“Words mean more than what is set down on paper.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The words “slavery” and “human trafficking” are often used interchangeably to describe situations where people are forced or coerced into performing some type of work. In many historical texts, the phrase “traffick of persons” was used to describe the Triangular Trade – a period during which people from West Africa were kidnapped and transported to different parts of the world to engage in forced labor. Today, many anti-human trafficking organizations label themselves as “abolitionist” organizations, the term abolitionist referring to a person or group of persons who advocated for an end to slavery.
The interchangeable use of the words slavery and human trafficking suggests that the Triangular Trade is comparable to modern-day human trafficking. While some accept this as true, others see a clear distinction between the two words and believe that human trafficking is a different creature from slavery.
This difference of opinion begs the question – should human trafficking be considered slavery? To address this question, it is helpful to compare certain aspects of slavery as it existed in the U.S. to aspects of what is known today as human trafficking.
1. Trade routes
This picture illustrates the main routes used from the 15th to the 19th century during the Triangular Trade. Enslaved Africans were kidnapped from West Africa and taken to the Americas where they were sold in exchange for raw materials. The materials were then shipped to Europe and traded for manufactured goods such as cloth and guns, which then made their way to West Africa to be traded for people. People were traded and used like items, and the Trade profited as a result.
Compare the above picture with the routes used to traffick people today:
Over time, trafficking routes became more sophisticated as technology developed, creating new modes of transportation. During the Triangular Trade, sea travel was the most efficient method for transporting large numbers of people to different parts of the world, whereas today, traffickers can transport their victims via buses, airplanes, taxi cabs, etc. This explains why the two pictures above look completely different – it is now possible for victims from India to end up in the U.S., for victims from Nigeria to end up in Italy, and so on. So when developing awareness/outreach efforts, consider those who work in the transportation industry – they are in one of the best positions to spot potential trafficking situations.
As the illustrations show, the second picture is essentially an expansion of the first.
So….did the Triangular Trade ever really end?
Searing hot cattle irons like the one pictured here were used by plantation owners to burn the flesh of enslaved Africans. The resulting “brands” permanently identified enslaved men, women, and children as the property of the plantation owner.
These brands were usually made into the plantation owner’s initials or surname, which made it easy to determine which plantation an enslaved person belonged to if he or she was captured while trying to escape.
Today, branding serves the same purpose, but looks slightly different:
Traffickers often force their victims to get permanent tattoos’ of the trafficker’s name or initials.  These tattoos signify ownership, reinforcing the message that the victim is simply a piece of property. These types of tattoos have become so prevalent that a number of anti-human trafficking organizations have initiatives that help fund tattoo removal services for survivors.
As mentioned earlier in regards to the transportation industry, awareness/outreach efforts should also include tattoo parlors. Although it is common for people to get tattoos of names or initials, a tattoo artist who is knowledgeable about the signs of human trafficking may be able to report a potential trafficking situation and possibly save a life.
3. The auction block
It was on platforms such as these that enslaved Africans stood, sadly awaiting sale to the highest bidder. They were dragged from ships, stripped naked, and put on display in front of crowds of people for close “inspection.” Potential buyers poked and prodded, hoping to find some of the following:
- men with strong, broad shoulders for carrying heavy loads;
- women with wide, child-bearing hips; and
- children who were either big enough for manual labor or small enough to serve as living, breathing dolls for the buyer’s children to play with.
Today’s auction blocks are online ads…
…or dimly-lit street corners.
Just like enslaved Africans, trafficking victims today are put on display and sold to the highest bidder. Traffickers rely heavily on the internet to advertise younger girls for sex, using code language to disguise advertisements and to communicate with people who buy sex. There is a higher risk of getting caught by police if underage girls are openly engaging in street prostitution, so traffickers often use the internet to help avoid this risk.
Being forced into street prostitution is extremely dangerous, but people who are in this situation do not have a choice. Their lives are threatened, they are beaten and tortured if they don’t make a certain amount of money each night, and traffickers keep a close watch on them day and night, directing their every move.
Considering what you know about the history of slavery in the U.S., would you ever assume that the people who were working on plantations made a conscious decision to live in bondage and do hard labor? Hopefully not, because it is clear that enslaved Africans were forced to work against their will. The same line of thinking should apply to today’s trafficked persons. When you see people on the streets at night, consider the possibility that the scantily clad woman or girl you pass by may have been forced into prostitution in the same way enslaved Africans were forced into a lifetime of physical labor. With an estimated 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, it is imperative that we set aside our personal judgments and take a second look.
Cabins were used to shelter enslaved Africans from the elements so that they would not get sick and/or die from exposure. These cabins were not homes, houses, or any other noun that suggests a place of rest and security – they simply provided the bare minimum to keep people alive so that they could continue to work.
Today’s “cabins” serve the same function. They can either be attics, basements, broken down cars, or any structure that can keep victims hidden but still accessible for exploitation. Victims have been rescued from some of the most deplorable conditions imaginable. They are usually confined to a small filthy room that contains little more than a single mattress on which they are raped night after night.
5. Divide and conquer
In many stories about slavery in the U.S., the image of a whip-cracking “overseer” riding around the plantation on horseback has become quite common. However, it is important to note that the plantation owner’s entire family played the role of overseer. Back then, anyone who was not enslaved had the authority to mistreat and abuse those who were. Anyone.
An important point to be made here is that many enslaved Africans were enlisted to serve as “internal overseers.” They were required to keep an eye on other enslaved Africans and report any secret meetings, those who tried to learn how to read, plans for escape, etc. This position did not provide any benefits – internal overseers performed this function simply because they had been chosen by the plantation owner, and if they failed or refused, they were killed. Pitting enslaved Africans against each other in this way instilled distrust and dissent among them. By intentionally keeping enslaved Africans wary of each other, there was little chance that they would band together to coordinate an escape or rebel against the plantation owner. This is how divide-and-conquer worked on the plantation, and it was used to defeat the inherent strength in numbers.
It’s clear that this divide-and-conquer strategy is still deliberately employed. Today, people referred to as the “Bottom B” play the role of internal overseer. They are generally trafficking victims who have been in “the life” a bit longer and know the operation well. They keep close watch on the trafficker’s other victims and report anyone who disobeys the trafficker.
The fact that the Willie Lynch Letter was confiscated from a trafficker’s home should not make sense, but unfortunately, it does. Why would a trafficker read a letter that was supposedly written hundreds of years ago by plantation owner in Virginia?
For starters, Willie Lynch (the term “lynching” is believed to have been derived from his last name) is credited for writing an infamous how-to guide for plantation owners that provided instructions on how to keep people mentally and physically enslaved. For example, disunity on the plantation could be fostered by purposely “creating” enslaved persons with lighter skin and treating them differently than enslaved persons with darker skin. During slavery, strategic plans such as these created situations where enslaved Africans were completely dependent on the plantation owner and not dependent on each other. Traffickers are using this same strategy today, and even studying how this strategy was used in the past. “Why reinvent the wheel?” the trafficker must have thought. “It worked before, so I may as well use the blueprint…”
With the many similarities between what is happening now and what happened during slavery – including the underlying elements of the subjugation and exploitation of people for profit – why do we maintain a distinction between slavery and trafficking? Political correctness, perhaps. After all, there are some distinct differences between slavery in the U.S., which is tied to the oppression of a particular minority group, whereas trafficking today crosses all racial and ethnic boundaries. Or perhaps we are afraid to admit failure. Slavery was abolished in 1862, so if we call modern human trafficking slavery (again), then it suggests that we never fully succeeded at abolishing slavery the first time around.
It is important to correctly explain human trafficking so that people can be properly educated on the subject and give it the serious attention it deserves. Whether you call it slavery or human trafficking, the goal is for people to understand what it means. How can we end it if we don’t understand what it is? Perhaps this is why the phrase “modern-day slavery” is widely used. It draws a connection between human trafficking and slavery while at the same time recognizing that slavery today has taken on a new form.
During slavery, our Constitution referred to enslaved Africans as three-fifths of a person. This idea that certain people are something less than human is what drives modern-day slavery. It drives traffickers to brand their victims, sell them to the highest bidder, and constantly use them as though they are nothing more than a piece of property.
But are we doing any better as a society, or are we still treating people as though they are less than human? If we automatically assume that anyone who engages in prostitution made a conscious decision to do so, are we viewing them as three-fifths of a person? Why is it that someone who is arrested for prostitution faces jail time that is twice as long as the potential jail time of the person who paid for the sex? Do laws like this make victims feel as though they are only three-fifths of a person?
Modern-day abolitionists, I implore you to take a second look. Educate yourself so that you can identify the chains that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Let’s completely abolish slavery this time around.
1. There was also an East African Trade in which persons from East Africa were kidnapped and transported to the Middle East and surrounding regions. The Triangular Trade that originated in West Africa is the focus of this post.
2. The Abolition Project , ‘The Triangular Trade’ <http://abolition.e2bn.org/slavery_43.html> (accessed March 29, 2014).
3. The Protection Project, <http://web.archive.org/web/20070706163750/http://www.protectionproject.org/maps/image/us.jpg> (accessed March 29, 2014).
4. See, for example, Airline Ambassadors International, ‘Basic Human Trafficking Education’ <http://airlineamb.org/our-programs/human-trafficking-awareness/aai-presentation/> (accessed March 29, 2014).
5. Branding iron, North Carolina Museum of History, <http://www.ncdcr.gov/ncmoh/AfricanAmericanLifeandCultureinNCHistory/SessionTwoAntebellumEra.aspx> (accessed March 29, 2014); Leeds Anti-Slavery Association, Series No. 23.
6. Photo from the film Tricked <http://www.trickedfilm.com/> (accessed March 29, 2014).
7. Library of Congress, ‘Green Hill Plantation, Slave Auction Block, State Route 728, Long Island, Campbell County, VA’, Call No. HABS VA,16-LONI.V,1J—2.; Library of Congress, Advertisement for auction at Ashley Ferry outside of Charleston, South Carolina, Call No. LOT 4422-A-1 [item] [P&P].
8. Library of Congress, ‘Florida– ruins of the slave cabins–Ft. George Id. / Geo. Barker, photographer, Niagara Falls, N.Y.’, Call No. LOT 13947, no. 3 [item] [P&P]; NBC 10 Philadelphia, ‘Woman Suspected of Chaining Disabled Adults Starved Man to Death in ’81’ <http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Woman-Suspected-of-Chaining-Disabled-Adults-Starved-Man-to-Death-in-81-132013283.html> (accessed March 29, 2014).
9. Marsh Law Firm’s Child Law Blog, ‘Sex Trafficking: The Girls Next Door’ <http://www.childlaw.us/sex_trafficking_the_girls_next/> (accessed March 29, 2014). While there is an on-going debate as to the actual existence of the Willie Lynch Letter, for the purposes of this post it is important to note that there was a common practice during slavery for plantation owners to purposely treat lighter-skinned persons (mulattos) “better” than their darker-skinned counterparts. This is well documented in history, and though the practice may or may not have stemmed from this infamous letter, the point is that the divide-and-conquer tactic itself is what drove many of the divisions within groups of enslaved persons, and this tactic was intentionally designed and carried out by plantation owners.