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Abolition & Human Rights Discourse

The forward march of modernity, economic progress, and scientific racism became the framings that justified and legitimized European occupation of African territories in the second half of the 19th century. Colonialism in Africa, as elsewhere, was based on expropriation of land, resources, and labor of indigenous populations. European abolitionists made extensive use of anti-Muslim and anti-Black arguments to portray imperialism in Africa as a humanitarian intervention committed to bringing slavery to an end. In the process, European missionaries, governments, and actors distanced themselves from their active role in the promotion and organization of the transatlantic slave trade, advancing the idea that European principles were, by definition, committed to anti-slavery and the promotion of free labor since immemorial times. In fact, European colonialism expanded in Africa by the end of the 19th century, enforcing coerced labor practices in the name of humanitarian movements, progress, and Christianity. Abolitionist movements propagated the idea that Europeans, alongside their political, economic, and religious systems, were the most civilized people. It was their duty to civilize other populations, and their responsibility to rescue non-Christians from slavery, promoting the virtues of free labor and consumption. Colonial rule, however, prevented self-rule and the recognition of human rights to subjected African populations until the second half of the twentieth century. It actively promoted coerced labor, the displacement of people, and policies that perpetuated racism, exclusion, and inequalities. In many ways, the expansion of slavery and forced labor in Africa during the 19th- and 20th-centuries paved the way to child labor and other contemporary forms of slavery. These sharp divides between past and present need to be reconsidered, since contemporary problems have longstanding historical roots, particularly the failed promises of abolition.[1] This session will examine the origins of a European human rights discourse within the abolitionist movement and its various mobilizations in the centuries that followed.


[1] Joel Quirk and Darshan Vigneswaran, eds., Slavery, Migration and Contemporary Bondage in Africa (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2013).