Slavery and Bodily Labour, Pain and Work

Alas! and am I born for this,

   To wear this slavish chain?

Deprived of all created bliss,

   Through hardship, toil, and pain!

Excerpt from ‘On Liberty and Slavery’ by George Moses Horton

Above is the first verse of Horton’s poem which depicts the unjust nature of slavery where one is ‘born for this’ and denied ‘all created bliss’. The voice of the poem calls upon ‘liberty’ to remedy his pain and fears. Born as a slave, Homerton published his first book whilst enslaved and was not freed until his sixties. Although this poem was written in the 1800s, slavery and extreme human bodily labour sadly still exists today with a UN estimate of up to 30 million caught in the slave industry. Human trafficking, bonded labour, sex slavery and child labour are all forms of contemporary slavery where the body is bought and sold and forced to serve or produce. The ‘hardship, toil and pain’ present in such exploited bodily labour will be discussed later on in this blog post.

Slavery is the classic example of the body commoditised where an individual becomes the property of an owner and is forced to obey their orders. The body becomes a site of politics and history. Marx argues that in a capitalist world we are alienated from things and are detached from the value of human labour that has gone into them. In the case of slavery, objectifying the body causes alienation from another human and their labour. Slaves are given the status of an object,the same status as the objects they produce themselves. However Mintz argues that slaves in Caribbean sugar plantations were ‘false commodities’ because human beings are not objects even if they are treated as objects (Mintz 1986).

Mintz analyses the impact of sugar on history and capitalism and the role of slavery in its production. Sugar became an economic and political commodity particularly with the British control of sugar production in the New World. Ortiz called plantations the ‘favoured child of capitalism’. Mintz argues that plantations contributed to a capitalist world where slaves were separated from their means of production. He draws comparisons between Caribbean slaves and European free labourers as both have an economic function although slaves cannot exercise influence over their work. Mintz argues that plantations cannot be viewed as capitalist as they are dependent on slave-labour rather than proletarian. However their contribution to the capitalist world cannot be ignored (Mintz 1986).

Sugar Cane Plantation

Image of a sugar cane plantation

In a separate article, Mintz makes the distinction between physical work and skilled labour where there has been a decline in the latter. Skilled labour is now admired in sport and recreational crafts whereas ‘brute labour’ is not admired at all (Mintz 2011:413). Although ‘pride in work can make a worker more vulnerable and exploitable’, work can ‘provide reassurance, satisfaction, fulfilment’ (Mintz 2011:416-7). Mintz argues that work can give life meaning and also provide individual self-esteem, even among Caribbean slaves. Life still has meaning even if one is robbed from freedom.

Although we can see that work ‘seems to be deadening to the spirit’, turning ‘workers into automatons, to make their lives empty’, we cannot know exactly how work is experienced by the worker (Mintz 2011:418). This is very similar to pain being a very subjective experience. Both work and pain are constructed in the making or unmaking of worlds. In the case of slavery and other forms of exploited bodily labour, for those in favour, pain is seen as productive. Is this pain an escape from life if pain is your life? I would argue that it is not if pain is one’s constant reality. Scarry writes ‘It hurts to work’ yet work is ‘a diminution of pain: the aversive intensity of pain becomes in work controlled discomfort’ (Scarry 1987:171). Therefore work is not equivalent to but a form of pain.

Dhaka, Bangladesh - March 2010. Garment factory in Dhaka Bangladesh in the Mohakhali area.  Dhaka counts more than 4000 factories producing for export only. This factory produced garments for the dutch company Hans Textiel.

Modern day sweatshop in South Asia

The language of pain is the language of agency where one individual is acting and the other is acted upon (Scarry 1987). We can distinguish between self-agency and external agency however in slave labour most agency is absent. We often separate the mind and body in order to cope with extreme pain. Many slaves believe that although their body has been taken, their mind is still theirs. Therefore they are still their own person and still have some form of agency. Does this assign more power and importance to the mind? Slavery of the mind as well as the body leads to the true destruction of the self and individual. This Cartesian dualism of mind over body is key when analysing pain in the construction of one’s own world. When is it productive or even essential to separate the mind and the body and when is it not?  Being self-reflexive reflects our society and helps us understand what kind of a world is made through pain.

I have primarily explored slavery in relation to the ownership of another’s body. However further analysis could investigate the enslaving of one’s own body for example in eating disorders, battles with sexuality and self- harm. In these cases, a different kind of world is created which affects personal identity constructions.


Homerton, G.M. On Liberty an Slavery, Accessed online: [Last accessed 26th Feb 2016]

Mintz, S. (1986). Chapter 2 Production in Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history, p 19-73, Penguin books, UK.

Mintz, S. (2011). Caribbean History, Caribbean Labour, p.407-419, Vol. 34(4), Review (Fernand Braudel Center), USA.

Scarry, E. (1987). The Body in Pain: The making and Unmaking of the World.  Oxford University Press, UK.




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