The Emancipators: A Conversation with Amalia Ribi Forclaz on The Politics of Anti-Slavery Movements and European International History
When did slavery end? For American or British readers of the Global History Forum, the answer to this question, at least answered within the framework of their respective countries, is easy. Human chattel slavery ended in the United States, we are told, in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, while the more enlightened British abolished slavery within the British Empire in 1833.
Yet globally, the phenomenon of chattel slavery (humans-as-property) and related forms of exploitation, like sex trafficking or the trafficking of children of course persisted long after slavery was abolished in Britain and the United States. Slavery is today illegal in every country in the world, but modern anti-slavery organizations reckon that there are still at least 10 to 30 million people in the world who are owned by other humans, to say nothing of much larger numbers of persons de facto enslaved through some form of debt bondage (itself legally abolished in much of the world, but still present). We may regard slavery through black and white images of plantation labor, in short, but slavery remains a big business today, with estimated global activity amounting to $35 billion, more wealth than half of all countries existent today.
Slavery must end—try finding someone who disagrees with this. But as Amalia Ribi Forclaz shows in her new book, Humanitarian Imperialism: The Politics of Anti-Slavery Activism 1880-1940, the distance between ambition and reality, not to mention the thorny political questions that the move to eliminate slavery everywhere in the planet raises, is not new. As Ribi shows in her book, late 19th and early 20th century activists were united, too, on the need to eliminate slavery in the world, especially in the African continent for which so many Europeans were scrambling at the time. By the 1920s and 1930s, the campaign against slavery in Africa brought together Catholics and Protestants, Britons and Italians, liberals and fascists, and many others, and found serious institutional backing both through the League of Nations and European states committed to the cause.
By the late 1930s, however, the international movement had fractured over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia—remembered in retrospect as a breakdown of the League’s collective security function, but justified by both Italian Duce Benito Mussolini and many an anti-slavery activist in terms of eliminating slavery in that independent African kingdom. The dream of a world without slaves captured the imagination of many, but, as Ribi shows, it raised intractable questions about the place of European humanitarian action in a world that would be not only post-slavery, but also post-colonial.
We were pleased to connect with Ribi, who is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, over the phone recently to discuss her new book, its lessons, and its relevance to a world in which slavery remains—as an economic phenomenon and moral outrage, if not to the same mobilizing extent it did during the years that Ribi’s research focuses on. How did this waxing and waning take place, and what might it tell us about the history of humanitarianism? These and other questions were on our mind as we spoke with Amalia for this installment of the Global History Forum.…