Object: Anti-slavery medallion
Location: The British Museum Room 46 (Europe 1400-1800)
This medallion, approximately 3cm across, shows the figure of a kneeling slave in profile, bound in chains, with his hands raised in supplication. The caption reads: ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ It was cast in 1787, based on the design for the official symbol of the London Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade – the leading English abolitionist group founded in that year (Reilly: 286; Oldfield: 156). The image, central to the visual culture of abolition, was reproduced in a wide variety of different forms (jewellery, snuffboxes, token coins) over the ensuing decades (Reilly: 286; Oldfield: 159-60). The manufacture of the medal can most likely be attributed to Josiah Wedgwood, the famous pottery maker, who may also have been involved in its design (d’Anjou: 163). By one estimate at least 200,000 such medals were produced, to say nothing of other items carrying the same image (ibid.). Those items were either given away for free or sold commercially, and worn or displayed as fashion tokens, a way of advertising one’s personal virtue and support for the abolitionist cause (Oldfield: 133).
I see the medallion as the public face of the abolitionist movement; in many ways it captures the essence of the ideas that movement stood for. It encapsulates common notions about the slave trade and, by virtue of its materiality, anchors them to the specific historical context from which they arose.
I find this tangible historical reminder useful in the context of my own research, which looks at legal and policy responses to the contemporary phenomenon of human trafficking in the UK. Trafficking is often loosely described as the modern equivalent of the slave trade. The British Government marked the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, in 2007, partly by advertising its efforts to combat trafficking. More recently, in the UK and the US, it has become increasingly common to refer to trafficking as a form of ‘modern slavery’.
This way of describing trafficking is misleading. The slave trade typically involved individuals who were physically taken from their homes, transported in chains, and forced to work on penalty of death under severely exploitative conditions. The medallion captures these ideas. Human trafficking can involve similar situations, but more commonly does not (understanding trafficking according to the most commonly cited legal definition, from Article 3 of the UN Palermo Protocol). Trafficked victims are commonly deceived into travelling, rather than forced. They may be physically exploited, but not in all cases. They may be imprisoned, but in some cases will be free to move around and may even receive some small payment for their work.
It can be difficult to challenge the use of the slave trade comparison, however. It is all too easy to deal with the deep complexities of trafficking (the legal definition covers an impracticably wide range of behaviours and situations) by reaching for comparisons and metaphors drawn from an earlier time. The medallion resists these efforts. A metaphor or analogy may be plucked out of its time and moved around freely, but once it is anchored to a physical artefact, it becomes far harder to forget its historical specificity.
The medal also has a second relevance for my research. The abolitionists used the medallion to distil their key ideas about the slave trade, creating a simplified representation that could be easily communicated and understood. It was mass produced, widely distributed and socially desirable (as a fashion item); it was thus a way of easily conveying the abolitionists’ core beliefs to a large number of people. Parallel examples exist in the anti-trafficking movement today. One American activist crowd-funded the manufacture and distribution of a medallion that explicitly recalls the one under discussion here.
But it is not just physical tokens that can distil and communicate complex ideas. One aspect of my research has been to explore the role of the law in fulfilling precisely that function. The key piece of legislation in the UK was the Modern Slavery Act, passed into law in April 2015. Just like the medallion, that Act attempted to reduce and simplify a complex problem. It also attempted to reorient the general thrust of anti-trafficking efforts towards more extreme forms of exploitation where movement was a less significant factor – hence the utility of the ‘modern slavery’ terminology.
There is a sense in which many laws perform this kind of simplification, of course. By defining and labelling phenomena they are inevitably involved in a process of reduction and communication. But an interesting feature of the Modern Slavery Act is that it largely reproduced offences that already existed in earlier legislation. In other words, it did not take the most obvious route to a symbolic redefinition of the problem, which we might intuitively expect to have involved recasting the relevant criminal offences.
This is where the medallion comes in, as a reminder that the law can play a symbolic role not just through the wording of its provisions but also through its material presence as a text. The Modern Slavery Act is symbolically important, not because of any new definitions of the main offences involved, but because of its title (‘The Modern Slavery Act’), the ordering and presentation of its offences, and its relationship to other physical texts (like the Government’s ‘Modern Slavery Strategy’). As an object, the Act encapsulated the Government’s understandings and intentions and conveyed them to a large number of people.
It is in these two ways that the medallion-as-object speaks to my research. First, it physically embodies a set of historically specific concerns, rooting them in their time and reminding us not to transplant them too lightly. Second, it acts as a material condensation and representation of a complex social problem, highlighting a role that the law can also play. Thinking with the medallion has prompted me to reconsider the role of materiality in my own research and to wonder what more that added dimension might contribute.
Anjou L d’, Social Movements and Cultural Change: The First Abolition Campaign Revisited (Transaction Publishers 1996).
Home Office, Modern Slavery Strategy (2014).
Oldfield JR, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion against the Slave Trade 1787-1807 (Routledge 2012).
Reilly R, Josiah Wedgwood, 1730-1795 (Macmillan 1992).
Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (adopted 15 November 2000, entered into force 25 December 2003) 2237 UNTS 319 (Palermo Protocol).
 For a discussion of this practice, see the upcoming issue of the journal Anti-Trafficking Review (September 2017).
 See: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/anti-human-trafficking-medallion#/