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"The Maiden Tribute" and the Rise of the White Slave in the Nineteenth Century: The Making ofan Imperial Construct Cecily Devereux The white slave burst upon the scene ofmoral and social reform at the centre ofthe British Empire in the summer of 1885, when PallMall Gazette editor W. T. Stead published "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," a week-long exposé ofchild prostitution in London that was to serve as the first official report ofa sexual traffic, according to Stead, in English girls. By the first decade ofthe twentieth-century, the white slave had become a major focus of the reform movement throughout the Empire, and, indeed, beyond it. The white slavery panic which Mariana Valverde has traced in English Canada between 1885 and 1925 (77-103) was a global phenomenon, or, more precisely, an imperial one. That is, white slavery, as we still understand it—the "sell[ing] or trap[ping of] (a girl) into enforced prostitution, especially] abroad" (OED 1989 20: 268)—was a preoccupation ofall the Western industrialized nations which, John Strachey has pointed out, "[f]rom about 1870 ... with one accord, but in ferocious rivalry with each other, [had] turned to the annexation of the rest ofthe world" (98). Britain, France, Germany and the United States, along with a cluster ofsmaller states (79), Strachey observes, all engaged in the late nineteenth-century land grab; they all likewise demonstrated a powerful fear, during the expansionist period, about a sexual trade whose commodity was young white women. Edward J. Bristow has noted a widespread anxiety in France about the trade that was called La Traite des BUnches and in Germany was known as Mädchen-Handel (37). Between 1885 and the 1920s, the United Victorian Review (200 1 ) C. Devereux States produced what may be the biggest archive anywhere ofwhite slave material, including, along with a proliferation of newspaper reports, tracts, pamphlets, and books comparable to those which were also being generated in Britain and throughout the Empire, a number ofwhite slave films: Shelley Stamp Lindsey has drawn attention to the "rash ofsensational and, for the time, sexually explicit films on white slavery, released in the mid teens" which "fuelled an already raging nationwide panic" in the States (I).1 The parallel rise ofwhat was in each case a concern about the entrapment and prostitution ofyoung women identified as a racialcategory is instructive: the white slave can be seen to have emerged in the context of fiercely contested imperial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century, and to function more compellingly as an index offears about the condition ofdominant races and about gender and mobility within imperial space than as a sign ofa real—or at least really widespread—traffic in young white girls. Despite numerous early twentieth-century studies which purported to reveal the truth about white slavery, and the emergence of a popular fiction which rehearsed the purported facts ofthe traffic in alarmist narratives, a commerce of this nature was never "proven," as Valverde puts it, "to exist on a large scale" (79). Even at the turn of this century, the debate about the existence, anywhere, of a traffic in young white girls continues, and remains unresolved. While many agree that white slavery was, as Valverde puts it, "invented" (79), others have argued, as most studies earlier in the century also usually did, that there may well have been some basis for the anxiety. Bristow, for instance, in Prostitution and Prejudice, points to compelling evidence ofa sexual trade in Jewish women in Europe and the United States in the early twentieth-century.2 Francesco Cordasco and Thomas Monroe Pitkin trace what they maintain was the rise and fall ofwhite slavery in New York, pointing to changes in the numbers ofdeported women and men and ofarrests for vice as evidence that the traffic existed and that it was subsequently conquered (42). This evidence, however, may indicate little more than a rise and fall in popular belief\n a widely reported vice trade. It may be that volume 26 number 2 "The Maiden Tribute" and the Rise of the White Slave the only "truth" about white slavery inheres in its function as an index ofa cluster ofanxieties...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-23
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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