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.
“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.”
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.
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.