Modern Slavery or Modern Marronage?
Contemporary antislavery campaigners invoke the history of Atlantic World slavery to highlight the plight of 48 million people today living in exceptionally harsh circumstances, described as “modern slavery”. Yet in a world where many are oppressed and exploited, the lines between “modern slavery” and other forms of drudgery, exclusion, and domination, are not easily drawn. Critics argue that the dominant discourse of “modern slavery” relies upon a highly selective vision of injustice and suffering, and fails to consider or challenge the structural inequalities and systems of domination (race, caste, class, gender, age, nationality) that routinely restrict rights and freedoms. Our five year long European Research Council funded project, Modern Marronage: The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World (ERC ADG 788563), will retain a concern with the continuing significance of Atlantic World history, but upturns conventional discourse by interrogating the problem of freedom – as opposed to slavery – in the contemporary world. It therefore takes marronage as its starting point.
What is Marronage?
Dictionary definitions of “marronage” describe it as the process of extricating oneself from slavery, and connect it to the histories of enslaved people who ran away and formed “maroon” or “quilombo” communities in the Americas. However, as political theorist Neil Roberts has argued, “marronage” can also be more broadly understood as action from slavery and toward freedom, and we approach marronage as a concept that can encompass many different ways in which enslaved people sought to practice freedom.
Through fieldwork in Brazil, Ghana, and Europe with groups that appear in dominant discourse as at risk of “modern slavery”, its key aims are:
- to revisit histories of marronage and other strategies by which enslaved and newly emancipated people sought to move closer to freedom in the Atlantic World historically, and ask what light they can shed on the perception, pursuit and practice of freedom by marginalized and rightless people in the Atlantic World today;
- to use insights from this dialogue between past and present to contribute to theoretical debates on freedom, and its relation to agency, honour, gender, age, race, mobility, property, and personhood;
- to work with research participants to co-produce counter-narratives to conventional antislavery stories of “modern slavery”, and, by communicating them through performance as well as text, encourage more nuanced popular and political debate on the contemporary meaning and practice of freedom.