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

By Cheeseboro, Anthony Q. | African Studies Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Cheeseboro, Anthony Q., African Studies Review


Suzanne Miers. Slavery in the Twentieth Century: The Evolution of a Global Problem. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Altamira Press / Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003. 496 pp. Bibliography. Index. $35.95. Paper.

Emerita Suzanne Miers of Ohio University has capped her careerlong interest in slavery with a masterpiece of historical research. Slavery in the Twentieth Century is a record of attempts made during the previous century to end the various forms of exploitation regarded as slavery within an international framework. In the beginning, Miers provides historical background by retracing the emergence of the abolitionist movement in Britain and the eventual extermination of chattel slavery in its Caribbean colonies. She points out that slaves in these colonies were held by Europeans who understood the cultural context in which abolition was occurring, whether or not they agreed with it. Just as important, Miers examines the approach of British authorities toward slavery in India, where they often relied on treaties with indigenous rulers to maintain control of their large and diverse empire. In these areas, the British outlawed the status of slavery but did not actively force slave owners to release their slaves or even work vigorously to make slaves aware of the changes in their status. The outcome of this policy was that slavery ended in very slow manner in India, and that many vestiges of the old social order remained after slavery itself ceased to exist. The advantage to the British of such a system was that it allowed them to end slavery technically without having to increase investments in manpower for policing slaveowners who were enraged at the loss of their property. Of even greater importance, perhaps, such a gradual ending of slavery was calculated to insure that Great Britain would not have to compensate owners who suddenly lost valuable assets.

As Miers makes abundantly clear, Britain and other colonial powers would find that their unwillingness to move decisively against slavery meant that institutions of bondage often survived in one form or another once Asian and African territories were completely under European control in the early twentieth century. This fact underlies one of the major shifts in the antislavery movement: While abolition started as a reaction to Westernowned slaves, in the twentieth century it became a movement largely aimed at ending cultural practices and institutions of the non-Western world. What remained unchanged, however, was the Western leadership (essentially British) of the antislavery movement.

The other major change of the twentieth century was the emergence of the League of Nations as an international organization that could provide the framework for countries and nongovernmental organizations to study and develop policies to end slavery. …

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