Stewart on Davidson, 'Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom'

Julia O'Connell Davidson
Whitney Stewart

Julia O'Connell Davidson. Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. x + 250 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-29727-3.

Reviewed by Whitney Stewart (University of Texas at Dallas) Published on H-Slavery (July, 2017) Commissioned by David M. Prior

On May 17, 2017, Ivanka Trump led a bipartisan meeting on human trafficking at the White House. Congressional members and NGO leaders discussed legislation to, as Ivanka Trump wrote on her Instagram, “end human trafficking.” She declared, in language mirroring that of well-known anti-trafficking activist Kevin Bales, that “human trafficking is a pervasive humanitarian epidemic both domestically and abroad.”[1]

Sociologist Julia O’Connell Davidson seeks to subvert this characterization of human trafficking and modern slavery as a disease with her excellent 2015 book, Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom. Davidson argues that beliefs held by “new abolitionists,” as she terms contemporary antislavery activists, are informed by historically inaccurate and theoretically shallow understandings of slavery. Narrowly conceived and often misrepresented as facts, these ideas form the core of new abolitionist ideology, severely hampering the goal to end slavery.

Davidson raises serious questions about the new abolitionist agenda—about definitions of “modern slavery,” who it includes, and what can be done to combat it—by seamlessly interweaving humanities scholarship on transatlantic slavery with social science and policy research. Despite the plethora of statistics consistently wielded by new abolitionists (think the “tens of millions” human trafficking victims recently cited in the 2017 US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report), Davidson asserts that modern slavery cannot be quantified as there is no good definition of it.[2] The new abolitionist definition generally includes three vague components that characterize modern slavery: labor exploitation, violence or the threat of it, and loss of free will. Yet this definition disregards historical context and change over time for integral concepts such as consent and citizenship.

This limited historical understanding has created, in Davidson’s words, a “selective remembering and forgetting” that feeds into the contemporary movement’s limits on who deserves liberation and why (p. 17). Davidson asserts that the terms used to combat human trafficking stem from deficient interpretations. Modernity, for one, requires rescuing from erroneous liberal discourses. New abolitionists have adopted the liberal tactic of viewing modernity in terms of binaries—past vs. present, slave vs. free—thereby upholding the severely limited worldview that assumes a modern society naturally produces greater equality. History tells us otherwise. As Davidson shows, liberalism presents slavery as something belonging to the past that we, as a modern society, can move beyond. That slavery existed alongside, and in fact supported, the liberal and modern state is conveniently forgotten. But this is only possible when historical scholarship is not present, for as Davidson so powerfully demonstrates, the work of historians and other humanists on transatlantic slavery forcefully disputes this view of modernity and thus of modern slavery. By ignoring history and embracing the modern liberal order, the new abolitionists have adopted a powerful yet deceitful ideology.

Davidson structures much of the book around the sometimes overlapping, sometimes divergent experiences of those enslaved or deemed dependent in the past versus those dubbed modern slaves in the present. After a brief overview of the theoretical, philosophical, and historical underpinnings of modern slavery (chapter 1), Davidson delves into a sophisticated critique of that term (chapter 2). Each remaining chapter tackles a different category or quality defining the experiences of the enslaved: bonded labor, including that of children (chapter 3); race (chapter 4); mobility (chapter 5); forced labor (chapter 6); forced marriage (chapter 7); and sex trafficking (chapter 8). While all chapters are well researched and elegantly written, chapter 4 stands out as particularly useful for the classroom. Representations of modern slavery ignore race, and Davidson effectively historicizes this whitewashing. By laying out the connections between transatlantic slavery, the prison industrial complex, and modern immigration policies, this chapter will challenge students to recognize the intertwined legacy of race and state-sanctioned oppression.

Davidson harnesses several disciplines, and concisely distills some of the most important themes in transatlantic slavery scholarship. She relies heavily on many of the exceptional works on slavery in the Americas, from David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975) to Stephanie M. H. Camp’s Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004). Unfortunately, the majority of historical monographs and articles cited in Davidson’s bibliography are US or Anglo-Atlantic in focus. While her social science and policy source base is global in scope, the limited perspective offered by her historical source base raises questions about how non-Anglo-Atlantic works would challenge or support her conclusions. Additionally, while Davidson shows the connections between capitalism and slavery in the present, she does not adequately engage the growing historiography on capitalism and slavery in the past. Doing so would have added nuance to discussions of the elements that structure slavery, freedom, and modernity.

These critiques do not diminish the book’s value for both researchers and teachers. First, it is a beautiful example of interdisciplinary humanities and social sciences scholarship. Davidson’s work should push us to move across disciplinary boundaries to improve the quality and broaden the audience of our work. Second, it would be a worthwhile addition to any undergraduate- or graduate-level seminar on slavery. Beyond showing the efficacy of interdisciplinarity, students will see firsthand how practicing good history is essential for improving our so-called modern world. As one of the few policy issues supported on both sides of the aisle, anti-trafficking legislation must take into consideration the complicated history and legacy of transatlantic slavery. This compelling, persuasive, and confident book does the important work of showing that scholars can bring historical scholarship into conversation with contemporary issues.


[1]. Ivanka Trump, Instagram post, May 17, 2017,, accessed June 29, 2017.

[2]. US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2017, 6,, accessed June 29, 2017.

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Citation: Whitney Stewart. Review of Davidson, Julia O'Connell, Modern Slavery: The Margins of Freedom. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL:

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