that we are not proud of.” In particular, “we are sorry for the role played by the Lloyd’s market in the eighteenth and nineteenth century slave trade. This was an appalling and shameful period of English history, as well as our own, and we condemn the indefensible wrongdoing that occurred.”

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More Slaves Today. A protest rally in London raises awareness for the fight against human trafficking and slavery. (Credit: John)

Not to be outdone, Greene King’s CEO, Nick Mackenzie, expressed that “It is inexcusable that one of our founders profited from slavery and argued against its abolition in the 1800s.”

While it is true that this past conduct is “inexcusable”, all the hype would sound far more credible if the accusation of “INEXCUSABLE” was directed not at long dead practitioners of slavery but those live ones today who are ‘slaving’ away as if nothing has changed.

Research reveals that there are currently 167 countries that still practice slavery, affecting approximately 46 million people.

Leading this notorious list is India which has the highest number of slaves in the world – higher than the population of The Netherlands – at 18.4 million slaves.  To understand how it is possible, a former slave ‘Mala’ reveals in a recent article in The World that she was just 18 when her boyfriend, Rohit, convinced her to leave their little village in northeastern India for a city where they could “be anonymous” and “live freely together”.

Mala neglected to question her ‘boyfriend’ about where they would live or how they would survive. All she knew was that she wanted to leave her parochial world with the man she believed she loved.

We left in the dead of the night. I had packed some clothes, but that was it. One of his friends was waiting a little outside the village in a van. We got in and drove for maybe five hours before we stopped. I did not know the name of the place, but I thought we would leave there after a short break.”

Mala would soon realise she had been duped!

I saw a lady giving a big bunch of money to Rohit,” she said. “He told me he was going out for half an hour, and after that I did not see him again.”

Just over a year ago, Mala was discovered at a brothel when it was raided by the police. Mala was with 45 other girls, including eight minors, who said they were either brought to brothels under false pretenses, or kidnapped and trafficked and then forced into sex work. Like Mala, many had fallen for boys who turned out to be recruiters.

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Human Cargo. A depiction of slaves from Africa bound for the plantations of America.

So if the Western narrative of slavery in the 19th century was mostly about working in plantations in the Americas, modern slavery encompasses forced child labour, forced marriage, commercial sexual exploitation, bonded labour, and forced recruitment into non-state armed groups.

China has the second-highest number of slaves at 3.4 million, which is less than a quarter of India’s.

Other countries that have significantly high slave populations are RussiaNigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Egypt, Myanmar, Iran, Turkey and Sudan.

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Human Property. Enslaved Africans were hired, sold and bought like cattle, regardless of their age, sex or marital status.

Below is a table the six countries with the highest slave populations in the world:

India(18.4 million)

China (3.4 million)

Pakistan(2.1 million)

Bangladesh (1.5 million)

Uzbekistan (1.2 million)

North Korea (1.1 million)

So while slavery may have been long and officially abolished, there are still many millions who are born into it or brought into slavery at a young age; and therefore do not know or recall anything different. Mauritania is a country in which the practice of buying and selling slaves has continued since the 13th century, with those enslaved serving families as livestock herders, agricultural workers, and domestic servants for generations, with little to no freedom of movement. This continues despite the fact that slavery was abolished.

In 2006, Selek’ha Mint Ahmed Lebeid, who like her mother was born into slavery in Mauritania, wrote about her experiences:

I was taken from my mother when I was two years old by my master … he inherited us from his father … I was a slave with these people, like my mother, like my cousins. We suffered a lot. When I was very small, I looked after the goats, and from the age of about seven, I looked after the master’s children and did the household chores – cooking, collecting water, and washing clothes. When I was ten years old I was given to a Marabout [a holy man], who in turn gave me to his daughter as a marriage gift, to be her slave. I was never paid, but I had to do everything, and if I did not do things right, I was beaten and insulted. My life was like this until I was twenty years old. They kept watch over me and never let me go far from home. But I felt my situation was wrong. I saw how others lived.”

In 1994, Mende Nazer was captured as a child following a militia raid on her village in Sudan. She was beaten and sexually abused, eventually sold into domestic slavery to a family in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. As a young adult, she was transferred to the family of a diplomat in the UK, eventually escaping in 2002.

Some people say I was treated like an animal,” reflected Nazer,  “But I tell them: no, I wasn’t. Because an animal – like a cat or a dog – gets stroked, and love and affection. I had none of that.”

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From Slave to Salvation. Mende Nazir’s childhood was cut short at the age of twelve when the Mujahidin rode into her village in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Abducted and sold to an Arab woman in Khartoum, Mende was kept as a domestic slave for seven years without any pay or a single day off. Passed on like a parcel by her master to a relative in London, Mende eventually managed to escape to freedom.


Forced Labour

The picture is no less bleak when it comes to other forms of “EXPLOITATION” – a synonym for modern day slavery. The widespread practice of “forced labour” in well over 100 countries ensnares over 25 million people.  

How does it work?

In order to support their families, many travel to more developed country believing they will secure decent employment, only to then find themselves forced into labour with no support mechanism and little or no knowledge of the local language. Typically, they are deprived of their identity documents by their traffickers, which limits their ability to escape and ensures control of their person through the threat of exposure to the authorities as “illegal” immigrants.

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Slavery Today. A 2019 Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) exhaustive study of modern day slavery, concluded there are over 40 million people who are victims of slavery, including 25 million in forced labour and 15 million in forced marriages with at least 71% of them comprising women and girls.

What follows is a life of work for little or no pay and for long hours, in agriculture, factories, construction, restaurants, and even forced criminal activity, such as cannabis farming. One such was ‘Minh’, a Vietnamese national, who was 16 when he was kidnapped, raped and trafficked and then locked up and forced to grow cannabis.

Forced to work as a slave – but not in the Middle East, Gulf  or Asia but in a pastoral corner of Chesterfield in the United Kingdom!

Following a tip off, when the police raided the two-floor house, they found a fully-functioning cannabis farm, complete with dozens of fully-grown plants, thousands of pounds worth of lights and equipment, and one terrified Vietnamese boy – Minh.

Not his real name, Minh is one of the hundreds of children trafficked from Vietnam every year and forced to work in hidden farms across the UK – small cogs in the vast criminal machine that supplies Britain’s £2.6bn cannabis black market. Children such as Minh are lucrative possession for those who run cannabis farms. These people are cheap, expendable, and easy to control and intimidate.

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Child Labour. Largely believed today as a scourge of the past, slavery is alive and well today under the new name of ‘human trafficking’

They are SLAVES!

Smuggled overland from Vietnam to the UK,  they are then trapped in a form of modern slavery that is now widespread across Britain, yet seemingly below the media’s attention or public interest.

A 2018 UK Government Annual Report on Modern Slavery, estimated that around 13,000 individuals were trapped in some form of enslavement across the UK, and Vietnamese people make up the third-largest group of victims with more than half of them under the age of eighteen.

Of the 40 million people estimated to be trapped in modern slavery worldwide:

  • 1 in 4 of them are children.
  • Almost three quarters (71%) are women and girls.
  • Over 10,000 were identified as potential victims by the authorities in the UK in 2019.

So while there is abounding enthusiasm at present for the toppling of statues of those characters in history for participating in past slavery, how about that same level of enthusiasm for the toppling of those live despicable people who are TODAY responsible for enslaving millions of people?

The crack of the whip still prevails!





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs.


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