Slavery Then and Now: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Modern Day Human Trafficking: What Can We Learn from Our Past?

Slavery Then and Now: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Modern Day Human Trafficking: What Can We Learn from Our Past?

Slavery Then and Now: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Modern Day Human Trafficking: What Can We Learn from Our Past?


“You can’t move forward until you look back.”1 The accepted date for the beginning of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is 1502.2 The Transatlantic Slave Trade lasted over 350 years, and during that period, approximately 9.9 million Africans were enslaved by Europeans and transported across the Atlantic.3 The ramifications of three and a half centuries of bondage, oppression, and marginalization are far reaching, and we are still struggling in the fight for equality. The aftershocks of our nation’s past still permeate our modern discourse. One cannot view television, peruse the internet, or listen to the radio without being inundated by stories of unarmed black men and boys being killed4 and single mothers struggling to provide for their children due to the mass incarceration of black males.5 As Ben Affleck recently stated regarding the controversy surrounding his censorship of Finding Your Roots on PBS (concerning acknowledging his slave-owning ancestors), “we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery.”6 Undoubtedly, progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go as a nation to heal our wounds and prevent future injustices. In order to fully comprehend the current racial disparities in America, we need a more complete understanding of our past. Many have said that history repeats itself. Unfortunately, this is painfully true in the realm of modern day human trafficking. Human trafficking is a thirty-two billion-dollar-a-year industry,8 and at present, it is estimated that there are approximately twenty-seven million people enslaved worldwide.9 President Obama has stated that human trafficking is modern day slavery.10 Human trafficking is a global plague, and America is not immune to its death and destruction. Both sex trafficking11 and labor trafficking12 are forms of modern day slavery that are present throughout America and the world. In America, sex trafficking appears online, and at pseudo-massage parlors, truckstops, residential brothels, strip-clubs, hotels and motels, and on city streets.13 Labor trafficking in America includes domestic servants, agricultural laborers, factory workers, door-to-door sales crews, carnival workers, and health and beauty service providers.14 This article compares “slavery then” (the Transatlantic Slave Trade) to “slavery now” (modern day human trafficking), in an attempt to remind us of our past so that we may glean insight into how to successfully combat the epidemic of modern day human trafficking. This paper makes the case that civil rights and social justice advocates in the United States need to pay particular attention to the human trafficking epidemic. Traffickers prey on vulnerable populations. This article advances the premise that the mass incarceration of black males often leaves many women and children at greater risk of being trafficked. It hypothesizes that the aftershocks of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade predispose certain populations to a greater risk of being re-enslaved today. This article advocates that we must educate ourselves about the past in order to pave the way for a better future. It argues that we must come out of our comfort zones and immerse ourselves in the ugliness of inequality and the brutal details of slavery (both old and new) in order to protect ourselves, our children, and our nation from further demoralization. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said,

[A]ll mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. . . . [I] can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be — this is the interrelated structure of reality.15

This paper also argues that, because of our collective interconnectivity, we must empathize. As Cornel West points out, “[e]mpathy is not simply a matter of trying to imagine what others are going through, but having the will to muster enough courage to do something about it. In a way, empathy is predicated upon hope.”16 Furthermore, this article asks that we be both active and hopeful in our pursuits of justice. Finally, this article explores the various means of addressing human trafficking and argues that awareness, education, volunteer efforts, corporate responsibility in supply chains, and conscientious consumerism, as well as legislative reform, are all imperative to effectuate positive change and equality.17

In the first section of this article, I compare and contrast slavery then with slavery now. In the next section, I discuss the importance of confronting modern day human trafficking head-on, focusing on the importance of preventing the further marginalization of those groups previously oppressed. In the final section of this article, I suggest a variety of ways to combat modern day slavery.


A. Goals and Rationalizations

Frederick Douglass, reflecting on the slave trade, said in 1871 that the goal of slaveholders in the Trans-Atlantic-Slave-Trade “was to make the most money they could in the shortest possible time. Human Nature is the same now as it was then.”18 Douglass’s statement still rings true in 2015.19 The greed has metastasized with technological advancements, consumerism, globalization, and population increase. “The discovery and conquest of the Americas, rise of capitalism, and emergence of a global economy, among other key developments over the past 500 years, have merely intensified and transformed forms of human trafficking and bondage long present across most cultures worldwide.”20 As evidence of the intensification, compare the 9.9 million Africans transported across the Atlantic from the 1500’s to the 1800’s to the 27 million people currently enslaved in 2015.21 The numbers are staggering, “more than twice as many people are in bondage in the world today than were taken from Africa during the entire 350 years of the Atlantic slave trade.”22 The goal of slavery then, just as slavery now, was to make money. The rationalizations for slavery may have shifted though, as the demographics of the enslaved have changed. Though there were many justifications for slavery then, some even biblical,23 a primary rationale was the inferiority of the African.24 According to a Virginia case from 1825, every Negro is presumed to be a slave.25

Other races were enslaved in the United States during the period of the Trans-Atlantic-Slave Trade as well. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, for example, Native Americans were enslaved. As a court held in 1797, “They [Native Americans] have been so long recognized as slaves in our law, that it would be as great a violation of the rights of property to establish a contrary doctrine at the present day, as it would be the case of Africans; and as useless to investigate the manner in which they originally lost their freedom.”26 A white woman and her children could also be enslaved if the woman was convicted of marrying a slave, pursuant to a 1787 case from Maryland.27 Though there were other races enslaved in the United States during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, it was ingrained in American jurisprudence that being black meant being a slave. A Virginia court held in 1811 that, after inspection, “in the case of a person visibly appearing to be of a slave race, it is incumbent on him to make out his freedom; but in the case of a person visibly appearing to be of a free race, it is required of his adversary to show that he is a slave.”28 In a dispute over whether a contract had been made between a black man and a white one prior to abolition, the United States Supreme Court found that no contract had been made by the black man (despite evidence indicating that his mother was free)29 because “his color was presumptive proof of bondage.”30 Nowadays, slaves (in America and globally) come in every race, ethnic group, religion, and sexual orientation, so the historical justification of inferiority no longer rings true in all contexts.31 At its essence, slavery, both then and now, was, and is, a “product of individual self-interest operating at a global level.”32 Modern day “trafficking does not discriminate, it just exploits.”33

B. Slave Price Comparison

During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, slaves were very expensive. In 1850, a slave would have cost approximately $40,000 in modern money.34 Modern slaves are far less expensive. Some experts estimate that a person can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars,35 while others state that a victim of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking can be purchased for $2,500-$3,500.36 Because the price of a human being has decreased so precipitously over time, there is an “endless supply of victims.”37 People have truly become disposable.


C. Life Expectancy and Reproduction

During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the life expectancy of a slave depended on his or her location. “In the British and French West Indies, in Dutch Guyana, and in Brazil, the death rate of slaves was so high, and the birth rate so low, that these territories could not sustain their population levels without large and continuous importations of Africans.”38 In Barbados, slaves did not live longer than sixteen years after being brought to the island.39 The United States, by comparison, “became the leading user of slave labor in the New World, not because it participated heavily in the slave trade but because of the unusually high rate of natural increase.”40 Just because there was a high rate of reproduction, or natural increase, in the United States during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, does not mean that slaves lived long lives. Regarding slaves in the South-Western States, “[a] large majority of them are old at middle age, and few live beyond fifty-five.”41 American slaves “were overworked to a degree that shortened life.”42 In Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, slaves on sugar plantations were driven so hard that they had to be replaced every seven years. Unfortunately, horrifying historical statistics regarding low life expectancy for enslaved persons are not limited to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The generally accepted lifespan of a victim of modern daysex trafficking is seven years from when he or she is first trafficked.43 Blue Heart International places the life expectancy even lower, stating three to seven years as the life expectancy.44 This unusually high death rate is easily understood in the context of the sex trade. Sex trafficking victims are forced to service, on average, ten to fifteen buyers per night.45 At peak times, victims of sex trafficking have been purchased by thirty to fifty buyers per day.46 Primary causes of death for sex trafficking victims are “attack, abuse, STD’s, overdose, malnutrition, or suicide.”47 From a reproductive standpoint in the modern context, victims of both sex and labor trafficking are not encouraged to reproduce. In the labor trafficking arena, common sense dictates that a pregnant woman may be less able to work as efficiently and would, thereafter, be encumbered by her infant if allowed to keep the baby. Additionally, pregnant victims of labor trafficking are often denied medical care by their traffickers for fear of getting caught.48 This contributes to high death rates in both mother and child. Take fifteen-year-old victim of labor trafficking, Jacinta, a Florida orange grove laborer, as an example; she was forced to have her baby in an overcrowded house where she was kept prisoner with her father, brother, and twenty other people, because her trafficker did not want the hospital employees to ask questions and cause problems.49 Victims of sex trafficking are rarely allowed to reproduce while being trafficked,  and are often so injured from the abuse that they have suffered in the sex industry that they are incapable of reproduction even if they escape.50 Victims of sex trafficking are compelled by their traffickers to terminate pregnancies.51 One survivor of sex trafficking reported having seventeen abortions during the period that she was trafficked, at least some of which were forced.52 Wherever one stands on the abortion issue, it is important to recognize that victims of sex trafficking are being raped multiple times a day, some for several years, until they escape or die.53 Assuming conservatively that the victim is raped 10 times per day, multiplied by 365 days in a year, and by the average 7-year life expectancy, comes to 25,550 rapes per victim until death or rescue. “[T]he phenomenon of forced abortion as it occurs in sex trafficking transcends the political boundaries of the abortion debate, violating both the pro-life belief that abortion takes innocent life and the pro-choice ideal of women’s freedom to make their own reproductive choices.”54 Whether raped by their masters during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and forced to give birth to children that would suffer a lifetime of bondage and brutality, or raped by buyers of commercial sex in modern day sex trafficking and forced to abort their babies, female slaves then and now suffer a unique and horrendous hardship.


D. Stripped of Their Given Names

A similarity between slavery then and now is the practice of slave holders/traffickers stripping the enslaved of their given names. The process is dehumanizing and serves to disassociate the enslaved from any previous normalcy. Slaves are classified as chattel, “or items of personal property capable of being bought, sold, hired, mortgaged, bequeathed to heirs, and moved from place to place.”55 A slaveholder gives his chattel a slave name in much the same way a pet owner chooses a name for his dog. During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, “[t]he children of Africa entered the New World with names that represented their family heritage in their homeland. However, the vast majority of those names were replaced with European names forced upon them by slave traders.”56 The inability to choose one’s name was further exacerbated in America by the inability of slaves to legally marry one another in most places.57 Can you imagine not being able to take your spouse’s name because your marriage is not legally recognized? In the modern context of sex trafficking, children and adults are forced to use the names chosen for them by their traffickers. Victims of sex trafficking are “usually given a new street name designed to provoke the fantasy. Her old name is discarded. She is now Lacy, Star, Cherry, Sugar, or some such.”58 Once removed from trafficking, victims resume the use of their given names as part of the healing process.59