It is 150 years to the day since John Brown was hanged, and more Africans are being enslaved today than at the height of the infamous Atlantic slave trade.
This at least is the conclusion that can be drawn from United Nations studies in ‘human trafficking’, as the slave trade is now being called. Millions of people each year fall into the modern slave trade, according to UN officials.
“The precise number of people lured into trafficking is unknown. Between the smugglers’ efforts to avoid detection and the low priority given by most governments to monitoring and preventing trafficking, estimates vary widely, notes the UN human rights commissioner’s special rapporteur on human trafficking, Joy Ezeilo. She puts the total number of people trafficked globally last year at about 2.5 million, including more than 1 million children. It is also big business, earning the gangs upwards of $10 bn a year, reports UNICEF.”
Africa is the center of contemporary slavery; within Africa, children and others are enslaved as domestic workers. Exported slaves, most often young women, fuel the sex industries of the ‘advanced’ countries, especially in Europe.
We like to think that our world is making progress, that as humanity develops technologically and economically we are also developing morally and socially. The rise of the new slave trade challenges that easy, comfortable assumption. True, slavery is not as economically important today as it was in the nineteenth century when the slave-dependent cotton industry provided cheap raw materials for the cutting edge textile factories that led the Industrial Revolution. And it is also true that while there are more slaves today than ever before in world history, the percentage of the world’s population held in slavery seems to be in long term decline.
But slavery today is by some measures more brutal and more soul destroying than it was in the past. The brothel industry in particular, subjecting millions of young women and children to repeated multiple rapes night after night for years at a time, is organized on a far larger and more extensive scale than it was in the past — and slaves make this industry possible.
As Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth looked on, John Brown was hanged 150 years ago today — on December 2, 1859.
It is worth recollecting the last speech he made at his trial — for the crime of treason against the State of Virginia:
“This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!”
Today the law is not on the side of slavery, and we can fight it in peaceful and legal ways. The harsh and lonely path of John Brown is not the path we are called to take. That should inspire and encourage us to fight slavery, but I am afraid most of us are content to sit back and ignore it.
150 years after the death of John Brown, slavery is still marching on; is the spirit of abolition still with us?