Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Shadows of slavery part one: lives and memories

This first section of our collection Shadows of Slavery explores the continuing power of the past in shaping the everyday lives of 'slave descendants'. 

Yoann Gauthier/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

“I do not know the day, and I do not know the time. I only know it will end one day!” said Mohammadou, while we were talking about the legacies of slavery in one of the rural communities of the Upper Gambia in 2008. After decades of travel and work out of The Gambia, Mohammadou was ageing at home. His comment referred to the marginalities associated with his slave ancestry and to the rather conservative attitude of his community in this respect.

His father settled in the village during the early part of the twentieth century, when the British colonial administrations had already declared the end of slavery and of the slave trade. He married a freed slave woman, who continued to serve the family of the former masters throughout her life. “Slavery is in the womb”, goes a local proverb. Mohammadou and his siblings inherited their mother’s status, while her labour obligations died with her.

Being ‘slaves’ meant, for them, acknowledging and valorising her sufferance and sacrifice. Socially, they remained on the corners of village leadership, because they knew that the offspring of the former masters would hardly accept to follow people that hailed from a once subordinate social stratum. Out of the village, slave ancestry was irrelevant, but within its boundaries, it shaped marriage alliances and political and religious careers as much as networks of solidarity and collaboration. For however much they disliked it, Mohammadou and his siblings accepted their legacy as a matter of respect towards their mother and because it was the very reason of their belonging to the community.

The present power of the past

In many parts of the African continent, the histories of late nineteenth century internal enslavement and the slave trade matter today. Putting an end to both, and freeing Africans from the grip of slavers and tyrants, was part of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century rhetoric of the ‘civilising mission’, which legitimised the European conquest of Africa.

The ground realities of colonialism were different however. The freedom that ‘freed’ slaves, achieved thanks to the colonisers, was always a colonial freedom; framed by the restrictions and abuses that affected the lives of all natives. Besides, colonial administrations supported the interests of former slave owners against those of freed slaves whenever it served political and social stability. Emancipation was real but slow, and interlaced with a variety of unfreedoms. Forced labour, for example, was considered by colonial administrations as perfectly legitimate. Today, it is classified together with ‘modern’ slavery.

The freedom that ‘freed’ slaves, achieved thanks to the colonisers, was always a colonial freedom.

The agency of the slaves, rather than external intervention, was key to their liberation. They entered the ranks of the low skilled colonial labour force. They migrated where nobody cared about their social origins. Those who stayed close to their former masters strove to achieve honour and recognition according not to abstract notions of freedom but in the concrete terms set up by the historical trajectories of their communities.

Reading the traces of African late nineteenth and twentieth century processes of slave emancipation, and linking these processes to contemporary marginalities, is a difficult but important task. The first part of Shadows of slavery: refractions of the past, challenges of the present reaches the conclusion that the legacies of slavery inform and structure current forms of social, political, and economic marginalisation and of racial discrimination in many post abolition contexts. There is no simple determinism however. Rather, these legacies intermingle with changing labour regimes and new historical opportunities of social and political emancipation to produce a variety of different outcomes.

The most difficult part is to trace the present of individuals, groups, and regions that in the past experienced enslavement, and to understand the past trajectories of those who today are locally classified as ‘slave descendants’. There is evidence in the colonial archives but also silences. In addition to success stories of upward social mobility, oral history and ethnography disclose individual and collective trajectories fraught with stumbles, dead ends, and steps back into spirals of limited resources, debt, and proletarisation.

On lives and memories

In some cases, a present of social exclusion and economic vulnerability grafts directly onto histories of late nineteenth century capture and purchase. The regions of southern Senegal studied by Alice Bellagamba are precisely this type of context: families of ‘slave descendants’ have kindled memories of how their ancestors turned into slaves, either by capture or purchase. But in many other cases, connections with enslavement are indirect. Mohammadou and his brothers did not know how their mother achieved that status in the first place. Was she born from slave parents? Was she an orphan from another ethnic group? She was classified as a slave, and through marriage their father entered into the same social stratum as a result of the post-abolition strategies put in place by former masters to retain their political, social and economic supremacy. The category of ‘slave descendant’, Alice Bellagamba concludes in her contribution, “tends to simplify and group together multiple, and often divergent, individual trajectories and histories”.

The same happens in relation to vernacular terms that indicate the once freeborn section of the population. What freedom is, exactly, and how this much cherished notion changes according to historical periods and to the positionality of individuals and community deserves more attention.

The case of Mauritania is emblematic of the resistance of former masters to accept the end of the control exerted over their slaves. Ann McDougall focuses on the individuals of slave ancestry who leave the rural areas to carve out a living niche in the interstices of the capital city of Nouakchott. Their multiple experiences show a variety of ideas of liberty at work. The crucial point, she suggests, is to understand from people themselves how the legacies of slavery can become a resource to address poverty and reduce vulnerability. Which meaning do they give to that past in their individual and communal lives?

Marta Scaglioni’s contribution on Tunisia points to another important element: relations with a real or alleged slave past evolve across generations. While elderly black Tunisians have turned the association between slave ancestry and music into an economic resource for social emancipation, the youths aspire for more. They are not looking for socio-economic niches that allow them to thrive, but for the empowerment of their rights as Black Tunisians.

Valerio Colosio looks at Chadian local politics to uncover the contemporary reformulation of the Guera region’s relationships with the slave trade. Was the Guera a slave reservoir? Historical evidence to support this interpretation is not enough, but local people think of their past in this terms and act consequentially in the political arena. The label ‘yalnas’, which in Chadian Arabic mean ‘the sons of the people’, refers to this past in an ambiguous way. The term describes the slaves whom the French resettled in the region after the conquest as well as slave raiders.

For her part, the case of northern Ghanaian girls moving south in search of work offers Alessandra Brivio the chance to show how ‘free’ choice often exists against the backdrop of broader structural constraints. Indeed, the girls she meets in Accra’s markets face biases that stem from a long history of slavery and exploitation. These biases, in turn, legitimise their further exploitation.

Marco Gardini, by contrast, uses life histories to explore what happens when the present of bondage and the past of slavery collide in the biography of two particular individuals. Fanja and Mirana both endured severe restrictions on their personal freedom while working as domestic workers abroad in order to support the emancipation struggles of their families at home. Their bondage today was a pathway to their freedom from yesterday. Marco, the external observer, agreed with Fanja and Mirana, the insiders, that the continuity between the past enslavement of their ancestors and their own present bondage was striking.

The last contribution paves the way to the exploration of the racial legacies of slavery. Laura Menin focuses on the sub-Saharan, low skilled labour force in Morocco. Originally on their way to Europe, these migrants were stopped in Morocco by European Union border policies. They integrated onto the margins of Morocco urban economies, and once there ideas of slavery became instrumental to denounce the harshness of their condition, and the brutalities they experienced in Morocco.

These individuals may be personally associated with old histories of enslavement, as they hail from countries such as Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria where the legacies of slavery are significant. That is not the point, however. Here, slavery becomes a metaphorical condition to rally again the injustices of present times. Two things emerge very clearly from each of these pieces. First, in addition to the legacies of slavery in the North Atlantic, it is time to push the study of the afterlives of slavery to other regions of the world. Second, these afterlives of slavery are many, and they are varied.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.