A disturbing snapshot of a dark period in history

Posted by Claire Percy, Senior Marketing Executive for History

Had it not been for a house sale, the photograph of the slave children found in a North Carolina attic last week would have remained an undiscovered piece of history, lost to interested social, cultural, political and economic historians.

Estimated to have been taken in the 1860’s, the American Civil War era photo is a shocking indictment of America’s determination to continue its role in the slave trade, with Britain having outlawed the actual trade in 1807, and much of the British Empire having abolished slavery by the mid-1830s.

As if the photograph doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable enough about our colonial past and Britain’s influential role in the Atlantic slave trade (and arguably that the trade accelerated the success of the Industrial Revolution) to learn that the photo was discovered with a document stating ‘the sale of John for $1,150’ it would be inadequate to say that we feel shame or remorse.

We can take comfort in the fact that Governments have learned lessons from this dark period in history, and that it was ‘a long time ago’. Having said that, Brazil continued to participate in the trade until the late 1800’s, and Saudi Arabia was the last country to officially abolish slavery as recently as 1962.

The photograph of the slave children conjures up many thoughts including the fact that celebrated Government laws can take generations to have an impact on improving lives (we witness this just over fifteen years after the end of Apartheid) and that these children and many like them had no shoes, no rights and no voice to speak on their behalf.

The anti-slavery society defines slavery as a person is treated as a slave or is reduced to a condition of slavery if another exercises power or control over that person to restrain their personal liberty; and to dispose of their labour against their will without lawful authority.’  

From this, do we conclude that the booming trade in human trafficking of women and children for prostitution, and those sold into slavery as servants etc, are modern day victims of the slave trade? The debate continues.


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