The long road to abolition

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela, 1995

After a slow journey through mile upon mile of modest terraced housing, I arrived at Liverpool Lime Street station. When I walked out of the main entrance I was confronted by a grand stone building, its Corinthian columns in sharp relief in the afternoon sun and I recalled Liverpool’s pre-eminent role in the transatlantic slave trade.

The wealth manifested in front of me was derived from unimaginable brutality and human suffering. It’s not that this isn’t also true in London, where I live. The famous Lloyd’s of London grew rich underwriting the slave trade and many of our big financial institutions and old family fortunes are similarly implicated. But walking around Liverpool and past the docks and great warehouses gave it an unaccustomed immediacy.

I saw a sign to the International Museum of Slavery and was determined to find time for a visit. Slavery had existed in various forms in different parts of the world for thousands of years, but before the transatlantic slave trade, slaves hadn’t been considered chattel, outright property; equivalent to goods. Never before had they been branded en masse like cattle, with absolutely no rights, not even to raising their own children.

The journey across the Atlantic took around two months, during which the slaves were crammed in the dark, airless hold without proper sanitation. On average one in five died during the crossing. On arrival they were auctioned off to the highest bidder and began a life of merciless abuse and crippling workload. 40 percent didn’t survive their first year.

“I saw numbers of our fellow beings regularly bartered for gold and transferred like cattle or any common merchandise, from one possessor to another.”

– Army physician, Barbados, 1796

Women had to do the same heavy labour as men, but with the added torment of being raped and sexually abused by the slave owners and any other white men who were passing, and all the risks of pregnancy and childbirth, and the heartache of being unable to protect their children from the same fate, and having them ripped away and sold to another brutal man.

This is what underpins the wealth of Great Britain. It wasn’t just the very wealthy who benefited directly. Many middling income families invested in the trade and the plantations. This is what it was all about – building up wealth quickly and easily. This process of building up capital by essentially stealing the resources of others is called primitive accumulation in economic theory. And continual economic expansion is dependent on finding new arenas for primitive accumulation.

“Over the period of transatlantic slavery, Africa helped to develop Western Europe in the same proportion as Western Europe helped to under-develop Africa.”

– Walter Rodney, historian and political campaigner, 1973

The merchants and ship captains and plantation owners and all the investors, small and large, needed to look themselves in the mirror in the morning. So they justified it by saying Africans were not proper human beings; they were more like animals, and anything better was wasted on them. Much scientific endeavour was expended in attempting to prove this to be true.

And if these justifications weren’t enough to enforce complicity from the sailors and other white working class people on whose labour the system also depended, public punishments and even executions ensued and everyone was forced to watch to make the consequences for non-compliance clear.

But slowly, slowly, attitudes in Britain changed and an abolitionist movement began to gather steam. In 1787 the Quakers organised a petition for the ending of the slave trade. But of course those who were living so well off it resisted this development fiercely. More than 60 counter petitions originated in Liverpool alone. But ultimately the abolitionists prevailed.

After massive effort and huge resistance, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was passed in 1807. But the act to abolish slavery itself wasn’t passed for another 26 years and didn’t come into force until 1834. And afterwards things were not always much better for the freed slaves, who had gained their freedom with nothing that could sustain life and so were invariably still dependent on the whims of their old masters.

By then the merchants and assorted capitalists had an insatiable appetite for primitive accumulation and unrestricted sexual access to Black and indigenous female flesh. So the ships didn’t sit idly in Liverpool and the other great British ports. They were soon off exploring new possibilities in Africa and Asia, and another brutal phase of European imperialist expansion began.

Because until recently the history books were written by men, the role of sexual exploitation and prostitution in the colonialist process is not well documented.

I was reflecting on all of this over the next couple of days as I was running a stall for Nordic Model Now! at the Unison National Delegate Conference 2019. Since 2010, Unison, the UK’s biggest trade union, has officially supported the Nordic Model, which has the ultimate aim of bringing about the abolition of the system of prostitution. In the last few years there have been successive attempts to overturn this policy of Unison’s and to replace it with support for the full decriminalisation of the entire sex trade, including pimps, punters and brothel-keepers. [Editor: Unison sadly overturned their policy of support for the Nordic Model in June 2022.]

Arguments used to justify full decriminalisation include that it’s safer for the women and that all ‘sex workers’ want it. We have written extensively about how in fact nothing can make prostitution safe or bring it within normal Health & Safety standards, and how any attempts to liberalise the laws around the sex trade always result in an increase in its size as men are told there’s nothing wrong with prostitution-buying. This inevitably leads to an increase in the number of women involved and the amount of violence and harm overall, not to mention an increase in the trafficking of women and girls to meet that extra demand.

The argument that all ‘sex workers’ want full decriminalisation is patently absurd. Of course they don’t all speak with one voice. And of course they want to be decriminalised themselves. But pimps and brothel keepers, and even punters? Not all of those in prostitution want that. We hear from many women who have experienced prostitution and some who are still stuck in it who argue passionately for the Nordic Model approach.

The Victorian anti-abolitionists used similar arguments. They found slaves who had made peace with their situation and gave them a platform. But centuries of slavery had constricted their vision and the possibilities they could aspire to or even visualise. And maybe for some, convincing themselves their master was good was easier than the inner conflict of seeing the awful reality. But is this not more a tribute to human psychology and survival than an argument for slavery itself?

You may be thinking that I’m being over-dramatic comparing an everyday thing like prostitution with something so terrible as transatlantic slavery.

“A slave must move by the will of another, hence the necessity of terror to coerce his obedience.”

Jamaican plantation owner, 1763

I used to think like that. That it was incorrect to compare all prostitution with slavery. Until one day I had a conversation with a young historian. He said prostitution is not a service because the punter doesn’t pay her to do a physical or mental task. He pays her to use her body sexually and she has to submit to that. And that, he said, conforms to the definition of slavery. It may be an endless succession of different men who are doing it. But each one is treating her as a slave.

And the pimps and brothel keepers and the whole sex industry are facilitating that.

Why? Because women’s sexual and reproductive functions are the new frontier for primitive accumulation. It’s all about making vast and easy profits.

So the question we must ask is why would anyone want the concentration of wealth through such inhumane means to be decriminalised? To be made legal?

Those who compare prostitution with waitressing or nursing are in deep denial.

Looking back now, it’s easy to see that the 60+ anti-abolitionist petitions from the upstanding citizens of Liverpool did not in any way count for more than that one Quaker petition – because those upstanding citizens had a vested interest – they were, directly or indirectly, profiting from slavery. And if they weren’t, they must have believed the propaganda – that the slaves themselves wanted it, that it made them safer.

But it’s not always so easy to identify the vested interests in the maintenance of the system of prostitution. Many pimps call themselves ‘sex workers’ and claim to be representing the interests of those involved in prostitution. All men benefit from the system of prostitution, whether they are punters or not – because it defines all women as less than men, as potential commodities, and this keeps women’s wages low and gives men virtual impunity to rape and sexually abuse women, because even if she reports it to the police (which most don’t) her word is going to count for less than his should it get to a court of law. And women have been trained since infancy to prioritise men’s feelings over their own. This makes it hard to unravel all the threads and see the arguments clearly.

One of the most powerful things for me in the museum was an artwork, called Timalle by Francois Piquet. It features a representation of a person made from scrunched up draft reparation forms, which the artist then bonded and shackled, and tightened until the person was transformed into an object – a suitcase, or timalle. He also created a film of himself performing this process.

To me it represented a human being, with all his or her potential for music and poetry and philosophy and love and creativity and joy, and reducing her to an object, a thing, a shadow of her potential and possibility, all for the purpose of generating profit for someone else – and what that does to a person and what a loss that is – to that individual but also to our collective humanity.

In a blog post on the museum’s website, the artist says, “It is a re-enactment, through sculpture and performance, of the enslavement process. It connects the past and the present with the traumatic history of the Caribbean. With our traumatic history.”

The museum makes it clear how the legacy of transatlantic slavery lives on, not least through racism, poverty and inequality that can be traced back to it, and the disproportionate wealth of Northern Europe and white America. What wasn’t mentioned was the continuing expectation of easy wealth at other people’s expense, and men’s continuing addiction to unrestrained sexual access to marginalised women and girls, and how this lingers on in the sex trade.

It should not surprise us that in the current crisis of the overextended capitalist system, when the resources of the planet are close to exhaustion, that there is a powerful lobby that wants to open up women’s sexual and reproductive functions to the full ruthlessness of the neoliberal capitalist markets, and that they use all manner of obfuscations and distortions, and even outright lies, to justify it.

Make no mistake this is an assault on our humanity and we must resist it with all our might.

“The history of liberty is a history of resistance.”

– Woodrow Wilson, 1912

Further reading

One thought on “The long road to abolition

  1. “To me it represented a human being, with all his or her potential for music and poetry and philosophy and love and creativity and joy, and reducing her to an object, a thing, a shadow of her potential and possibility, all for the purpose of generating profit for someone else – and what that does to a person and what a loss that is – to that individual but also to our collective humanity.”

    This is a beautiful piece of writing.

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