Christine Whyte and Sara Elmer
Why is slavery bad? The global anti-slavery movement in Nepal and Sierra Leone, 1920-1930
The 1920s saw the growth of extraordinary international attention on the subject of slavery. Ethiopia’s application to join the League of Nations opened up debate about the continued existence of slavery in Africa. After Ethiopia’s entrance to the League, the question was opened up from African slavery to the promotion of an international instrument to end both slavery and the slave trade. The debates on slavery at the League of Nations constructed the, now universally-held, belief in the abhorrent nature of slavery, while protecting and ‘defining out’ certain slavery-like practices as acceptable. The end point of this debate was the 1926 Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery, the first international humanitarian law. And so a moral norm was legally ratified as a global code.
Two years before the ratification of the 1926 Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery, the first human rights international law, Prime Minister Chandra Shum Shere Rana made a public appeal for the abolition of slavery in Nepal. He denied that his speech was a result of the “moral influence” of the European-dominated League of Nations, highlighting instead Nepalese independence and development. However, at the same time, his speech was published in English, and closely reflected the rhetoric of the global anti-slavery movement of the time.
The same global discourse can be traced few years later in the court case in Sierra Leone, which prompted a belated abolition of slavery by the British colonial government. In Sierra Leone, colonial officials, local elites and the metropolitan government pursued a policy of non-interference in the belief that slavery would evolve away. However, when the Sierra Leone Supreme Court upheld the rights of masters in 1927, a blanket ban was introduced.
By closely examining and comparing these key events - one in an African colony, the other in an Asian independent nation - in the context of the new global legal order, this paper seeks to demonstrate how;
- slavery became a benchmark of civilization/barbarism in the early 20th century discourse of civilization and modernization,
- international institutions, such as the League of Nations, had the discursive power to shape anti-slavery discourse globally, even outwith its official scope,
- this discourse was interpreted and utilized in specific local contexts, and
- the moral horror of slavery became a generally accepted argument, while the reality of slavery-like practices continued to exist to date.