Category Archives: Migration

Reflections on slavery: past, present and future

This reflection[i] has three main purposes:

  • to emphasise the long and diverse history of slavery across the world, and to highlight its differing historical expressions and complexities;
  • to recognise that we cannot change the past nor know the future with certainty, and can only act in the immediacy of the present; and
  • above all, in the light of the above, to encourage us all to do much more now to eliminate the scourge of modern slavery.


It is easy to say or write that slavery is fundamentally wrong because of the loss of freedoms and violence usually[ii] associated with it.  It is far more difficult, though, actually to do something constructive about eliminating slavery at the only time over which we have any control, the present.


The Black Lives Matter and associated anti-slavery protests in the UK in 2020 raised many questions (see image above). I was particularly challenged, for example, by the emphasis of those protesting on the past rather than on contemporary slavery.  The majority of banners likewise seemed to highlight the wrongs of past slavery more than they did the wrongs of present slavery.  My reflections here seek to grapple with why this was, and why it remains so.[iii]  In the years since, there has been much more visible concern in Britain over reparations for past slavery, especially relating to the 18th and 19th centuries, than there has been real action to eliminate contemporary slavery: statues of people who had once been slave-owners have been torn down; streets have been renamed; universities, such as Manchester  and Cambridge that have benefitted from donations from people who gained from the  slave trade have undertaken enslavement inquiries; and institutions such as the National Trust have published reports on their links with historic slavery. 

In part this is because of the overlapping interests between the Black Lives Matter movement and those protesting against slavery.[iv]  However, slavery matters in its own right; it is not just a racial matter.  In this piece I therefore seek to disentangle the issues of slavery and racism.[v]  I want to focus primarily on slavery rather than race.  I fully recognise that the two are often intertwined, and there are good reasons why people feel strongly about this intersection, but here I focus on broader issues relating specifically to slavery, and how we respond to the past.  I begin with some personal reflections on the origins of my own interest in slavery, and then provide a short conceptual framework that includes a note on definitions of slavery, before highlighting what I see as some of the most difficult and problematic issues concerning slavery past, present and future.  My purpose is to encourage us to shift our focus from the past about which we can change nothing, to the present where we do have the option to do something.

My interests in slavery

I have long been interested in slavery, from my days as a boy reading the Bible about the unfairness of Joseph being sold into slavery (Genesis 37) and my difficulty in trying to reconcile my own emerging moral views about slavery with some of Paul’s comments on slaves being obedient to their masters (Ephesians 6, Colossians 3, 1 Timothy 6, and Titus 2).  However, I have taken a much more serious and academic interest in slavery since the mid-1970s.  Three factors have been particularly important in helping to shape my current understanding of these issues. 

  • First, my doctoral thesis in historical geography written in the second half of the 1970s focused in large part on the changing economic and social structures of medieval Midland England.  I was fascinated to learn that slaves could sometimes have had better lifestyles than villeins within feudal society.  In this I was heavily influenced by the writings of Marc Bloch (both his seminal La Société Féodale first published in 1939, but also in essays that have recently been collated under the title Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages) and in the historical records with which I was working.
  • Second, some 20 years ago I encountered modern slavery in England for the first time as I sought to support someone who was trying to rescue a person who had been forced into slavery on their arrival to work in our country.  This opened my eyes to the widespread existence of modern slavery in many parts of the UK, and it continues to haunt me as I continue to see such slavery within the country that I call home. 
  • Third, my experiences working in Africa during the last 20 years have inevitably forced me to confront issues of colonial history and slavery, especially in Sierra Leone and Ghana.  Despite its fraught history both as a Crown Colony until 1961 and then as an independent state since, Freetown and Sierra Leone always cause me to think about the potential for freedom in the human mind and the abolition of slavery;[vi] it is also salutary to recall that it is the home of Fourah Bay College which was founded in 1827 as the first western style university built in Sub-Saharan Africa.[vii]  I like to think that there is a connection between freedom and knowledge.

Freetown, 2009

Likewise, I have many fond memories of working in Ghana.  A visit to Cape Coast Castle in 2008, though, remains etched in my mind because of one very specific conversation that I had there while visiting the Castle and Dungeon.  Initially the castle had been established as a small fort by the Swedish Africa Company in the middle of the 17th century, and it later became one of the most important “slave castles” along the former Gold Coast.  Watching a group of European women who were very upset by what they saw, one of my close Ghanaian friends commented that he never quite understood why many Europeans became so emotionally distressed when visiting the castle.  I was initially perplexed, but he went on to say that, after all, it was the African people living in the surrounding areas who had sold their awkward cousins and uncles, or people captured in conflicts as slaves to the Europeans in return for guns and other items that they wanted. Slavery had long been a way of life in the region, and had most definitely not been introduced by the Europeans.  His matter of fact comments challenged much of what I had previously rather taken for granted about the Triangular trans-Atlantic slave trade.[viii]  This trade was undoubtedly coercive, violent and exploitative, but its transactional character and the collaboration of African communities who were willing to sell other Africans for a price to European slavers needs to be recognised in any discussion of this particular expression of slavery.[ix] 

Cape Coast Castle, 2008 (as rebuilt by the British in the 18th century)

On concepts and definitions

I have long enjoyed reading Onora O’Neill’s inspirational philosophical writings (see especially the collection of essays published as Justice Across Boundaries, 2016), and have found that many of my own ideas coincide quite closely with hers, especially around obligations, rights and justice (although I have tended to focus on the notion of “responsibilities” rather than “obligations”).  In particular, she highlights the difficulties that arise in discussing the rights to compensation for actions in the distant past that are widely considered to be wrong today. Her work is well worth reading at length on this topic; I frequently return to it for clarity on these difficult issues.  What follows is in part sparked by reflections on slavery in the contexts of these wider philosophical and conceptual debates.  Three challenges seem particularly important.

  • First, no individual has any effective power over what her or his distant ancestors did in the past.  If they have no power to change the past, what are their responsibilities? We might have had some influence on our own parents’ actions, and those who have known their grandparents might also have had a little influence on their lives.  However, we cannot have had any actual influence on the lives and actions of those we never knew.  If we have had no such influence, can we have any responsibility for their actions in the past?  If we have no responsibility for those actions, why should we be criticised and condemned by others for the actions of our ancestors (individually and collectively)?  These are real challenges in the context of slavery.  It is not easy to clarify the logical reasons why the descendants of slave owners (and institutions they benefitted) should have received the opprobrium that has been cast on them by many of those today condemning slavery.  This is regardless of how one might “judge” (itself a very problematic notion) those who were children of slave owners, but who argued vehemently for abolition in the 18th and 19th centuries, or even those who had owned slaves but then championed abolition.[x]  Even John Locke, widely seen as being one of the founders of liberal democracy, has recently been savaged by historians and others because of his role in administering the British colonies in North America in the 17th century where slavery was widely practised.[xi]
  • Second, there are profound difficulties in “judging” the past by the standards of the present.  As Hartley wrote in The Go-Between (1953), “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.  All societies evolve and change, but they all have mechanisms through which the few rich and/or privileged extract a surplus from the many poor and exploited (Karl Marx’s modes of production remain a powerful theoretical model of such change; for Marx and Engels, slave society was the earliest form of class society).  There are, though, many conundrums within the idea of “criticising” past societies, not least because our present societies have emerged from them, and would be different if they had not existed. There is nothing we can do about changing past societies.  Hopefully our present societies have evolved positively and are better than those of the past, although this is by no means always so!  The key thing is that we need to learn the lessons of history; we need to understand the past so that we do not make the same mistakes our ancestors made then and there (at least as “judged” by our own societies).  “Now” is the only time when we can actually do anything, and the choices we make in the present need to be made in the light of the past so as to help make a better future.  As Tolstoy (1903) wrote in his short essay Three Questions, “Remember then: there is only one time that is important – now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power”.  Such reflections also force us to consider how future generations will perceive our own actions.  How, for example, will they consider our ineffectual efforts to abolish modern slavery?  Might they see our enforced addiction to digital tech as but another, les immediately brutal, form of slavery, and today’s digital barons as equivalent to the slave masters of the past?
  • Third, these considerations also make it important to try to define what exactly slavery is.  It is, though, very problematic to provide a clear and all-encompassing definition of slavery, not least because of the ways in which the notion and practices have varied and evolved over time (and may continue to do so in the future).  Two key elements are central to any definition: a lack of “freedom”, and being under the absolute control of another person.  Exactly what types of freedom and control are necessary to be considered as slavery is disputed and have changed over time.  One way of addressing this is to define certain practices as being indicative of slavery, as with chattel slavery (treating someone as the personal property of another), bonded labour (where someone pledges themselves to work for another to pay off a debt), or forced labour or marriage (where someone is forced in some way to work or marry against their will).  Another approach has been to adopt legal definitions agreed by conventions.  The 1926 UN Slavery Convention, thus defines slavery as ”the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching the right of ownership are exercised”.  In practice, it may be best to consider a spectrum of characteristics that comprise slavery, recognising that different people may choose to include some or all of these in their definitions.  “Servitude” is thus considered by some to have many of the characteristics of, but to be less severe than, “slavery”. The European Court of Human Rights (2022), for example, has recently argued that servitude “is a particularly serious form of denial of freedom”, although it should be considered as an aggravated form of forced labour, and therefore although related to slavery it is not to be confused with it. “It includes, in addition to the obligation to provide certain services to another, the obligation on the “serf” to live on the other’s property and the impossibility of changing his status”.[xii]  The relationship between “slavery” and “serfdom” has, though, also evolved over time.  In origin, the words “serf” and “slave” come from the same root, namely the Latin servus (meaning slave; and from which the word servitude is also derived).  However, serfs and slaves have generally been seen, at least from medieval times onwards, to be rather different categories.  For some, the word “serfs” is a generic term to describe the group of people originally known as coloni, or tenant farmers in the late Roman period onwards, and whose status had generally become increasingly degraded.  For others, it is even broader, and is often equated with the word “peasants” to refer to the mass of people at the bottom of the emerging class system in medieval and early-modern times, but above the status of slaves.[xiii]

These three conceptual framings underlie the ensuing sections on slavery in the past, in the present and in the future.

Roman collared slaves (Ashmolean Museum

Slavery: the past

Four important observations about past slavery are all too frequently ignored or downplayed in contemporary public discourse, but I suggest should be considered in any reasoned discussion of slavery:

  • First, slavery was a normal and accepted aspect of society in many parts of the world for well over six millennia, whereas the abolitionist movement in Europe only really began in the mid-18th century, less than three centuries ago.[xiv]  It must have been as unthinkable for the majority of people for most of history (and indeed pre-history) to have challenged slavery as it is now for someone to try to promote slavery.
  • Second, slavery was practised at some time in the past in most parts of the world.  Slavery existed in most ancient civilizations as in the Babylonian and Persian Empires.  It was common throughout the Roman world; slaves from what is now the UK were paraded in Rome.  In the early Islamic states in West and North Africa it has been estimated that about one-third of the population were slaves; in East Africa, Zanzibar was the main port for slave trading to the Arabian peninsula.  Slavery was widely practised in the Pre-Columbian cultures of Middle and South America.  It formed a crucial element of the Ottoman Empire; in the 17th century it is estimated that a fifth of the population of Constantinople was probably slaves. Slaves remained fundamentally important throughout the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, notably as the much feared Janissaries (elite infantry soldiers). Slavery was widespread for centuries in China, and was only abolished in 1909.  The Triangular trade between Europe, Western Africa and North America, which features so prominently in current popular discourse on slavery was thus only one example of the very widespread pattern of global slavery.  It is often forgotten that between the 15th and 18th centuries white Europeans from Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and England had also been sold into slavery by North Africans. Frequently slaves were captured as a result of warfare, sometimes there were regular expeditions to capture slaves, and often people sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts.  This ubiquitous character of slavery raises interesting questions about the payment of reparations.  Should Italy pay England for taking slaves during the period of Roman occupation?  Should Turkey pay countries in the Balkans for the devşirme (blood tax) through which Christian boys were taken to become Janissaires? Should the rulers of states in the Arabian peninsula pay reparations to the countries of eastern Africa?  Should Israel pay reparations to the surrounding countries from whence their ancestors took Canaanite slaves?  The usual response to such questions is “No”, on the grounds that such reparations only apply to the recent past.  But when is the past recent?[xv] 
  • Third, it must be recognised that everyone in societies where slave ownership was practised benefitted to some extent from slavery, and it is not possible just to attribute blame to slave owners or traders and their descendants.[xvi]  The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker all benefitted from the wealth gained by those who invested in estates that used slave labour.  All societies, past and present, have mechanisms and legitimation systems through which the rich can exploit the poor, and can thereby afford to live “better” lives and purchase luxuries.  Slavery is just one mechanism through which such surplus extraction and exploitation occurs. Indeed, life for the poor in 18th and 19th century Britain was unbelievably harsh by modern standards.  However, everyone (apart from the slaves) takes a share of the trickle-down financial benefit.  The elite pay architects, artists and jewellers to produce what many societies now cherish as their cultural heritage, but this enabled these craftsmen to afford to buy paints, or beer, or clothing, which in turn benefitted the brewers, merchants and clothiers.  Ultimately, almost everyone in the past, and not just slave owners or institutions that received gifts derived from slave ownership, benefitted in some way from slavery.  It therefore seems highly problematic to pick out certain slave owners or institutions (and their descendants) in certain societies for retribution.
  • Fourth, it is likely that in most cases slavery did not generally collapse purely for moral grounds, but rather also for economic ones. The ultimate reason that slavery collapsed was often because it became too expensive to obtain and maintain slaves.  We like to think that it resulted exclusively from some kind of enlightened belief, or a rise of moral virtue in the 19th century, and this may indeed have helped in some cases (as with the abolitionist movement in Britain), but there is little evidence to support the argument that a sudden rise in moral concern was usually the primary reason that slavery ended.   As conflicts and wars reduced in frequency, it became less easy to capture people and enslave them.  Moreover, the costs of feeding slaves could become prohibitive, especially at times of rising basic staple prices. Forcing slaves to cultivate land to feed themselves was also problematic since it took land and labour away from other forms of production, and yields were in any case often not high.  Most importantly, new more efficient forms of labour exploitation (such as the factory system in the 19th century) and the mechanisation of agriculture, reduced the economic benefits of slave production.

Slavery: the present

As noted in the quotation from Tolstoy cited above, the present is a very special time, because it is the only time when we have any power.   How we act in the present, though, depends very much on our understanding of the past.  Four problematic issues seem worthy of reflection here about how we are acting in the present with respect to slavery.

  • First, it must be recognised and acknowledged that slavery still exists.  It was not eliminated by the abolutionist movement in the 19th century.  According to the latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, there are about 49.6 million people living in modern slavery, mostly in forced labour and forced marriage.[xvii]  Roughly a quarter of these are children.  To be sure, definitions of slavery have changed over time, but these figures compare with best estimates for the number of slaves transported from Africa to the Americas of around 12.5 million.[xviii]  Modern slavery is real and present at a very large scale.  We can choose to do something real and practical about it.  It is as violent and horrendous as are most forms of past slavery.  While much current media attention and political activity focuses on black slavery, colonialism and issues around restitution and reparations, we also need to focus on the reality of modern slavery across the world and do something to bring it to an end.
  • Second, the timing of the sudden upswelling of interest in slavery, the recent actions taken by many people and organisations to try to atone for the past, and the vehemence of commitment of many of those campaigning for reparations and against past slavery seem in part to represent a collective failure to understand and appreciate the impact of slavery, both in the past and at present.  Having learnt about slavery as a child, and written and taught about slavery through much of my career,[xix] I find it hard to believe that so many people in Britain seem to have been unaware of the impact of slavery on our economy.[xx]  Why did they not protest before 2020? The apparent sudden discovery of our role in the Triangular Trade, seems in part to reflect a failure in our education system to address the complexity of history, and especially to consider slavery in a global and holistic framework.  In a society increasingly dominated by scientism (science’s belief in itself) it becomes more and more important for young people to study the disciplines of history and geography which play such a crucial role in shaping their sense of time and place.  A good historical understanding of slavery throughout history and across the world would also help people have a much more nuanced and sensitive approach to understanding its complexities, and the reasons why we need to respond urgently to the continued existence of modern slavery. 
  • Third, it is always easier to criticise people who cannot respond, especially in the past, than it is to act wisely in the present.  As any political leader knows, it is much easier to criticise others, than it is actually to deliver policies that have positive outcomes.  In the context of slavery, it is easy to stand up and protest, it is easy to adopt slick slogans, it is easy to blame people in the past, and it is easy to post critical comments on social media.  This is especially so when those who lived through those times are completely unable to respond or tell their side of the story.  It is very much more difficult to change existing practices, such as modern slavery, because that takes considerable time and effort, it is tough to do, it is expensive, and it is not easy to understand what really needs to be done.  However, given now is the only time when we can influence things for the better, we should surely concentrate on what we can actually do something about, rather than spend so much time bemoaning something that we can never change.  We can learn from the past to change the present.
  • Fourth, it is difficult to justify criticising people in the past, because we were not there and have no way of knowing how we would have behaved ourselves at that time.  We might like to think that we would have acted in the past in accordance with our present moral compasses (if we recognise that we have such things), but the reality is that it is highly unlikely that we would have done so.  We simply have no real way of knowing what we would have done if we had been living during past epochs when slavery was rife.  Perhaps our biggest fear would have been the chance of being captured and sold into slavery ourselves.  If we cannot guarantee that we would have opposed slavery then, it seems difficult to justify the opprobrium that we cast on those who benefitted from slavery in the past, especially if we are doing little to prevent it in the present.

In short, the logic of the above comments seems to point to a conclusion that we should focus our attention more on trying to stop modern slavery, because we can indeed do something about this, rather than spending most of our time criticising the actions of people in the past about which we can do nothing.

Slavery: the future

Such arguments have interesting implications when slavery in the future is considered.  Again, four comments seem appropriate.

  • First, we might be able to reduce the extent of slavery in the future if we take action to do so now, and at the very least those who do indeed believe that slavery is wrong would then be acting according to their moral principles.  This in itself raises many further difficult issues.  Given that slavery still exists, and has therefore probably done so ever since human “civilizations” first emerged, is it somehow a “natural” human condition?  Will slavery always exist?  Even if this is the case, though, those of us who believe it is wrong can nevertheless still seek to take action now to reduce its extent in the hope that this will happen in the future. 
  • Second, how will those in the future look back and see our actions today with respect to slavery?  Just as we cannot influence the past, we will not be living when those in the future think about us. At one level, this question will not really matter, because we will be long dead and the thoughts of people in the distant future can have no real influence over us.  Nevertheless, many people do wish to be remembered kindly. For those who do care how history will see them, if only the near history of their children and grandchildren, taking action now at a time over which we do have some control or power, would seem to be wise (although of course many people may not wish to be wise). How will our offspring and descendants judge us most positively: for acting to reduce the slavery that does exist and we can do something about, or for merely protesting about a past over which we could never do anything to change.
  • Third, if we do nothing about slavery today, there is a chance that those nearest and dearest to us might be forced into slavery in the future.  This may be an unlikely scenario for many reading this post, but it is at least a logical possibility.  Every one of the nearly 50 million people currently in slavery has parents, and possibly grandparents who may still be alive and know them.  At least some, perhaps most, of these relatives will grieve that their offspring are enslaved.  By acting today, we can reduce the chances of our children and further descendants becoming enslaved.
  • Finally, it is worth asking what future generations may consider about the nature of freedom and slavery in our societies today?  I have recently spent much time pondering this question, and writing and speaking about digital enslavement as a new mode of production.  Put simply, if we cannot live without using digital tech, have we become enslaved by the owners of the companies and governments who force us to use such technologies?  If we cannot spend a day, let alone a week, without using digital tech, have we not become enslaved by those who make it?[xxi]  Have we not willingly become “unfree”?  The new slave masters expropriate a vast surplus from our data and everything that they know about us, and we seem unable to escape from giving this to them at no charge.  Indeed, we have to pay significant amounts to be connected to the internet, just so as to enable them to exploit us further.   What will future generations think?  Will the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos also have the work of their foundations and donations castigated, their virtual statues torn down, their reputations smashed, and their children’s children hated for the actions of their ancestors?[xxii]

In conclusion

It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the above reflections, and everyone will have somewhat differing views about them.  They are intended to raise difficult questions and encourage open debate on them.  I have tried to focus on slavery alone, although clearly this intersects, especially at this time in history, with other categories of contemporary interest such as race and colonialism.  However, these reflections are explicitly not intended to address either of these other two categories in any detail.  Slavery has existed between and within many different races; it has transcended most modes of socio-economic, political and cultural formation.  It is not unique to the Triangular Trans-Atlantic slave trade. There has been a considerable amount of research done on the history of slavery and very much more that needs to be done.  However, history alone is not enough.  It is the moral questions that we ask, and how we use them to shape the futures of the societies in which we live that, to me, matter most.

The above arguments suggest to me that it is more important to focus on trying to reduce contemporary slavery (and its possible variants in the future) than it is only to protest about the horrors and injustices of past slavery.  Both are important, and this is not to belittle the value of highlighting the undoubted injustices of slavery in the past.  However, we cannot change what has happened in the past, and it is surely therefore our responsibility to past slaves that we act now, when we can, to prevent slavery continuing into the future.   Protesting is the easy bit; changing the future is when the going gets really tough. Others may well feel differently, and I certainly accept that we need a sound understanding of the past if we are to act wisely in the present.  I began by reflecting on my surprise at how few of the anti-slavery and anti-racism protests that I saw in 2020 and 2021 focused on modern slavery. My hope is that those who read and engage with what I have written here may turn their anger at what they cannot change into energy to reduce the extent of slavery that remains all about us today.  I also hope that they will strive to maintain the perceived freedoms that so many now cherish and take for granted, and yet are in very real danger of being taken away from us through the increasingly all-pervasiveness of digital enslavement. 

[i] I am immensely grateful to several friends and colleagues who took time to comment on an earlier version of this draft and have undoubtedly helped me to improve it.  I know that the issues it addresses are sensitive, but I hope that this final version strikes an appropriate balance as I seek to encourage us all to refocus our attention on how we eliminate the modern slavery (and especially violence against women) that continues to exist across the world.

[ii] I have deliberately used this word here because I remain struck by the reality that the lives of some slaves in the past were in many ways better than the lives of the poorest agricultural labourers.

[iii] There were indeed some banners relating to modern slavery, but from the protests and images that I saw these were in a minority.

[iv] This was also associated with transfers of ideology and practice from the US to the rather different context of the UK. 

[v] This is not in any way to downplay the horrors of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas between the 17th and 19th centuries, but it is to try to explore fundamental principles associated with slavery per se rather than racism.

[vi] See for example, Abraham Farfán and María del Pilar López-Uribe (2020) The British founding of Sierra Leone was never a ‘Province of Freedom, It is also important to note here that it was actually in the UK, a colonial and later imperial power, where the abolutionist movement first gained considerable traction, initially in the late 18th century and then especially from the 1830s onwards.

[vii] The Province of Freedom in what became Sierra Leone was first settled in 1787 by formerly enslaved black people, but this early settlement collapsed, and it was not until 1792 with an influx of more than a thousand former slaves from North America that the settlement of Freetown was firmly established through the agency of the Sierra Leone Company.

[viii] See also Trevor Phillips’ important essay in The Times (18 September 2020 entitled “When you erase a nation’s past, you threaten its future”, in which he suggests that “Those who have African heritage might do well, before they denounce long-dead British slave owners, to find out which side of the vile transactions in West Africa’s slave ports their own ancestors stood”.  See also his review “Colonialism by Nigel Biggar: don’t be ashamed of empire”, in The Sunday Times, 5th February 2023, More research needs to be done on the origins of slaves from West Africa in the Caribbean and North America, and how they were enslaved.

[ix] This also reminds me of the continuing African slave trade across the Sahara today.  See for example,, and

[x] See for example the life of John Newton who had been a slave, a captain of slave ships, and then championed abolitionism, as well as writing the famous hymns Amazing Grace and Glorious things of Thee are spoken

[xi] See Brewer, 2018.

[xii], p.8.

[xiii] In my own work on medieval society, I found it helpful to avoid the generic word “serf” and stick to the terms actually in use at the time, such as villeins, cottars and bordars.  In very general terms, in 11th century England there were two broad groups of rural people beneath the level of knights and lords: the free peasantry (freemen and sokemen) who comprised about 12% of the population recorded in Domesday Book of 1066; and the unfree (villeins representing about 40% of the population, alongside the poorer cottars and bordars) who worked the land in return for onerous obligations and services to the Lord.  Beneath them all were the slaves, comprising perhaps 10% of the population, who had no property rights and could be bought and sold.

[xiv] Although Louis X of France published a decree in 1315 declaring that any slave arriving on French soil should be declared free, the widespread rise of abolitionism is usually dated to the emergence of The Enlightenment in the mid-18th century, and the activities of the Quakers in England and North America in the latter part of that century.  Interestingly, although slavery was abolished during the French revolution, Napoleon restored it in 1802 as one means to try to retain sovereignty over France’s colonies.

[xv] Complex legal debates around statutes of limitations are one way on which attempts have been made to answer this question.  See for example the UN’s OHCHR “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law”  See also Shelton, D. (2002) Reparations for human rights violations: how far back?, Amicus Curiae, 44, 3-7

[xvi] I have deliberately concentrated here on slavery in a global context, and not just on the current emphasis in European and North American societies on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  The horrors, misery and death associated with slavery in the context of European colonialism should not be trivialised, but at the same time their needs to be open and honest discussion about the existence of slavery in Africa long before the arrival of white Europeans.

[xvii] See ILO, Walk Free and IOM (2022) Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage, Geneva: ILO, Walk Free and IOM. See also

[xviii] See, as well as extensive other research by Franz Binder, Ernst van den Boogart, Henk den Heijer and Johannes Postma, James Pritchard, Andrea Weindl, Antonio de Almeida Mendes, Manuel Barcia Paz, Alexandre Ribeiro, David Wheat and José Capela.

[xix] especially in the context of my teaching of Marxist theory between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1990s.  See also the work of the UCL Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery.

[xx] There has been very substantial research on slavery in the past, and the extent to which British society and the economy were shaped by it in the 18th and 19th centuries has long been well known.  See for example the work of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL which emerged from earlier funded research projects in the 2000s and 2010s, and also the useful short  note by John Oldfield (2021) on abolition of the slave trade and slavery in Britain,, which draws heavily on research dating back to the 1930s.

[xxi] Do consider using #1in7offline to promote the practice of having a day a week offline.

[xxii] See my 2022 piece on Freedom, enslavement and the digital barons: a thought experiment.

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To app or not to app? How migrants can best benefit from the use of digital tech

This post was first published on the OECD’s Development Matters site on 7th February 2022, and is reproduced here with permission and under a slightly different title


UN agencies, donors, and civil society organisations have invested considerable time, money and effort in finding novel ways through which migrants, and especially refugees, can benefit from the use of digital technologies. Frequently this has been through the development of apps specifically designed to provide them with information, advice and support, both during the migration journey and in their destination countries. All too often, though, these initiatives have been short-lived or have failed to gain much traction. The InfoAid app, for example, launched by Migration Aid in Hungary amid considerable publicity in 2015 to make life easier for migrants travelling to Europe, posted a poignant last entry on its Facebook page in 2017: “InfoAid app for refugees is being rehauled, so no posting at the moment. Hopefully we will be back soon in a new and improved form! Thank you all for your support!”

However, new apps continue to be developed, drawing on some lessons from past experience. Among the most interesting are MigApp (followed by 93 668 people on Facebook) developed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a one-stop-shop for the most up-to-date information. Another is RedSafe developed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which enables those affected by conflict, migration and other humanitarian crises to access the services offered by the ICRC and its partners. Other apps seek to be more local and focused, such as Shuvayatra (followed by 114 026 on Facebook), which was developed by the Asia Foundation and its partners to provide Nepali migrant labourers with the tools they need to plan a safer period of travel and work abroad.

Our work with migrants nevertheless suggests that in practice very few migrants in the 12 countries where we are active in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, ever use apps specifically designed for migrants. Moreover, most of those who claim to use such apps name them as Facebook, Imo, or WhatsApp, which were never originally intended as “migrant apps”. A fine balance therefore needs to be made when developing relevant interventions in combining the professional knowledge (often top-down) of international agencies with the more bottom-up approaches that focus on the digital tech already used by migrants.

Our wider research goes on to highlight four broad areas for action to complement the plethora of activities around app development:

1. Information sharing and collaboration

First, there needs to be much more information sharing and collaboration between international organisations working in this field. While an element of competition between agencies may be seen as positive in encouraging innovation, there remains far too much overlap, duplication and reinventing the wheel. The creation of a global knowledge-sharing platform on digital tech and migration could provide a first port of call that any organisation considering developing a new initiative could go to for ideas or potential collaborative opportunities.

2. No one-size-fits-all: diversity in the use of digital tech by migrants

Second, our research has shown very clearly that use of digital tech by migrants varies considerably in different areas of the world and between different groups of migrants. There is no one-size-fits-all, and context matters. Hence, practitioners should be careful when making generalisations about how “migrants and refugees” use, or want to use, digital tech.

3. Developing digital tech with migrants not for them

Third, it is important to remember that actions and policies are much more likely to succeed if they are developed with rather than for migrants. This fundamental principle is too frequently ignored, with well-meaning “outsiders” too often seeking to develop digital interventions for migrants without fully understanding their needs and aspirations. As our own research has shown, though, it is far from easy to appreciate and understand the underlying needs that different groups of migrants prioritise and how best they can be delivered.

4. Assisting migrants to help each other in using digital tech wisely and safely

Fourth, it sadly remains as true today as it was twenty years ago that many of the poorest and most marginalised still do not know how to use digital technologies effectively, appropriately, securely and safely. Many migrants contributing to our research own a smartphone or have access to one, but frequently they only have a rudimentary knowledge of how to use it optimally. Some aspire to use digital tech to learn and acquire skills, while others wish to enhance their business opportunities; in both cases, many do not know how best to do so. Few also sufficiently appreciate the very significant security, privacy and surveillance issues associated with using digital tech. The development of basic training courses – preferably face-to-face – may be one of the best investments that can be made in assisting migrants to help themselves when using digital tech.

Looking to the future

Looking to the future, the power relationships involved in the migration process mean it is likely that migrants will become increasingly controlled and subject to surveillance through the use of digital tech. In some circumstances, it might even be wiser for migrants to avoid using any form of digital tech at all. However, there are exciting opportunities to develop novel ways through which migrants might benefit further from digital tech. One of the challenges faced by many migrants is the sadness associated with being away from family and friends. While video calls can go some way to mitigate this, new developments in haptics may soon enable us to feel someone’s touch or hug.

Likewise, inserting microchips into our bodies is becoming increasingly widespread, and in the future this practice could offer real potential for migrants for example to have their qualifications and other documents actually within their bodies, or for their families to be able to track them on the often dangerous journey to their destination. Countering this, of course, is the likelihood that most authorities would use such technologies for surveillance purposes that would threaten migrants’ privacy.

As with all digital tech, it is important to remember that it can be used to do good or to harm. Many migrants are especially vulnerable, and it is incumbent on those seeking to support them that migrants are able to make their own informed decisions on how they choose to use digital tech. Often, the best interventions might well be built around improving existing ways through which migrants use apps and other digital technologies, rather than developing entirely new solutions that may never be widely used.

I am particularly grateful to G. Hari Harindranath and Maria Rosa Lorini, as well as the many other people and migrants with whom we are working, for their contributions to the ongoing research practice on which this post is based.

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Filed under Apps, digital technologies, ICT4D, ICT4D general, Migration