Abolition of Slavery

By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ, 2 December 2018


The abolition of slavery is rightly regarded as a moral triumph in the face of strong opposition. It is hard to imagine Western societies ever accepting again slavery in the form it had taken in the nineteenth century. But the attitudes that underlay the support for slavery have remained intact and are reflected in new forms of slavery. They are rooted deeply in the human heart.

To those who accepted slavery the human beings made slaves were possessions they had bought. Their value lay not in their humanity but in their financial cost and resale value and their capacity to work hard. Like hoes or horses they could be discarded when they wore out or when new models were required.

Their gifts, sorrows, joys and relationships were of no interest to their owners unless they could be exploited for financial gain. Owners might treat them kindly, but this would be seen as a tribute to their own generosity of spirit, or perhaps as shrewd managerial tactics, not as a duty.

Slave owners and traders regarded the abolishment of slavery as confiscation of their property and unjustified interference in their business. Their opposition diminished only when changing economic conditions made slavery uneconomic. The root of slavery, however, the valuation of human beings by their contribution to others’ profit, remained.

It is central to most contemporary economic theories and to the practices of big businesses. The difference between slaves and many workers today is that the slave had no say in where he worked but was bought, sold and controlled without opportunity to volunteer or refuse his services. Today workers are often seen simply as a cost, with their human value discounted. In many cases, too, in order to survive they have no option but to accept work without the opportunity to negotiate conditions.

Their choice is hardly free.

In many societies people are still enslaved. In the developed world people trafficking is a common form of slavery. People in the developing world are promised lucrative work in a rich nation. On arrival the traders take their passport, often force them into sex work or other demeaning and dangerous occupations and leave them only a pittance for food.

As we celebrate the abolition of slavery, we are invited to reflect on the ways in which people are enslaved in our own society. We are also invited to demand a society in which the economy serves the whole of society and people are respected for the intrinsic worth and not just for their economic output. Freedom is based on respect.

That respect for vulnerable young people remains at the core of the programs of Jesuit Social Services and of our insistence that the Government must give decent support to vulnerable people in order to help them make connections with society.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.


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