A Crime So Monstrous:
Face to Face
with Modern Day Slavery
Ben Skinner in Haiti to help
rescue an extraordinary man.
Click here to view the ABC video
Most Americans think that slavery ended in the United States in either 1862 with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effective in 1863 or in 1865 when the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, was ratified. That the civilized world, either before and not very long after the American Civil War, also ended slavery. Skinner’s extraordinary book reminds us the one of the oldest and most brutal institutions in human history—the utter subjection of one human being to another without compensation of any sort, without legal protection of any kind, and without escape except, against great odds, by risking one’s life--is alive and well around the world, even in the United States, albeit underground, beneath the notice of the average citizen. And few politicians in the world are doing much of anything about it.
If nothing else, Skinner reminds the reader of what the word “slavery” really means, as it is so commonly used “as a metaphor for underpaid and over-worked wage laborers.” The people in Skinner’s tale work simply to stay alive; wage slavery is a contradiction in terms. There are no people here who are, to borrow the title of William Rhoden’s book about black American athletes, “Forty Million Dollar Slaves.” After reading this book, no one will use the word “slavery” metaphorically again. There is, Skinner makes clear, nothing like slavery but slavery.
Skinner’s eye-opening investigative report is something of a perverse travelogue; from Haiti to Romania, from Sudan to northern India, Skinner takes us to various hell-holes of the sex trade, tribal warfare, child labor, and grinding, inhuman poverty to reveal the incredible network of slavery, mostly women and children, beaten, raped, starved, worked to exhaustion and beyond, sold from one buyer to another in a thriving subculture of nightmarish commerce, a demented Spencerian fable of savage predators devouring the weak; all of which is frequently supported by the dollars of middle-class and wealthy western and Asian tourists. A highly readable, though at times stomach-churning book, graphically describing beatings, rapes, prostitution, and child abuse, Skinner’s words seems alit with the moral fire of the old-time muckrakers like Steffens, Riis, and Tarbell. “It takes all of us,” Skinner pleads at the end of his book, in his call to fight against slavery, “The original abolitionists were a varied lot, and their successes were due in part to their varied battle plans. From John Brown’s carbines and pikes to Charles Sumner’s verbs and nouns, the antislavery vanguard used widely differing tools, but united in a common cause. Now, as then, all personalities are welcome.”
There is clearly in the book the great moral energy of the great American abolitionists like Theodore Weld, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison. It does not offer merely a description or account of a problem but the cry for action. Early on, Skinner formulates his own anti-slavery ethic: “I couldn’t overcome my instinct that no matter how just the cause, a human life should not be bought—even if it means that someone else may buy it instead. I established a principle for the rest of my work: I would give no money to slave masters.” But even at its darkest, there is a great sense of uplift in this book, no just from the story of anti-slavery Bush administration official John Miller, but from some of the slaves themselves, like Tatiana and Bill Nathan, who escaped their terrible situations and fought back against the evil. There are moments of heroism here, a parent seeking a lost child or a parent giving up her life for her child, that reminds one of there is a sense of triumph even in the worst, most despairing human defeats. Skinner reminds us how much some of us will fight to remind the world that we are human, not things to be used or exploited, not extensions of someone else’s will. For relating this with both honesty and compassion, Skinner deserves the highest praise and the deepest appreciation.
Gerald Early, 2009 finalist judge
Washington University in St. Louis
2009 Nonfiction Winner
(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)
A Crime So Monstrous:
Face to Face with Modern Day Slavery
Born in 1976, Ben Skinner was raised in Wisconsin and northern Nigeria, where his father had
served as a British colonial administrator. He first learned about slavery as a child in Quaker
meeting. The Quakers, who believed that the divine spark animates every man, were the first
abolitionists. Skinner’s Sunday school teachers spent as much time on Harriet Tubman and William
Lloyd Garrison as they did on Moses and Jesus.
Skinner himself comes from abolitionist stock. His great-great-grandfather, Robert Pratt, served
with the 1st Connecticut Artillery at the Siege of Petersburg, the ten-month campaign which bled
white the Confederate Army and led to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Pratt’s uncle was a comb-maker
too old to serve at the time, but not too old to make fiery antislavery speeches. When one of his
distributors told him his abolitionist talk was hurting sales in the south, he exploded:
“If they won’t buy my Yankee combs, then let them go lousy!”
In 2003, as a writer on assignment in Sudan for Newsweek International, Skinner met his first
survivor of slavery. He had first flown in under enemy radar with an Evangelical group purporting
to buy slaves en masse to secure their freedom. Afterwards, on his own, he hitched a ride on a
U.N. Cessna to the frontlines of the north-south Sudanese civil war. There he met Muong Nyong.
Like Skinner, Nyong was 27 at the time, and pondering what to do with the rest of his life.
Unlike Skinner, he had spent the first part of that life in bondage.
After meeting Nyong, Skinner traveled the globe to find others like him. Scholars estimate the
total number of modern-day slaves is greater than at any point in history. But the number means
nothing, unless slavery means something. Skinner adopted a narrow definition: slaves are forced
to work, under threat of violence, for no pay beyond subsistence.
Though there are more slaves today than ever before, finding them would prove the most daunting
challenge of Skinner’s professional life. Slaves languish in shadows, kept hidden by violent
traffickers and masters. Going undercover when necessary, Skinner infiltrated trafficking networks
and slave quarries, urban child markets and illegal brothels. In the process, he became the first
person in history to observe the sales of human beings on four continents.
A graduate of Wesleyan University, Skinner is currently a fellow at
the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and previously served as
a Research Associate for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations as well as Special
Assistant to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. As a writer engaged in the study of the U.S. and global
political economies, his articles have appeared in Newsweek International, Travel + Leisure, Los Angeles
Times, The Miami Herald, Foreign Policy and others. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
* * *
“By highlighting modern-day slavery and the fight for its abolition, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize
committee pushed forward the "unfinished work" that President Lincoln spoke about that Thursday afternoon
in Gettysburg. There are more slaves today than at any point in human history, and I'm deeply honored,
and humbled, to be recognized by the committee as being among those working for their freedom.”
[A first-time author, Skinner is donating his $10,000 honorarium to Free The Slaves, the American wing
of Anti-Slavery International, the world's oldest human rights organization.]