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Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MMPPF (Modern Marronage? The Pursuit and Practice of Freedom in the Contemporary World)

Reporting period: 2021-10-01 to 2023-03-31

In the 21st Century, many new NGOs in Europe, North America and Australia were founded with a mission to end what they call ‘modern slavery’. These NGOs evoke the history of Atlantic World slavery to emphasize the severity of the particular forms of present-day oppression and exploitation that concern them, and look to the history of the original European and American abolitionist movement to guide contemporary policy and civil society interventions. Their campaigns have been so successful that their core claims have become politically mainstream. Though ‘modern slavery’ remains ill-defined, eradicating it is one target of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, and the assertion that human trafficking is ‘the modern day slave trade’ has been repeatedly reproduced in recent political and media commentary on Europe’s ‘migration crisis’. Here the term ‘trafficking’ is used interchangeably with ‘smuggling’ to reference the facilitation of movement across borders without state sanction, and a story is told in which ‘people traffickers’ appear as ‘the slave traders of the 21st century’.
Such equivalences make powerful political rhetoric, and enable governments to present increasingly harsh measures suppress irregular migration as a form of humanitarian action. Yet the idea that we are witnessing the resurgence of the contemporary equivalent of the transatlantic slave trade demonstrates a spectacular disregard both for historical reality and the ethnographic details of contemporary irregular migration. Unlike African victims of the slave trade, the people today described as victims of trafficking want to move, and do so in the hope of securing greater rights and freedoms. And unlike Africans historically trafficked into chattel slavery, they are often willing to risk suffering, endure restrictions on freedom, or temporarily indebt themselves, in pursuit of rights and freedoms. In this respect, they have more in common with enslaved people who sought to emancipate themselves from slavery in the Atlantic World through flight and marronage than with victims of the slave trade. This observation provides the starting point for our project, which asks what can be learned about the experience of those whose freedoms are heavily restricted in the contemporary world from more careful engagement with Atlantic World histories of enslaved people’s efforts to extricate themselves from slavery (marronage) and to achieve a condition they themselves recognized as freedom.

This question matters to society, since dominant discourse on ‘modern slavery’ is being used to inform and justify a wide range of policy measures and interventions in Europe and globally that critics argue not only fail to prevent the rights violations they are designed to combat, but also create or exacerbate vulnerabilities to violence, exploitation, marginalization and exclusion. The project therefore places the problem of freedom – past and present - at the heart of four field studies across three points of the Atlantic World triangle (Brazil; Ghana; and Italy/Portugal/Britain), each of which explores different aspects of the perception, pursuit and practice of freedom by contemporary highly precarious and socially marginalized groups that appear, in antislavery discourse, as victims of, or vulnerable to, ‘modern slavery’.
Field Study 1 addresses the experience of sub-Saharan African irregular migrants in Europe and Brazil. Starting from a concern with similarities between their journeys towards Europe, and histories of enslaved people’s flight from slavery, we explore continuities between the state practices historically used to constrain slave mobility in Brazil and the American South, and those employed to control irregular migration today, asking to what extent contemporary irregular migrants’ narratives of their journeys resemble those of fugitive slaves. Field Study 2 focuses on antislavery NGOs interventions to prevent child labour in contemporary fishing and artisanal mining communities in Ghana, and explores continuities and discontinuities between their efforts to impose ‘freedom’ top down and the efforts of missionaries and others who sought to ‘civilise’ and ‘reform’ formerly enslaved people in the Caribbean, Latin America and North America both before and after slavery’s legal abolition. Field Study 3 draws on historical research on enslaved women’s strategic use of sexuality and intimate relationships to move closer to freedom to frame ethnographic fieldwork on the role of sexuality in contemporary Brazilian women’s internal and international migration dreams and realities. Field study 4 uses histories of enslaved people who attempted to use legal routes to freedom to inform ethnographic research on Africans seeking asylum in the UK and Brazil today.
The overall objectives of the project 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 use them to inform the design of field studies on the perception, pursuit and practice of freedom by marginalized and rightless people in the Atlantic World today;
• to gather a novel body of qualitative data on the perception, pursuit and practice of freedom by four marginalised groups popularly understood to be at risk of ‘modern slavery’
• to use insights from a 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
1) In response to recommendations from the ERCEA, local ethics advisory board committees were set up in each of the regions where fieldwork will be undertaken (Europe, Brazil, Ghana). Applications for ethical approval for Studies 1, 2, 3 and 4 from the University of Bristol have been submitted and granted.

2) Primary and secondary historical sources on fugitive slaves and on post-emancipation efforts to create subjects of ‘freedom’ in Anglophone Americas (in English) and on marronage and fugitivity in Brazil (in Portuguese) have been gathered and analysed, and the review used to inform the design of field research for all four studies.

3) Links have been developed and maintained with Brazilian, Ghanaian, UK and European academic and NGO partners for knowledge exchange and fieldwork access.


4) Field research for Study 1 is almost completed. In São Paulo, ethnographic work documenting the day-to-day lives of sub-Saharan African migrants, including in-depth, biographical narrative interviews with 24 migrants has been conducted. Two months of ethnographic research in Brazil on present-day occupations and maroon histories has been completed. In partnership with the NGO Missão Paz, we have worked with 10 Congolese women to create life-stories for publication on the openDemocracy platform. In Europe, 20 biographical narrative interviews have been conducted with sub-Saharan African migrants and a field visit to Rome where migrants live in occupations organised along similar lines to those in São Paulo has been undertaken. Data collected from narrative biographical interviews in UK, Brazil and Italy have been transcribed, and we have analysed these data in conjunction with findings from our review of primary and secondary historical sources on slave flight and marronage. Two journal articles based on the research for this study have been published.

5) Research design and background interviews in Ghana has been completed for Study 2. Fieldwork was postponed due to the pandemic, but has now been completed. Between July and October 2022, Sam Okyere (Senior Researcher) and Bernard Koomson (Post-doctoral Research Associate) conducted fieldwork in two fishing communities (Senya Beraku and Winneba), a collection of island and riverine communities on the Volta lake (Afram Plains) and a mining community (Kenyasi). Additionally, we conducted narrative interviews and field observations with staff of abolitionist organisations, public officials, immigration officers, staff of the Ghana anti-trafficking secretariat and others in Accra, Kenyasi and Sunyani. These data are now being analysed and journal articles based on the study are in preparation.

6) Research design for Study 3 has been completed, and field research half way through. In Brazil, in-depth biographical interviews with 20 women sex workers in Rio de Janiero and Riberao Preto have been conducted as well as 4 focus group discussions. In Europe, field access is being developed for the interviews.

7) Research design for Study 4 has been completed, and field research half way through. In Brazil, focus group workshops and in-depth biographical interviews with 20 migrants in Sao Paulo have been undertaken, and data is under analysis. In the UK, field access is being developed for matching interviews.

8) We have also started to work with research participants to co-produce counter-narratives to conventional antislavery stories of ‘modern slavery’, and communicate them through performance/film. In Brazil, we are working with Mirian Alves Souza of the Research Center on (I)mobility, Migration and Refugees, Fluminense Federal University, who is developing a Theatre of the Oppressed production based on data from fieldwork for Study 4; in the UK, we are working with a community filmmaker, Sam Liebmann, of Tamo Junto Productions, and a group of young refugees and asylum seekers, to coproduce a film about their lived experience. The young refugees and asylum seekers have been given training in filmmaking and are full and equal participants in the process.

8) Fortnightly project meetings have been held that included project planning, sharing research data, and giving feedback on potential publications.

9) Project findings have been disseminated at academic conferences and seminars in

Project achievements - A project website in English and Portuguese has been established. Five peer-reviewed journal articles drawing on the research have been produced. We have also published multiple blog posts and have organised or participated in more than 30 international events that included workshops for ECRs, roundtable, academic conferences, film screenings, a photo exhibition, a book launch, invited keynote lectures, online interviews and lectures with partners in Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, Canada, Belgium, and the UK; and we have submitted abstracts to conferences in Italy and Croatia.
Though progress has been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, fieldwork for Study 1 has already generated empirically grounded counter-narratives about freedom and slavery today and shed fresh light on debates about ‘trafficking as modern slavery’ in sociology and migration studies. Field data from Studies 2, 3, and 4 has thus far proven equally rich and we believe they will allow us to make important interventions in theoretical debates on freedom’s relation to agency, personhood, property, political community, mobility, honour, race, age, and gender. The review of historical sources has also allowed us to revisit findings from previous research studies conducted by team members and produce articles offering new analyses. By the end of the project, we expect to have archived anonymised narrative biographical interview transcripts from all four studies on the project website making them a publicly available resource for other researchers; to have co-produce a story about ‘modern marronage’ with asylum-seeker and migrant research participants and translated that into a performance/film that challenges conventional narratives about ‘modern slavery’; and to have submitted up to 15 articles to international peer-reviewed journals as well as to have secured book contracts for a multidisciplinary edited volume on Modern Marronage, and a co-authored monograph on freedom’s contemporary ambiguities through the lens of Atlantic World slavery scholarship.