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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

Slavery, agency and those 'aha' moments ...

Slavery, agency and stuff that matters

So much talk about the injustices of history. Sad and thought-provoking. I see an obvious connection regarding attitudes to human rights between the roll-back of slavery through history and the roll-out of universal suffrage. Both entail an enlightenment; an ‘aha’ moment when individuals previously in a situation where their sex, race, social status, education level, or wealth – or some combination of the fore-mentioned – was their qualifier for inclusion or exclusion from human agency.

According to Milton Meltzer in ‘Slavery: A World History’: “Slavery is not and has never been a "peculiar institution," but one that is deeply rooted in the history and economy of most countries. Although it has flourished in some periods and declined in others, human bondage for profit has never been eradicated completely.” And of universal suffrage May Wright Sewall wrote: “Universal suffrage is the only guarantee against despotism.” Both quotes illuminate a very obvious relationship to fundamental human rights.

Today there are still child brides, sweat shops, people trafficking, economic indenture …Anyone who saw workers on Dubai rooftops at high noon in the noughties easily understands that the term ‘working poor’ is a euphemism for economic slavery (thankfully a law was passed in 2008 allowing construction workers to escape the brutal heat for a few hours round midday each day.)

Enlightenment regarding slavery and suffrage – again in most cultures – came in incremental leaps. For example, in the US it was illegal at one point to enslave Native Americans while completely acceptable to enslave Africans. Likewise, we can discern a piece-meal evolution regarding the right to vote. The order of enfranchisement in most countries seemed to follow a staggered path; often being men of a particular race, then all men, then women. In Australia the path was similar accept that it was not until 1962 that our Indigenous men and women were given the right to vote in every state. A shamefully late inclusion.

Any leap forward in our culture will always be accompanied by some fear and consternation, along with excitement. Unfortunately, there will always be a cross-section who view life as a zero-sum game, along the lines of ‘if they gain something then I lose something’. I prefer to focus on how much better things may become if people genuinely work towards more universal well-being. This period of COVID pandemic would appear to be a time when we all have the opportunity to contemplate the future more earnestly, and acknowledge the structural fault-lines and cultural flaws that brought us to this point.

And stories? There are always stories.

Aesop. 6th century BC. A legendary figure from ancient Greece. Aesop was reportedly a slave who won his freedom by his intelligence and cleverness. He wrote Aesop’s tales, a collection of stories and fables that we all still know today.

Spartacus (109–71 BC). Spartacus was a gladiator slave. He led a major slave uprising against the Roman Empire, in what was known as the Servile Revolt. Spartacus died in 71 BC.

Antinous (111 –130 AD) Said to have been a slave. However, because of his love affair with Roman Emperor Hadrian, by the end of his short life, Antinous was a house-hold name all over the Roman Empire. After his death, Antinous was worshipped in both the Greek East and Latin West, sometimes as a god and sometimes as a hero.

Sally Hemings (1773–1835) A mixed-race slave of Thomas Jefferson. Multiple lines of evidence indicate that Jefferson had a long-term sexual relationship with Hemings, and the consensus among historians is that he was the father of her six children.

Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) African-American abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner. In 1851, Sally gave a famous extemporaneous speech “Ain’t I a woman?” which supported equal rights for blacks and women.

William Harvey Carney (1840–1908) Born into slavery in Virginia, he escaped through the underground network. He fought in the American Civil War and was awarded the Medal of Honour for his bravery.

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