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The Value of Rights, Freedoms, & Protections: Reflecting on Emancipation & our first Mary Prince Day

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

The year 2020 has given us a strange Cup Match holiday week - thanks to COVID-19, it has been a break without the Cup Match itself. This year is also remarkable for the change in name of the second day, in honour of one of Bermuda's National Heroes: Mary Prince, a key figure in the abolitionist movement. These two factors combined have perhaps given us an added reminder to reflect on the first day's namesake: Emancipation.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade marks one of the worst stains on the soul of the Western world. Slavery had existed in the ancient world, but early modern practices radically changed and institutionalised it. The status of slave became an inheritable trait, and the focus on Africa for indentured servants led to prejudiced treatment of all people based on the shade of their skin.

Atlantic commerce also changed the practice by dramatically industrialising slavery on a scale that had never been seen before, as Europeans sought to exploit entire continents for resources. To do so, slave traders utilised a tool we are all too familiar with today: data.

Intercontinental commerce was complicated, expensive, and highly risky in many senses. Whether crossing the Atlantic, or circumnavigating the Old World, it was not uncommon to lose entire ships. All industries sought to use data to manage their risk and profits, and human traffickers were no exception.

Thanks to recent efforts like the excellently-researched Slave Voyages, which compiled data on ships and manifests, we can understand and visualise better than ever the scale and complexity of the enterprise. Slave Voyage's African Names Database admirably gives back humanity to individuals often lumped into a faceless mass.

These ship records also help reveal how value was placed on certain data elements like sex or height or skin hue, which went on to be priced in detail in the Americas. Quoting "South Carolina Slavery - Buying and Selling Human Beings":

"And what was the value of these human beings that South Carolina planters and merchants traded in? Prices can be calculated from bills of sale, inventories, and other historic documents. In addition, at least one "price table" has been located. From the early 1850s, it was found in the Tyre Glen papers and applies to the Forsythe County area of North Carolina. The amounts listed reflect nineteenth-century dollar values."
"Other documents, however, make it clear that the price of a slave was variable. Slaves were often divided into classes, such as:"

These are brutal, difficult facts to look at - but we must look at them, to understand the reality of them and the harm that men can do.

Now, today, the idea of putting a price on human life and forced servitude is anathema. We can all agree that freedom is an essential right that all people deserve, no matter how much someone might be willing to pay.

I think back to this fundamental, basic concept, that essential rights cannot be bought or sold, when contemporary people suggest that we may be able to sell our data to receive technology or online services. I worry about the road that might lead us down. Privacy is also a right, perhaps on a different level of the hierarchy of needs, but still a foundational element to being in control of our own lives and the functioning of our communities. How can we put a price on that control? And therefore on the data behind it?

When I conduct training sessions on privacy as a human right, I will often discuss how it developed over the 20th Century. The Holocaust is a stunning example of data abuses - for example, in countries with better public records, the Nazi forces were better able to find and target individuals. The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, and the ceaseless monitoring of individuals for dissent, provides another example of privacy abuses gone horribly wrong. Based on these types of events, European countries have often been the modern driver of privacy rights - in North America there just have not been such awful abuses.

As recently.

If we look back just one more century - to the Tansatlantic Slave Trade, to the markets for human beings, to the pricing guides for children and families - it is plain to see the enormous harm that came from putting a dollar value on human rights. We must not forget that horror.

If we open up financial markets to freedoms and protections, we end up with the lives of human beings on the auction block. This history casts a shadow that reaches today, but we will only see and learn from it if we are willing to look, and remember.

Alexander McD White

Privacy Commissioner

To reach out to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, please visit our Contact Us page.


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