Sunday, October 21, 2007

Forced labours

All along History no government has ever ceased trying prisoners to generate wealth through forced labour. In fact, prisons have their origin in the accommodations for slaves, a compulsory labour force that existed since ancient times in Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Roma and Islamic caliphates. Slaves came from criminals, war prisoners and abandoned children, besides the slaves' children themselves.

In the Middle Age, the Carolingian Empire was supported by a 20% of slave population, but because of the Church's ban, this practice was abandoned between Christians. This relationship evolved from the 10th Century towards serfdom, in which the peasant was bounded to the land and the master. This system endured all around the World, with variations, from feudal lords in Europe to shogunates in Japan. In England it disappeared during the 17th Century and in France in 1789, but in Eastern Europe it remained until the mid-19th Century.

A modern serfdom form is the indenture, under which workers sign temporary contracts according to which they are only paid by accommodation and feeding. This labour practice was dominant in early colonial societies during the 17th and 18th Centuries, and is still common in developing countries, such as India and Bangladesh.

In 1452, the Pope Nicholas V issued the Bull "Dum Diversas", which allowed Christian kings to reduce Saracens, pagans and unbelievers to hereditary slavery. This fact started the massive traffic of black slaves, that remained until the abolition during the 19th Century. Thanks to the collaboration of most powerful African empires (Shongay, Benin), Europeans substituted Arabs as main African slave exporters. These slaves were mainly settled in American colonies, to work in large plantations. Even after the slavery abolition, southern states of the United States adopted the "Black Codes" that imposed forced labour and right to body punishment for blacks, remaining until 1866. Nowadays, slavery still exists in form of people traffic (specially women and children) kidnapped to practise sexual or labour slavery. There are currently more than 27 million slaves in the World.

Prisons and colonies

It is only with the appearance of the modern concept of punishment gradation that prisons are institutionalised. Before that, imprisonment was for political opponents, as common criminals were executed or sent to galleys (French king Louis XIV reduced death sentences so that he could build a well provisioned navy). With the capitalist and industrial economic development, and the consequent emigration to the cities, the authorities tried to convert the new masses of poor and unemployed in a profitable force, and buildings with penitentiary functions were made.

During the 18th Century, new humanist and utopic socialist ideas defined delinquent as a victim of the social order, and defended prisons as a means to correction with necessary long sentences, which lead to a massification of prisons. This way prisons were provided with complex vigilance systems, as these were supposed beneficial for the development of regret, same way that control over workers was an improvement in their work performance.

Because of the costly storage of so many prisoners, Britain was first to apply forced labour during the 19th Century (in mines or building of infrastructures), but not until 1853 was labour differentiated between different types of criminals depending on their crime seriousness. Colonial powers also encouraged criminals to join the army instead of being imprisoned (as Britain did during the Second World War). Or, in peace times, banishment to inhabited colonies was a frequent solution that, while colonizing new territories, moved undesirable people away from the metropolis.

Australia received 800 British prisoners as first habitants, in a date remembered today as National Day. Along the next decades, thousands of convicts moved to populate penitentiary and forced labour centres in the colonies. France created labour colonies in its South American possessions at French Guyana, infamous because of the brutal treatment to prisoners until their closure in the mid-20th Century.

Many colonies were initially conceived with production centres, during the 19th and 20th Centuries they were common in authoritarian governments that cruelly exploited the prisoners, as in Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, China, Romania and North Vietnam. Also victorious powers of the Second World War used Germans as compulsory labour force for reconstructions.

The first Nazi concentration camps were built in Germany to accommodate political opponents of the regime. Since 1942, camps were created close to factories in order to provide labour force. IG Farben established a synthetic rubber factory in Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and other camps were situated near plane and rocket factories, and coal mines. Prisoners were frequently sent in mass to the gas chambers when it was necessary to renew labour force.

Soviet Union created a huge network of Gulags (at least 476) to serve as a destination for the victims of Stalin purges. They were mainly ethnic minorities and, after the Second World War, Germans and even liberated soldiers of the Red Army. The most infamous of these camps were built in Siberia north of the Arctic Circle, in Kolyma, Norilsk and Vorkuta. In total, about 18 million people were in this type of camps, of which more than half died. Gulags were one of the pillars of Soviet industrial development, as they were assigned tasks of natural resource exploitation and infrastructure building in remote areas of the country.

A lucrative business

The United States have started to privatise imprisonment services (Wackenhut Corrections, Correctional Services Corporation and Corrections Corporation of America), adducing that the costs of private administration are much lower than public one. This kind of prison-companies offers convicts working for much lower incomes than common citizens, as the light cost of maintenance is included. As a consequence, prisons can make very advantageous contracts with big corporations, for tasks of product assembling.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Amazing Benin

In 1602 the Dutch merchant Pieter de Marees described the city of Edo (now Benin City), capital of the Benin Empire, this way: "The walled city of Benin is composed by a system of huge straight streets. These streets, although not paved, are very wide and well maintained [...]. Fine and big wooden houses are based along the streets, provided with covered porchs [...]. The king's court is very big, with galleries as large as the largest in Amsterdam, constantly watched, and supported by wooden pillars encased with copper on which engravings with past battles were depicted. I went so deep inside this building that, wherever I looked around, I could see gate after gate that finished in other places" [de Marees, 1602].

In his work "Description of Guinea", where he compiled information about uses and habitudes of indigenous people of the Benin Coast, de Marees mainly described the people as "bellicose, promiscuous, savage and thiefs". However, he managed to capture many aspects of the advanced Bini culture.

Amazing Benin

In effect, Europeans there found an Empire with a complex administrative system. The king, the Oba, exercised a great religious power (in fact the country never converted to Christianism) and also political, although the latter was supervised by two councils, an hereditary one (the Uzama) and an elected one, composed by territory chiefs, and lot of influence over the Oba's decisions. Most of the kings in the nearby territories also had a non hereditary title elected by the people.

The Benin Empire culture was, contrary to the one of European colonizers, very social. As long as in Europe the land was seen as a property and an investment, in Africa it was a common property, in which each individual possessed the right to work parts of it, but never over the land itself, as it belonged to the clan or the community. The same way, the name of new born children was decided as common agreement of the people.

A tricky Golden Age

The arrival of the Portuguese meant a deep social change. The Bini did not have the habitude of making trade exchanges aiming luxury, but the behaviour of land possession eagerness, characteristic of Europeans, was finally imitated by the indigenous. "As time passed by, they earned so much knowledge about their products that they almost surpassed us" [de Marees, 1602]. In effect, after a time of trade agreements, Africans understood that Europeans did not have the gold from Benin neither the copper from Sahara, so they had the power of rising prices as there were more and more clients and it was an increasingly valuable business, to the extent that "they became so proud and anxious as greedy rich men. After realising it was good merchandise, they tried by all means to falsify gold itself, transforming 100 grams in 150 and this way cheating foreigners".

Benin people had a deep alcohol culture, as they constantly used it in celebrations of births, offerings, worship to the land and lots of social rites. They distilled it from honey, plants and millet, and produced a kind of low graduation rum, so that when they tried the strong liquor Europeans brought, alcoholism became a common illnes. De Marees said that "they were naturally great drinkers" and, because of the lack of habit to this drink, became easily aggressive. This circumstance was very used by Europeans, together with traffic of firearms, in order to promote tribal wars that became a source to start slave trade.

This way, the Benin Empire complemented gold trade with ivory, pepper, furs, and specially slaves obtained in wars. Along the 16th and 17th centuries, it became the richest and most powerful Empire in West Africa, and a trade class appeared with a desire for luxury comparable to the Western one. British explorers realised the Oba was able to rise an army of twenty thousand men in one single day, and up to one hundred thousand men if necessary.
The end of the Empire came with the abolishment of slavery, of which its wealth had become totally dependent, and Benin entered a period of decadence that meant a lowering of richness, territorial losses and migration. This way, in 1897, the British occupied and pillaged the city of Edo. The kingdom became the protectorate of Nigeria, and the magnificent Bini artworks are now kept in a room in the British Museum.