What is a slave? And what is freedom?

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To mark the UN’s International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, SOAS Blogs met with Dr Marie Rodet, a Senior Lecturer in the History of Africa and convenor of the module ‘Slavery in West Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries‘, to discuss the gendered aspect of slavery, the reparation debate and the challenges of defining what constitutes both slavery and its antonym – freedom.


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What is a slave? Is it definable?

Scholars, lawyers and even activists often disagree over the definition of slavery. Commonly, in our Western societies, slaves are defined as property. But then property also needs to be defined, as well as the rights the owners may have over slaves. How are those rights different from those over other free members of the society? Such definitions are closely linked to the history of the Atlantic Slave trade and the exploitation of slaves in the Americas, where slaves were often considered “socially dead”, without social status except by virtue of their owners.

African internal slavery disrupts such definition as in many African societies, slaves have been recognised as people with rights on their own, who were often allowed to work and conduct trade by themselves. In some cases they may even have been incorporated in the family of their masters. Yet they retained their slave status, which make them belong to a hereditary and endogamic class, which is still stigmatized today and regarded at the bottom at the social hierarchy.

Attempts to find a universal definition of slavery have often failed. Slavery was never a static institution. Even in international law, slavery is governed by a number of treaties, conventions and declarations, which are the result of numerous political, social and legal battles, which have ultimately allowed to stretch the meaning of slavery to any practices that deprive people of control over their own bodies, such as female genital cutting, honor killings, or organ trafficking.

And no definition of slavery can be separated from what is often considered its antithesis – freedom. Yet freedom is probably as difficult to define as slavery as it has meant different things in different societies at different times in history. In our western societies today, a free person is usually defined as an autonomous individual able to move freely and make decisions on his/her own. Yet complete freedom exists only in theory. Different societies give more importance to certain aspects of freedom than others, depending on their own history.

Your research looks at the highly gendered aspect of slavery: what can you tell us about the different ways male and female slaves experienced slavery?

Historically, in West Africa, female slaves had a greater value (in trading terms) than male slaves, which has led scholars to question whether they were more valued for their productive work or for their use for reproduction, social prestige, and sexual pleasure. It is generally agreed that unfree women in West Africa had a historically prominent role in agricultural production and played a crucial role in the local economy.

West African slaveholders seem to have preferred female slaves for a variety of reasons and this preference may have contributed to the overall lower number of women exported as slaves across the Atlantic. The trans-Saharan trade in slaves to North Africa, which existed alongside the trans-Atlantic slave trade, also dealt largely in female slaves.

A common fate of a young female slave in Sub-Saharan Africa was to be taken as the concubine or wife of her male master or someone from his family. With the spread of Islam in Sudanic West Africa, concubines were endowed with more legal rights. If a concubine bore a child to her master (in some cases this was true only for sons), she could no longer be sold and her child was free. She could also be manumitted upon her master’s death.

Yet these rules were regularly violated, and their violation was rarely punished. Becoming the concubine of a master did not offer long-term protection or a guarantee of freedom. For a woman, slavery meant that her body became the property of her master; it was subjected to her master’s will. If she refused her master’s advances, she often risked being sold. While some concubines rose to positions of considerable wealth and power at royal courts such as Sokoto or Kano in present-day Northern Nigeria, these cases were most often the exceptions.

Yet freedom is probably as difficult to define as slavery.

Reparations for slavery is a debate still raging in many western countries. In your view, has enough been done by western governments to compensate the descendants of slaves? Or is this, in your view, not the right course of action to take?

The debate over reparations raises a number of issues – the responsibilities for enslavement, the involvement of African societies in the slave trade, and the links between internal slavery and external trades (Atlantic and Trans-Saharan). Internal slavery and its links with Atlantic slavery are still an extremely taboo topic in West Africa, although its links with the Trans-Saharan trade are currently increasingly more discussed, especially since the recent scandal of the slave markets in Libya. In West Africa, most societies were slavery-based economies until the late 19th century. Slavery is still an ongoing issue in some countries such as Mauritania and parts of Mali and Niger. Before talking about reparation in West Africa, legacies of internal slavery first need to be addressed, but are still too often obscured by the focus on the Atlantic slave trade.

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What books or documentaries would you recommend for students, or anyone really, looking to learn more about slavery and its legacy?

Two must-read works which launched important debates in defining African slavery are Meillasoux’s The Anthropology of Slavery: The Womb of Iron and Gold and Slavery in Africa. Historical and Anthropological Perspectives by Mier and Kopytoff.

Two documentaries I can only recommend, with a bit of unapologetic self-promotion here for my own work of course, and that I regularly screen in my course on Slavery in West Africa are ‘Yesterday’s Slaves. Democracy & Ethnicity’ (Eric Hahounou and Camilla Strandbjerg) and ‘The Diambourou: Slavery and Emancipation in Kayes’.

Before talking about reparation in West Africa, legacies of internal slavery first need to be addressed, but are still too often obscured by the focus on the Atlantic slave trade.

When analysing the legacy of slavery in Africa – what issues or feelings resonate most for you?

As already mentioned, the history of internal slavery is still a taboo subject in West Africa today. Much of the public discourse on slavery in the region focuses on the Atlantic slave trade and the West African coast and tends to render regions of the West African interior completely invisible, such as Mali which remained a crucial crossroads for slave trafficking until the late nineteenth century and today serves as a major transit zone for human trafficking. Yet, today in Mali there is no law criminalizing internal slavery, just one for international trafficking.

Discussing those issues openly in the public space will push governments to address and tackle the discrimination against the descendants of formerly enslaved populations, but also the causes behind the recent resurgence of exploitative practices akin to slavery, which are often directly linked to the legacies of historical internal slavery.

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