Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem

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Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. By Suzanne Miers. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2003. Pp. xx, 505. $90.00 cloth, $35.95 paper.

This volume completes the history of abolitionist and international antislavery movements that Suzanne Miers began thirty years ago with her Britain and the Ending of the Slave Trade (London, 1975) and continued with The End of Slavery in Africa (Madison, 1988, co-edited with Richard Roberts). Because so much of the book is based on information drawn from British, French, League of Nations, and other archives, as well as official publications, even well informed readers will find unfamiliar the details it brings to light of international efforts against slavery and other forms of unfree labor. Its graceful and disciplined prose is also a rare treat in so scholarly a work.

The first four chapters provide an elegant overview of the antislavery movement down through the Brussels Conference of 1890, and summarize colonial emancipation policies and the early twentieth-century debates about unfree labor scandals in São Tomé, the Congo, and South America. The next fourteen chapters detail the international efforts led by Britain (under steady pressure from the British Anti-Slavery Society) in the League of Nations to deal with the remnants of the slave trade and slavery (largely in Ethiopia and Arabian states) and the rising issue of forced labor, particularly in colonial societies. An additional fifteen chapters chronicle the post-1945 efforts, especially through the United Nations, to deal with the remaining vestiges of traditional slavery and "contemporary forms of slavery," such as child labor, servile forms of marriage and prostitution, and other forms of gross exploitation. The final chapter provides a useful summary of the volume.

As Miers notes, the diplomatic efforts, duplicity, and compromise recounted here concern are also an important chapter in the international human rights campaigns that began with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and achieved standing with the Helsinki Final Accords in 1975 (if I correctly amend her reference to "Helsinki in 1945" [p. 116]). Her accounts of the actions and failings of the League's Temporary Slavery Commission and the subsequent Committee of Experts on Slavery are balanced by reports from consular officials on the continuing institution of slavery in Arabian states and Ethiopia. …