Trafficking in Humans: Now and in Herman Melville's 'Benito Cereno'

59 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2005


Every year, up to 800,000 persons, many of them women and girls, are recruited, abducted, or sold and then trafficked across international borders. In this multi-billion dollar industry, victims are trafficked for purposes of forced prostitution, forced labor, domestic service, involuntary marriage, debt bondage, and begging. Once they arrive, the trafficking victims are often helpless to escape their slavery-like conditions, and are controlled by physical violence or psychological coercion.

Trafficking in human beings is an old story. The slave trade, along with slavery, was protected by this country's laws from the beginning of our history. Commenting on this, Herman Melville wrote Benito Cereno. It is the story of a failed slave mutiny at sea, the slaves' trial, and their execution. Melville shows how the legal system rejected the slaves' right to freedom under natural law, and instead enforced the laws against the victims of slavery. This indifference was reflected in contemporary judicial decisions dealing with the slave trade, slave mutinies, and the fugitive slave laws.

Melville's Benito Cereno offers lessons in dealing with modern trafficking, which falls most heavily on the most vulnerable. His novel shows that first, there must be a powerful statement which condemns trafficking as immoral and which supports the natural right of people to be free. Then, laws must be enacted which punish the traffickers and not the victims of trafficking. Finally, these laws must be aggressively enforced by the prosecutors and the courts. These principles mean that current efforts to stop trafficking will not succeed without renewed commitment to aggressive and widespread enforcement of the laws, particularly against organized crime. And to get at the roots of trafficking, this must be accompanied by intensified efforts to change the cultural practices which subjugate the women and girls who are most often its victims.

Keywords: law and literature, prostitution, forced labor, trafficking, Melville

JEL Classification: J79, K10

Suggested Citation

Walter, Marilyn R., Trafficking in Humans: Now and in Herman Melville's 'Benito Cereno'. Available at SSRN:

Marilyn R. Walter (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States

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