'Things' are not what they seem: on persons, things, slaves, and the new abolitionist movement

Julia O.Connell Davidson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
515 Downloads (Pure)


In a world where chattel slavery is outlawed everywhere, so that nobody, anywhere, is legally ascribed the status of 'slave', what do campaigners and politicians mean by the term 'modern slavery'? This article explores 'new abolitionist' efforts to define 'slavery', observing that it follows a tradition of liberal thought in which the singular wrong of slavery is held to be that it converts persons into things, an assumption that has also informed one strand of the historical literature on slavery in the Atlantic World. It then considers another strand of slavery scholarship, as well as some historical evidence, that alerts us to serious flaws in accounts that frame slavery through reference to the conceptual opposition of persons and things. In reality, Atlantic World slaves had a 'bifurcated existence' as both 'things' and 'persons', as Saidiya Hartman puts it. The article asks what closer attention to the history of the slave's double character might teach us about serious and heavy restraints on freedom in the contemporary world.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)227-257
Number of pages31
JournalCurrent Legal Problems
Issue number1
Early online date16 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2016

Structured keywords

  • Migration Mobilities Bristol
  • slavery
  • persons
  • freedom
  • migration
  • mobility


  • modern slavery
  • personhood
  • freedom


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