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Forum on Geopolitics

Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS)

Studying at Cambridge


The Geopolitics of Slavery and the Slave Trade

The Geopolitics of Slavery and the Slave Trade

Slavery was illegal in international law long before Article IV of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared in 1948 that 'no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms'. Nonetheless, unfree labour and human trafficking persisted throughout the twentieth century and still persist to this day, taking a multitude of different forms and thriving in every continent and virtually every country around the world. Efforts to end international slavery are mired in political, cultural and economic complexity, and often hamstrung by an absence of political will within governments to act decisively within their own borders and to cooperate with other states to destroy supply chains. At the heart of the problem lies a tension between the sovereignty of states and the universality of human rights, a challenge that continues to be extremely problematic for the international system.

The research theme 'The Geopolitics of Anti-Slavery' will use historical case studies to reflect upon the challenges of the present day. It will interrogate:

  • How free-labour ideologies intersected with political priorities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - domestic and international - and when and how those ideologies were translated into concrete, stated national interests.
  • How, historically, states have engaged with each other and with international organisations on questions of slavery and human rights, and how these patterns of interaction and influence can be seen to map against wider international geopolitical, economic and military engagements.
  • How, when and why anti-slavery arguments have been deployed as effective geostrategic currency.
  • Why the question of slavery was so important in imperial geopolitics – in particular, how imperial information-gathering capabilities supported the construction of narratives that justified and enabled broad interventionist mandates.
  • How throughout the past two hundred years and right up to the present day, avowedly anti-slavery governments have navigated the tension between the pursuit of a global free-labour ideal, and the pursuit of profitable commerce.
  • How lessons learned through nineteenth-century British maritime and land-based slave-trade suppression experiences, and strategies to administer the 'human consequences' of enslavement and trafficking, can be applied to diverse challenges of the present day - not least the urgent humanitarian migrant crisis Europe faces in the Mediterranean. 

The initial focus of this research theme will be on British, European and African anti-slavery.

For upcoming events relating to this theme, click here.

For reports on past events relating to this theme, click here.

People specializing in this area