On Slavery and Broken Promises

On Sunday we visited a slave castle in a nearby town, El Mina slave castle. It is a fascinating structure: the oldest European building below the Sahara, housing the first Christian chapel in Africa outside of Ethiopia. It was initially used as a trading post (Ghana was once known as the Gold Coast), and later became an anchor of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Wikipedia describes:
“The castle acted as a depot where slaves were bought in bartering fashion from local African chiefs and kings. The slaves, often captured in the African interior by the slave-catchers of coastal tribes, were sold to Portuguese traders in exchange for goods such as textiles and horses. The slaves were held captive in the castle before exiting through the castle’s infamous “Door of No Return” to be transported and resold in newly colonized Brazil and other Portuguese colonies.”

Fishing boats frame El Mina castle.

Today, El Mina Castle (also known as St. George’s Castle) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important tourist destination. $4 gets you admission and a guided tour; taking pictures with your camera is an extra $1. Motivated by economics, this recent epiphany of sorts, and the failsafe of having visited and photographed this castle before, I chose to put my camera away.

The female cell.

We walked through many rooms in the castle, the male chambers, the governor’s room, the chapel, the soldiers’ mess… but the approach to the female cell was different, preceded by an intense, pungent, metallic smell many feet from the entrance. Inside the room was no different really than any other, with cobblestone floors, discoloured stone walls, and an arched ceiling. But the smell, the smell…

The tour guide explained that hundreds of women were kept in the crowded cell, chained to each other. The bathroom was a bucket in one corner, in other words, inaccessible. This meant women urinated, defecated, and menstruated where they were standing. What we were smelling was hundreds of years worth of menstruation from female slaves, the iron from their blood becoming so deeply incorporated into the stones that even after 200 years of emptiness and ventilation I could barely force myself to take a breath.

The tone of the tour was one of thankfulness; thankful that the slave trade was abolished, that we tourists could ogle and snap pictures in front of the “Door of No Return”–and then return. It didn’t feel right. I asked myself during the tour, how do you honour a slave castle? How do you respect the history of the steps you are taking and the tragedies and injustices that occurred beneath them?

I found an answer at this plaque, at which the tour ended:

I later asked Daniella,

“How many times have people said “never again”?
“About as many times as humanity has done stupid things”, she replied sadly.

The plaque on the slave castle was evidence of another broken promise we made to ourselves. I began to imagine a tour of the castle that not only remembered what had happened, but also recognized the slavery that continues today. To leave the castle not satisfied, but motivated into action. That, I think, would be the right way to honour the memories and souls of the men and women who were considered, treated, and sold as inferior human beings.

Slavery is a loss of free will, and this often comes through “violent control”. A slave is exploited economically because they are not paid for the work they do, they are only given enough to keep them alive (source). By this definition there are currently an estimated 27 million slaves in the world. A slave today costs approximately $90. The BBC has some good, short stories that put a face to modern slavery.

Slavery exists in almost every single country in the world. It is also illegal in every country in the world, and is of course prohibited by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This page explains very succinctly the different types of slavery alive today, including bonded labour, child labour, human trafficking, and even early or forced marriage.

Similar, but distinct from the above definition of slavery are forms of exploitative labour, such as migrant labour and sweatshops. Exploitative labour is characterised by poor pay, long hours, and terrible work conditions. A current example of exploitative labour in Canada is the fact that the government legally allows businesses to pay migrant workers 15% less than other employees. Mexican migrant workers who report their working conditions or otherwise stand up for what should be basic and fundamental worker’s rights are blacklisted by their own government from returning to Canada to work. There is a really interesting event happening in Vancouver on this topic along with great additional information on the event page. This is another well-written example of exploitative labour in the warehouses of large online retailers (such as Amazon.com).

Both these stories share a common thread: desperation. Sure, people in these situations could (theoretically) quit, but within the context of their particular life circumstances, they often have little choice but to subject themselves to this treatment for survival. Shockingly, even if people were to quit in protest, there are many others who would willingly take their place. There is obvious and disturbing demand for exploitative jobs (which says something about the distribution of wealth in our society).

My initial intention for this post was to present a researched argument about the underlying causes of slavery—simply describing a problem doesn’t do much to prevent it from continuing. I once read an article describing how the media reports various goings-on around the world but often without connecting these events to any meaningful underlying causes. This creates, for the average viewer, an implicit understanding of the world as a collection of random events. This mindset effectively drowns any sense of personal responsibility and mobilizes support for simple, symptom-treating, “Band-Aid” solutions.

But exploring and articulating the root causes is a long process. Instead of this post being the culmination of that process, it will mark the first step. I plan to understand better how our current neoliberal economic system, with its inequitable distributions of wealth and power, perpetuates the creation of the cheap, disposable, and desperate people that are then funneled into slavery and exploitative labour.

Creating awareness is important, but not sufficient. Realizing the root causes of something is empowering because it allows us to take responsibility of our actions; learning how our economic system contributes to slavery will empower me to act in concert with my values and imagine more just alternatives.

16 thoughts on “On Slavery and Broken Promises

  1. Thanks for this. Also didn’t quite know how to approach the slave castle. To me it seemed an example of the beauty and cruelty of humans, how we can create such an incredible edifice only to fill it with our best attempt at forgetting ourselves as members of a species that can comprehend our own existence, and therefore others’.

  2. Hey Arsalan,

    This is a FANTASTIC blog post, very articulate and well-written. Check out this website, it’s kind of a ‘dumb’ down way of looking at the issue, but I feel like it connects the dots between how our ‘modern,’ life-styles are ultimately hinged upon very backwards and old-world exploitative labour systems, yes, slavery.

    http://slaveryfootprint.org/

    Hope you are having a great time in Ghana!

  3. Reblogged this on Megan te Boekhorst and commented:
    Great blog written by a friend of mine. I feel like I should give it a better summary but the post is too important to just be skimmed. So read it.

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    Plumbing repair work can encompass many things, such as mending hot water
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    Understandably, most people want to avoid hiring a plumber to carry out maintenance or repair work, which they could perform themselves.
    Nonetheless, considerable precision and expertise is needed to implement the majority of plumbing tasks.

    Even a basic error, like failing to seal a pipe tightly enough,
    could cause leaks that result in expensive water damage and high water bills.
    Leaks could cause mold to develop in your house as well.
    You should hire plumbing services, whenever severe problems with your plumbing system arise.
    If you don’t do this, you might end up making the problem even worse.

    The hot Water Stops Working

    It can be difficult to identify the cause of this problem, unless you have a leaking water tank.
    Leaks can appear anywhere in your system, due to a
    range of factors. Issues with gas heaters can involve
    thermocouple ignition systems and burners. Issues with electrical heaters can involve heating elements,
    bad overload switches, malfunctioning thermostats, and blown fuses or circuit breakers.

    The Water Pressure in Your Home is too low

    There are several things that can cause this problem.
    Examples include badly designed supply lines, low water pressures from wells or city supplies,
    and water line blockages (such as debris or rust).
    A reputable plumber will diagnose the cause of the problem, and tackle it
    effectively.

    The Sewer Line Backs up

    In all likelihood, if you encounter a sewer line stoppage,
    the line will have a plug in it that leads out to the primary sewer.
    Frequently, this is caused by tree roots. Large sewer rodding machines can be rented, however they
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    Installing a new Water Heater

    Ideally, you should avoid trying to install a new heater on your own. A
    good plumber will transport the new heater to your storage area, connect it and ensure
    that it functions correctly. He or she can get rid
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    Severe Damage to Water Lines

    It is a time consuming process to fix damage to water lines.
    Normally, this occurs due to freezing. Hire a plumber, so that you don’t
    have to interrupt your regular schedule.

    Pipe Freezing

    If you have frozen pipes, they may have cracks in them already — in which case you need a
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    It is very crucial to clean dirt and water too as soon as they are split
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    There are basically following tile floors where in one will use the tile and
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    Porcelain
    Stone

    Porcelain Tile cleaning

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    Ceramic Tile Cleaning

    The rule is followed here as well; remove the dirt as soon as
    possible. Vacuum clean the tiles every day or a simple broom can be used.
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    the wet mopping.

    Stone Tile Cleaning

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    The surface looks shabby if the grout is unclean. It
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    which will not only protect the surface but also acts as an anti-fungal agent.

    Many a times it gets difficult to maintain the floor due to hectic working
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    Moreover the price depends on the type of the tiles, number of tiles and size of
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    Following steps are followed for the tile and grout cleaning after
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    Pre inspection of the tiles and floor.
    Shifting of the furniture, if any, from that space.
    Dry Sweeping of the surface
    Application of the suitable cleaning solution.
    Cleaning the surface with a soft pad.
    High pressure cleaning
    Mopping and drying the surface.

    We have our experts who carry special tools to do the tile and grout cleaning; the grout sealing is also done if ordered.

  12. There are many types of tiles available nowadays. The method
    of tile cleaning will depend more on the tile type. However
    there are couple of things to be followed to add
    the sheen and glow of the tiles.

    Do the regular floor cleaning
    Clean the spills as soon as they occur

    It is very crucial to clean dirt and water too as
    soon as they are split to prevent the stains. Place a doormat which helps in reduction of mud or dirt entering
    through footsteps.

    There are basically following tile floors where in one will use the tile and grout cleaning process, types of tiles are as follow –

    Ceramic
    Porcelain
    Stone

    Porcelain Tile cleaning

    Porcelain tiles maintenance is not difficult if the surface is cleaned regularly.

    The surface can be vacuum cleaned every day or just sweep it.
    The wet mopping is required once in a week. Use of
    mild floor cleaners will do for the mopping. One can make it at home by mixing vinegar and water.

    Ceramic Tile Cleaning

    The rule is followed here as well; remove the dirt as soon as possible.
    Vacuum clean the tiles every day or a simple broom can be used.
    Plain water or the special ceramic tile cleaners can be used for
    the wet mopping.

    Stone Tile Cleaning

    One need to be careful while cleaning the tiles made of stones as they are
    natural minerals. Never use harsh floor cleaners.
    Sweep or vacuum clean. After using any floor cleaner use a
    dry mop to soak any type of liquid residue.

    Grout Cleaning

    Along with the tile cleaning it is very important to regularly clean the
    grout, i.e. the lines between the tiles.
    Hence tile and grout cleaning goes simultaneously. Grout is porous in nature and attracts dirt, grease etc.
    The surface looks shabby if the grout is unclean.
    It can also be a cause of mildew or mould in the damp areas like bathrooms.

    It is best to have a seal (colour or clear) on the grout which will not only protect the surface but also acts as an anti-fungal agent.

    Many a times it gets difficult to maintain the floor due to hectic working schedules.

    Hence we come in picture and provide the tile and grout cleaning services to our clients at a very affordable price.
    Moreover the price depends on the type of the tiles, number of tiles and size of the tiles to be
    cleaned.

    Following steps are followed for the tile and grout cleaning after you contact us-

    Pre inspection of the tiles and floor.
    Shifting of the furniture, if any, from that
    space.
    Dry Sweeping of the surface
    Application of the suitable cleaning solution.
    Cleaning the surface with a soft pad.
    High pressure cleaning
    Mopping and drying the surface.

    We have our experts who carry special tools to do the tile and
    grout cleaning; the grout sealing is also done if
    ordered.

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