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New Worlds: Abduction

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When we turn our attention toward the more violent end of crime, things get pretty dark, pretty fast.

Kidnapping — a term we often use even when the person being abducted isn’t a child — can happen for a lot of reasons, but very few of them are good. Oddly, though, in this instance I don’t mean “very few” as a euphemism for “none,” because whether or not an event is an abduction isn’t always up to the purported victim.

Strictly speaking, abduction is the unlawful confinement or transportation of a person against their will, usually by means including force, fear, or deception. This leaves a surprising amount of wiggle room for a powerful individual to cry “kidnapping!” when someone under their control is taken away from them. Teenagers eloping, women escaping their abusive husbands, children freed from camps or schools designed to indoctrinate them out of their Native American culture or their homosexuality or whatever undesirable quality and behavior the authorities don’t like . . . all of these and more have been condemned as abduction committed by whoever helped them get away. My daughter/wife/son didn’t really want to go, the powerful individual says. They only left because this other person tricked or forced them. And because society tends to side with the powerful, that argument has held water more often than it should.

But of course most instances of abduction are not heroic acts in unlawful disguise. All too often, the kidnapper is a rapist, a murderer, or both, and stealing the victim away is mere prelude to the horror that will follow. Or the ugliness is of a different kind: while children are occasionally kidnapped by strangers, relatives are by far the most common perpetrators, and parents most of all. These instances often follow on estrangement or divorce, with the abducting parent attempting to secure the child for their own, contrary to the court’s or society’s ruling. The kidnapper may sincerely believe the child will be better off with them — and in rare instances, they may be right — but generally the underlying motivation is selfish and/or vindictive, wanting to hurt the alienated spouse by taking the kid away from them.

In media, the most common reason for abduction, whether of an adult or of a child, is extortion. “Place one million dollars in a black duffel bag and leave it in locker number sixteen at the train station . . .” It works well for stories because it provides intermediary beats for the plot: contact with the kidnapper, demands for proof of life, the struggle to pull together the ransom in time (or arrange the mandated action, if the extortion is for something other than money), staking out the drop, etc.

So far as I’m aware, though, this is largely a modern phenomenon. Ransoms certainly existed well before then, but the process wasn’t covert; if you managed to capture an important enemy, you could demand some sum of money for their release. We still do that today, though it’s more likely to be political favors and concessions traded rather than cold hard cash. The standard process seen in movies and TV, by contrast, depends so heavily on telecommunications and the anonymity of a modern city that it’s much harder to arrange in, say, the fourteenth century — and even though you can make such a plot go, the result will probably feel anachronistic.

Which isn’t to say that nobody was ever kidnapped in the past! They absolutely were; it’s just that any extortion demand was more likely to be made face to face. And often, the purpose of the kidnapping was something else entirely.

Like, for example, enslavement. In our discussion of slavery, I framed this as capturing people in war — but is that not a form of abduction? You’re certainly imprisoning and transporting them against their will; the only question is that “unlawful” part, since the attitudes of the time generally treated enslavement as the rightful prerogative of the victorious army. In modern times it’s unequivocally illegal, classed as human trafficking (and one of the main reasons a child might be abducted by a stranger), but as I said before, that’s a more recent shift in global attitudes.

In fact, it’s chilling to consider how many forms of abduction were not only lawful but backed by the government in times past. We accept the notion of conscription, requiring men (it’s almost always been just men) to provide military service, but the press gangs of eighteenth-century Britain could take men without warning, dragging them literally off street and forcing them onto ships, not so much as a visit home to say good-bye allowed. The non-military version often gets called “shanghaiing,” or more generically “crimping;” usually a crimp would render his victim unconscious, deliver him to a ship in need of crew, and pocket what would have been the man’s bonus if he’d signed on voluntarily.

The need for crewmen aboard ships is only one of the causes for sanctioned abduction, though. Colonial governments seeking to eradicate indigenous ways of life have used this tactic, too, passing laws that require families to send their children to “Indian schools” or similar establishments, where they’ll be indoctrinated in the language, religion, and other customs of the ruling population. Families wishing to escape this fate may be able to bribe the agents to look the other way — at least for a little while — essentially paying a ransom to prevent the kidnapping of their children. More often they have to hide their sons and daughters whenever the agent comes by, banking on the hope that the government doesn’t know how many children they have. But if the hidden ones are found, or if someone spots a kid out and about at other times and reports them to the authorities . . . then it looks exactly like forcible abduction, except with no hope of legal remedy. And the powers that be will claim they’re doing it for your own good.

Which is, to me, what sets kidnapping apart from other violent and coercive crimes. There are instances where taking someone away from their lawful circumstances — even, occasionally, against their will, as in the case of an abused child who desperately loves their abuser — is genuinely the best thing you can do for them. That’s harder to say for other crimes in this category. But it is also very, very easy to believe you’re doing the right thing, while actually inflicting massive psychological harm.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Abduction”

  1. Back in the time of Thomas Malory and his Le Morte d’Arthur, he was accused of rape, perhaps more than once, depending on which Thomas Malory in the records one believes. The argument to excuse him has been made that in his time ‘rape’ generally meant abduction, generally of a young woman or widow of fortune, for forced marriage, to control her assets. I first gathered this information from the biography (2005) of him by Christine Hardyment, so wonderfully informative of so much we generally do not know of that period in England, and its workings just decades of the 15th C, prior to the end of the medieval era, and the emergence of early capitalism, that come with the imperial voyages of the Portuguese and the Spanish — though, of course, Colón was actually Italian — but some of those city-states had been doing it for quite some time already!

  2. By-the-bye, at my first reading of Hardyman’s book, I became dimly aware how much social break down there was in 15th C England at the time that so influential book on the Tudors was written, Le Morte d’Arthur — which ironically they used as one of their templates for restoring control over the nobles and barons, in the disrupting wake of over a century of recurring rounds of bubonic plague, the 100 Years War, and the Wars of the Roses. This sparked a very specific interest around the history of the 14th century’s massive Black Death on Europe and labor, and in England particularly. It seems that the still very strong, organized reign of Edward III held things together more effectively than various European countries did — but then it was in Europe, France particularly, that already had, and continued to have, so much burned over ground from the wars, not to mention the casualties from the consequent famines, vagrancy and so on.

    All this has bee coming out in every starker relief in these pandemic, re-emergence of nazism (to try and condense and compress all the authoritarian pressures across the globe) times. Elements that we historians may not have given much notice or weight to in the past, suddenly leap into sharp focus, don’t they?

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