We know about the lives of some liberated slaves. Lavigerie had opened orphanages for ransomed children in Algeria, and a college in Malta to train ‘medical catechists’ to work alongside the missionaries. From there Adrien Atimen became a medical missionary in Congo from 1889 to his death in 1956, often working in very difficult circumstances, refusing to accept the salary to which he would have been entitled, but recognised by popes and civil governments for his selfless devotion.
Another, Bakhita, was taken to Italy after being sold to the Italian consul in Sudan. In Genoa she was given to the Michieli family who planned to take her back to their hotel in Sudan, as their children’s nanny. In 1889 it took a court case for Bakhita to prove her right to refuse to return to where she had been cruelly treated by her previous owners.
With her right to make her own free choices established, Bakhita sought baptism as Josephine Margaret Fortunata (her Arabic name Bakhita means Fortunate), and entered the convent of the Canossian Sisters, and lived happily in community until her death in 1947. She was greatly respected by the local people near her convent in Schio in Northern Italy, who considered her a saint, a judgment recognised by the Church Universal in 2000.
We hardly need such demonstrations that no people are inferior; all of us are sisters and brothers in God’s family. Yet despite all the dedicated hard work since 1888, slavery continues in other forms. Human trafficking brings people to the shores of the Mediterranean or the Channel. Many girls and women especially find themselves condemned to be used as underpaid domestic servants or in the sex industry, a crime that the Church is tackling through the dedicated work of religious sisters and their collaborators in the police and civil society.
It is sobering to read Cardinal Lavigerie’s 1888 prayer to Our Lady and realise that we can recite it with just as much urgency today:
“Mary, we proclaimed you Queen of Africa here twenty-five years ago and Africa relies on your protection. What have you done for Africa? Again, how can you still bear such horrors to continue? Are you to be just a Queen of corpses? Are you a mother just to forget her children? There must be an end to this!’