Slavery's Last Stronghold
March 19, 2012 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Although officially abolished in 1981, slavery still exists in Mauritania. CNN Special Report includes a twenty-two minute video and offers a look inside a country where an estimated 10 - 20% are still enslaved.
posted by gman (59 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Bizarro James Carville:
He says that I do not understand: he used to have slaves, but now they are free to come and go. They are, he says, just like his own children and even his own mother, "because when I was young, my mother didn't have enough milk so slaves gave me their milk."

"When some countries are not happy with Mauritania, they try to find something wrong," he says.

"There is no more problem with slavery. We should not be talking about this subject at all, because it's gone, finished," he says.

posted by BEE-EATING CAT-EATER at 5:53 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's astonishing how slavery persists and reestablishes itself in new forms.

There is a very interesting book, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, which is once again available after being out of print forever, which talks about how long slavery persisted in Western Europe - pretty much up through the French Revolution (which is sort of what you'd expect).

I think it's important not to say that Mauritania is the "last" stronghold of slavery. It may be the last stronghold of a particular kind of official slavery, but there are lots of slaves, even here in the US - people working in sweatshops or doing various kinds of domestic work. I would argue, personally, that the recent trends in imprisonment in the US - longer sentences, the de facto end of rehabilitation, more solitary and supermax confinement, more convict labor, convicts working outside in chains, stripping people of voting rights, the incredible racial bias in charges and convictions - are a gesture toward re-establishing a kind of slavery. Even if the people in question are "owned" by the state, they are fundamentally a class apart, a reserve army of workers in the shittiest jobs. In a sense, they're "owned" for the metaphorical work they do - prisoners basically provide jobs and profits to the prison industry.

People keep trying to re-establish slavery in new forms - I guess that's the lesson of this article. The slaves are no longer "formally" slaves, so their owners get to pat themselves on the back. Similarly, after the Englightenment, it becomes very difficult to say "I think that one person should be able to own another the way they'd own a piece of furniture", so people work very hard to find new ways to own each other.

Given the economic crisis, I would not be surprised at some new form of officially-recognized debt slavery, especially in the UK since they seem to have gone right off the rails into V for Vendetta territory in the last three or four years. Probably run through the state - debtors have their work and their pay overseen by the state, live in a workhouse and get leased out to employers. That wouldn't be a very hard sell in the age of Cameron/Clegg, provided that they dressed it up in language about "scroungers", "chavs" and "travellers".
posted by Frowner at 6:33 AM on March 19, 2012 [25 favorites]


I have seen, and briefly met, people who were functionally still slaves, even though the actual institution had been banned. So it exists, which is not the same as knowing what to do about it.
posted by Forktine at 6:51 AM on March 19, 2012


One interesting thing is how ingrained it is, the slaves don't generally want or expect freedom. In such a poor country, being freed with no money or skills means starvation or re-enslavement. What a shitty place.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:52 AM on March 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Mauritaniafilter: Life is unfair.
posted by localroger at 6:58 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I thought Islam prohibited the enslavement of Moslems by other Moslems?
posted by Renoroc at 7:07 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


The sidebar about halfway down the page labelled "Why Slavery Still Exists in 2012" is fascinating and awful.

Renoroc: "I thought Islam prohibited the enslavement of Moslems by other Moslems?"

I'm not sure, but I believe the Muslim has to be freeborn to meet that prohibition.

Suspect it's a complicated subject.
posted by zarq at 7:13 AM on March 19, 2012


Alioune Ould Bekaye, director of the recently opened center, says education is the only way former slaves can make a life for themselves as freed people. “It’s another way to liberate them,” he said.

Educate the Mauritanians and educate the world at large. An educated people will be less inclined to put up with oppression.
posted by arcticseal at 7:45 AM on March 19, 2012


I thought Islam prohibited the enslavement of Moslems by other Moslems?

Well, yeah, and the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery, and so does the International Declaration of Human Rights.

There are lots of laws against slavery - both religious and secular -- but some people are just shitty enough to try to think of ways to get around them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:49 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there a Facebook status update that I could "Like" in order to stop this? Perhaps a hashtag to retweet?
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:53 AM on March 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


Is there a Facebook status update that I could "Like" in order to stop this? Perhaps a hashtag to retweet?

*weeps silent tears*
posted by infini at 7:58 AM on March 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Threeway Handshake: I don't have a direct answer, but I think you can purchase a magnetic ribbon for your car to raise awareness. Try Ebay; they're cheaper used.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:07 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


When Henry Louis Gates went to North Africa for his PBS documentary he met plenty of slaves in the interior, and plenty of slave masters making equally disingenuous claims to defend the practice. Unlike anyone here on MetaFilter he actually talked with these people firsthand, and PBS shows that he never got seething angry with them, which is cool. This firsthand experience seems to have been the basis of his revised opinion on slavery which did get other black writers seething angry at him.
posted by shii at 8:09 AM on March 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Liking a status won't affect change, but disaffected hipster condescension is - as we speak - putting an end to the world's hunger crisis.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:14 AM on March 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


As demonstrated by Yewabe's words “No one ever told me I was free. I don't know what that would be like,” ending slavery where at least some people's ancestors have been slaves for two thousand years is going to be a tough nut to crack. Being a slaver isn't something that's chosen it just is. It's facinating in its awefulness.
posted by Mitheral at 8:20 AM on March 19, 2012


the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery

Not the original Constitution. The Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision upheld slavery in 1857. It was legal before the Constitution was amended to prohibit slavery in 1865.
posted by John Cohen at 8:24 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is there a Facebook status update that I could "Like" in order to stop this? Perhaps a hashtag to retweet?

The White Tweeters Burden
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:24 AM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


From this FPP I am reposting this link which is a world breakdown of modern slavery by country.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimates that 50,000 people are trafficked into or transited through the U.S.A. annually as sex slaves, domestics, garment, and agricultural slaves
posted by adamvasco at 8:42 AM on March 19, 2012


Thanks for posting this, gman.

Worth noting that the main article in the post is part of CNN's Freedom Project series, which shines a light on human trafficking and slavery and discusses solutions to the problem.

The entire series has an ongoing blog (which includes an entry on the Mauritania article where readers can interact,) aggregates the network's stories on those topics, with special pages on traffickers, their victims and outsiders whose efforts are making a difference.

They also have a 'How to Help' section.
posted by zarq at 8:43 AM on March 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


Sometimes the world still surprises me.

I just wish it would concentrate on delightful, unexpected, cool surprises, instead of really depressing instances of people being shitty to each other.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:08 AM on March 19, 2012


I'm nearly certain that slavery in Mauritania has been an FPP before but I can't seem to find it. IIRC, this country has "banned" slavery two or three times, but they are mostly just bowing to international pressure but they have no intention of actually discontinuing the practice. It's too ingrained in the culture. Hopefully, someone will post the link.
posted by VTX at 9:12 AM on March 19, 2012


In one sense, I'm surprised how strenuously the government refuses to admit that their country has slaves. In another sense, I'm not surprised at all.

What I'd like to know, though, is the reason why. Is it pride? Is it because the problem's too big for them to deal with? Is it because the government secretly supports the slave-owners and thus wants to protect them?
posted by meese at 9:13 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


H-4 visa holders in the US can also effectively be enslaved quite easily by their H1B partners.

Bonded labour is but the modern era's version of slavery.

Wherever one is chained by economic and cultural conditioning to bear any burden...
posted by infini at 9:20 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Domestic help dependent on their employers in foreign countries are effectively slaves. To be abused.
posted by infini at 9:22 AM on March 19, 2012


present not just in Mauritania but most of the country in the world. including USA, UK.
posted by johnstendicom at 9:34 AM on March 19, 2012


Heh. About the people pointing out that first world countries also have slavery: I was going to make some semi-snarky comment about "how I doubt that ten to twenty percent of the population in first world countries is in slavery or indentured servitude", then I realized that consumer debt is essentially just that. So, we are talking what, 80% of the population carrying revolving debt? More?

There's no need to actually have slaves when all you need to do is extract the wealth from them. Bonus points for putting the onus of compliance on them as well.
posted by Xoebe at 9:48 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


These two New Yorker articles came to mind:

Nobodies: Does slavery exist in America? by John Bowe (April 21, 2003)

The Countertraffickers: Rescuing the victims of the global sex trade by William Finnegan (May 5, 2008)

posted by FrauMaschine at 9:57 AM on March 19, 2012


I was going to make some semi-snarky comment about "how I doubt that ten to twenty percent of the population in first world countries is in slavery or indentured servitude", then I realized that consumer debt is essentially just that.

It seems there are a few people in this thread attempting to draw comparisons between chattel slavery and other unfair practices. It diminishes the horror of chattel slavery to conflate it with imprisonment or consumer debt. It is worth keeping the concepts distinct.
posted by Falconetti at 9:57 AM on March 19, 2012 [21 favorites]


Historical amnesia Slavery in Muslim countries has a long history and has not gone away, but not many people remember it or pay attention to it. There are traces of white slavery (estimated to have claimed 1,000,000 victims) present in literature, if one pays attention:

Chapter 2 of Robinson Crusoe, for example, tells the story of how the author, Daniel Defoe, was captured by a Turkish pirate and became his personal slave. Cervantes was captured and held for ransom in Algiers (along with thousands upon thousands of other Europeans), an experience which helped to form the tale of Don Quixote.

The steady diet of anti-western self-hatred which students receive in school leads them to conclude that white people, especially Americans, are the most evil people on the planet because we used to own slaves. Yes, European traders used to visit the coast of Africa to buy slaves. But where did these slaves come from? Very few people bother to ask who originally who actually captured and sold free black people into slavery. Who kept most of the slaves for themselves?

Slavery has been present in Muslim countries for over a thousand years. Why are Russians and other East Europeans called "SLAVIC" people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_medieval_Europe)? How many people bother to even ask this question?

More history:

The U.S. Wages War Against The Barbary States To End International Blackmail and Terrorism
http://history-world.org/barbarystates.htm

Slavery: White, Black, Muslim, Christian
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2001/jul/05/slaverywhite-black-muslim-christian/?pagination=false

Here are some places to check for details of modern slavery:

Sudan - slavery briefing
http://www.sudanupdate.org/REPORTS/Slavery/slave.htm

The thousands of young boys who worked as camel jockeys in the Gulf states were freed as as a result of the uproar caused by this book (most of the small boys have been replaced by robots[?]):
A Crime So Monstrous
http://www.amazon.com/Crime-Monstrous-Face---Face-Modern-Day/dp/0743290089/

Modern Slavery in Gulf Countries
www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaVSDDkhHDU
posted by juifenasie at 10:00 AM on March 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


As much as debt is a pox on the western world, it's not the same as literally being owned as property by a single person who has explicit control over your life.
posted by the jam at 10:01 AM on March 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


What depressing tales of human misery all over the globe. It doesn't seem like most of us have learned very much over the centuries. The good thing is that some people do care and are trying to make a difference. As long as the information keeps flowing, we still have a chance.
posted by juifenasie at 10:13 AM on March 19, 2012


Was this link up at like 2am Pacific time, very briefly, before vanishing, or did I imagine that?
posted by MadGastronomer at 10:31 AM on March 19, 2012


Debt slavery exists in Pakistan, in which families are enticed into taking a loan from a local land baron/mafia type and become endlessly enslaved when unable to pay it back. Considering that most houses in Pakistan are built from a mix of bricks and concrete, there is a good chance that the bricks in any given house in a posh area of Rawalpindi or Lahore were made by indentured labor.
posted by thewalrus at 10:35 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


MadGastronomer: "Was this link up at like 2am Pacific time, very briefly, before vanishing, or did I imagine that?"

You did not. MeTa.
posted by zarq at 10:36 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, zarq.
posted by MadGastronomer at 10:48 AM on March 19, 2012


No problem :)
posted by zarq at 10:50 AM on March 19, 2012


I really recommend A Crime So Monstrous that juifenasie linked to. It very clearly describes the varieties of slavery that exist today -- they are painfully varied and common. American credit card holders are not among them.
posted by R343L at 10:53 AM on March 19, 2012


Right here in the good old U-S-of-A the justice system is run on plea bargains and the prison system is run by private corporations, and inmates are forced to work for zero or below minimum wage to produce products they see no profit from under conditions they have absolutely no opportunity to influence...

...what do we call that?
posted by trackofalljades at 11:40 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mauritania is already mostly Sahara desert, which continues to expand southward because of Global Warming, and the remainder is Sahel.

Fish stocks off its coast are declining, and the locals are unable to compete with corporate fishers, anyway.

They had food riots in 2007, and a military coup after that.

1% of the land which is not desert is arable, unless I misread my link.

Slaves whose owners can feed them could be better off than the free poor.
posted by jamjam at 12:20 PM on March 19, 2012


Is it perhaps appropriate to understand wage earning, indebtedness, indentured servitude, and chattel slavery as parts of a continuum of servitude?

You can be more free or less free in your servitude, but as long as someone else is making money off your labor, you are to some degree unfree.

Some workers are free to leave and seek other employment, some are not. Some expect decent treatment, others do not. Some are paid more or less for the same work by virtue of their ethnicity, gender, or location. Some labor for room and board, others labor for a wage and are expected to acquire room and board on their own time.

Looking at it this way by no means invalidates the fact that chattel slavery is orders of magnitude worse than consumer debt.

What all these situations have in common is coercion, or an obligation to labor.
posted by edguardo at 12:23 PM on March 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Slaves whose owners can feed them could be better off than the free poor.

WHAT? Seriously? Did you RTFA? A huge number of those slaves -- probably most of them, really -- are the ones actually doing the work that feeds both them and their masters. Farming, herding, those are the things that feed people, and those are the things that slaves are doing. Those slaves villages and herding camps are starving at least in part because their masters come along and take their food away.
posted by MadGastronomer at 12:52 PM on March 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


jamjam: Slaves whose owners can feed them could be better off than the free poor.

While that is probably true for certian definitions of "better off" it's only because freedom is an intangible that really hard to measure. What's it worth for one to have even a theoretical ability to just take up roots and move on to the next town over.

And that is ignoring the wide spread horrific abuses that exist.

Even in a perfectly humanitarian slave system the arguement that slaves are better off being slaves than they are being free persons is hard for me to accept. Robert Heinlein explored this idea in his book Farnham's Freehold and it's a fairly disturbing book (and not just because of his standard non-standard views on relationships.)
posted by Mitheral at 1:30 PM on March 19, 2012


So, which color magnetic ribbon? I found some stickers that I think are for this, but I really don't want to commit so far as to lose any potential resale value of said durable good.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 1:39 PM on March 19, 2012


Also, jamjam, did you catch the bit where female slaves are raped repeatedly and either forced to bear children or induced to miscarry in really dangerous ways? Not that any of these things don't happen to free people, but seriously, happens less.
posted by MadGastronomer at 1:43 PM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is it perhaps appropriate to understand wage earning, indebtedness, indentured servitude, and chattel slavery as parts of a continuum of servitude?

Of course it is appropriate, although I don't really think wage earning deserves to be included on such a continuum. I think lumping in "working for a paycheck" with "being owned by another human being" devalues the latter and requires an overly broad continuum, but I guess it is ultimately a semantic point.
posted by Falconetti at 2:23 PM on March 19, 2012


Those who comment on wage slavery desire that others see forced labor for what it is.
posted by edguardo at 3:23 PM on March 19, 2012


'Live Free or Die' is great to put on your license plates, not so great to put on the plates of your children as they starve to death.
posted by jamjam at 5:49 PM on March 19, 2012


Slaves whose owners can feed them could be better off than the free poor.

It is so depressing to realise that our conversation on freedom and slavery really hasn't progressed at all since the Roman empire. Slavery means that you don't exist as a person. You are dead for all intents and purposes long before you physically die. And slave owners take full advantage of this - because what harm can you do to someone who is already dead?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:49 PM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I, on the other hand, find the utterly foolish hyperbole which has, if anything, markedly increased since Roman times somewhat more depressing.

If what you say were to be true, lesbiassparrow, that "Slavery means that you don't exist as a person. You are dead for all intents and purposes long before you physically die" most Jews in the world and most African-Americans, along with billions of other human beings, simply would not exist at all, because many an ancestor would have been "dead for all intents and purposes" and did "not exist as a person."
posted by jamjam at 7:18 PM on March 19, 2012


If what you say were to be true, lesbiassparrow, that "Slavery means that you don't exist as a person. You are dead for all intents and purposes long before you physically die" most Jews in the world and most African-Americans, along with billions of other human beings, simply would not exist at all, because many an ancestor would have been "dead for all intents and purposes" and did "not exist as a person."

No, it would mean that for many people their ancestors had no more legal existence or protection than a chair. Or a farm animal. Slavery strips you entirely of your rights because you are a possession, ranked like other possessions. If you are harmed or damaged it is as a possession, not as a person because you have no standing in law.

Plus, naturally the hyperbole about slavery has increased since Roman times, since they didn't have a problem with it. There is not a single classical Roman who even thought about getting rid of slavery, it was that much a feature of their lives.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:28 PM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


And the even more vile thing about slave owning societies is that they often manage to convince slaves that this is not only unchangeable, but desirable. Because, after all, aren't their masters only looking out for them? Until they rape, kill or sell them off that is.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 7:30 PM on March 19, 2012


'Live Free or Die' is great to put on your license plates, not so great to put on the plates of your children as they starve to death.

Did you miss the parts where many of these people are subsistence farming on land their masters don't even own, but have to give up their harvest to the master anyway?

Or that they wouldn't even have many of those children, if they weren't being violently raped by their masters? Or that they only get to keep the children if their masters don't decide to kill them for fun or to teach them a lesson or because it makes more economic sense for the master for the kid to be dead?

This is not a trade-off of freedom for security. They don't have freedom and they don't have security, and the violence and starvation is inflicted on them by their owners as much as by their environment.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:30 PM on March 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


All right, never let it be said I don't suffer foolishness gladly, on occasion.

Let's consider an example a little bit closer to home.

African-Americans, enslaved and horribly treated; murdered in great numbers, raped, tortured, and abused in every way you can think of and many ways I hope you can't. Then freed, partially, after hundreds of years.

American Indians, present here in numbers estimated at 10-14 million in 1492, systematically exterminated, by means even more cruel than those of slavery, arguably, down to a population of about 250,000 by the 1890s-- a 97%+ genocide, but oh, so lucky not to have been enslaved.

Right?
posted by jamjam at 7:56 PM on March 19, 2012


Er, what? How is that even an argument? Should we just say, yay, that because you can commit genocide then slavery is all well and fine? Or a nice intermediate option and worth living with because eventually people will get freed?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:01 PM on March 19, 2012


Good grief, I hope you don't resort to straw men like this when you teach your classes.

You are not arguing in good faith, and it's not worth my time to talk to you.
posted by jamjam at 8:05 PM on March 19, 2012


One line that caught my eye: He found a system of slavery that echoes that of Old Testament times.

So now I'm curious about the Old Testament version of slavery: What did Old Testament slavery look like? How was it different to other forms of slavery that have existed? Did the system of slavery change much when Islam came to these areas?

He also says this system has been in place for thousands of years and that's why it's so difficult to get rid of because it is so ingrained. So, why did it persist in Mauritania when it seems to have died out most other places? Or, perhaps it has not died out other places - where else does it still exist?
posted by mosessis at 1:17 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or, perhaps it has not died out other places - where else does it still exist?
Take your pick
posted by adamvasco at 2:20 AM on March 20, 2012


He also says this system has been in place for thousands of years and that's why it's so difficult to get rid of because it is so ingrained. So, why did it persist in Mauritania when it seems to have died out most other places? Or, perhaps it has not died out other places - where else does it still exist?

"Those in power have rarely hidden their intentions. Indeed, as I've written elsewhere, the need to separate the majority of people from their food supplies—thus separating them also from their freedom—was central to the design of civilization's early cities. I've written, too, how slave owners described the land-ownership conditions under which chattel slavery was the optimal means to control a workforce, and described also the conditions under which not chattel but wage slavery was the owners'/capitalists' best option. If there's a lot of land and not many people, you'll need to use for in order to convert free human beings into laborers. If, on the other hand, there's a lot of people and not much land, or if those in power otherwise control access to land, those who do not own the land have no choice but to work for those in power. Under there conditions there's no reason for owners to go to the expense of buying and enslaving people, then paying for their slaves' food, clothing, and shelter: it's much cheaper to simply hire them. As one pro-slavery philosopher put it: 'In all countries where the denseness of the population has reduced it to a matter of perfect certainty, that labor can be obtained, whenever wanted, and that the laborer can be forced, by sheer necessity, to hire for the smallest pittance that will keep soul and body together, and rags upon his back while in actual employment—dependent at all other times on alms or poor rates—in all such countries it is found cheaper to pay this pittance, than to clothe, feed, nurse, support through childhood, and pension in old age, a race of slaves.'"

- Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol. I, pp. 133-134
posted by edguardo at 9:23 AM on March 23, 2012


Population density of Mauritania: 3.28 people per square kilometer.

Followed closely by the other bastion of crushing tyranny, Iceland, at 3.1 people per square kilometer.

Looks like a low population density is necessary, but not sufficient, for enslavement to make economic sense.

So although it is evident that lower population density does not necessarily lead to a slave society, it seems that a high population density leads to an abandonment of slavery in favor of the wage system.

With sufficient population you get people, faced otherwise with starvation, willing to work for minimum wage. No enslavement needed!
posted by edguardo at 9:39 AM on March 23, 2012


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