Evidence of slavery pre-dates all written record. The Code of
Hammurabi (c. 1760 BCE) discusses slavery as a well-established institution.
It's mentioned repeatedly in the Bible and Qur'an. Its presence has been felt
throughout history and on all continents, and persists to this day. Although the percentage of enslaved people is apparently lower than it has been in the past, in terms of body count more people
are enslaved now than at any point in the history of the world (some estimates
place the global number around 27 million, with as many as 50,000 in the U.S.
alone). E. Benjamin Skinner takes on this difficult subject in his first book:
A Crime So Monstrous.
The story of how this book came to be is, in itself, rather remarkable. Skinner spent four years traveling all over the world doing first-hand research, in the process visiting twelve countries on five continents and conducting hundreds of interviews with slaves, human traffickers, and politicians. He's the first person in recorded history to observe the sale of human beings on four different continents. Both Skinner's health and physical safety were in constant jeopardy during his investigations. He literally risked his life to bring the plight of modern-day slaves to the attention of Western readers. Much of the book relates his experiences as he goes undercover in his attempt to determine how easy or difficult it is to buy a person. (He found it relatively easy.)
Skinner quotes Josef Stalin as saying, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." Accordingly, A Crime So Monstrous relates the experiences of individual slaves and slavery survivors. Their stories are affecting, the type of horrific examples you'd expect to encounter in a book of this nature. Skinner reports their accounts with a delicate touch, putting human faces on this horrendous practice.
The politics behind slavery is as much a part of Skinner's narrative as the human element. Skinner relates how difficult it was for modern-day abolitionists to get U.S. Government officials to even use the word "slavery" when discussing the subject. He recounts the strange pairing of the U.S. "Religious Right" with the feminist movement, the two groups working together to combat slavery (and then together derailing much of the debate by focusing only on sex workers, some of whom are slaves and some of whom aren't). It's fascinating to read about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is taking place in an effort to bring this issue to the political forefront.
When talking politics, Skinner primarily deals with U.S. policy, but does address situations and political climates in other nations that encourage slavery. Most often, the countries with the highest incidence of slavery won't even acknowledge the problem exists, let alone act on terminating the practice. Slavery is tacitly approved of in some cases as a subtle form of warfare. Anti-trafficking laws passed in some nations are at best ignored, and at worst punish the victims. Even those slaves who are manumitted often have no place to go; freedom in these cases being the freedom to starve. Skinner addresses these injustices with just the right tone. While it's obvious he's passionate about his subject, he writes with enough distance to prevent the book from being a tirade. He lets the facts speak for themselves.
A Crime So Monstrous doesn't exactly read like a novel. The statistics and political wrangling can be a bit dry. In addition, the narrative felt disorganized. Each chapter of the book focuses on one continent and one specific slave's story, with whatever was happening politically at the time of the events depicted integrated into the tale. This layout confused the book's timeline, making the political side of the story difficult to follow. Nevertheless, the book is exceptionally well-written and eye-opening. It will keep most readers interested throughout, and will keep them thinking about the subject long after the book's completion.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the March 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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