Slavery did not end with the American Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation or the US 13th Amendment, which struck slavery from its venerable constitution. In the Philippines and the rest of the world, slavery has persisted, even prospered. It has taken various forms and mutated into socially acceptable practices.
In school we learned the various socioeconomic classes of early Philippine society. There were the maharlika (nobles), timawa (freemen), and alipin or slaves of whom there were two classes — the namamahay and the sagigilid. The aliping namamahay could own a house and live away from the master’s house (our modern version is the “stay out” helper), while the aliping sagigilid had absolutely nothing and stayed in the master’s household (our modern version is the “stay in” helper or kasambahay, or “domestic helper” in the case of overseas Filipino workers).
Oh, how primitive, my schoolboy mind thought then. It turns out that actually, our society then was no longer primitive, because the more primitive the society, the more egalitarian it is. Truly primitive societies were defined by blood ties and collectively engaged in hunting-gathering, and so its members were equal to each other. The more economically sophisticated the society, and the more “unrelated” people are to each other, the more widespread the slavery. If the concept is expanded to structures of oppression that perpetuate unequal access to resources and opportunities, slavery becomes true not only of individuals but of entire groups and nations. So used to the practice are we that slaves may even be considered equals, as long as they do their master’s bidding all the time.
Slavery has been with us for millennia. Among the prized booty of ancient warfare were slaves. In Imperial Rome four of every 10 persons were slaves. Conquered peoples are regularly pressed into wartime service, such as our sex slaves or “comfort women” during the Japanese Occupation, or the Jews in labor camps and munitions factories in Nazi Germany, or, more currently, the civilian captives of the Maute group in Marawi City, who have been forced to do domestic chores and actual fighting.
Slavery therefore arises from economic interests and military necessity. Historically, our Moro “pirates” raided and took slaves without discrimination. They raided fellow Moro communities and other non-Christian groups, not just Christian villages. When I was growing up in Mindanao, I would hear stories of children disappearing (having been kidnapped) and being taken to the nearby Moro provinces to become slaves. That Moro pirates cum terrorists still venture from the far south to the Central Visayas only shows that they will go where the fat pickings are, as they always have.
The knavery of the Abu Sayyaf has nothing to do with Islam and is widely condemned by mainstream Muslims. Its members are just making a living the old-fashioned way, through feats of daring and the strength of arms. President Duterte’s threat to eat their uncooked internal organs is just another occupational hazard as they walk or sail about with multimillion-peso bounties on their heads.
Not that piracy and slavery are unique to the Moros. Human trafficking is a global scourge. The website dosomething.org says: “According to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, of which 80 percent are female and half are children.”
My years in primary school were half a century ago, learning about something I thought was centuries old and a thing of the past. But painful social realities persist, and slavery is one of the most enduring. It is not likely that a civil war will be fought over slavery, as there is no longer a state that officially practices it. In fact the American Civil War began as a war of preservation of the Union and not as a war of the abolition of slavery. The only way to really fight slavery is to always strive to give access to resources and opportunities that will reduce economic and social inequalities.
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Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.