08 February 2024, The Tablet

Experience of dehumanisation in the life of St Josephine Bakhita

Pope Francis has appealed to everyone to combat the shameful scourge of human trafficking.

Experience of dehumanisation in the life of St Josephine Bakhita

Pope Francis holds up a leaflet of Sudanese-born St. Josephine Bakhita during one of his weekly general audience’s at the Vatican.
AP Photo/Andrew Medichini/Alamy

While the world’s attention is focused on the Holy Land and Ukraine, other areas where there are great human tragedies have perhaps moved out of our thoughts. In Sudan, for example, devastating conflicts have been waging for some time. We must also not forget the continuing problem of human trafficking which destroys the lives of millions of people each year.

The feast day of St Josephine Bakhita, on 8 February, is a good time to reflect on these issues. St Josephine was born around 1869 in the Daju village of Olgossa in the Darfur region of Sudan. Her life should remind us to pray for, and give our support to, the people of Sudan and South Sudan, but it should also prompt us to remember all those who have been trafficked or sold into slavery. The mark she has left on Christians today is considerable and growing. There is a university research centre, a hostel for trafficked women and even a radio station named in honour of her life.

St Josephine hailed from a relatively prosperous family. It was believed that her uncle was a tribal chief. She was a young girl with a bright future. However, when she was between 7 and 8 years old, her life was forever changed when she was kidnapped from her family and enslaved by Arab slave traders who had abducted her elder sister two years earlier. She was forced to walk about 600 miles on foot to a slave market in El-Obeid (Al-Ubayyid) in south-central Sudan. Before she arrived in El-Obeid, she was sold and bought twice. At El-Obeid where she was sold again, she began the journey of no return – she would never live freely in Sudan again. Over the course of twelve years (1877–1889), she was sold, bought, and given away over a dozen times before she finally gained her freedom. Her experience as a slave varied from fair treatment to cruel. The cruelty she experienced as an enslaved child made her forget her birth name. At some point during her captivity, she was given the name Bakhita, which is Arabic for “fortunate”.

She suffered greatly. She was bought by a rich Arab from the slave market in El-Obeid who used her as a maid for his two daughters. She was given a fair treatment by her mistresses, but when accused of offending one of the owner’s sons who never liked her presence within the house, she was beaten mercilessly and severely to the point of incapacitation so that she was unable to move from her straw bed. When she recovered, she was sold to a Turkish general. She served the general’s wife and mother-in-law with devotion and honour but was treated cruelly. Bakhita says: “During all the years I stayed in that house, I do not recall a day that passed without some wound or other. When a wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me.” She and other enslaved women were also forced to undergo an horrific traditional Sudanese mutilation practice. As the mutilation took place, she reportedly said: “I thought I would die, especially when salt was poured in the wounds. It was by a miracle of God I did not die. He had destined me for better things.”

By the end of 1882, El-Obeid came under threat of attack by revolutionaries. The Turkish general began preparing to return to his homeland and sold his slaves. In 1883, Bakhita was sold to an Italian Vice Consul in Khartoum, Callisto Legnani, who treated her more humanely. Two years later, when Legnani himself had to return to Italy, Bakhita begged to go with him. At the end of 1884 they escaped from a besieged Khartoum with a friend, Augusto Michieli. They travelled 400 miles on camel to Suakin, the largest port of Sudan. In March 1885 they left Suakin for Genoa where they were met by Augusto Michieli's wife, Maria Turina Michieli, to whom Legnani gave ownership of Bakhita. Her new owners took her to their family villa close to Venice where she became nanny to the Michieli’s daughter. The Michielis then took Bakhita with them back to Sudan where they stayed for nine months before returning to Italy.

As a result of a series of events, in 1888, Bakhita was left in the care of the Canossian Sisters at the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. There, cared for and instructed by the sisters, Bakhita encountered Christianity for the first time. She was drawn to the Catholic Church. Grateful to her teachers, she recalled: “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.” She felt that she had always known God as the creator of all things and was deeply moved by the story of Jesus and by the answers she received from the sisters.

When Maria Turina Michieli returned to take her daughter and the enslaved nanny back to Suakin, Bakhita firmly refused to leave. For three days, Michieli tried to force the issue, finally appealing to the attorney general of the King of Italy. The superior of the Institute for baptismal candidates (catechumenate) which Bakhita attended contacted the Patriarch of Venice about her protegée’s problem. On 29 November 1889, an Italian court ruled that because the British had outlawed slavery in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth and because Italian law had never recognised slavery as legal, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. Josephine Bakhita was free for the first time in her adult life. She chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters. On January 9 1890, she was baptised “Josephine Margaret” and “Fortunata” (the Latin translation of the Arabic Bakhita) and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion. Her sacraments were administered by Archbishop Giuseppe Sarto, the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, who would later become Pope Pius X.

Josephine became a novice at the Institute of St Magdalene of Canossa, taking her final vows in 1896 before being assigned to a convent in Schio. She was known for her charisma and gentleness and even expressed gratitude that her past horrors had brought her to her current life. She served her convent humbly, cooking, embroidering, and sewing, and was responsible for attending the door of the convent to welcome visitors, where she was noted for her warm smile and hospitality. She was loved by many in the city and was a bastion of comfort during the trials and bombings of World War II. She patiently suffered long painful years of sickness in her old age and continued to attest to Christian hope. In her final days she relived the agony of her enslavement and is said to have called out, “Please, loosen the chains. They are heavy!” She is said to have died with a smile on her lips after seeing a vision of Our Lady coming toward her.

Like St Josephine Margaret Bakhita, many people are still bearing the chains of enslavement. Pope Francis has decried human trafficking as disfiguring the human dignity. He appealed to everyone to combat this shameful scourge. Our commitment to protecting human dignity and the fight against human trafficking can contribute to keeping hope alive. “Human trafficking disfigures dignity. Exploitation and subjugation limit freedom and turn people into objects to use and discard. And the system of trafficking profits from the injustice and wickedness that oblige millions of people to live in conditions of vulnerability.” The Holy Father acknowledged that those most easily recruited are people impoverished by the economic crisis, wars, climate change and many forms of instability. He also decried the targeting of women, children, and migrants.

Pope Francis highlights that everyone is required to join forces to build networks of good, spread the light that comes from Christ and His Gospel and become missionaries of human dignity against human trafficking and every form of exploitation. This approach will bring people together in such a way that they become a blessing to each other. He urges us not to be tired of seeking pathways that transform our societies and prevent the shameful scourge that is human trafficking and to promote anti-trafficking actions and walk together "hand-in-hand" to build a culture of encounter that leads to the conversion of hearts. He encourages everyone to be close to those who are destroyed by the violence of sexual and labour exploitation, migrants, displaced persons, those who are searching for a place to live in peace and family.

As we celebrate the feast of St Josephine Margaret Bakhita, let us ask for her intercession for all those caught in the web of human trafficking and sold into slavery, that the misery and wounds of those enslaved in this form of abuse be healed and that those deprived of their dignity and freedom have them restored. Let us also ask for her intercession for the land of her birth where so many are undergoing great suffering amid the prolonged conflicts in Sudan.


Fr Mark Odion is Policy and Research Analyst, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.


What do you think?


You can post as a subscriber user ...

User comments (0)

  Loading ...