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  • Slavery in the Twentieth Century – The Evolution of a Global Problem by Suzanne Miers
  • Kevin Bales
Slavery in the Twentieth Century – The Evolution of a Global Problem. By Suzanne Miers, Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2003.

In the early 1990’s I began to research contemporary forms of slavery and had my first encounter with the then new CD-ROM technology. Having set aside two weeks over Spring Break to follow the paper trail, I was amazed to see some 1,800 articles listed and abstracted in a matter of seconds when I put in the keyword “slavery”. But as I reviewed this great pile of work I discovered that the bulk of the study of slavery was located almost entirely in one historical period (18th and 19th centuries) and one geographical region (the New World). Only three of the 1,800 articles concerned slavery in the second half of the 20th century. I knew then that there was a great hole in our scholarship.

Looking in another direction I began to find studies conducted by non-governmental agencies or the UN focusing on immediate problems of forced labor, human trafficking, enslavement, debt bondage, and servile marriage. These studies seemed to emerge from nowhere. Located in the present moment, they rarely gave any recognition to even the recent past, or to the history of the very organization that sponsored the work. Only Anti-Slavery International, the oldest of all human rights organizations, seemed to have a functioning institutional memory. Somehow the flow of both institutional and intellectual history had run into a cavern since the end of the 19th century and the end of legal slavery.

Suzanne Miers has thrown a bright light into this dark space and this is a great achievement. It is easy to imagine scholars becoming aware of this dark age and beginning to chip away at it with tightly focused studies. Miers has taken the higher road, one that provides a view across the entire century. Slavery in the Twentieth Century is the bridge that links the extensive scholarship of historical slavery and the growing literature on contemporary slavery. This is an invaluable service and the foundation for an expanded social and historical discipline of slavery studies, one that transcends the current focus on slavery in the anti-bellum American south.

Miers organizes her work primarily around the diplomatic and institutional agreements against slavery based within the League of Nations and then the United Nations. The overall story is a sobering one. In decade after decade the rich and powerful countries place their own commercial and diplomatic interests above their moralizing pronouncements and promises regarding slavery. Colonies in Africa and Asia are staging grounds for vast systems of forced labor that feed raw materials into European and American economies. Strange bed-fellows abound, as in the case of King Leopold of Belgium, arguably the largest slaveholder in human history, as he brings leaders of abolitionist groups to “anti-slavery” conferences aimed at better securing his absolute control over the Congo. Colonizers exploit slaves, but there is no flinching in this book from a clear-eyed assessment of indigenous forms of slavery as well. The extensive slave market of Mecca, linked to the rhythms of the Haj, proves a key pivot in a trade that reaches throughout the Muslim world.

Concentrating on source materials from Britain, the Gulf, the UN and Anti-Slavery International, the focus of the book follows the major diplomatic players of the period somewhat to the exclusion of other regions, such as South America, and types of enslavement. This is not meant as a serious criticism; with more than 500 pages completed just as the 20th century ended, it would be churlish to ask for a second volume. The book ranges over the broad diplomatic canvas, but it also dips into illuminating, at times astounding, stories. The swirling events in Ethiopia in the years before the Italian invasion are a case in point. The collision of feudal forms of administration with the expansionist ambitions of the British and French led to utter devastation of the countryside and its communities. Major Darley, a British Commissioner, reported “for...

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