Mobile Slavery in a Global Age: From Trepanning to Trafficking

30 Sep

Trepanning/trepanned seems to have an interesting lineage. There are two meanings of trepanning, the first, also known as trephination, or making a burr hole, is a surgical intervention in which a hole is drilled or scraped into the human skull. This horrifying and ancient form of neurosurgery was often carried out in order to let evil spirits escape from the sufferer, or to treat a compression or swelling in the brain.

The second meaning derives from  trepan as an archaic verb to entice, ensnare, swindle or trap. And a noun: a trickster or a swindler.


So, both types of trepanning require getting inside somebody’s head; the first literally, the second metaphorically.

African American Ceasar Sarter uses the word in a  speech in the 1770s to highlight the hypocrisy of a slave holding republic: “…permit a poor, though freeborn African, who, in his youth was trepanned into slavery…slavery is the greatest of temporal calamities: so its opposite liberty is the greatest temporal good with which you can be blessed!” (Gould, 2004: 140) .

The Memoirs of Granville Sharp (1820) refer to Africans being trepanned by their masters into boarding a slave ship for Barbados at the London dockyards.

Wong (2009) in Neither Fugitive or Free: Atlantic slavery, freedom suits, and the legal culture of travel, uses trepanning to describe how freed slaves in the UK were deceived back into slavery by promises of familial reunion. In order to present a legal case of re-enslavement, slaveholders had to present a case of ‘choice’ and ‘free will’ on behalf of the slave subject – Wong calls this the creation of ‘a fiction of choice’.

Emma Christopher (2006) in Slave Ships and Captive Cargoes uses trepan and trepanning in a different (white slavery) context when discussing how British sailors were tricked, pressed or crimped aboard slave ships by the Navy and the press. Thus the word also gained mileage in the pro-slavery lobby.

Trafficking as trepanning for the 21st century?

Stop The Traffik’s definition of trafficking is “to be deceived or taken against your will, bought, sold and transported into slavery” (STT website, 2012). STT position trafficking as the ‘new’ form of slavery. In line with Kevin Bales’ (1999) The Disposable People, this slavery is understood to be more ubiquitous, fluid and destabalised than chattel or contractual slaveries.

The groundwork for the material and emotive infrastructure of anti-trafficking was precisely tuned by a series of United Nations laws passed in 2000 that are collectively known as the Palermo Protocols (and importantly include the “Protocol to Prevent, Supress and Punish the Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children”). These internationally binding laws converted a post-Cold War policy aporia over the subjective moralities of assisted migration and “worst forms of child labour” (ILO, 1999; Lawrance, 2010b), into a simple binary of trafficking where the migrant is deceived, moved and subsequently exploited – and smuggling, where the migrant acts through their own (criminalised) volition, and the state is exploited (Liempt, 2010).

Combining mobility and exploitation

From the perspective of anti-slavery organizations, the masterstroke of the trafficking protocol was to produce a definition of slavery which combined mobility and exploitation. Thus, the anti-slavery agenda was given leverage in global trade and governance debates as it tapped into the urgent border and ‘irregular’ or ‘porous’ migration anxieties of multinational corporations, sovereign states and supra-national organizations in an era of millennial capitalism. In addition to making anti-slavery relevant to (Western) geopolitical and neoliberal power (in 2002 the Bush administration passed a National Security Presidential Directive which identified trafficking as an important national security issue), the Palermo Protocols provided NGOs with an authoritative and internationally binding definition of the ‘new slaveries’ which spoke to a plethora of social movements and publics.

What both trepanning and trafficking refer to is an act of deception followed by an enforced movement into slavery. And both imply forced mobility (be it across a continent or a street). Anti-slavery publications from the eighteenth and twenty first century respectively, suggest that trepanners and traffickers plant an idea inside a victim’s head, trick them, and then move them somewhere else. There is, however, a key temporal difference between the terms. A person could only be trepanned for the duration of the time it took to be tricked or duped into slavery. But people remain trafficked for as long as they are held captive or are forced to work. It’s as if the deceptive moment of trepanning has been stretched and magnified to become a more permanent condition of manipulation and control. When applied to commodities as well as people, the definition of trafficking is flexible enough to become a way that governments discern between formal and ‘deviant’ economies. Between ‘free’  and black trade. So, in a world filled with material and social borders, anti- trafficking also becomes about creating the parameters for security and policing.

Recommended Reading

Bales, K (1999) Slavery In The Modern Era: Disposable People. California: University of California Press

Chalke, S (2009) Stop The Traffik. Oxford: Lion Hudson

Comaroff J, Comoroff J (2000) Millenial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming. Public Culture  12(2):291-343

David, F (1999) New Threats or Old Stereotypes? The revival of ‘trafficking’ as a discourse. Unpublished Paper presented at the History of Crime, Policing and Punishment Conference, Charles Surt University, Canberra 9-10 December 1999

Lawrance, B (2010b) From Child Labor “Problem” to Human Trafficking “Crisis”: Child Advocacy and Anti-Trafficking Legislation in Ghana. International Labor and Working-Class History. 78: 63-88

van Liempt, I (2011) Different geographies and experiences of ‘assisted’ types of migration: a gendered critique on the distinction between trafficking and smuggling, Gender, Place & Culture, 18: 2, 179 — 193

Silvey, R (2009) Development and geography: anxious times, anemic geographies, and migration. Prog Hum Geogr 33: 507

Wong, W (2009)  Neither Fugitive nor FreeAtlantic SlaveryFreedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel. New York: New York University Press

One Response to “Mobile Slavery in a Global Age: From Trepanning to Trafficking”

  1. Refugee Archives at UEL October 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Reblogged this on Refugee Archives Blog.

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