Redemption—A Tactic of Last Resort
By Martin Arrowsmith
In southern Sudan a western charity pays $50 per person to free Dinka
people. They were enslaved after their villages were raided by militia
linked to the Sudanese government. In northern India, a group of women
band together to form a small credit union; over a period of months
they save enough to repay the debt that holds one of their members in
bondage, then they begin to save to buy another woman’s freedom.
In south India a child is freed from slavery when a charity pays off
the man who has enslaved him to make beedi cigarettes. Today, with 27
million slaves in the world, redemption (making a payment to free a
slave) can and does happen anywhere. But why is this happening? How
can we understand the role of redemption in the global anti-slavery
While slave redemption has been in the news lately, it actually has
a very long history. Slaves were being redeemed long before there was
slavery in the U.S. In Greece, Rome, and other ancient societies, slaves
were sometimes purchased from their owners and freed. During the Crusades,
enslavement and ransom were central components of war finances and strategy.
The first organizations that can be thought of as charities were set
up in the Middle Ages in order to purchase the freedom of Europeans
captured and enslaved by North African and Middle Eastern pirates and
slave raiders. Indeed, the verse in the U.S. “Marine’s Hymn”—
to the shores of Tripoli—refers to an early 19th century raid
on these Barbary pirates to stop their raiding, enslavement and ransoming
of Europeans and Americans. Frederick Douglass, the famous 19th century
abolitionist and escaped slave, was himself redeemed after supporters
of slavery mounted a series of attempts at kidnapping him. The redeeming
or ransoming of slaves probably goes back to the very beginnings of
human slavery, to the very beginnings of written human history.
Before slavery was illegal in most countries, redemption was an act
of charity, and itself perfectly legal. Many cultures have a tradition
of redemption, including North African societies such as Sudan. Today,
however, within the context of the general illegality of slavery, the
buying of slaves, even to free them, is seen by many people as complicity
in a crime.
While redemption can go on around the world wherever slavery exists,
it came to the attention of most Americans when groups like Christian
Solidarity International began to buy back slaves in Sudan in 1995.
Slave raiding in Sudan was part of the government’s strategy to
destroy the resistance of the southern groups fighting for independence.
Slavery existed for hundreds of years in Sudan, almost disappeared in
the 20th century, but was re-established as an act of terror in the
civil war there. Some international agencies expressed the criticism
that buying back slaves would create an expanding market for slaves,
feed resources to the slaveholders, lead to fraud in the process, and
would not ultimately end slavery.
Not long after these criticisms emerged I spoke with a man from southern
Sudan who answered in this way: “Of course we understand that
the money paid to buy back our relatives may go to buy arms to be used
against us in the future, but when it is your family, your children
at stake, you pay.” Likewise, a man involved in redemption pointed
out that there may have been fraud (the “buying back” of
people who had never been enslaved), but he asserted that “it
is better to buy back some people who have never been slaves, than to
fail to rescue the many who are suffering in slavery.” On the
question of whether redemption in Sudan has brought a greater risk of
slave raids, there is insufficient evidence to make a clear judgment.
The process of redemption must also be seen in its cultural context.
The civil war has been marked by recurrent truces between the Dinka
and the Baggara tribesmen who make up the majority of the militia, truces
that have provided the opportunity to recover, usually at a price, family
members as well as livestock. Equally, the Nuer and Dinka tribes of
southern Sudan, while now allied against the Muslim north, have long
been in conflict that includes raiding between the two tribes. In early
October 1999 their leaders met to discuss “the return of women,
children, and cattle captured in raids or abducted during the years
of hostility between the tribes.” The fact that the victims of
slave raiding have themselves raided other tribes has been rarely mentioned
in the Western press.
If there is good news about the controversy over redemption in Sudan
it is that the civil war there has entered a new stage and fewer raids
are taking place while peace talks continue. The U.S. government has
become involved and has exerted significant pressure on the northern
government to end the raids and come to an agreement with the southern
provisional government. However, the hoped-for ending of the need for
redemption in Sudan will not resolve the questions that surround redemption.
On the other hand, this change may allow us to enlarge the discussion
to include how redemption fits into anti-slavery work around the world.
In India, for example, redemption is actually illegal. In that country
the primary form of slavery is “debt bondage” and the law
that frees those in bondage forbids that their “debts” are
repaid to bring about their freedom. The reason is that since these
debts were offered and manipulated illegally in the first place, they
have no standing. Further, there is a resistance to “rewarding”
any slaveholder. Since slavery itself is universally illegal, slaveholders
should no more be recompensed for giving up slaves than burglars should
be paid to return their stolen goods. That said, there are situations
in India where, primarily because the police are slow to respond to
the crime of slavery, redemption is the only immediate and effective
way to remove a person from danger.
The lesson to be drawn from these examples is this: redeeming slaves
has a role in the anti-slavery movement, but only when other actions
have failed or are impossible. In one way it is the lesser of several
evils. The greatest evil is enslavement. Paying a slaveholder or a middleman
to free a slave is regrettable since freedom is a right and shouldn’t
need to be purchased. Yet, when there are situations where the authorities
will not take action, where freedom is available only through redemption,
and where enslaved people are suffering and threatened, then redemption
may be the only immediate answer. A good case can be made both for and
against redemption; a key criterion has to be that it be used only when
it won’t make things worse. It is but one tactic in an overall
movement against slavery.
So, if redemption is a tactic, we have to ask: what are the other strategies
that will bring people out of slavery? One effective method is to support
partner organizations that raid workplaces where slaves are held, anywhere
from quarries to carpet looms. Others help slaves to freedom by educating
those in debt bondage about their rights and then helping them to act
on those rights. One of the greatest obstacles to freedom is the inability
or unwillingness of governments to enforce their own anti-slavery laws
(even Sudan has a law against slavery). Through governments and the
UN, an important way forward is to get police enforcing these laws;
at times that requires asking countries like the U.S. to use their economic
and diplomatic influence. The recent shift in the chocolate industry
to work toward “slave-free” chocolate, has shown how partnerships
between businesses, unions, and human rights organizations can be formed
to cut slavery out of a product chain, in this case slavery on cocoa
farms in West Africa. After freedom comes the need for rehabilitation,
through education, micro-credit, and other supports. Without rehabilitation
people can fall back into slavery. At the end of the day the global
anti-slavery movement is aiming for a situation where we are never forced
to choose the “lesser of two evils,” where liberation and
rehabilitation are achieved as a right, not at a price.
Martin Arrowsmith is a writer and activist based in Washington,