Book Review – To Free A Family

Sydney Nathans’s To Free A Family: The Journey of Mary Walker was a birthday gift. What a great reading it turned out to be. As the title indicates, the book is about Mary Walker’s struggle to get her children and her mother out of slavery after she herself had escaped it. It took her 17 years. This is a book that perfectly reveals the connections between biography and history, personal troubles and public issues, and the necessity to place individual trajectories and events in their contextual nexus of structure, history and power. In other words, this book beautifully illustrates, deliberately or not, the sociological imagination.

It is first and foremost a very well written, very engaging, work of history (fully sourced and all that stuff), following the fate of Mary Walker, a slave from a prestigious and wealth family from Raleigh, NC. Mary Walker was take to Philadelphia by her owners as they went there annually so that their invalid daughter receive medical treatment. After an argument with her owner and under the threat of being sent from Raleigh to the deep South, and therefore being separated from her family (owned by the Camerons for generations), Mary decided to escape. As the author notes, such threats of separation were often the main motivation for slaves to escape while leaving relatives behind, because they had at least some hope that they might manage later to get them out of bondage.

Once fugitives, escaped slaves had then to use the underground system to obtain cover and protection until they could reach a safe (i.e. free) state… that is, until the passage of the Federal Fugitive slave law.

So, Mary Walker escaped slavery in 1848, was reunited with her children at  the end of the war in 1865 and died in 1872. The book is her story as recomposed through the massive correspondence and diaries of her (mostly) white friends from Philadelphia and Cambridge (MA) for whom she worked and who helped her in her quest to reunite with her family. Mary Walker herself only left behind three letters. So, we learned about her, throughout the book, through other people’s writings. This renders her a a bit of a passive character in her own story as she never really “speaks”, she is mentioned, spoken about, sometimes cited, but more often than not, a third-person character.

In many ways, Mary Walker was fortunate in that right after her escape, she was helped, taken in, and employed by the Lesley family. Peter and Susan Lesley are central characters in the book because it is mostly through their letters that we get to know Mary. It is their extensive correspondence over the years that gives us a sense of who Mary was and their own perception of her. Mary Walker spent many years caring for Susan Lesley’s mother (who happened to be FDR’s great grandmother). It is the Lesleys who will try to organize a buy out of the remaining Walkers still in bondage and it is them who also attempted to set up an escape for Mary Walker’s children and mother (that failed).

What makes the book important, beyond the extremely moving story of Mary Walker, is to be provided with the historical context and legal background necessary to understand the situation of escaped slaves and the risks they were running even in free states. More than that, what the book successfully shows is that people, abolitionists of various degrees, whites and blacks, did not patiently sit on their hands, waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation. Long before the war, there was a tremendous amount of activism, advocacy and agitation in favor of abolition (and the corresponding, often legislatively successful, backlash from slave states).

Of course, everybody is familiar with the Underground Railroad, but this required a tremendous amount of organization, networking, and resources to pull off successfully. And indeed, success was never guaranteed and getting people out of the South could take years, as it did for Mary’s children. And once out of the South, relocation and integration into Northern society was not easy either. The book describes in great details the challenges related to all these aspects and how much persistence it required from all the parties involved.

The elimination of slavery was not Lincoln’s individual gift to the nation. It was the patient and persistent product of the actions of a large number of people who slowly worked to undermine the institution of slavery, through direct action but also publication, activism, lobbying and networking and raise consciousness on this issue. It is the great strength of this book to seamlessly connect one individual story to this web of social change.

In Which Al-Jazeera Shows Yet Again That It Is The Best News Network

With this series (many thanks to the Grumpy Sociologist for this) on modern slavery (readers of this blog know that this is pet peeve of mine):

The first video is on food chain slaves (a good reason to monitor what you eat is to determine whether slavery was involved and this is a helpful guide):

I’ll be watching out for the next installments and you should too.

And if you haven’t done so, go measure your slavery footprint.

Contemporary Slavery is (Obviously) Tied to Patriarchal Rule

This explains why the majority of slaves women and girls, and sometimes, boys because all of them end up subservient to patriarchal rule in one form or another whether it is the slave providers or the slave exploiters.

Item 1:

“Prossie was working as a schoolteacher when she heard an attractive advert on Ugandan radio.

A Kampala company called Uganda Veterans Development Ltd was recruiting women to work for high wages in shops in US Army bases in Iraq.

She signed up, along with 146 other Ugandan women.

But when she arrived in Baghdad, she discovered that been bought by an Iraqi agent for $3,500 (£2,200). Her real job was as a housemaid for an Iraqi family.

Like many others, she was forced to work long hours, sometimes from 5am until midnight. She often received little food or water and she was locked inside the house.

When Prossie protested, her employer told her: “We paid a lot of money for you and we were told that you people don’t get sick and you don’t get tired. So you have to work.”

Prossie was raped by the man in the house. Several other trafficked Ugandan women we spoke to were raped too.”

Item 2:

“Urmila says she was five years old when this man, an attorney from a respected family, came to her village of Manpur, on the Rapti River, and made an offer that ended her childhood.

It was a day in January, just after the Maghi festival had begun, one of those cold days of the year when the Tharu celebrate the New Year. It’s also the time of the year when they sell their daughters.

“I can still see him coming toward us,” says Urmila. He was a man from the city, wearing sunglasses and a suit. “I had never seen such clothing,” she says. She was sitting at the fire pit in front of the tiny mud-and-dung house where her family of 11 lived. Pumpkins grew on the straw roof, and pigs lay in shallow pits in the ground. Urmila was sitting there with her mother and brother as the man approached.

“I knew it was my turn,” Urmila says. Her sisters and her sisters-in-law had all worked as kamalari, or slave girls. One sister had told her about the beatings she endured at the hands of the landowner who purchased her and the kitchen scraps she was fed. “I begged my mother not to send me away,” Urmila recounts. Her mother said that she had no say in the matter.

Instead, the man spoke with her older brother because he was the one who supported the family. The man offered the brother money — 4,000 rupees, or about €50 ($70) — for his little sister Urmila. The family owed money to the landowner whose fields they farmed, there wasn’t enough food and the children wore shoes made of bean pods tied to their feet with pieces of rope. Four thousand rupees. It was a lot of money. Urmila’s brother agreed to the deal.


Urmila was in the same position as most of the others. “Down there,” she says, pointing to a door on the ground floor of the yellow townhouse, “down there in the room next to the kitchen is where I spent the first night.” Her brother had taken her on the bus to Ghorahi, a noisy city in southwestern Nepal. With its cars and bicycle rickshaws, the place was completely unlike her village of Manpur. Urmila lay on a mat on the floor next to another girl the house’s owner had bought. It was cold. A wedding was being held in the house. The son of the landowner had found a wife, and there were many relatives among the guests, including the owner’s daughter. She lived in Katmandu, and Urmila had been bought as a present for her.

“She’s so thin and small,” the daughter said when she first saw Urmila. “How is she supposed to work properly?” From then on, Urmila was instructed to address the daughter as “maharani,” or mistress, and her children as “prince” and “princess.” A few days later, the daughter took Urmila with her to an apartment in Katmandu, where she was required to work for 12 people. It would be four years before she saw her parents again, and 11 before she was free.”

Do read the whole thing and see what the old guy above has to say about his persistent use of slave girls.

The Slave Next Door

And how many more like her?

“A former hospital director has been ordered to pay £25,000 to an African woman she kept as a slave in London.

Mwanahamisi Mruke, 47, was flown from Tanzania in 2006 and made to work 18-hour days for Saeeda Khan, 68, at her home in Harrow, north-west London.

Khan was convicted of trafficking a person into the UK for exploitation.

The judge at Southwark Crown Court, who also gave her a suspended nine-month prison term, said she was guilty of “the most appalling greed”.”

That is pretty light considering how she treated Mwanahamisi Mruke but the story is familiar:

“”Even the money I was promised, I was never paid. I feel terrible about this,” Ms Mruke said.

“I was hoping I would receive a salary and improve my life. But my hopes were dashed, my strength was reduced and I became unwell.”

Ms Mruke was brought to the UK after getting a job at a hospital in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania which Khan owned.

Khan told her that she would work six hours a day and that her daughter in Tanzania would be paid 120,000 Tanzanian shillings a month, equivalent to £50.

Khan fed her two slices of bread a day and ordered her around by ringing a bell she kept in her bedroom.


Ms Mruke was banned from leaving the house and never learned English because the family watched Pakistani TV.

Beginning work at 0600 GMT, she would often not be allowed to rest before midnight as she cleaned, gardened, cooked meals and accompanied Khan’s disabled son on walks.

Ms Mruke told the court that sometimes she did not sleep due to the long hours she had to work, doing “all the housework, cooking, cleaning, inside and out”.

“She didn’t attack me physically. It was just the words and the way she was treating me.””

It is one of the characteristics of modern slavery to be individualized, invisible and ordinary. And, of course, suburbanization makes it possible to keep domestic slaves safely hidden form view.

Slaves – Get Yours While They’re Cheap

$90.00, an all-time low:

“Depending on the kind of person you are that sentence could be at once shocking, saddening or darkly comical. However you might feel though, it’s the plain truth, says Kevin Bales.

The modern-day slavery expert explained to CNN that the current $90 rate for a human slave is actually at an historic low. Two hundred years ago, a slave cost about $40,000 in today’s money. The reason for this price slide: a massive boom in the world’s population, especially in developing countries, has increased the supply of “slaveable” people.

And this has basically turned a human being into a cheap commodity – Bales says like a Styrofoam cup that’s cheaply replaceable if damaged, “If they get sick, what’s the point of paying for medicine – it’s cheaper to let them die and acquire a new one than it is to help the ones you’ve got.

At this very moment, between 12 million and 30 million slaves are working around the world. That’s according to low and high estimates from sociologists and the International Labor Organization.

Despite the spread, any way you cut that number, it’s still a figure that’s big beyond belief. And slaves are everywhere says the United Nations. Breaking down the numbers, more than half of all forced labor sadly occurs right here in Asia. The regions of Latin America and the Middle East both have about 10% of the world’s forced labor. Sub-Saharan Africa has just more than 5%.

And which industries are these slaves in? Well the ones you might expect of course –- prostitution and sweatshop manufacturing. But they also occur in industries you might not associate with slavery – coffee and tea trades, food processing and even health care. That takeaway you might be tucking into could also use forced labor.

And one question we might want to consider as we go about our daily lives: Have the hands of a slave touched what I’m touching now? If the numbers above are to be believed, then it’s not far-fetched to think the answer just might be yes.

Don’t let Wall Street know that humans are a cheap commodity, they might decide to come with some financial instrument to bundle them, sell them up in tranches, and then buy insurance to make a bundle when they die.

Slavery – The Dark Underbelly of Economic Success

I have blogged before about modern slavery. I have my students work on this topic in my Social Problems class and most of them cannot believe that slavery is still so widespread despite being illegal everywhere. There are several reasons why. First, sometimes, institutions of global governance (such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO) directly contribute to the rise of slavery. For instance, as mentioned in the film Slavery – A Global Investigation, when they required the government of Ivory Coast to remove price guarantees for cocoa, the price of cocoa on the world market plummeted and plantation owners found a solution to maintain their levels of profit: slavery.

Another reason is the Walmart model of retail. Everyday low prices mean that Walmart squeezes its suppliers who then turn to several layers of contractors and sub-contractors in peripheral or semi-peripheral countries, and go for the lower prices. Often, these sub-contractors are the ones using slaves. So slavery is invisible, buried deep in the lower layers of the global production chains.

Who becomes a slave? Welt, pretty much anyone who is vulnerable or has experienced downward mobility. Or disabled people (via Ken Schaefer):

“At 30, Liu Xiaoping is more boy than man, with soft doe eyes that affix visitors with the unabashed stare of the very young and glisten with reluctant tears when his bandages are changed.

It takes effort not to show the pain of the wounds that read up and down his body as a testament to the 10 months he was held captive at brick factories in the Chinese countryside.

His hands are as red as freshly boiled lobster from handling hot bricks from a kiln without proper protective gloves. On the backs of his legs, third-degree burns trace the rectangular shape of bricks, a factory foreman’s punishment for not working fast enough. Around his wrists, ligature marks tell of the chains used to keep him from running away at night.

Liu was found wandering in the small town of Gaoling, north of Xian1, on Dec. 22, 10 months after his family reported him missing. He was wearing the same clothing as when he’d disappeared in February, but the trousers were glued to the festering wounds on his legs and the gangrene of his frostbitten2 feet stank through the gaping holes in his shoes.

Despite his injuries and an intellectual impairment, he was able to tell how he’d been tricked by a woman who bought him a bowl of soup and promised him the equivalent of $10 per day, good wages for manual work in rural China.

Instead, he became a slave.

“They took advantage of my brother because he has a mental disability,” said his 26-year-old brother, Liu Xiaowei. “They forced him to work, beat him, tortured him, and then when he was too weak to take it anymore, they threw him out on the street.”

In an adrenaline-paced economy with a chronic shortage of manual laborers, ruthless recruiters often prey on China’s3 mentally disabled. The worst offenders work with the brick kilns that are feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for the new apartment complexes and malls cropping up around the countryside.

“The brick factories can never get as many workers as they need. The work is heavy and a lot of people don’t want to do it,” said Ren Haibin, the former manager of one of several brick factories where Liu said he had worked. “Possibly the mentally disabled can be intimidated and forced to work…. They are timid and easier to manage.””

And if you think this is bad:

“Young women have been sold by psychiatric hospitals as sexual partners and wives.”

And, as usual, the authorities do not do much on this issue.

Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

KLG Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa seemed an appropriate book to bring with me to Africa. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it yet since issues of colonialism, neo-colonialism and slavery are never far from my thoughts.

Anyway, I am glad I did read the book. It is indeed a great read and a page turner. It is also a book of horrors: the horrors inflicted upon the Congo by the rule of Leopold, King of the Belgians in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century, out of greed. It is not a surprise that Joseph Conrad wrote his Heart of Darkness about the colonial Congo and modeled his Mr Kurtz based on real agents from the Leopold regime there.

The Congo never seems to make headlines even though it is a tormented country and it is a prime example of what Virgil Hawkins describes as stealth conflicts: conflicts with high death tolls and long-term nasty consequences, but largely ignored by the media. Here is a short introduction on the concept:

Similarly, the horrors of the Congo were by and large ignored in their time, until pioneers in the human rights movement made it impossible to ignore, but to this day, they are still largely forgotten. It is to Hochschild’s credit to have dug up the details of the untold story of King Leopold’s empire of horrors.

It is a kind of detective work that Hochschild engages in as he pieces together the truth about the Congo through a variety of sources (unfortunately, only a few sources reveal the voices of the victims of the regime, the Congolese, of course), and in spite of Leopold’s attempt to destroy the records of his rule in the Congo (in those days, embarrassing documents were burned, not shredded).

What this all boils down to is this: King Leopold (a relatively toothless constitutional monarch) got himself a colony over which he ruled without parliamentary oversight. His goal was not just to match the reach and influence of other colonial powers (and be part of the scramble for Africa) but also to enrich himself personally through the plundering of Congolese ivory and rubber. And of course, how does one lower one’s labor costs? Through forced labor, of course (all in the name of teaching the savages the value of work!).

It is this forced labor component, accompanied by the institutionalization and rationalization of racism, that opened the door to massive and violent exploitation that ultimately killed half the population of the Congo, either through direct elimination, starvation, overwork, disease (which spread more easily when a population is overwhelmingly malnourished and worked like beasts of burden), and a declining birth rate.

It is not like the natives did not resist. Resist they did indeed. Leopold’s rule was constantly challenged by rebellions that were incredibly violently put down through mass killings. The main tool of "order" in the Congo, was the brutal Force Publique that would burn villages to the ground if men refused to work to harvest wild rubber (a grueling work), take women and children hostage until chiefs gave in. And then, private companies had their own militarized forces that tortured and mutilated the natives in the name of discipline and productivity.

It is the productive nature of these atrocities that will ultimately be the downfall of Leopold’s rule as a young clerk for the main shipping company between Belgium and the Congo starts to notice what comes off the ship arriving at Antwerp (rubber and other goods) and what gets exported to the Congo (weapons, mostly) and realizes what is going on there.

The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the heroes of what became a strong precursor of the human rights movement: E. D Morel and Roger Casement as well as George Washington Williams and William Sheppard . All these men worked tirelessly to expose the atrocities of the Congo and force change. In that last respect, they were not really successful but they did force Leopold (who had managed to fool the world into thinking him a great humanitarian) to divest himself from the Congo.

Because the book is not just a depersonalized account of the regime, but also a story of characters, it reads almost like a novel. We encounter famous characters: in addition to Leopold himself (and his miserable family life), Henry Morton Stanley, but also Joseph Conrad and a few others. Many of the actors involved in the regime in the Congo such as a variety of managers and districts heads appointed by Leopold. Through their correspondence or diaries, we see the banal dehumanization of the Congolese, the ease with which they tortured, exploited, humiliated and killed so many of them without much second thought.

At the same time, the book also makes clear that it is not free market capitalism and free trade (along with higher moral status) that sealed the West’s economic dominance but rather the plundering of the Global South that fueled industrialization and mass production (I would add that this plundering was made possible itself by the luck of the draw and "guns, germs and steel"). It seems that "free market", "free trade", etc. were as much ideological concepts (as opposed to reality) then as they are now. The type of unfairness may have changed (direct plunder is not as obvious now), but the rules of the WTO still guarantee that the Global South is still being exploited and disadvantaged in one form or another despite big talks of free trade.

In the last chapter of the book, Hochschild reflects on the face of the Congo. since the end of Leopold’s regime and the independence. This is a lesson on the long-term consequences of colonialism as well as the lingering influence of neo-colonial mechanisms. Without stating a clear cause and effect trajectory, Hochschild still asserts that Leopold certainly looks like a great role model for dictator Mobutu, all with the blessings of former colonial powers, once the CIA got rid of Patrice Lumumba.

Mobutu’s rule indeed looks a lot like a continuation of the plundering of the country, (then renamed Zaire) along with mistreatment of the population. Ultimately, misrule led to the Mobutu’s downfall and the persistent state of regional conflict at the center of which the now-named Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself. Should we really be surprised that the social dislocation wreaked by Leopold’s rule has continued to plague the Congo to this day (with other factors, to be sure)? And that the Congo is still being plundered for its resources (not ivory or rubber anymore, but coltan and copper)? And that the world is still largely silent about it?

Chocolate: Still Tainted With Slavery

So, this video by Slavery International is still relevant, especially the segment on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast and the connection between slavery and the imposition of structural adjustment policies by the IMF:

Also, visit the International Labor Rights Forum for more information all global labor issues… especially if you plan on buying flowers for Mother’s Day.

Global Recession – Brothels Edition

Unsurprisingly, the articles mentions that high-class brothels are still doing pretty well. It is below on the social ladder that economic conditions are felt more harshly. The article also mentions that there may be an increase in supply: more women turning to prostitution as economic conditions worsen. And, higher supply means lower prices in a more competitive market.

What the article does not mention is that beside the "nice" legal German prostitution, there is a darker side to this trade: it is that of sexual slavery and trafficking which is flourishing in general but as more women get desperate in already poorer countries in Eastern Europe, the chances of trafficking increasing are great. It is already dreadful economic conditions that have pushed a lot of women from Moldova and other former communist countries into sex trafficking. And anyone who has read Kevin Bales’s books on slavery knows that any category of people that becomes destitute becomes a prime target for slavery.

So, I guess the point of the article was more "it’s tough for everyone" kind but it ignores a significant aspect of economic recession that is germane to its topic.

Stating The Obvious – Child Servitude and Marriage as Slavery


And because no story of slavery is complete without violence, sexual or other…

Such a situation flourishes because of a failing government whose authority does not extend to its entire territory and where corrupt and violent warlords rule based on "tradition".

Persistent Social Issues for 2009 – Slavery

As the year draws to a close, here is an issue that will still need fighting in 2009: slavery.

I have to say that this is sadly not surprising. As anyone who has read Kevin Bales books on the subject knows, social disintegration and brutal downward mobility for certain categories of people tend to enable an increase in slavery in a region. In this case, Darfur is currently a place of ethnic cleansing and genocide and the only surprising factor is that this issue has not be raised more loudly before. As the Darfur villagers are turned into war victims and displaced peasants, they become prime targets for slavery.

And, of course, what is happening to these abductees perfectly match the definition of slavery: exploitative work for no pay, control through violence and high disposable status.