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Saharan Peoples and Societies  

E. Ann McDougall

The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.” However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire. The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel. Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.

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The Sahel in West African History  

Barbara Cooper

The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves. Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another. Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.

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Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1806–1891  

Oluwatoyin Oduntan

The case for narrating the history of slavery and emancipation through the biography of enslaved Africans is strongly supported by the life and experiences of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Kidnapped into slavery in 1821, recaptured and settled in Sierra Leone in 1822, he became a missionary in 1845, founder of the Niger mission in 1857, and Bishop of the Niger Mission in 1864. His life and career covered the span of the 19th century during which revolutionary forces like jihadist revolutions, the abolition of the slave trade, the rise of a new Westernized elite, and European colonization created the roots of the modern state system in West Africa. He was intricately tied to the Christian Missionary Society (CMS), Britain’s antislavery evangelical movement, resulting in Ajayi becoming the poster face of slavery, its acclaimed product of abolitionism, the preeminent advocate of evangelical emancipation, and the organizer of practical emancipation in West Africa. The leader of a very small group of Africans who worked diligently against the slave trade and domestic slavery, Ajayi also became a victim of the use of that agenda by imperialists. Thus, the contrasts of his life (i.e., slavery/freedom, nationalist/hybrid, preacher/investor, leader/weakling, linguist/literalist, etc.) were celebrated by himself, his patrons, and his evangelical followers on one hand, and denounced by his critics on the other. They underline the disagreements over his legacy, and indeed over the understanding of the institution of slavery, abolition, and emancipation in West Africa.

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Slavery and Forced Labor in Madagascar  

Gwyn R. Campbell

Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, was first permanently settled in about the mid-9th century. Slavery was present on the island from the first, but a slave export trade became significant only from the mid-18th century because of demand from the French islands of Réunion and Mauritius. Most of the literature has focused on slavery in, and the slave trades involving, Imerina, until 1817 a landlocked kingdom in the central highlands of Madagascar. In 1820, Radama I of Imerina signed a treaty with the British in which he banned the slave export trade. However, the measure was effective only in Merina-controlled regions of the island, and the traffic in slaves, predominantly to the French islands of the western Indian Ocean, continued, albeit in clandestine form. Moreover, the 1820 ban applied only to exports, and there arose a lively trade in imported East African slaves. At the same time, Merina military expansion resulted in the enslavement of thousands of non-Merina Malagasy women and children. Of greater significance than slavery was forced labor. In pre-colonial times, fanompoana, or unremunerated forced labor for the Merina crown, was originally an honorary service of limited duration. However, from 1820, it was applied on such a scale that it resulted in the impoverishment of the vast bulk of ordinary people subjected to Merina authority. In 1896, following the French takeover of the island, the colonial regime decreed the abolition of slavery but maintained a system of corvée labor as exploitative as pre-colonial fanompoana. Many former slaves chose to remain in servitude to their former masters rather than become subject to corvées, which also underlay a massive revolt that erupted in 1947 in the coffee-growing regions of the eastern littoral, foreshadowing the demise of French colonial rule. In the post-independence era, a forced labor regime for youths was reinstituted from 1978 to 1990, while descendants of ex-slaves have largely retained their servile status, and many have remained socially and economically marginalized.

Article

Slavery and Post-Slavery in the Indian Ocean World  

Alessandro Stanziani

Unlike the Atlantic, slavery and slave trade in the Indian Ocean persisted over centuries, from antiquity to the present: slavery involved many actors, not necessarily attributed to tensions between the “West and the rest.” Multiple forms of bondage, debt dependence, and slavery persisted and coexisted over centuries, since ancient times, then with the expansion of Islam in the 8th century, and reached a peak with the intrusion of European powers between the 16th and the 19th centuries. However, even after the official abolition of slavery in the western colonies, forms of bondage and illegal slavery have persisted and were openly practiced in the Gulf region through much of the 20th century.

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Slavery and Resistance in West Central Africa  

Esteban Salas

The institution of slavery in West Central Africa predated the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century, though there is limited information about its nature and extent or the gender and age dynamics prior to that period. Slavery in different West Central African societies in the 16th and 17th centuries was broadly defined as the legal and social outsider status of people originating from different states or chiefdoms and brought under captivity as a result of raids or wars, the payment for taxes from tributary states and chiefdoms, punishment for crimes such as adultery in royal circles, or direct purchase. This has been identified as lineage slavery and was distinct from the Atlantic slave trade. Yet, the characteristics of slavery changed throughout the centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, local captives could become part of the kin of their owners after a process of integration in their new host society. They turned into insiders, even in instances in which they retained their enslaved status. However, from the 17th century, the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade and Portuguese colonialism resulted in a growing demand for captives, transforming the relations between captives and enslavers. The increasing presence of enslavers and their demand for different supplies, such as foodstuffs, resulted in a greater demand for labor in Portuguese colonial settlements, vassal chiefdoms, and autonomous states. Violence increased and individual kidnapping became the main method of enslavement, though warfare persisted as a method of capture well into the mid-19th century. Relations of dependency were increasingly disrupted and local captives became more vulnerable to deportation to other areas of West Central Africa and different parts of the world. Furthermore, the risk for insiders to be enslaved, re-enslaved, or deported increased, contributing to the redefinition of the meaning of slavery. Finally, following the prohibition of slavery by Portuguese colonial law in 1876, other forms of forced labor resembling slavery in varied ways emerged and were practiced until the third quarter of the 20th century. Resistance persisted throughout.

Article

Slavery and the African Diaspora in Spanish America  

Sabrina Smith

The European demand for African captives in Spanish America began during the conquest and settlement of the New World. This labor demand quickly became a part of the global forced movement of captive Africans. During the colonial period, from the 1500s to the mid-19th century, over 12.5 million captives arrived in the Americas from Africa, primarily West Central Africa. For Spanish America, approximately 2,072,300 people endured the transoceanic and intra-American slave trades and disembarked at Atlantic-facing ports in the mainland of this region. Many of these individuals later experienced the forced migration to the cities and sugar-producing lowlands in New Spain (Mexico) and Peru. Following the military invasion in New Spain and Peru, African and American-born captives formed a supplementary labor force in Spanish America. Enslaved people labored in producing agricultural products, such as sugar and coffee. They also worked with indigenous populations in silver mining and urban textile mills. In Spanish American cities, captives were skilled artisans and shopkeepers, and they offered domestic services in the homes of Spanish elites. Captives often challenged their enslavement throughout Spanish America. Some enslaved men and women challenged enslavers in the colonial courts. Other enslaved people, such as the Wolof slaves in Hispaniola, collaborated with native Taíno people to form one of the earliest slave revolts in the Americas. Many captives also saved their earnings to purchase their legal freedom, while others fled to new locations. Runaways often formed autonomous communities in the remote areas of Hispaniola, Panama, New Granada (Colombia), Peru, and New Spain. In New Granada, for instance, runaways formed palenques (autonomous slave communities) as early as the 1590s. These maroon communities were able to survive because they opposed the colonial state, developed their own system of governance, and at times, negotiated with colonial authorities. By the early 1800s, African-descended people also formed an important part of the wars for independence and the formal abolition of slavery. In Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Central America, the end of Spanish colonial rule and abolition were closely linked in the first three decades of the 19th century. In South America, enslaved people participated in the wars for independence. Similarly, gradual abolition in this region included abolitionist debates, Free Womb Laws, and conditional freedom for the enslaved. Cuba was the last Spanish colony to end slavery in 1886.

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Slavery and the Making of West African Muslim Empires in the 19th Century  

Paul Naylor

The various Muslim theocratic states that emerged in West Africa over the 18th and 19th centuries (including Sokoto, Masina, and, later, the Umarian state) came to power in a series of conflicts, or jihads, against political systems in which slavery preexisted as the basic system of labor extraction and population control and in which slaves were the medium of exchange in wider Atlantic and trans-Saharan economic networks. The conflicts promised emancipation for Muslims enslaved in these systems but also involved the capture and enslavement of large numbers of people. The economic and political rationales for mass enslavement remained. However, for the first time they were framed within a written, Islamic discursive tradition, circulated by the leaders of the jihads. These texts enforced a new policy of enslavement that drew upon Islamic legal traditions but, for the most part, recycled preexisting arrangements of slave raiding in non-Muslim areas. Over time, what emerged were societies in which slavery was essential to the growth, functions, and reproduction of state power and in which slave labor of various kinds fueled the majority of economic, political, and social activity. Because of the multidimensional uses of slavery, the institution continued well into the European colonial period and continues to inform social dynamics in the early 21st century.

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Slavery and the Slave Trade in Ethiopia and Eritrea  

Giulia Bonacci and Alexander Meckelburg

Slavery and the slave trade were persistent features of the cultural, social, and economic fabric of the Ethiopian-Eritrean region, which is historically constituted by various polities and societies across the Christian, Semitic-speaking highlands and the Rift Valley with its surrounding lowland regions, bordered by the Nile Valley on the west and the Red Sea coast to the east. The connectedness of this vast region through long-distance trade routes reaching the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean world is attested in sources since antiquity. There were multiple ways into enslavement: wars, raids, debt, birth, or trade, which involved various actors, be they shifta (bandits), soldiers, traders, or kings. Slave markets dotted the region along the general trade routes, and slaves were distributed into various social categories and labor occupations. While the expansion of the Ethiopian empire turned an increasing number of peasants into servants of the feudal class, the 19th century saw both a growth in the volume of slaves traded in the region and a growth in sources related to slavery thanks to increasing international attention. Despite a pronounced commitment to abolition by Ethiopian rulers since the late 19th century, abolition happened late and slowly. Legacies of slavery play a role in the continuing exclusion and marginalization of persons of slave descent in the 21st century.

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Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Sokoto Caliphate  

Murray Last

Established using a conventional Islamic model of government, the new Muslim state in Sokoto, known as the Sokoto Caliphate (1804–1903), possessed eventually very large numbers of men, women, and children, taken captive (usually when children) in jihad from mainly non-Muslim communities, to serve as slaves. These slaves worked on farms or within households, they might be concubines and bear children for their owners; or they might be sold as children for export to North Africa in payment for the luxury imports the new elite wanted. Slaves were, under Islamic law, deemed “minors” or “half-persons,” and so had rights that differed from those of the free Muslim. By the end of the 19th century there were more slaves on the local markets than could be sold; exports of captives to North Africa had already dropped. For some captives enslaved as children, however, the career as a slave led eventually to high political positions, even to owning many slaves of their own. But slaves’ property, even their children, ultimately belonged to the slave’s owner. Revolts by male slaves were very rare, but escape was commonplace. Concubines, if they ever became pregnant by their owner, could not be sold again. The abolition of slavery c.1903 was slow to become a reality for many individual slaves, whether men or women.

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Slavery at the Cape  

Nigel Worden

Slavery was a mainstay of the labor force of the Cape Colony between its foundation by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1652 and abolition in 1834, by which date the Cape was under British rule. Slaves were transported to the Cape from a wide range of areas in the Indian Ocean world, including South and Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Some were owned by the VOC and labored on the Company farms, outposts, and docks. The majority were sold to settlers and worked as domestic servants in Cape Town or as laborers on the grain, wine, and pastoral farms of the Cape interior. Throughout the 18th century slaves outnumbered settlers. Although there were few major revolts, individual resistance was widespread and desertion common. Some runaways joined indigenous groups in the Cape interior, while others formed more isolated maroon communities. Toward the end of the 18th century some slaves claimed individual rights, reflecting the influence of wider revolutionary movements in the Atlantic world. A revolutionary uprising took place in 1808, shortly after the abolition of the slave trade and the takeover of the colony by the British. In the early 19th century slave resentment continued to grow, especially as a boom in wine production increased labor demands. In the 1820s and early 1830s abolitionist voices were heard in the colony, and slavery was ended at the same time as that in the British Caribbean and Mauritius. Unlike these other British colonies, Cape slaves largely continued to work as farm laborers, and their living and working conditions produced the continued impoverishment of farmworkers in the western Cape region. Slaves played an important part in the creation of a distinctive creolized Cape culture, notably in the development of the Afrikaans language and Cape musical and culinary traditions. They were also responsible for the growth of Islam in Cape Town and its hinterland, which took a distinctive form influenced by its Southeast Asian origins.

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Slavery in Decentralized Societies  

David Glovsky

Slavery and enslavement were common processes across Africa, increasingly so during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In decentralized societies—societies without centralized political states—enslavement took particular forms; in some regions, people were most commonly enslaved through warfare, slave raids, kidnapping, and other forms of violence. In other areas, people were primarily enslaved through judicial processes, witchcraft accusations, debt, and pawning. In many decentralized societies, all of these methods of enslavement existed simultaneously. Regardless of how enslavement occurred, enslaved men and women were integrated into societies across Africa unevenly. In some societies, incorporation was a relatively quick process, facilitated by marriage or assimilation into kinship networks or lineages. However, in some cases it took generations for enslaved individuals and their descendants to become equal members of society. People in decentralized societies enslaved men and women within Africa and also sold them into the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In response to rising demand for enslaved persons from Atlantic traders, members of decentralized societies undertook raids of neighboring societies and transformed their communities to protect themselves. Within Africa, enslaved men and women played integral economic roles in agriculture, trade, mining, and other economic tasks. They played an important social function in increasing the prestige of particular individuals, households, and communities. Enslaved persons were typically treated as lesser members of households and lineages and subjected to more violence than others, typically ranking lowest in societal hierarchies. In general, decentralized societies valued enslaved women and children more than men because they were more easily brought into households. However, there were important regional variations. While decentralized societies were long seen as victims in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, studies of particular societies have shown the ways these societies participated in and defended themselves from enslavement.

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Slavery in Egypt under the Mamluks  

Adam Ali

The Muslim polity commonly referred to as the Mamluk Sultanate ruled Egypt and Syria during the late medieval period (1250–1517). Slaves played a big role at every level of society in Mamluk Egypt. A slave’s race, origins, and network (if he had one) determined the prospects of his life and career. Most slaves formed the lowest stratum in society as domestic servants and laborers. Such slaves could be Africans, Caucasians, Turks, Europeans, Greeks, Armenians, or Mongols. However, some slaves occupied the highest positions. These military slaves, the mamluks, dominated the army and the government and formed a military-political elite caste in Egyptian society. In fact, so-called military slaves played an important role in the history of the Muslim world for a millennium, starting from the 9th century. Even after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517, the mamluks continued to exist as an elite socio-military class in Egypt.

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Slavery in Europe during the Atlantic Slave Trade  

Giulia Bonazza

Slavery was a widespread phenomenon in Europe during the Atlantic slave trade of the 1500s to the 1800s, particularly around port cities and in their hinterlands. The slaves held around the Mediterranean and more widely around Europe included both “Atlantic” slaves and slaves of other geographical origins, primarily the Ottoman Empire, Indian Ocean colonies, and sub-Saharan Africa. Others came from the Black Sea and Eastern Europe. Sub-Saharan Africans arrived in Europe via the Barbary Regency ports and Egypt. Slaves’ personal histories were often complex and surprising because of the intricacies of global slave mobility and continuous changes of ownership. There is a general theoretical distinction between captives from the Ottoman Empire and its satellite states, defined as temporary slaves, and slaves from the Atlantic or sub-Saharan Africa, even if they sometimes lived the same experience in Europe. Ransom demands and payments were a significant form of commerce in the Mediterranean basin until the middle of the 19th century and slavery persisted in Europe throughout the 1800s. The process of slaves’ assimilation into the European system ran parallel with learning a new language and becoming Christian. Starting work for a new owner, governmental or private, involved the imposition of a new social and cultural identity. Many enslaved often sought out pathways to emancipation. This article presents more detailed analyses on the Italian and German territories, Austria, France, Britain, and Portugal.

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Slavery in Luanda and Benguela  

Mariana P. Candido and Vanessa Oliveira

The institution of slavery existed in West Central Africa before the arrival of Europeans as a form of labor exploitation. While in local states political elites targeted outsiders and criminals as potential captives, slavery in the colonial settlements of Luanda and Benguela was similar to bondage in other Atlantic ports such as Rio de Janeiro, Havana, or Cartagena, and even in other colonial towns on the African coast including Cape Town and Lagos. Captives of war or people born into bondage performed most of the domestic and public labor. Their productive and reproductive capacities were appropriated for the benefit of their owners. Slaves could be bought and sold, were considered property, and did not enjoy rights, including to their own sexuality. Despite owners’ control, enslaved men and women resisted oppression and sought to ameliorate their condition and status through different strategies such as flight or paying for their own manumission. Slavery remained an important element of colonial societies in Luanda and Benguela until it was officially abolished in 1869, and new forms of compulsory labor were introduced.

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Slavery in Pharaonic and Hellenistic Egypt  

Antonio Loprieno

Many forms of coercion to labor and restriction of individual freedom existed throughout Egyptian history. Literary texts present figures of slaves, called ḥm (“laborer”) or bȝk (“servant”). The documentary evidence is historically multifaceted: during the Old Kingdom (c.2700–2200 bce), very large segments of the population were drawn to compulsory work, exemptions being reserved for religious service, while foreign prisoners of war were explicitly enslaved (sqr-ᶜnḫ). Together with the emergence of new social elites, the Middle Kingdom (c.2100–1700 bce) displays a more distinct consciousness of the difference between free people at a lower social level (nḏs), servants (ḥm, bȝk), conscripts (ḥsb), and fugitives (tšj), whereas true slavery continued to be limited to foreign prisoners. In the New Kingdom (c.1550–1050 bce), large-scale foreign slavery derived from military campaigns, while a locally owned or rented servitude became economically indispensable. During this period, the adoption of a slave was a common practice, leading to “free” status (nmḥj). During the 1st millennium bce, references to slavery become rare and are superseded by various forms of voluntary servitude caused by economic dearth or religious self-commitment. Slavery in the legal, hereditary sense of the term unfolded during the Hellenistic and Roman Period (332 bce–395 ce) and derived from military campaigns, purchase in the slave market, or the enslavement of debtors.

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Slavery in the Mandara Mountains and Lake Chad Basin  

Melchisedek Chetima

The demand for slaves in the Lake Chad Basin spanning a long period from at least the 16th century through the first half of the 20th century significantly shaped the physical and human landscapes. Throughout this long period, the Mandara Mountains were part of the practice of slavery as an area of predation first for Kanem-Borno between the 15th and 18th centuries and then for the kingdom of Wandala since the 18th century and the Sokoto Caliphate through the Lamidate of Madagali since the 19th century. To better contextualize the issue of slavery and its role in the political and social transformations of the Chadian Basin, we will rely on three types of sources: first, the travel reports of European explorers and the German, French, and English colonial archives which reported the practice of slavery in the region; second, oral traditions collected by historians and anthropologists; and third, a diary dictated between 1912 and 1927 by Hamman Yaji, the most important slave raider in the southern Lake Chad Basin during that period. As an internal source dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, this diary provides insight into the explosion of slave raids in the early years of colonial occupation and offers unique insight into the relationship between slave-owning and enslaved societies as well as the ambiguous relationship between colonial masters and slave-owning societies.

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Slavery in the South African Interior During the 19th Century  

Fred Morton

The South African interior, roughly equivalent to the Highveld on the southern continental plateau, was in the 19th century a stage of numerous players and groups, acting in concert and in conflict with one another, as often dissolving as taking on board new members. The fortunes of Highveld inhabitants, occupiers, and passers-by fluctuated without periods of calm, and turned advantages to few. It was therefore not uncommon for the human flotsam and jetsam created by raiding, battles, and migrations, aggravated by drought and famine, to be subordinated by the survivors and forced to serve those with whom they had no prior allegiance or knowledge. Slavery in the interior was largely a by-product of staking out territory. Rather than generate slaves for sale in an external market, slavery on the Highveld was fed by the political impulse to aggregate followers and servants. An internal exchange emerged in some areas, and traders made a few transactions with coastal exporters, but the general pattern of enslavement was acquisition by raiding and distribution among raiders. The majority taken were youngsters and, to a lesser degree, women. As a rule, the menfolk were killed.

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Slave Trade and Urban Slavery on the Swahili Coast from Medieval Times to Abolition  

Thomas Vernet-Habasque

Swahili culture is an African, Islamic, coastal, and urban-oriented culture that developed on the eastern coast of Africa. The Swahili coast extends from southern Somalia to Mozambique and to the offshore islands. Urban settlements of various sizes, including prosperous stone towns, were numerous on the coast. The Swahili were engaged in maritime trade and acted as middlemen between the Indian Ocean networks and the mainland networks held by neighboring non-Islamic communities. As evidenced by the earliest historical sources, slave trading and slavery were common practices along the coast, as in other African or Islamic societies. Slavery was regulated by Koranic principles and legitimized by Islamic discourses. Domination and hierarchization were also based on paternalism and the opposition between “civilization” and “barbarity,” the coast and the mainland. Yet, dependence was complex: chattel slavery was just one form of dependence, and like clients, slaves were valued as much as followers as they were producers. As such, slavery was also characterized by patron–client relationships. The boom of the plantation economy during the 19th century has overshadowed the study of slavery and the slave trade on the coast through the longue durée, and this latter perspective also helps with stepping back from an external (i.e., Arabo-centric) angle, focusing on the Busaidi state of Zanzibar and the experience of slavery in the Middle East. During the Middle Ages, the slave trade from the coast was steady but not massive, mostly furnishing demand in the Gulf and southern Arabia. Networks are better known during the early modern era thanks to a much larger body of evidence. The Swahili never produced slaves but obtained them through contact with their trading partners. Mainland slave trade networks were not widespread, and major exporting areas were always specific: mostly Madagascar until the mid-18th century, northern Mozambique and the Lake Nyasa regionand, later in the 19th century, the hinterland of the Tanganyika coast and the region of Lake Tanganyika. The spread of global capitalism, the boom of the plantation economy, and the economic prosperity from the 1840s led to a dramatic rise of slavery on the coast, where approximately 40 to 65 percent of the population was servile around the 1880s. Slaves were ubiquitous in the urban context and did all sorts of work, from domestic female slaves to skilled workers and hired slaves with a large autonomy. The urban environment offered more opportunities for slaves to gain autonomy, respectability, and the possibility of manumission. This was based not only on access to the commercial economy but also on better access to urban and Islamic life and manners, which were structural features of coastal culture. Within the frame of clientship relations and respectability, enslaved people could thus hope for a better life and emancipation. However, this flexibility was a way to preserve the slaving system, and the experience of slaves was always scarred by violence, oppression, and vexation.

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Slave Trades and Diaspora in the Middle East, 700 to 1900 CE  

George La Rue

In the Middle East, Africa was only one of multiple sources of enslaved and servile labor. Building on the legacy of earlier civilizations, the region drew on all of its immediate neighbors for slaves. Local kingdoms and empires arose, clashed, expanded, and adapted old and new slaving strategies from internal and external rivals. From the 7th century, the rapid expansion of Islam and the building of Muslim empires are salient features in this history, but many other historical developments played key roles. Ensuing encounters with other civilizations, empires, and trading networks frequently resulted in friction, mutual adaptation, or new cultural, political, or economic synergies. In the Middle East, Islamic practices toward slaves influenced all regional cultures, yet many variants emerged due to local customs; changing economic and political considerations; specific environmental conditions; and the experiences, cultures, and talents of the enslaved. Slaves were captured directly or purchased. In wars and raids, Middle Eastern armies captured enemy combatants and civilians to ransom or enslave. The mix of enslaved and servile persons brought into the region varied in its composition, reflecting the geographical areas of military actions, the development of powerful trading partners, and the extent of trading networks. Foreign merchants imported additional slaves from the Balkans, the Black Sea region, the islands and shores of the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and Africa—including the West African savanna, the Lake Chad region, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Horn of Africa, particularly via the Swahili coast. These practices brought new servile populations as workers, domestic staff, concubines, soldiers, or bureaucrats to serve in imperial outposts, trading towns, or centers of agricultural, handicraft, or industrial production. The constant demand for servile labor was driven not only by expanding empires and new economic enterprises but also by growing urban populations, the multiple options for manumission under Islamic law, high mortality rates and low rates of reproduction among enslaved populations for social and medical reasons, and the resultant scarcity of second-generation slaves. Broadly speaking, enslaved Africans were more common in the southern tier of the Middle East and demand for them generally increased over time, as northern and internal sources of slaves dwindled. Enslaved persons, including Africans, served in numerous capacities and were dispersed throughout the Middle East and its areas of slave supply.