What our descendants will deplore about us

Living in the 21st century, it would be the norm to assume that we are past the horrors of world wars, slavery, and other abhorrent events because we assume that we have learnt from our past mistakes. For a long time now, slavery in the past was considered something that was morally and legally accepted in several countries. However, even though we strive to have an optimistic view about human rights in the future, not all of these horrific events are something of the past. Anti-slavery and abolitionist movements of the 19th century was crucial because they challenged the institutions of slavery and called for an extension of basic civil liberties to enslaved persons. These anti-slavery treaties and global abolitionist movements promoted international human rights laws and activism. In this paper, I will discuss slavery and abolitionism, the Haitian Revolution, and antislavery campaigns and how all of these aspects had an impact on the human rights ideals we carry in the 21st century. The antislavery movement marked an important turning point in human rights history, and the use of international laws to promote human rights became most prominent. 

Slavery and Abolitionism 

The abolitionist movement had a great effect on human rights through the inspiration of both enlightenment ideas of natural rights and religious beliefs, pushing the government of oppression of slave trade to the focus on international diplomacy and treaty making. All slave systems were dehumanized, and slaved victims were denied their rights and liberties that were enjoyed by others of society and rightfully due to them. We can describe slavery as a “social death”  because these slave systems were founded on inequality, oppression, and exclusion; all of which go against an individual’s human rights. Slaves were considered fragments of property which became not only a human rights issue, but also an economic rights issue. As Martinez states, “arguments against slavery and the slave trade were deeply intertwined with ideas of natural law and natural rights.” Abolitionism drew on radical philosophies of the 18th century which was called the “age of reason” and enlightenment; the natural rights of man and inherent values of liberty in society. Types of resistance mechanisms took the form of slave fights and rebellion, to attack on slave ships and sabotaging of slave holding forts. By resisting to enslavement and exploitation, the institutional foundation of slavery was challenged, and it was crucial to the systems demise. Further forms of resistance before the 1830s were “guerilla fighting, revolt and insurrections.”   Toussaint L’Ouverture organized an effective guerilla war against Haiti’s French colonial population and became the governor-general of the colony. He conquered the Spanish portion of the island and freed the slaves being held captive there. In the work of guerilla strategies, both men and resources were adequately assembled to resist enslavement. Slave resistance also occurred in Amistad and through the underground railroad. The rebellion of enslaved Africans resulted in the Haitian revolution in 1791, and the Amistad Revolt, which occurred when enslaved Africans were transported to plantations in Cuba and took control of ships, killing some crew and demanding slaves to take the ship back to Africa. Olaudah Equiano was an enslaved person himself at one point and referred to his captors as “sable destroyers of human rights”. In his autobiography, Equiano described the atrocious conditions that African slaves endured during their journey through the middle passage, and upon arrival in the new world. Besides the obvious psychological trauma inflicted on these slaves during the process of capturing and selling, many of the captives died due to conditions in overcrowded ships such as diseases and injuries. Slave trade was seen as a crime against humanity, and slave traders were known as hostis humani generis (enemies of mankind).  Legal action against slave trade introduced into modern international legal discourse the idea that violations of human rights were offences of concern to mankind, not simply between people and their sovereign. The role of antislavery in shaping transnational debates on ethics and morality in the 19th century was far-reaching. Antislavery did not guarantee freedom for everyone and sometimes even created new orthodoxies that took elements of older oppressive structures. While making the connection between antislavery and human rights, it is important to make a clear distinction between abolition and emancipation. We can define abolition as the immediate process of ending slavery that is largely state sponsored through legislative enactments. These enactments arise from activist campaigns and public pressure. However, emancipation is defined as the longer process by which those enslaved become formally free. Emancipation involves a combination of social, political, economic and cultural forces. In specific, the Atlantic Slave Trade was considered a “crime against humanity” driven by British commercial and political forces that went from a society with slaves to slave societies. What made the Atlantic Slave Trade so radically different from other atrocities was that it lasted for 400 years with a volume of 15 million Africans involved. There was a tremendous demand for labour and profits, and a supporting supply of political, economic and socio-cultural factors for enslavement.  When they arrived in the Americas, they were subject to a life of servitude and social death because strict barriers on social integration were imposed, which made race a strict marker of exclusion and inequality. Every stage of the slave trade process was characterized by what today would be termed as gross and systematic violations of human rights. Haitian Revolution The Haitian Revolution was influenced indirectly by enlightenment ideas and more directly by the French Revolution. It was an anti-slavery and anti-colonial rebellion by self-liberated slaves against the French colonial rule on the island of Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti. Enslaved Africans led by Toussaint rebelled and succeeded to end slavery and take control over the French colony. This revolution was influenced by ideas of equality, universal citizenship and participation in the government. Because of this, the Haitian revolution was the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the new world. The leaders of this revolution “promoted and popularized new ideas of individual and collective liberty, of political rights and of class equality”. At first Saint Domingue was sustained from internal and international warfare and was populated specifically by several plantation slaves who decided it was time to take what was rightfully theirs; their humanity and rights. They overthrew the colonial status put in place, and the economic system created a new political state consisting of exclusively free individuals.  Within 15 years, a colony that was once filled with exploited individuals, was now successfully liberated which permanently transformed concepts for the country of Haiti. Leaders of the Haitian Revolution used inspirations from French Revolutions Rights of Man and Citizens to motivate them to end slavery. This declaration asserted that men are owned both free and equal in rights. The notion of enlightenment was crucial in the Haitian revolution because it proposed a sound reason for recreating the state, society and country so that slaves became equal, free and independent citizens. Slave traders, and white and free coloured slaveowners were callous towards basic humanity and the social equality of slaves, nonetheless, they were constrained in any case to arrange consistently the manner by which they worked with their slaves so as to counteract the breakdown of their world. Antislavery Campaigns Antislavery treaties and global abolitionist movements were promoted for international human rights laws and activism to be enacted. These antislavery campaigns sought to end the violations and indignities of slavery. Advocates for antislavery campaigns focused on broadening the scope of individual rights to include enslaved persons and providing new international legal frameworks for their protection. Abolitionists gathered public opinion in opposition to slavery and forced governments to uphold the rights and humanity of every enslaved person, just as it is their right. Like any other human rights, the antislavery campaigns were heavily founded on public support. Abolitionists found a way to create their campaign as empathetically appealing to their audiences because protecting the rights of enslaved persons was the primary goal of the antislavery movement. Antislavery organizations such as the British and American Antislavery Society worked to inform people about this ongoing human rights issue and created petitions, protests and publications that would attract attention and eventually lead to some change in the laws regarding enslaved persons.

 The British Antislavery Society’s objective was the universal abolition of slavery and watching over the rights of all persons captured as slaves. The British and Foreign Antislavery Society was a relative of the first abolitionist development during the 1820s, and took up the issue and reviewed that abolition had been an circumstance of great importance. However, for such antislavery societies it was vital to have both tangible and intangible resources that included funding and expertise. The American Antislavery Society published a monthly journal in the 1830s entitled “Human Rights”, and conducted “sponsored meetings, adopted resolutions, signed antislavery petitions to be sent to Congress…printed and distributed propaganda in vast quantities… to carry the antislavery message to Northern audiences”. These abolitionists were determined to develop a modern idea of human rights. In particular, this society sought nationwide membership with the inclusion of people of all colour and adopted a “federated structure comprising nested local, state and national chapters”. The achievement of the 19th century antislavery movement is that is provided several new opportunities to former captives to escape from old structural constraints. Although antislavery campaigns were explicitly framed in terms of human rights; notions of human dignity, common humanity and individual liberty featured freely and prominently in antislavery discussions. Antislavery societies framed their opposition to slavery in terms of a common humanity that evoked empathy, public morality and Christian ethics. The central premise the campaign laid on was the notion that slavery is morally abhorrent and that those enslaved were entitled to certain fundamental rights and liberties. The seal of anti-slavery society symbolized humanist freedom of antislavery and included an image of a supplicant slaving with chains around him along with the words “Am I not a man and a brother”? This slogan along with the seal was a tremendous way to portray the unreasonable and inexcusable situations captives were put in. Antislavery groups used advocacy techniques such as petitions, campaigns, economic boycotts and lobbying of political leaders in order to establish a change in the new world. By doing so, this also built networks around forums such as the 1840 World Antislavery Convention which provided the legal and activists framework for abolitionism. 

However, not everyone supported the movements to end slave trade, so abolitionists had to respond constantly to defend slavery. The opposition to abolition came from slaveholders and political elites who were concerned about economic losses and disruptions to the existing social and political order. To them, they did not want to see any change, and still heavily believed that their actions were appropriate and legitimate. An important character in the antislavery movement was an anti-slave trade activist named William Wilberforce who was one of the leaders of the movement towards abolishing slave trade. He had joined with other anti-slave trade activists such as Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp to lead a campaign against the British Slave Trade until the eventual passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. Slavery was eventually outlawed throughout the British empire including Canada. There were immense penalties put in place for people who continued to participate in slave trading or “anyone building a ship for the trade or fitting out an existing ship to be used in the trade” such as a $20,000 fine. Immense fines and jail time given out were enough to discourage people to stop taking part in heinous crimes like such. This act strictly prohibited slave trade in the British Empire, and although it did not stop slavery all at once, it was a gateway to get other nation states to abolish their slave trades, beginning with Britain. There was much news about the abolition; it took over the press and stores all across with several new publications who were strictly devoted to ending the slave trade. Not only did this act invite more people to join in the abolition of slavery but it had also made individuals more knowledgeable to what these captives were going through, and how it was more problematic than it appeared. Through this, “the complexities of abolition became clearer”. As mentioned before, the Act of 1807 did not in and of itself stop the Atlantic Slave Trade or slavery altogether but represented a radical change in British political interests. Treaties resulted in the establishment of the world’s first international human rights court. This was the Courts of Mixed Commission that was empowered to confiscate ships that were engaged in illegal slave trade and liberate any African slaves found onboard. The courts of Mixed Commission set up bilateral courts to arbitrate ships suspected of slave trading.

However, there were limitations of the Courts of Mixed Commission which included the confiscation of vessels and merchandise, the release of captives and so on. Slave traders were able to repurchase slaves and the court activity did not centre on the captives themselves, whose rights were being violated – they were not the prime characters in the courts operations. At the Vienna congress of 1814-1815, eight European powers agreed to sign a declaration on the Universal Abolition of Slave Trade which proclaimed that slave trade is to be “repugnant to the principles of humanity and the universal morality”   and pledged the notaries to work towards its abolition. The 21st Century Even though slavery was abolished in the 19th century, forms of modern-day slavery still persist around the world today. Human rights activists attempt to find a way to end modern-day slavery, and argue that it continues even to this day, but in different forms of servitude such as forced labour, human trafficking, child slavery and forced marriages. Windsor & Todd argue that “…too little attention is paid to the modern scourge of human slavery in the form of human trafficking”. We hear stories on the news about human trafficking and child marriages occurring all over the world, yet there is not much talk about how we can go about changing it and taking action because we have become so familiar with them. As humans, we tend to see these situations as simply “demeaning acts”. When looking at these acts through the perspective of modern-day slavery compared to slavery in the past, it is alike in the fact that both are focused on taking someone out of their normal lives, against their will and forcing them to perform in ways they do not wish to. Human trafficking in specific, is similar to slavery in the sense that people attempt to make a profit one way or another through human beings. This is not only demeaning to the captive person themselves; putting a price on someone’s life, but also demeaning to their rights as a human being. Human rights are one such thing that we are guaranteed is inalienable and universal to us. Individuals being held captives as slaves and a part of human trafficking are denied their most basic rights, that we are supposedly supposed to consider as universal to everyone. We do not hear much about what is being done to stop the act of human trafficking because although it is illegal in Canada, it still occurs underground in several different countries. We may be able to enforce the illegality of it in developed countries such as Canada but developing countries and non-developed countries struggle with these situations. Windsor & Todd state that “most Americans assume that the Emancipation Proclamation brought a final end to slavery. This prevents them from acknowledging that slavery is still a problem today”.


In conclusion, the Atlantic slave trade and property slavery in the Americas was exceptional in terms of the extent of brutalization and dehumanization to which captives were subject to. The antislavery movement and abolitionist movement was a story of human rights struggle led by transnational activists who took on powerful interests of the state and church. Within the humanist framework, antislavery became a universal movement of rights represented in new social radicalism that challenged the structure of prophets, domination and advantages that had sustained slavery. Abolitionists across Europe and the Atlantic employed a language of ethics and rights to articulate the opposition of slavery. Abolitionists articulated antislavery through the language of Christian morality and inherent rights and dignities of enslaved persons. Through atrocities faced in the past such as world wars, to the horrors of human trafficking in the 21st century, it is evident that the movement to end all forms of slavery, and modern-day slavery remains an ongoing global task.  


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