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The History of Mali: Connectivity and State Formation since the 18th Century  

Madina Thiam and Gregory Mann

The Republic of Mali comprises a very diverse population spread over a vast territory composed of a large part of the southern Sahara, the Sahel, and the savannah. One of the world’s great rivers, the Niger, runs through much of the national territory, reaching its northern apex near Timbuktu. For over a millennium, this territory has allowed empires and kingdoms to flourish alongside decentralized societies. These include the empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhay, as well as any number of smaller states, trading diasporas, and nomadic and semi-nomadic communities. The territory of Mali has long been a hub in African commercial and intellectual circuits, notably those linking the societies of the Maghreb (or North Africa) to those bordering the Atlantic. In the 19th century, as elsewhere in Muslim Africa, new and explicitly Islamic states emerged in western and central Mali. They did not endure more than a few decades, as the territory was colonized by France in the late 19th century. The Republic of Mali claimed its independence in 1960 and rapidly developed greater autonomy from French neo-colonialism than did most of its neighbors. Mali has maintained an out-sized diplomatic and cultural role on the African continent and beyond under a socialist government from 1960 to 1968, military government through 1991, and a vibrant democracy in the decades since. However, since 2011, the country has been increasingly beset by violent conflicts between nonstate actors, the national government, and foreign forces including the French. Thus, in historical perspective, Mali’s geographic position and its environment have proven conducive to the production of expansive, diverse, and mutually dependent communities that have produced radically distinct and often fragile states.

Article

Routes to Emancipation in West Africa  

Alice Bellagamba

West African slave emancipation has been a process patterned and experienced in multiple ways depending on the histories, geographies, and uncertainties of individual, family, and communal lives and trajectories. Regionally and culturally diversified conceptions of slavery and the condition of slaves, the interrelation of slavery with other kinds of personal dependence, the local arrangements between masters and slaves, and gender and age, together with the socio-political and economic dynamics of entire areas and regions factored into this plurality of outcomes. To some extent, this process is unfinished, as the late 20th century closed with reports of child and female exploitation akin to slavery, the political mobilization of slave descendants in Mauritania and other West African contexts, and the interlacement of the legacies of slavery with civil strife and insurgency in still others. Three aspects characterize West African routes to emancipation: the centuries-old connections with the Sahara and the Mediterranean and—since the 15th century—with the Atlantic world, early exposure to Atlantic abolitionism and West Africans’ participation in the struggle against slavery and the slave trade, the political relevance of histories of enslavement, life in slavery, and emancipation. Through case studies and historical examples, the abolition of the West African slave trade and internal slavery in the aftermath of the colonial conquest, the gendered experience of emancipation, the controversial relationships between spatial and social mobility, and post-slavery politics can be considered.

Article

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.

Article

Women in West African History  

Barbara Cooper

Across West Africa up to the 19th century, titled positions for women ensured that women’s interests could be voiced and their disputes regulated. Women often had major roles as brokers and intermediaries in trade centers along the Saharan and Atlantic littorals, contributing to the emergence of powerful Euro-African families. Nevertheless, women were particularly vulnerable to the depredations of the trans-Saharan and Atlantic slave trades. Because female labor was so highly valued, female slaves were more expensive than male slaves. The history of women in West Africa has been characterized by marked differences by ecological zone. Those differences have been deepened by Islamic influences in the North and by different experiences under French, British, and Portuguese rule. With the decline in the Atlantic trade and the growing emphasis upon commodity production, the demand for female labor in agriculture and in processing rose. Under colonial rule, the loss of slave labor was partially offset by increasing demands upon the labor of wives. Women mediated demands upon their labor through colonial courts, with some success in the early decades of the 20th century. Later courts and administrators supported patriarchal controls upon women in the interests of order and a smoothly running economy. Women’s control over their traditional means of accumulating wealth through farming, cloth production, and specialized crafts was typically undermined as economies shifted to emphasize cash crop production and tree crops in particular. Women nevertheless could flourish in market trade and could sometimes gain control over new niches in the economy. The growth of colonial infrastructure had contradictory implications. Women’s traditionally important roles as queens, priestesses, and ritual specialists declined in importance. At the same time, schooling gave some women access to new means of gaining income and prestige as teachers and medical practitioners.