Slavery and the Nigerian horse scam

Franco Alemán at Barcepundit quotes Susan Llewelyn Leach, a Christian Science Monitor hack, who writes that:

Slaves are cheap these days. Their price is the lowest it’s been in about 4,000 years. And right now the world has a glut of human slaves – 27 million by conservative estimates and more than at any time in human history. [snip]

In his book “Disposable People,” [Kevin Bales, president of Free the Slaves] says ownership is no longer an attractive proposition for most slaveholders because the price of slaves is so low. In 1850, a slave would cost about $40,000 in today’s dollars. Now, you can buy a slave for $30 in the Ivory Coast. The glut “has converted them from being the equivalent of buying a car to buying a plastic pen that you use and throw away,” he says.

I would be interested to know how Ms Leach has calculated slave prices for 2000 BC, how she reached the figure of 27 million currently enslaved, and whether liberal estimates are higher or lower than conservative ones. I wonder also whether Mr Bales isn’t overstating his case; although anti-slavery policies and other factors drove prices up in the mid-19th century, my (doubtless naive) impression is of a strange consistency in slave pricing. For example, Lawrence R Tenzer notes that

when slave prices were at their highest, one prime male slave had a cash value comparable to what a day laborer might earn in three to four years

and a very interesting article in the Accra Mail records that in Salaga in 1889 a male slave fetched 300 cowries while a horse brought in 1000. Looking back on my Kingdom of Aragon ready reckoner, it turns out that these are very close to the ratios that applied in these parts in the late thirteenth century (ie 1 male slave = 4.7872 manual workers pa = 0.45 horses), and I will be happy to find more examples if required.

How about Mr Bales’ price of $30 a slave on the Ivory Coast? I suspect this is an invention, or that it applies to an isolated case up-country. I was talking last weekend to a Catalan club owner and ex-merchant seaman who told me (in a rich Glaswegian accent) that the going rate for a young woman in the Niger delta in the mid-80s was $250–it should be said that I don’t know on what contractual basis this kind of slavery was undertaken–and there is no reason to believe that prices on the open market will have dropped since that time of extreme lawlessness.

However, while $250 may conceivably have been 4-5 times the annual income of workers up river, it is more difficult to estimate horse prices. Horse racing continues to be a popular sport in West Africa–Jerry Rawlings would have had few problems in maintaining conversation over sherry with our ex-Queen Mother–but it is difficult to find market prices for slightly less exalted beasts. The closest I have got is in the Nigerian Horse Scam, for which the going rate seems to be $3-7000:

I was scammed out of $7000.00 from a guy named Mr. Abbey from Nigeria who claimed he wanted to buy my horse he seen advertised on the Internet that I was selling. I was asking 1600.00 for the horse plus mare care and boarding fees until the horse was picked up.

He owed me $1700 for this. He said he had a client in the US that owed him money and his client would send a check for $7000.00 dollars with would pay for the horse, boarding fees and mare care and for me to pay the shipper when he got here. I put the cashier’s check in my account and waited for it to clear. About 7 days I called the bank and they said it had not cleared yet. I waited another day and called bookkeeping. I was told the check cleared. I E-mailed Mr. Abbey and told him. He then E-mailed me back and wanted me to send the balance to him cause his plans for the shipper had changed and he would take care of that himself to send the money western union to him. I didn’t suspect anything and did as he asked. The next day my bank calls and tells me the check is counterfeit and now the bank wants their money. I had to hire a lawyer. A friend told me of this site to contact you and let other people know about this scam before someone else’s life gets ruined.

Again, I think that this supports my hypothesis of fairly inelastic relative pricing. (The above page also details the Nigerian Cow Scam, of which the Nigerian Hot Dog Scam is a sad but inevitable development, but which as yet should not cause undue concern to you or your ferret, bless her.)

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  1. Dear Trevor,

    The figure of 27 million comes from the UN. I think perhaps your idea of ‘slave’ is a tad out of date. Slavery does indeed exist today, just in different forms: debt bondage, unpaid domestic workers, sexual slavery (of which your Glaswegian friend seems to know a bit about) etc. Have a look at although the online edition is by no means as comprehensive as the printed one.

  2. Benetton says “Models are modern slaves” which is clearly a long way away from the OED definition upon which historical estimates of the slave population are based (“One who is the property of, and entirely subject to, another person, whether by capture, purchase, or birth; a servant completely divested of freedom and personal rights.”)

    Even if you believe the 27 million figure (have you got a URL with numbers instead of a crap Flash presentation?), then I think that any serious consideration would lead you to the conclusion that slavery has not been so low in numerical terms since total world population was around 28 million, and that it has never been lower proportionally.

  3. Ooh, grumpy grumpy! It’s funny because even Marx said that capitalism was better for humans than feudalism and someone else probably said that at least being a wage slave was better than being a real slave.

  4. (Me? Grumpy? Sorry…) The British Anti-Slavery Society only arrives at 2.7 million; I can’t find any documentation that supports the “most” or “cheapest” in history claim, and I suspect they’re rubbish. (For example, unpaid domestic workers are not slaves if they have the option (as most have) to walk out the door, and neither are indentured labourers if there is a meaningful prospect (as there often is) of them completing their contract.) Exaggerating numbers of 3rd world oppressed is an established means of making careers and funding nice meals and exotic travel, and I think that’s what’s going on here.

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