Slavery in 1905

On the 8th of May 1905, the shocking case of an 11-year-old black boy named Jacks was brought before the guardians at High Wycombe in England.  Jacks gained the sympathy of the guardians who called him ‘one of the dearest little fellows in the world’. He had been a servant when he broke a decanter belonging to his master. He fled the house out of fear of a beating. The case was brought by the master of the workhouse where the Jacks had sought refuge. When Jacks’ master arrived, the case took a shocking turn.

Jacks’ master claimed to have bought the boy from his parents in Africa, and planned to return him when his service was up. It was over 70 years since slavery had been abolished in Britain, and 40 in the United States. The guardians weren’t properly equipped to handle the seriousness of this case, while one pointed out that this made the boy a slave, another was more concerned that the boy was being kept out of school. Ultimately the police were brought in to deal with it, and that’s where the news stories end. The records aren’t available to follow Jacks any further.

Around 1900 the Dutch were using an exploitative ‘apprenticeship’ system on the natives of the Transvaal, it was widely criticised in England for its resemblance to slavery. The slave trade was also a continuing problem around Lake Nyasa in British Central Africa, likely as late as the early 20th Century. In 1896 Sir H. H. Johnston had freed a large number of slaves in this area. Between 1897 and 1902, in British East Africa, and on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, 13,264 slaves were freed. Zanzibar’s British consul, Sir Basil Shillito Cave, claimed it would take a further generation to end domestic slavery there.

Across large swathes of Africa, slavery, particularly of the domestic sort, was still far from a rare practice. The traditional slavery practices which had fed into the Atlantic slave trade were still deep rooted in parts of the continent. Though colonial efforts often strove for and celebrated abolition, some of their exploitative work practices were hard to distinguish from slavery, meaning they often subtly endorsed the existing practices.

While Jacks’ case was not a part of the Atlantic slave trade, it bears some of its features. Most notable would be his race, and the fact that he was bought in Africa and brought to England. But then there are many features to the case that resemble ‘modern’ slavery. The fact that this appeared to be an isolated incident, Jacks’ work being mainly domestic, and also that he was a child as many cases of ‘modern’ slavery target the vulnerable in society. That his slavery was not permanent also resembles the ‘apprenticeships’ of the Dutch. Jacks’ case is challenging to the narrative common when talking about ‘modern’ slavery, which implies slavery went away with abolition and has returned relatively recently in its ‘modern’ form. Jacks’ case has a mix of properties that suggests it may even have been a transitional stage between different forms of slavery.



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