The Truth About Slavery

Extract from Report on Slavery, League of Nations Committee of Experts, 1932.

“It would be unfair to the Abyssinian Government to take exception to the fact that it has not yet abolished slavery. In dealing with Abyssinia it must never be forgotten that the country was for two centuries cut off from the outside world, that its evolution has been retarded and that all matters concerning it cannot be judged by the principles governing European nations.... The abolition of slaves in Abyssinia is opposed by a barrier of ancient traditions. Very many officers of the Empire, including powerful chiefs, are against the abolition of slavery either because they espouse the feelings of the people under their jurisdiction or because they themselves derive benefit from the present situation. There is surely no need to point to the dangers to which the maintenance of the government’s authority would be exposed or at all events the political disturbances with which it might be faced if, contrary to the general feeling and despite the interests which it might harm, it proceeds to abolish the status of slavery too rapidly.”


Within living memory slavery on an immense scale was practised and strenuously upheld in the Southern States of the U.S.A. The Northern States, which envied the wealth, culture and independent spirit of the South, engaged in a war of conquest, concealing to a great extent their true motives by the cry that it was their purpose to free the slaves. That conditions of life among certain of the “free” populations of the North, where proper factory laws and legislation for workmen’s compensation were almost unknown, approximated to slavery in fact though not in name, was always conveniently forgotten. Nor can it be said that the victory of the North and the freeing of the slave populations resulted in an era of social well-being. In many States to-day any coloured citizen approaching the ballot box for the purpose of recording a vote would be “beaten up” by indignant whites. It is freely admitted that the problems resulting from the emancipation of the slaves are scarcely nearer solution as the result of some seventy years of “freedom.”

That slavery in one or other of its many forms still exists in many parts of the British Empire is an undoubted fact. It is scarcely fifty years ago that the whole of Europe was shocked into horrified anger by revelations that in “darkest Africa” white men were profiting on a grand scale from the terrible traffic.

The writings of Henry Nevinson, greatest of war correspondents, brought home to the Quaker firm of Cadbury that the cocoa on which their fortunes rested was the product of slave labour often under appalling conditions. In justice to Cadbury’s it must be placed on record that they were entirely unaware of what was happening in certain primitive areas from which they drew supplies. As soon as they were in possession of indisputable evidence they took every possible step to sever all connection with the abominations which Nevinson related. But it is significant that while praising their conduct in this matter, Nevinson shows flashes of impatience at the slowness with which they moved.

Yet Cadbury’s cannot reasonably be blamed for this slowness. The fact is, as has been shown time and time again in history, that retreat from an economic position which has been shown to have unsound foundations from a humanitarian point of view, cannot be swift. Any attempt to rush reform is bound to cause disorganisation and loss out of all proportion; and may, if a whole country is involved, lead to the complete breakdown of the state.

Ethiopia, though by no means “the last stronghold of slavery,” as unscrupulous Italian propaganda now circulating in Great Britain proclaims, is admittedly a slave state. The Emperor Haile Selassie has never denied this. There is slavery to-day in Abyssinia—and has been for at least five thousand years.

Concerning this the Emperor speaks frankly, attempting no concealment. But he has protested many times both in public and also in private conversation against the unreasonableness of those Europeans who, with the example of the Southern States of America before their eyes, nevertheless expect him to eradicate the customs of centuries in a few brief years, and fail to see that if spectacular measures such as they demand were to be taken it is impossible that the country could survive.

Many of those who clamour are sensitive souls to whom the thought of slavery and the possible cruelties which it entails are terribly disturbing. They are perfectly sincere in their outcry, and since their actual knowledge of the countries which they assail is usually rudimentary, are utterly unaware of the complexity of the economic situation. Here, they say, is a slave. Let us free him. It is as simple as opening a cage and letting a bird fly away. It is true, of course, that the bird usually falls a victim to the first cat which it encounters; but the liberator does not see this act of the drama, and is only aware of a fine moral fervour within.

These misguided humanitarians have one noticeable quality. They nearly always select for their disapproval abuses which are at a great distance from their own hearths and homes. Sometimes, it is true, they are sensitive to all human bondage, and are humanitarian in the widest sense of the word. But usually they are self-indulgent (a quality which often accompanies sensitiveness), and are careful to support reforms which will in no way interfere with their own privileged positions. They thus quiet their consciences with the thought that they are fighting wrongs, while suffering no personal inconvenience as a result of their valiant struggles.

Now these are hard words. But they have long needed saying. Many will interpret them as callousness on the part of the writer, and will say that they show a willingness to tolerate evil. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are inspired by a sense of proportion; also by a lively awareness of the irony of a society woman (let us say) weeping over the lot of African slaves while seated before a fire, the coal for which was hewn by Englishmen, working underground in appalling difficulty and danger for a wage of little over two pounds a week.

It will be argued that the cases are not parallel, that the miner is not a slave. Certainly he is not in the literal sense of the word; but a cultured Abyssinian visiting Britain might well draw back in horror from some aspects of our industrial scene.

It is all a question of custom. What the mind is used to always seems to be part of the nature of things and therefore more or less right. The Ethiopian, used to the employment of slaves and living in a country where slave labour has been continuously employed for generation upon generation, finds it difficult to understand the clamour against slavery which is raised by European nations, all of whom have their own Augean stables waiting to be cleansed as soon as the owners can be brought to turn their eyes upon their own shortcomings.

If the agitation of ill-informed humanitarians (of the type satirised once and for all by Charles Dickens in his portrayal of Mrs. Jellyby) went no further than their persistent appeals for what is vaguely termed “intervention,” it would be easy to forgive; for admittedly there is a lot of genuine good feeling at the bottom of it, and it has made at times for the betterment of the world. But, from the point of view of an independent Ethiopia, this anti-slavery agitation has its sinister side.

Ever since the beginning of history the well-meaning enthusiast for good causes has, it may be supposed, been made the tool of the shrewd and self-seeking man of ill-intent. Thus the Anti-Saloon League in the States, a thoroughly sincere body, who aimed at human betterment by the stamping out of the misery caused by alcohol, were soon made the tool of the huge boot-legging interests, to whom the continuance of Prohibition meant profit, and who were thus willing to subscribe handsomely to the Anti-Liquor Funds. The same sort of situation is in danger of arising through the existence of well-meaning anti-slavery movements in Europe—has indeed, in the opinion of many educated Ethiopians, arisen already.

The central government of Ethiopia was, as we have seen, admitted to be functioning with considerable efficiency, by the League of Nations Committee who enquired into this question in 1923. Ras Tafari, as the present Emperor was then named (at that time Regent), was slowly extending his control. The further this control was extended the less justification there would be for European intervention. It was therefore the policy of certain hidden interests, who desired that Ethiopian independence should be ended, to do everything in their power to weaken the Regent’s hold. Twenty or thirty years previously their policy had been the exact contrary. The aim was then to strengthen Menelek and thus allow him to “clean up” his land and make it fit for occupation, using native lives in the process. The policy had failed. Menelek had indeed “cleaned up” his Empire, but had become sufficiently strong in consequence to resist European invasion. When Ras Tafari in turn showed himself strong enough to resist threats and shrewd enough to evade commercial traps, a campaign was started to discredit him, and the Anti-Slavery Movement was pressed into service.

In 1922 a series of remarkable attacks upon the Regent appeared in the London Westminster Gazette from the pen of Major Henry Darley. He was an experienced and truthful observer, and it is not the purpose of this chapter to impugn his sincerity, though his interpretation of his facts may be questioned. What was lacking in his writings was, first, evidence of the least ability on his part to picture Ethiopians as anything but thieves and murderers; and second, any appreciation of the fact that all was not entirely well with the adjacent native populations under British control, those, for example, in Kenya, where the white man was far from creating “nigger heaven.” C. W. Hobley, the Senior Provincial Commissioner of Kenya, in an introduction to Major Darley’s book published in 1926, gives a portrait of the author which is worth quoting since it may be held to give a reliable indication of the Major’s standards:
“... the gallant Yorkshireman who is the hero of this thrilling story ... is a man of the blonde Nordic Viking type to whom adventure is the salt of life. Such men are often impatient of authority and love to roam in unknown lands; but, alas, the sphere available for their activities is now becoming restricted. Britain, however, owes much to men of this breed, even though at times they fall foul of colonial governments through disregard of regulations and possibly the inability to assess fully the difficulties of the situation when international questions are involved....”

It is impossible not to like the author as he appears in the pages of the book, but his judgments must be accepted with caution.

The book is dedicated to:
“All those who have suffered and who suffer at the hands of a race with strength but without mercy.”

Now this is a fantastic picture of the Ethiopians who have been pictured by many writers as a decent and kindly race. Further, Mr. Hobley’s introduction is marred by a quite gratuitous insult to the Emperor: “Since the book was written Ras Tafari has, of course, become the Emperor Haile Selassie and his successful ascent in the true oriental manner into the long line of Abyssinian rulers has done much to consolidate his power; the attendance of so many personages at his coronation also helped his prestige and probably tended to increase, to an unwarranted extent, his sense of self-importance.” Rarely can words have been used with less truth and good taste concerning the ruler of a friendly power. To accuse the retiring scholar-king of arrogance is unjust to a degree. When he has insisted on the respect due to his rank it has been on behalf of his country and not from personal pride. Haile Selassie is, as all who have seen him must testify, the mildest mannered of monarchs.

The quotation is given here as an index by which the contents of the book may be judged. It is all written from the standpoint of a superior race, which considers the abasement of a “native” ruler in the presence of its least representative to be a matter of course, and which cannot forgive an Ethiopian King for begging to differ.

This book is typical of the anti-slavery agitation. It is sincere in its way, but it assumes that nothing good can ever come out of Ethiopia and that the sooner some power, preferably Britain, takes over the whole country, the better for all concerned. Italian propagandist literature quotes largely from the volume, and some of the photographs, terrible indeed to European eyes, which accompanied the Italian dossier of condemnation against Ethiopia appear in it. The conclusions which the Italians draw is that they ought to step in; while, as might be expected French travellers are not lacking who have noticed slavery with horror and assume that the responsibility for ending it lies with France.

Three great powers all anxious to end slavery.... The Ethiopian, incorrigible cynic, points to other parts of the African continent, and judges from these that the object of Europeans in “freeing” the slaves is not to make them into free peasant farmers but to force them to work for low wages and with high mortality in mines, plantations and other enterprises which require abundant, cheap labour.

It is to this end that the anti-slavery propaganda is aimed. The ardent and inexperienced propagandists do not know it, but they are being made the tools of unscrupulous corporations who would never think of employing slaves, whom they would have to feed and clothe even if they had no work for them, but who cast covetous eyes on possible sources of “free” labourers whom, when they have finished with them, they can discharge without further liability.

It is thus no exaggeration to say that anti-slavery propaganda has its sinister side—especially since there are plenty of European agents who drift in and out of Addis Ababa and whose sources of income are not explained, whose one purpose in life appears to be the button-holing of credulous travellers and the telling of appalling stories concerning the cruelties to which Ethiopians expose their slaves. There is, in fact, a subsidised campaign of exaggeration, the purpose of which is two-fold: either to cause immediate “intervention” by some great power and the taking over of the country; or to cause the Powers to press anti-slavery measures upon the Emperor to such an extent that his chiefs will revolt against him. In the confusion which follows the Powers will have to “step in” for the safety of European property, and once in will presumably stay. Thus, the intriguers hope, they have the Emperor Haile Selassie in a cleft stick. If he does not hurry with the freeing of the slaves he will be ousted by the Great Powers; and if he does free them he will be ousted by his own people. And in the second event the final result will be the same as in the first. The intriguers are confident that they will possess Ethiopia in the end.

Slavery in Ethiopia has three aspects.

First, there is domestic slavery. The chief complaint against this is that the slaves are treated with cruelty, but otherwise it is possible to make out a case for the defence. Then there is slave raiding. This is obviously criminal. It is a ghastly business and no decent-minded individual could defend it for one moment. Finally there is the slave trade.

This last matter can best be dealt with first.

Now the slave trade has two branches—internal and external. For many years it was the external trade which brought the biggest profits. The slaves were raided in the territories adjacent to Ethiopia and then smuggled through the deserts to the shore by secret routes. Arrived at the coasts the human cargo was loaded on to dhows and conveyed to the slave market of Arabia, and to other destinations along the Persian Gulf. British sloops and other craft were told off for the purpose of checking this business, but though they struggled hard their efforts did little to check the traffic. The area to be patrolled was so great and the traders were so cunning that for one dhow captured a dozen got through. Often when overhauled the dhows tied their slaves together and threw them overboard. The writer was told by a young English naval officer that on one occasion when his sloop was closing in on a dhow which was near to the Arabian shore and safety the slavers gave guns to the slaves who cheerfully fired on their rescuers with the rest.

With regard to slave running one point must be clear to the most violent accusers of Ethiopia. Since she has no access to the sea the trade cannot possibly be carried on without the assistance of either British, French or Italian subjects in one or other of the three Somalilands.

There is considerable secrecy concerning the investigations of the various governments of what goes on in their own territories but it is significant that in 1926, Sir Austen Chamberlain having been urged by Lord Cecil to take action, did all in his power to get an efficient control of the Red Sea waters instituted through co-operation at Geneva.

Just what arguments were used in private among the various interests involved will probably never be known, but it was certainly the opposition of Italy to the granting of sweeping powers of search in territorial waters that rendered the consultations useless. To this extent, at least, Italy has incurred grave suspicion of being far less whole-hearted in her attitude to slavery than subsequent propaganda has suggested.

It is often claimed that the British and Italian authorities have co-operated to such an extent that the traffic is almost stamped out. This is a grave misinterpretation of the facts. What has happened is that owing to world depression, which has afflicted the Near East along with the rest of the world, the Red Sea market for slaves has collapsed.

This has been a grave blow to the British subjects, chiefly Indians from Bombay, who were engaged in meeting its demands, and most of them have turned their attention to drugs.

So much for the external trade. That within the borders of the country depended on a chain of slave markets of which the principal centre was Jimma, 150 miles west of Addis Ababa, where the independent “sultan” had a court which was said to rival the splendour of the Emperor’s at the capital.

The story is often told of slaves being bred, as sheep and cattle are bred for the production of certain qualities. This always seems at first sight particularly shocking to the sensitive European mind, but in an age which freely debates the question of eugenics it is surely illogical for us to shrink from the practical application of scientific theory. In America the breeding of beautiful slaves was definitely practised, the aim of the breeder being to infuse white blood into the strain in just sufficient quantity to soften the coarseness of negroid features while preserving the grace and strength of the African types. In the old days at New Orleans “coffees” were in great demand, and when, as sometimes happened, a girl was produced in whom racial blending resulted in astonishing beauty a thousand dollars and more was not thought too high a price.

At Jimma there was in the old days a far more deliberate process of breeding than ever was to be found in the Southern States. The results of careful observation of cross-breeding—some of them handed down from Egyptian times—were a carefully preserved mystery in the hands of certain wise men who took careful measurements and examined above all the colour of the eyes before advising as to the mating of slaves. Diet was carefully adjusted prior to the time of mating and also during the period of pregnancy while aphrodisiacs were frequently administered. There was much that was superstitious in the precautions which were observed, but that a basis of scientific reasoning determined the process is certain.

Far from feeling shame and revulsion the chosen slaves were proud of the distinction conferred upon them. They were well treated, suffered from none of the shrinking which a modern European might feel towards so calculated an approach to physical union, and never considered that they were enduring cruelty. Of late years the slave farm has become a rarity and it is to be doubted whether any now remain. Doubtless some owners still sometimes determine the matings of their slaves, but this is not usual and the law would not sanction any such compulsion.

But if what has been written is considered by some readers to be a callous attempt to justify abominable practices, they will be labouring under a serious misapprehension. It was necessary, however, to set down the facts concerning what has been a very much told tale, and the facts were: first, that the breeding of slaves was a natural consequence of certain social conditions not confined to Ethiopia; secondly, that it was not considered a cruel practice even by the slaves themselves; thirdly, that if not entirely a thing of the past it soon will be.

The Jimma markets conducted business exactly as it was done in America before the Civil War. There was a code of laws to be observed, and there were also market customs. These markets were supplied by slave raids.

Most English people have learned through the life of Livingstone of what a slave raid conducted by Europeans was like and those conducted in the past by the semi-barbaric chiefs were of much the same character. But a distinction must be drawn between natives already slaves being carried off as booty when one Ras made war upon another, and the enslavement of free peoples over or along the frontiers as the result of sudden raids. There is confusion in the minds of many people concerning these two very distinct cases. Much as we in Europe may deplore tribal wars, we must admit that we certainly stage them on a far bigger scale than anything ever seen in Ethiopia, and if it is urged that our conflicts are less ferocious and less ghastly there are still plenty of men in military hospitals to give a contrary opinion. Tribal wars, in which slaves passed from the conquered to the conquerors, though they doubtless involved great hardship for the slaves at times, were hardly cause enough for Britain or any other great power to interfere. When, however, the raids were across the frontier and the subject races of either Britain or some other power were seized there was clearly a case for intervention. That such raids were once of quite frequent occurrence is possible, but they have been getting encouragingly less frequent of late years. In the two reports submitted to the British Parliament in 1925 and in 1928 no fewer than 139 raids from Ethiopian into British territory are quoted as having taken place between 1913 and 1927, but it has been officially stated by Sir Richard Coryndon that the primary object of these raids was the capture of ivory or of cattle rather than the taking of slaves, of which “happily very few instances occur”; and as a proof that there is amazing improvement of conditions recently it is recorded that there have been no raids into Kenya since 1932.

Domestic slavery as a condition of life is clearly not ideal, but the actual degree of unhappiness which the slave experiences must depend to a great extent on the master. That cases of revolting cruelty are to be found in Ethiopia is true; the same was true of the Southern States of America. But to suggest that they are common is as ridiculous as to suggest that this type of slavery is confined to Abyssinia. In one breath it is urged by the anti-slavery propagandist that the slave is valuable property; in the next it is suggested that this valuable property is habitually ill-treated. Now it is plain that habitual ill-usage must rapidly destroy the value of a slave and that ordinary common sense rejects the suggestion that such conduct is other than the exception. All over Ethiopia there are slaves living reasonably happily. They would be happier free, no doubt, if together with their freedom they could be given a proper economic status; but unless that is certain they are definitely for the most part better off as they are. As for the suggestion that it is only in Abyssinia that slaves are to be found, this is what M. de Jouvenel, the French delegate, said to the League of Nations when the question of Ethiopia’s admission was under discussion:
“As to the question of domestic serfdom, it must be confessed that many governments have found themselves faced with similar difficulties. Such was the case with the French colonies, the Belgian Congo... and others....”

... and, as an interesting footnote it may be added that the Report to the League on Slavery for 1935, while paying a tribute to the manner in which the central government of Ethiopia was tackling the problem, pointed out that conditions hardly distinguishable from slavery were to be found in the Italian colony of Eritrea.

It is frequently stated that the slave in Ethiopia has no civil rights. This is not correct. There now exist special courts, sixty-two in number, to which a slave who has been ill-treated has the right to complain. Some salutary warnings have been inflicted upon owners by these courts of late. If the charge is proved to the satisfaction of the court the slave has the right to demand freedom—if he so wishes.

A female slave who bears a child by her master is freed if she so wishes from the time of birth; a male slave who finds favour in his mistress’ eyes (the phrasing has a queer biblical flavour) has also the right to be freed. All these laws are part of the Emperor Haile Selassie’s plan for the gradual freeing of slaves without risk to the ecomonic framework of his country.

If a slave is sold, or sent as a gift to anyone he is free.

A man may leave his slaves to his sons, but if he dies without a properly signed will his slaves are free.

A slave’s child is free from the moment of birth, but the master must feed and clothe the child till the age of fifteen, demanding only light service in return. At fifteen years of age the slave is free to go where he pleases.

Further laws enact:

Any person who buys a slave, who sells, supplies, or in any manner takes part in the trading of slaves, shall pay a fine of five hundred dollars and be imprisoned for ten years; and for a second offence shall be imprisoned for life.

The governor of that province wherein the offence of slave trading shall have been proved to have occurred shall be fined three hundred dollars on the first conviction, and five hundred dollars on the second. For permitting a third offence he shall forfeit his governorship and all rights that go with it. And if it be proved that he connived at the offence he shall be treated as an accomplice and suffer the full severity of the law.

The chief of any tribe in which an offence occurs shall be fined a sum to be named by the court and shall have the right to collect a proportion of that sum from prosperous members of his tribe.

By means of such edicts as these the Emperor, who has worked strenuously for the freedom of the slaves hopes that in course of time—he promised Lord Noel Buxton of the Slavery Convention that it should be not longer than twenty years—slavery will be practically unknown in his country. And the change-over, which was only possible in America after a civil war of most sanguinary character, will have been effected in Ethiopia in gradual and harmless stages.

So far there has been one main difficulty. The slaves refuse freedom. They do not know what to do with it when it is accorded to them. Therefore it is on the children that the Emperor bases his hopes. He has commenced a scheme for the setting up of schools at which the boys born from slave parents but due to be freed at fifteen may learn trades. Thus when they are permitted to leave the house where their parents served they will be able to set themselves up as craftsmen or take jobs at a good wage. These schools take the boy at the age of seven and as their scope is increased it is hoped that a large number of crafts, some of them quite advanced, such as metal-work and simple architecture, will be taught in them, or thorough commercial training given. This is all part of the future to which the life of the Emperor is dedicated. At present only the beginnings exist, and the present war, far from civilising Ethiopia, has put a stop to all progressive schemes. But the impartial observer must admit that the plan was not only idealist in conception but intensely practical in its details; while one of the most satisfactory provisions of the scheme is that which lays down that the scholars from the schools shall be taken into the employment of the government according to their capacities, and without any discrimination against them on account of their origin.

This is the first glimmerings of a civil service on the English plan and it owes its conception to a great extent to the keen mind and kindly nature of Hakim Warqneh—better known to the British public as Dr. Martin. This fine scholar and capable administrator, who was educated in England and took medical degrees, has worked under the British Government, and has frequently said that he regards the British Civil Service as the bulwark of civilisation, and that it is his ambition to lay the foundations of a similar service in Ethiopia before his work is done.

Reference is made elsewhere to the remarkable life story of this redoubtable man, but here, since it bears on the slavery question, there must be told an anecdote which introduces a strong element of comedy into the discussion of domestic serfdom.

Dr. Martin’s wife (a princess of the Royal House) decided, as a gesture to the future, not to wait for the gradual emancipation of her slaves but to free them immediately. The princess, who has since died, was a very gifted woman, but she found it extremely difficult to explain to her hundred female slaves what it meant to be free.

When they understood they were delighted, but when it was further pointed out to them that they could leave the house they flatly refused to consider the idea. They felt themselves to be members of the family. Freedom, that is, not having to obey orders, suited them well enough; but as for leaving the home they knew so well, they were shocked at the thought of such a thing. In any case, they demanded, where were they to go?

The question proved unanswerable for a long while, and in the meantime they stayed on and worked very much as before—though with a very independent manner.

One last fact with which to end this chapter. Those readers whose ideas of slavery are coloured by the bloodhounds who pursued the heroine of Uncle Tom's Cabin across the ice will be amazed to learn the present state of the law in Ethiopia. If a slave runs away from his master he cannot be arrested anywhere except at the frontier posts of the country. There, if he has no papers, he will be detained. But if within eight days his master fails to claim him the slave must be set free. As Doctor Martin remarked—in view of the fact that the state of the roads in most parts of the country is such that eight days does not take you very far, if the slave has sense enough to choose the right frontier he has a very good chance indeed of his master feeling that the journey to fetch him back is not worth while.

With this last word the subject of slavery may well be left to the experts. If this brief outline of its less familiar aspects is held to be a defence of slavery as a principle of human life, it will have been sadly misinterpreted. Slavery is not only a denial of all that is best in the human spirit, it has been shown many times in history to be ultimately inefficient and unstable. Inefficient because slaves are never so productive as freemen; unstable because slaves rarely feel loyalty to their owners, whose military strength is lessened in times of danger to the state by the need for keeping a watch on the slaves. That slavery has existed in Ethiopia for so long is an indication that conditions cannot, on the whole, have been bad. Always it has had the sanction of the Church, which while condemning cruelty, has maintained that there is Scriptural warrant for slavery in the recorded customs of Moses. In his fight against it the Emperor is tackling a problem beside which the social difficulties of Roosevelt or Mr. Baldwin dwindle to negligible proportions. They are striving to cure Unemployment—but the Depression is not yet a tradition reaching back for five thousand years.

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