Many listeners get the wrong idea from hearing me talk about the fact that so many of us in 2023 own child slaves in the Congo, children who are mining cobalt for our electric vehicles and coltan for our cellphones, computers, and other electronic contraptions. Upon hearing this, most American slaveholders (like me) tend to think of cruel and evil plantation masters, sole proprietors who use their slaves to enhance their personal wealth. Such ideas are based on the way cotton was raised in the South before the Civil War, then sold to mills in the North and to England. Merchants would personally buy and sell human chattel when opportunities arose or when personal economic setbacks forced them. Ancillary enterprises also benefitted, of course, like the production of manacles and chains. Slave catchers had a healthy business, too.
But the proper historic frame of reference for slavery today is not the 19th century cotton slavery of the antebellum South, but rather, the 18th century sugar slavery of the Caribbean. That was where slave fortunes were amassed by people, especially in England, who had never, ever, personally seen a slave.
Here is capitalist slavery. People could invest today or buy futures for tomorrow in limited liability corporations in the sugar business, or just in plantations, or just in ships (which carried not only slaves, but other goods to be bought and sold), or in slave-ship building, or slave-ship insurance. People could buy and sell shares, meaning they could buy and sell slaves, without ever coming across a single one of them. If you were a middle-class widow living in London, you would certainly never see any of your slaves, as there weren’t any there to be seen. Great fortunes were established this way.
That is how the slavery business worked in the 18th century and how it works today. My pension fund is well invested in slaves and the fruits of slavery – Dell, Microsoft, Tesla, HP, Apple, Glencore Mining, Samsung, Google, the list goes on. I can buy and sell my shares in slaves at will, and if I don’t, my pension fund can, or my bank can, and no one is the wiser for it. And it doesn’t matter what color I am personally. Slave-owning of this type knows no color. Virtually every Quaker institution of which I am aware currently owns Black African child slaves. I have never once heard this “concern” raised in an anti-racism workshop.
There is another reason that 19th century Southern plantation slavery is not a good analog for 21st century international cobalt and coltan slavery. For all its unceasing brutality, 19th century American slaveholders were bound by their major interest in keeping their slaves alive and working. Much, if not most, of their wealth was tied up in the slaves themselves.
In contrast, our current slaveholding practices have no interest in keeping our child slaves alive, in preventing mine and tunnel collapses that regularly bury scores of people alive, in making it possible for slaves to survive the toxic environment, or simply in feeding them. Plenty more are always ready to replace them.
Now I can make a personal statement that I don’t like seeing people drive automobiles that are dripping the blood of Black African child slaves. I can say I don’t like liberal Presidents staking the future of our country on increasing the scale and intensity of this slavery. I don’t like the fact that seven-million-plus people have now died in the conflict in eastern Congo so that my cellphone should work – more than in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Libya, and Somalia combined – and that eastern Congo is the rape capital of the world. If these statements make people think, so much the better.
I can also predict when this particular form of slavery will end: on the day that other innovations in vehicles and consumer electronics become cheaper than the employment of Black African child slaves. Not one day earlier. It’s called “economics,” “capitalist economics” to be specific, and it is deadly for the global majority while it makes my own life very pleasant indeed – for now, anyway, until the climate crisis brings it all tumbling down.
But for now, try this thought experiment. (Quakers are good at these.) Which child or grandchildren of yours would you be willing to send as a slave to the cobalt mines, and for how long, so that you could drive an electric vehicle?
Of course, personal decisions about what we do or do not consume individually are not the critical factors here. I could decide that I will never drive an EV, but the blood of Black African child slaves would still cause a slick that covers all the streets that I travel. The decisions that we face here (or avoid) are about human rights, not consumption. Do we think Black African child slavery is a violation of human rights, or do we think it proper simply to leave it to the marketplace?
If you want to learn more about these issues, I recommend two recent books: The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis, and Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by Siddarth Kara. If you read the second one, every time you see an electric vehicle, you will want to retch.
Finally, In Memoriam:
Quakers are being killed in the Congo so that our electric vehicles and cellphones will work. You won’t see their obituaries in White Quaker magazines. You never see them mentioned by the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Sadly, for most White Americans, and for most Quakers, Africa is simply an undifferentiated mass of Black skin. (This is also the way many White Americans view Black Americans.)
We can’t break this way of being and thinking unless we SAY THEIR NAMES.
I asked my friend Socrate Imani Mataboro, who has worked with Friends churches in both Congo and Burundi, to send names to me – just a few – so that we can SAY THEIR NAMES.
These Friends all had families and children. I will spare you the details of their deaths:
The Reverend Isdor Makungu, active member of the quarterly Friends council of Goma
Byamungu Herneste, a young active member of the quarterly council of Goma
The Revered Mutabazi Jean de Dieu, of the Friends parish of Masisi
Evangelist Lucien Makimbillyo
Pastor Shamavu Lwabo
Don’t worry if you stumble over the pronunciations. You will get the hang of it, and it will change your life. Feel free to write me at: davidalbert1717[at]gmail[dot]com.
David H. Albert is a co-founder and board member of Friendly Water for the World, a program that supports local development of sustainable village-scale technologies. He is a member of Olympia Friends Meeting (NPYM).
Photos of Congolese children and miners are from the author and are used here with his permission.
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