Modern Slavery Through the Eyes of a Historian

Modern Slavery Through the Eyes of a Historian

Reported by PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil

To mark Anti-Slavery Day, I sat down with Professor Kristofer Allerfeldt, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Exeter, to discuss modern slavery from the perspective of a historian.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Would you like to start by telling me a little bit about yourself, and the broad areas of research you’re involved in?

Professor Kristofer Allerfeldt: I’m an Americanist and a historian of the period between 1845 and 1941. I’ve worked on all sorts of different projects during that timeframe, but my research broadly concentrates on crime and criminality. I work on areas including organized crime, criminality, enslavement, and the Klu Klux Klan. What really interests me, and the common theme throughout my work, is trying to understand why people do things they’re not meant to do or why they do  things they are despised for doing.

Kate: How does the history of modern slavery feature in your work?

My interest in modern slavery emerged from my work on organized crime, because I discovered that frequently aspects of slavery were often tied to criminal gangs. For example, in the US, that relationship emerges from a Chinese perspective, African-American convict leasing and the white slave scare in the early 20th century, and then continues from there.

I also got really interested in the idea that there was a specific development of legislation that headed towards classifying modern slavery in the American context with ideas of human trafficking, and particularly sex trafficking.

Kate: On that subject, I believe you wrote a piece on Marcus Braun and white slavery. What would be some of the key takeaways of how the consequences of that history continues to have an impact upon how modern slavery is seen, and on responses to modern slavery from a legislative perspective?

Marcus Braun was a very publicity-hungry character, and he saw the public agitation surrounding white slavery as a way of making his name. His initial investigations looked at ideas of white people being enslaved and being used as forced labour. However, he then realized that this wasn’t really rocking the public’s boat, so he shifted his attitude to become more in line with his contemporary agitators – focusing white slavery as the idea that young girls were being kidnapped and used as sex slaves.

What is interesting about Marcus Braun is that he later moved away from that, saying that there wasn’t much evidence that that was really happening. However, the moral lobby of the US viewed things differently, and started cherry picking his investigation. They were taking his writings out of context and using them to argue the opposite of his main message.  The moral lobby really wanted to see themselves as people who were bringing in this modern-day, Lincoln-style, abolition.

Those events really drew a line between American perceptions of modern slavery, and British perceptions. To get a rough idea of what this was I set up a Google Alert [English language], which showed that about 98% of the human trafficking search results in the present day were American, while 70-80% of the ones which used the term ‘modern slavery’ were British. That difference in perception and language draws upon this history from the early 20th century.

Interestingly, the same thing happens again at the turn of the 21st century. You have a shift away from the idea of the 2000s legislation [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] which aimed to control modern slavery, which was very forward-thinking legislation. It was hijacked by a moral lobby who pushed for this legislation to work against prostitution. That’s essentially the same event being repeated, and to me that’s where the significance of this history lies.

And the consequences of that moral lobby then have effects on the extent to which that legislation protects people who are victims of other kinds of modern slavery?

Exactly. If we look at modern investigations of slavery, for example Mexicans being used as slaves in agriculture, the newspaper coverage of that is minimal compared to the sex trafficking aspects of modern slavery. Which has impacts on public perception. It’s a very interesting conundrum, and a clear example of history repeating itself.

How is this language split been reflected in British and American differences in legislative approaches?

British legislation has been very different from American legislation. The thrust of it is that American legislative efforts started off in 2000 with a very sophisticated, interesting, targeted legislation, but emerged from that process with pretty standard anti-slavery legislation which focuses on continuity with the processes after the 13th amendment. These tend to see the enslaved as foreign, or alien in some way. So, the enslaved must brought into the US specifically to be enslaved. It’s not focused on those people that are being exploited who are American citizens. 

Meanwhile, the British legislation is very different. It introduces the idea that we’ve got to track slavery through the supply chain. It’s an interesting difference in approach. One which I’m not certain stems from differences in perception of who are modern slaves, but rather may come from the history of how slavery has been perceived in those two countries.

You did some work with PaCCS through the research stream focused on transnational modern crime, which focused on the British 2015 Modern Slavery Act. What can you tell me about that project?

I brought together people who work on disparate aspects of modern slavery, including academics, the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, and others from different elements of society whose work touches upon this subject. One of the things I was interested in discussing with them is the question of what the growth areas of modern slavery might be in the future. One of the theories we came up with is that legislation and public perception in terms of what constitutes slavery changes all the time.

In the US, that evolution of what is considered slavery starts with the 13th amendment, while in the British Empire it began with the abolition of slavery in 1834. Since then, we have different ideas of slavery evolving. We have the idea of Chinese gangs, of contract convict labour, and the idea of white slavery I’ve already discussed. Looking to the future, are we going to be looking at people being enslaved by multinational corporations? Might people be enslaved by the algorithm? We discussed the idea of artificial intelligence and how its development will contain possibilities of enslavement for people. Kay Firth-Butterfield, Head, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, World Economic Forum, had some interesting things to say on that subject. Where we go with the future of modern slavery is now my favourite hobby horse.

Well, where do you think we will go?

I don’t know, and I wish I knew. I’m fascinated by the idea of enslavement by the algorithm. However, part of me thinks that the term ‘slave’ is so emotive, such a horrific idea which conjures up so many images, that maybe the loss of privacy should not be regarded in the same breath. Part of me feels that it’s demeaning people in the past who experienced slavery to do that, but I don’t know. Apart from anything else, these ideas are a fascinating intellectual problem, and one that is becoming fashionable. I’m looking at my bookshelf and I’ve got 20 or 30 books which say similar things about privacy, and how we’re going down a route where we’ll never be able to think of privacy again in the same light.

Beyond that, modern slavery is a high return, low risk form of criminality. Until we change that, until we get some big convictions, I suspect that it will probably remain pretty much that. We’ll continue to see the exploitation of people at the bottom of the pile – the so-called Precariat.

What is one thing you learned while working on your PaCCS project that you would like the broader public to be aware of?

The policing aspects of modern slavery have become so difficult in part because of the widening perception of what constitutes modern slavery. There are a couple of very famous cases now involving enslaved agricultural workers where it was almost impossible for the police to get in and sort things out.

The other thing I thought was very interesting is the statistics the police released to us. These showed that well over half of the people who have been enslaved or have been convicted in the UK for modern slavery are native-born British Citizens. We need to break the stereotypes that this is a problem of ‘foreigners.’ A Vietnamese girl in a nail bar, or an Eastern European worker on a large farm, these aren’t our only modern slaves, and we need to get away from that perception.

Were there any other final key takeaways you wanted to share?

I would say perhaps the key takeaway is that legislation may not be the way to stamp out modern slavery. Maybe it’s too clumsy a tool to be able to utilise. Perhaps we need very broad legislation, and more imagination in how we enforce it. During my PaCCS project I learned that people working in this area find it so difficult, because current legislation is both so broad and so specific at the same time.

In the US context we can say it’s also not about simply working with the 13th amendment, which essentially outlawed slavery, but rather coming to grips with the idea that perception of slavery at that time and perceptions of slavery now are very different.

Last question. If you got to recommend one piece on this subject to policymakers, what would it be?

I would recommend California Bound by Jean Pfaelzer. It’s a history of slavery in California which shows the evolution from California as a “free state” in the Gold Rush, through to the present day. Along the way, it addresses Chinese enslavement, ideas of sexual enslavement, and workers being exploited and enslaved in California marijuana plantations. It’s beautifully written, and it runs through a clear narrative of how slavery evolved and changed, and how we got to the present-day situation. I think that’s a good lesson for any legislator. We’re in a position where we’re essentially playing whack-a-mole. You get one aspect of the issue, then it pops straight back up again elsewhere.

Other people doing interesting work in this area include Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick who has done some fascinating work interviewing people who have been convicted of modern slavery offenses in Northern India, and Kevin Bales, Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham. He started the modern debate surrounding this issue, and he is both passionately articulate and interestingly original.


This article was written to mark Anti-Slavery Day, which is celebrated annually on 18 October in the United Kingdom. The PaCCS blog will return on Tuesday, 22 October with the next piece in our October cyber series. Tuesday’s post is an interview with Dr Damien Van Puyvelde about his new book ‘Cybersecurity: Politics, Governance and Conflict in Cyberspace’.

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