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Hostage to History? Slavery, then and today

Zoe Trodd speaks to Maiken Umbach about learning from the history of anti-Slavery, and where this history created problems in the present.
Slavery is one of these topics where history and the present come together in really interesting but problematic ways. Slavery is a very old historical phenomenon, and yet it’s also a problem that concerns us today as a very topical issue. So I’m joined today by Professor Zoe Trodd, who is at the University of Nottingham, to discuss this question of how does history shape the issue today, and how can we draw on history to find solutions. What can we learn from the past. So Zoe, could I begin by asking you about the causes of contemporary slavery? Does history in any way cause slavery in the modern world? Is it implicated in whatever factors are responsible for it today?
Yeah, that’s a great question because, when people think about the 46 million people who are enslaved today, so more slaves actually than at any point in history, they tend to imagine it’s absolutely disconnected. It looks different, it’s of course illegal today, so they imagine it must just be an entirely different sort of set of factors. And that definitely is the case for a lot of the countries in the forms of slavery we look at. They’re emerging out of all kinds of economic drivers and incentives and vulnerabilities. But there are key countries where slavery is really prevalent.
So when you look at the Global Slavery Index, in that top 10 of countries around the world for the prevalence of slavery are countries that were victims of the transatlantic slave trade, so countries in West and Central Africa and in the Caribbean. And we know that that trade caused displacement and poverty and armed conflict and legacies of colonialism that shape the poverties and conflict-ridden situations and gender inequalities and government corruption and international debt that make people vulnerable to slavery today, and that prevent societies from doing the kinds of investments in education and in economic growth that would prevent slavery today.
So it’s not a sort of easy, direct relationship, but we do see contemporary slavery in some countries as legacies of historical slavery. OK. So how about abolitionism? People have been fighting against slavery for a long time. As you said, it is now illegal, so that has been achieved. Are there lessons we can learn from these older histories of the fight against slavery, do you think? There are. And I think they’re actually really important lessons to seek out and to try and embed. So here at the university, we have something we call the Rights Lab. It’s a Beacon of Excellence, brings together about 120 staff members. And it’s, of course, a pleasure to work with you on that.
And one of the key projects in that is the idea of an anti-slavery usable past. So we’re seeking out anything we can find from past anti-slavery movements, from their uses of religious rhetoric and philosophies to their visual culture, their uses of enslaved people’s narratives, their sorts of movement structures that they created, looking at their successes and, critically, their failures, and then working with key NGO partners to try to embed those lessons, to try and understand how we might not have to reinvent the wheel. If this is history’s fourth great anti-slavery movement, which we believe it is, shouldn’t we be building on what people tried and achieved and failed at in the past. Mhm.
OK, so I get the point history is an important learning resource, as well, for the contemporary activism in this space. I’m wondering about the flip side of that argument. So is there a scenario where history, especially history that isn’t sort of critically reflected upon, also gets in the way? So what I’m thinking here is the language we use to talk about slavery, also the mentioned imagery, the imagery being used to imagine it, represent it is often grounded in those histories, isn’t it? So is there a sense that history is also holding us back because we are sort of unconsciously repeating stereotypes that are rooted in the past that no longer speak to what we’re trying to achieve today?
I think that’s really, really important. Because as we’re seeking the usable past, we have to be very aware that we are not actually abusing that past, as we use it and apply it. And I think, to pick up on the imagery question, that’s an amazing route in, I think, to looking at these two histories side by side, the historical and the contemporary.
And I did notice, when looking at really vibrant visual culture for today’s anti-slavery movement, this global movement of hundreds of thousands of campaigners and groups, that it tends to rely on some major tropes drawn directly from 18th and 19th century culture, tropes that are pleading hands and whipped backs and auction blocks and slave ships, tropes that, in the 18th and 19th century British and American context, were created by well-meaning but sort of tone-deaf abolitionists seeking to promote a culture of rescue and pity, and certainly compassion and sympathy, but not that sort of active empathy that would allow an equality on the part of enslaved people.
And even at the time, figures like Frederick Douglass would rail against these images of whipped backs and pleading hands, and promote himself as, you know, the 19th century’s most photographed American, with these beautiful portraits of dignity and empowerment, and often anger with clenched fists, promote himself as an alternative to that visual culture. But today, you know, these have been taken up as the sort of logos and icons of this contemporary movement. I can’t tell you how many thousands of examples we’ve encountered of direct adaptations of this imagery.
So it’s been important, I think, for us here at the university to work closely with major NGOs, with the UN, with the European Parliament to take a long, hard look at its visual culture, to sort of talk these individuals and these organisations through a different and more empowering mode, to introduce them to survivor-created murals and street art and photographic portraits, to have some of those survivors commissioned to create new anti-slavery campaigns. And really, because we believe visual culture, history, literature, rhetoric shapes the sorts of policies and ideas that we support and debate and push, and therefore ask policymakers to sort of pass as new laws and policies.
And this visual culture underpins a sort of culture of rescue and pity, and needs to get replaced with policies that are much more about empowerment and self-liberation for whole communities around the world. So this is history that matters. And it’s really exciting to bring visual culture into that and learn how not, I think, to do anti-slavery visual culture. Fantastic. Thank you very much. Some really interesting reflections there on the importance of learning from history, not repeating the mistakes of the past, but also stepping beyond some of the languages and images that are embedded in the past if we want to make a difference today.
We can’t do that, we can’t move beyond the past, unless we know and understand that past. And I think that’s a theme that’s really important in the anti-slavery space, but also in lots of the other issues that we will be talking about in this course. And I look forward to our discussion.

In this video, Professor Zoe Trodd, Director of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, talks to Maiken Umbach about the history of slavery and abolitionism. The past, she suggests, can provide crucial lessons for the campaign against slavery in the contemporary world. But it also contains problems…

One key discussion point in this conversation is the role of images. Images, Zoe suggests, have been powerful tools for advancing the cause of abolitionism. Because they speak directly to our feelings about injustice, they have worked in more immediate ways than words to mobilise support for ending slavery. Images still fulfill that role today. But those campaigning for a definitive end to slavery sometimes rely too much on historical images: either by directly copying them, or by adapting them to modern life: the 19th-century slave ships becomes the 20th-century aeroplane. We will explore more examples of this in the next step in detail.

In the comment thread, we would like you to consider the role of images in political campaigning today. Can you think of particular traditions or histories that influence which images are used today, by campaigners, political parties, interest groups, protest movements? And what is the role of these histories: do they provide useful ammunition for just causes, or can they have unintended and perhaps harmful side effects?

Further Resources:

In her talk, Zoe mentions the “Rights Lab” at the University of Nottingham, in which over 100 academics collaborate to provide critical research that can help the cause of anti-slavery in the contemporary world. You can find it here:

Zoe also discusses the Global Anti-Slavery Index, the official tool used for measuring and understanding contemporary slavery. Its website is here:

Finally, on images, you might be interested in hearing more about Frederick Douglass, whom Zoe mentions as a key 19th century activist, who already sought to develop a visual language that challenged a culture of White “rescue” and “pity” as the driving forces of abolitionism. Zoe discusses his work in this illustrated longer talk:

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