Ocean Traffic

Only within the past few years have maritime museums around the world addressed human trafficking as part of the larger maritime story. Focused always on naval warfare or world trade or emigration, the official narratives have omitted accounts of involuntary transfer of humans from one place to another, indeed, the awful fact of humans as trade goods, as an unspoken part of the official interpretation of a national history. The tide turned in the late 1990s when the first major exhibition on the international slave trade opened at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, followed shortly by similar presentations at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City and the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. That progress has continued; last year, a powerful exhibition on the Dutch contribution to the slave trade opened at the National Maritime Museum of the Netherlands in Amsterdam.

The facts are evident, and the extent of the 19th century slave phenomenon was worldwide. UNESCO, the United Nations organization that documents and preserves cultural themes and places, has an extensive interpretive schematic of the many sites and cities around the world where the trafficking of humans was practiced, where thousands, indeed millions, of individuals were assembled, sold, and transferred to new owners in faraway places as chattel and cheap labor.

This tragic story can never be told often enough in my opinion, nor can we deny its impact, in the United States most dramatically, as an integrating process that brought extraordinary cultural value to our nation, even as it brought the seeds of prejudice and violence that distress us to this day. On the one hand, our demography, language, song, and values have been profoundly influenced by the cultural contributions from Africa; on the other, we fought a terrible resultant war, have known bigotry and segregation, and have perpetuated other more subtle manifestations of race division and conflict. That story continues.

Human trafficking can also be viewed through the economic perspective. Slaves provide services at a fraction of the cost of paid labor, and the financial incentive for such services explains even today the reality of enforced employment of children, the comparative inequality of pay for workers in the developing world, and even in the trafficking of women as sex workers, a trade that, sadly, continues to the present.

Boat people are another example. Typically, they are fleeing a social or political tyranny at home, in search of alternative opportunity, however ephemeral, in a place distant but attracting by virtue of its reputed opportunities and freedoms. More and more, we are aware of such passages in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. We hear the extreme stories, when the boats founder or the container full of miserable human cargo is discovered. We don't hear the less sensational, but equally disturbing, accounts of such passages when the migrants succeed in reaching shore, only to thereafter disappear into the anonymity of urban poverty, unemployment, and abuse in a new place, not what was meant to be and inhabited by strangers.

When we assert that the ocean has been, and will continue to be, a place of global connection, we also accept that the sea serves all forms of exchange - whether it be the transfer of arms, nuclear waste, oil or chemicals, raw materials or manufactured goods, or human beings - men, women, and children, seeking hospitality for their hopes and dreams, often finding instead in-hospitality, exploitation, and disappointment. The ocean is never really neutral or benign; even at its most placid, it is nonetheless alive, authentic, and changing. It is a natural scape for human endeavor, but it remains for the most part outside our vision and behavior, a place apart.

But beyond that horizon, real life abounds - in the congruities and conflicts of the creatures in the ocean, and those who sail upon it. We should be aware of that vivid continuing drama, its actualities and outcomes. We should know the true value of what passes across the oceans, the precious cargo of goods, people, and ideas that have as been for all time the essential maritime story. Ocean traffic takes many forms; we should understand them all, and pay attention.