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date: 29 September 2023

Routes to Emancipation in East Africafree

Routes to Emancipation in East Africafree

  • Felicitas BeckerFelicitas BeckerCentre of African Studies, Cambridge University
  •  and Michelle LiebstMichelle LiebstDepartment of History, University College London


Slaves, ex-slaves, and their descendants have taken multiple and complex routes toward emancipation in East Africa. Their experiences varied regionally, with status contests most clearly traceable in those areas where slavery had been most concentrated, especially on the coast. As scholars have established, the legal abolition of slavery did not lead directly to emancipation in East Africa, but it contributed to the quick erosion of slavery-based labor regimes around 1900. Ex-slaves pursued economic security and livelihoods through access to land and wage labor and sought to shed the stigma of slave origins by seeking religious affiliations, education, ethnic identities, and kinship ties. Routes to emancipation were highly gendered as female slaves within owners’ households lacked both political support and legal rights to their children. Moreover, male ex-slaves’ ambitions to assert their own patriarchal status by controlling women could be a major obstacle for ex-slave women’s search for emancipation. Although political independence in the 1960s encouraged the condemnation of slavery as an aberration from a different era, slavery-derived social differences linger, and people with a genealogy of slavery may face status implications in certain situations. Though East African societies, rural ones especially, are readily characterized as timelessly egalitarian, they struggle to this day with the legacy of slavery and incomplete emancipation.


  • East Africa and Indian Ocean
  • Slavery and Slave Trade

Emancipation as a Protracted Process

In East Africa, though the practice of slavery as a means of controlling labor and acquiring dependents largely ended in the early 20th century, emancipation from slavery is a continuing process. Routes to emancipation have been diverse and dependent on a variety of social, economic, political, and geographic factors. These routes are challenging to trace for three reasons. Firstly, it was not only slaves—that is, people legally defined as such—that sought emancipation. Rather, as the stigma of slave status persisted long after the legal abolition of slavery, both ex-slaves and descendants of slaves developed strategies of resistance and negotiation to emancipate themselves. Secondly, emancipation is a protracted and variable process. Legal emancipation through abolition (the legal end to the practice of slavery), self-ransom (when a slave purchases their freedom from their master), and manumission (the voluntary freeing of slaves by their masters) were merely the beginning of post-slavery struggles. Emancipation means more than securing legal freedom or better labor conditions; it is a social, cultural, economic, and political process to dismantle the master-slave distinction. Thirdly, none of the parties who could have documented and born witness to the persistence of hierarchies derived from slavery had much interest in doing so. Officials and missionaries preferred to treat the problem as obsolete once colonial rule was firmly established. Ex-owners had no reason to advertise their attempts to retain high status or claims on others’ labor, and for many ex-slaves or slave descendants, obfuscating these antecedents was an important step toward shedding their stigma. Those in pursuit of emancipation searched for ways to free themselves from coercive labor regimes, procure land, migrate for better opportunities, gain dependents, secure full and equal citizenship, and overcome the stigma of slave status. Expressions and contestations of post-slavery hierarchies were extremely diverse and often very indirect. At the same time, contests for emancipation could contribute to new forms of inequalities.

Those seeking emancipation would take multiple routes to achieve it, but not all these routes were open to everyone. Often, the routes to emancipation and emancipation itself were hazardous and unappealing. For example, claiming the legal right to freedom might ostracize a slave from their master, thereby severing a relationship that could provide security. Pursuing free status often meant the loss of protection, thus subjection to the economic and social vulnerabilities of life as a patron-less person.1 As Gwyn Campbell noted in his study of Indian Ocean slavery, “For many, ‘liberty’ granted less material security than ‘slavery.’”2 This is clear from the autobiography of a Goi-Luba boy, who was redeemed by missionaries but thought he was still a slave and stated years later in a memoir that “I did not want to be free, for I would only be caught and sold again.”3

The abolition of slavery in effect catalyzed the development of new forms of dependence. For example, those who appealed to the government for manumission also sought work and protection, hence another client-patron relationship with government officials or missionaries.4 However, this was a very different kind of dependence that was, usually, less personal and less well established in custom, thus less predictable.5 Meanwhile, the absence of detailed information concerning the outcomes for ex-slaves in places off the coast cannot be taken as evidence that slavery quietly went away as ex-slaves became peasants. Rather, what few hints there are of ex-slaves’ experience suggest that here, too, they faced the struggles to establish a new, unspoiled identity, as well as entitlement and belonging in communities where they had previously been subjected.

Whether claiming one’s freedom was worth the risks depended on considerations that were very place- and person-specific. For example, in Zanzibar, around 1900 slaves who had been born there (called wazalia) could travel, socialize, and engage in business independent of their owners.6 Many slaves worked as vibarua, which meant they could take on wage labor, though they had to pay their masters a portion of their earnings. The terms of such an arrangement could vary greatly. A former slave named Rashid bin Hassani noted that, “it depended upon our owners how much we got, but the generous ones took half and gave us the other half.”7 To some extent, slave owners were motivated to treat their slaves well so that they would not rebel, run away, or apply for a letter of freedom.8

Further north on the coast in Lamu, slave-owner relationships remained strong after legal abolition in 1907. Here, those who severed their bonds tended to find themselves kinless and landless, while those who remained with their masters struggled less and still had some access to wage labor.9 This contrasts with the southern Swahili coast, where ex-slaves encountered little difficulty in obtaining land for cultivation, even if of middling quality.10 Yet migrating to a new place (before or after the abolition of slavery) was also a gamble.11 How could ex-slaves know that life would be better elsewhere? Some who left the place in which they had worked as slaves maintained ties with their masters to improve the conditions of their travels and eventual destinations. Some slaves who fled their masters were not moving away from slavery, but rather from the specific circumstances or conditions in which they found themselves. Sometimes, they ended up in even worse situations and returned to their original masters.12 Effective options were usually high risk, and so many (ex-)slaves opted for the security of dependent relationships over the unknown gains of emancipation. Thus, though slavery in East Africa was far from benign, not all slaves sought emancipation.13 Still, many did, often at great personal cost and with little assistance from others.14

This article begins with the legal routes to emancipation before and after the legal abolition of slavery. The next section discusses the economic struggles and strategies to secure livelihoods through land and work. The main part of the discussion focuses on the experiences of ex-slaves in post-abolition society who sought emancipation through cultural and religious practices and affiliations and through social membership. Finally, the article will end by discussing what became of the slaves and ex-slaves in the late colonial era and beyond political independence in the early 1960s.

Legal Emancipation

In many parts of Africa, manumission was customary long before colonial efforts to abolish slavery.15 According to Islamic law, practiced on the coast, manumission was a pious act to be rewarded with blessings in the afterlife.16 In Baganda society, one way to gain manumission was to enter a blood-brotherhood relationship with one of the master’s younger children. Then, the slave would buy his freedom by giving his master another slave or cow. This would allow the slave to migrate if he wished, but he was not meant to enter another clan.17 On the Swahili coast, Mombasa was known as a destination for manumitted slaves as it had a reputation for tolerance, though they were still vulnerable to re-enslavement there.18

In some colonies, self-ransom was a possibility before legal abolition. For example, in January 1890, Frederick Lugard set up a scheme in which the slaves would work for the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) for wages that they would use to redeem themselves once they reached a certain sum.19 Much more systematic processes of establishing wage labor and self-ransoming took place in German East Africa, where slavery declined from the 1890s even though legal abolition was not introduced until British colonization and the accompanying abolition act of 1922.20 As a result of European plantation owners’ and construction companies’ constant demand for cheap labor, a territorial wage labor market emerged. Despite the harsh working conditions, many (mainly male) slaves went to work for Europeans. Some did so without the consent of their masters, while others were ransomed by German plantation owners. In both cases, (ex-)slaves only stayed until they had gained enough resources or paid off their ransom, then left the plantations and railways to become independent peasants, artisans, or urban workers. Thus, by the end of German rule, many former slaves found paid agricultural labor in newly founded agricultural villages, while others became urban proletariats.21

In the British colonies of Kenya, Uganda, and the protectorate of Zanzibar, a series of laws gradually limited the trading and ownership of slaves. The Slave Trade Act of 1873 marked an expansion in Britain’s effort to tackle the slave trade. The act prompted an ambitious mission to police the Indian Ocean, catch slave-trading dhows, and legally free the slave cargo. Many of these ex-slaves were sent to Christian mission–run settlements, where prospects were not necessarily favorable. For example, the Quakers in Pemba founded a model plantation in which they enforced a greater workload than was customary for slaves, though these ex-slaves did receive wages.22 In Zanzibar, the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa freed slave settlement was similarly designed to instill a work ethic as defined by the missionaries through physical discipline, the threat of expulsion, as well as incentives like access to land, dwellings, and wages.23 As Robert Strayer shows in his research on the Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission in Kenya, freed slaves were barely able to make a living on the increasingly overcrowded settlements. They begged missionaries for work, despite the wages that one missionary described as so low “that no man out here who is really free would think of receiving [them].”24 Ex-slaves in the CMS mission settlements were forced to work, as the chancellor put it, “almost like slaves, carrying beams, mixing mortar . . . for building the mission house at Mombasa.”25 In the 1880s, the freed slaves protested for better pay and boycotted the church, many turning to the IBEA for employment, to the missionaries’ dismay.26 These mixed early outcomes presage the struggles for livelihood and status that freed slaves would face for decades to come.

The suppression of slavery came decades after the suppression of the slave trade in the British colonies. Slavery was abolished in Zanzibar in 1897 in a decree that allowed former masters to make claims for compensation. It also stipulated that concubines could ask for the dissolution of the relationship to their master on the grounds of cruelty.27 The 1907 Slavery Ordinance Act marked the abolition of the legal status of slavery in Kenya. However, it was only after the Slavery Decree of 1909 that former slaves could claim compensation if they could prove they were unable to earn a living and the ex-master’s or mistress’s refusal of the support that she or he previously had to provide (food, accommodation, and sick care).28 Once they colonized what had been German East Africa, the British declared that slavery no longer existed in East Africa.29

As many scholars across Africa have noted, abolition did not mark the end of slavery, and the extent to which these laws provided routes to emancipation was limited for three reasons.30 The first reason was political. As state power was weak along the East African Coast in the 19th century, abolition was almost impossible to thoroughly impose, as the British colonizers soon discovered.31 In Lamu, Kenya, most slave owners retained their slaves despite the 1907 ordinance, which was only enforced in 1910. The slaves who were willingly freed by their owners were usually the aged and those considered troublemakers.32 It was only during the economic stagnation of the 1920s that slave owners struggled to pay to keep their slaves and, consequently, allowed them to be freed.33 Part of the problem was that British officials tended to support indigenous slave-owning elites so as to collaborate with them.34 Moreover, the abolition acts were meaningless in the context of Islamic law, which only recognized manumission by the owner.35 Kadhis (Muslim judges) therefore upheld post-abolition master-slave relationships with Islamic legal principles.36 For example, they supported former masters in taking shares of inheritance from their ex-slaves’ estates in the absence of direct descendants.37 A combination of Islamic law and coastal custom dictated that slaveowners were their slaves’ guardians, and it was their responsibility to contract marriages, even with slaves they had manumitted. This is why, even as late as the 1920s, some former masters demanded that their ex-slaves share their marriage plans with them and pay a small fee to confirm the ex-master’s responsibility.38 These practices of subordination faded only very gradually, with remnants still in place around independence.39

The second reason why abolition was limited was that the colonial state applied a narrow definition of slavery. This was particularly impactful for female slaves, as colonial authorities excluded sulia (Kiswahili for “concubines”) from their emancipation drives.40 Even when women successfully left their former masters, they often wound up in similarly dependent relationships.41 Kenya’s 1907 ordinance also excluded concubines, stating that they “shall not be deemed to be slaves.” It was only if the concubine claimed to suffer mistreatment that they were freed, but very few concubines took advantage of the mistreatment clause.42 Administrators in German East Africa were similarly explicit in their determination not to interfere with control over sulia. In colonial Sudan (where legal emancipation did not begin until after World War I), concubinage was equally nonexistent in antislavery laws, though legal reformers encouraged masters to marry their concubines, which may have afforded them a small amount of security.43

For these women in sexual slavery, resistance or rebellion against the social hierarchy was not the obvious route. As Laura Fair has shown, female ex-slaves needed to assert themselves by hiding themselves, above all through veiling—to claim freedom by deferring to the rules set out by existing social hierarchies.44 Moreover, if a female slave wanted to leave her master, any children she had in her masters’ household would have to be left behind.45

Meanwhile, in Giryama society in the hinterland of the Central Kenyan coast, the British ban on legal slave status in 1907 had no effect, because neither the British nor Giryama elders would recognize that the category of “slave” applied to unfree people in the region. Only when the flow of new slave-dependents eventually dried up did the hierarchical structure of Giryama slave-owning homesteads come to be challenged.46 Similarly, in Sudan, slave owners could claim that their slaves were servants, thus bypassing the abolitionist laws.47

Thirdly, abolition had a limited impact because emancipation was not a priority of colonial policy.48 The urgency of ending slavery that characterized the early years of British colonial activity in East Africa soon waned.49 By the late 19th century, most British officials and missionaries agreed that slaves should remain dependent upon their former owners.50 In 1891 a British official advised the foreign secretary, “The disappearance of the status of slavery should be carried through with as little alteration as possible in the existing relations between master and slave.” Other officials believed a wage labor market, through which ex-slaves would continue to labor on their ex-masters’ plantations, could be established.51 Spreading emancipation by establishing a free-labor system was not on the agenda. Rather, they wished to keep former slaves on their former masters’ estates, to control labor, wages, hours, and the balance of working life.52 Many ex-slaves preferred to work for themselves, rather than get tied into plantation labor for set periods of time. Officials noticed this and so limited ex-slaves’ economic freedom by enforcing rent and restricting their movement during the harvest seasons.53 British administrators often claimed that ex-slaves preferred to remain in the protection of their masters, and many legally freed slaves did indeed remain in servile positions. For example, in the 1920s, a British administrator in Zanzibar reported that “many of the freed slaves still live on their former owners’ plantations and refer to themselves as slaves, and are often proud of their title.”54 However, the fact that some ex-slaves remained on their former masters’ land was only testament to the enormous obstacles they faced in their pursuit of economic emancipation.

Historical evidence also suggests that ex-slaves were particularly vulnerable to recruitment for colonial forced labor.55 The colonialist belief that ex-slaves needed to “learn” how to work on their own account rationalized labor coercion in post-abolition societies. In the 1910s and 1920s, and especially during World War I, the British colonial administration trialed many forced labor policies and projects on the island. Thus, a new labor decree came out during World War I with amendments in 1921 and 1923, stating that “natives” had to prove they had engaged in a set number of days of wage labor for public purposes. Officials argued that clove picking, historically the occupation of rural slaves in Zanzibar, was a public purpose because cloves were taxed.56 Consequently, antislavery activists and Christian missionaries frequently criticized government labor policies as “slavery by another name.”57

It is evident, then, that for slaves in East Africa, claiming legal rights to freedom was only the first step toward effective emancipation. Moreover, claiming freedom through the legal provisions was not devoid of risk. Especially for women in concubinage, legal emancipation, in the form of manumission and abolition, did not usually apply. The legal abolition of slavery also paradoxically created new and/or fueled existing relationships of dependence and labor exploitation. The reasons for the limitations of legal emancipation were deeply political, but ex-slaves also faced great economic struggles. These, and their strategies for economic emancipation, are outlined in the following section.

Labor and Land

The scope for emancipation through access to land or wage labor varied according to region. By and large, access to land was most limited in areas where plantation slavery had been the most intense, namely along the coast. Yet labor markets were larger on the coast than in up-country locations such as Tabora. The flux of economic opportunities in the wake of the economic decline of the former plantation regions on the coast had a diasporic effect as both former slaves and former slave owners traveled to find better livelihoods, or kutafuta maisha (lit. “to find life” in Swahili). Ex-slaves struggled to secure wage labor in a market oversaturated with workers looking for jobs and, unlike their masters, they did not receive financial compensation.58 Post-slavery social hierarchies were especially stark in regions where the economic options of ex-slaves were the most limited, such as Lamu in Kenya and Pemba and Mafia in the Zanzibar archipelago.59

For many younger able-bodied male ex-slaves, strategies for economic emancipation were relatively diverse. They could take up fishing or tapping for palm wine, and many tried a combination of these trades.60 On the mainland of Kenya and Tanganyika there were more agricultural options.61 However, migration to towns would most likely offer more opportunities than their starting location. For instance, there was a significant migration of former slaves from Lamu to Momabasa to escape not only their former masters but the town’s economic decline after abolition. For men, Mombasa offered casual labor year-round in the port and import-export houses, domestic service as “houseboys,” and government jobs as “office boys.” Urban wages were generally higher than rural ones and were driven upward by periodic demands for labor, such as road building and military labor during World War I. In this way, many ex-slaves managed to save their earnings and buy homes or shops.62 Although towns offered many opportunities for ex-slaves, there were also risks. In particular, urban-dwelling ex-slaves were targets of colonial vagrancy laws.63 The waungwana (“gentlemen”) are a good example of a group that successfully harnessed their mobility in order to negotiate the limits of their slave status as they transcended the distinction between free and slave labor. Many (but not all) waungwana were ex-slaves, and most of them worked as caravan porters and retainers of Muslim traders. They are usually associated with coastal society, but they did often travel far into the hinterland and to the great lakes. The wangwana were not only mobile but also tended to have entrepreneurial skills securing wage labor.64 In Sudan, by virtue of an expansion of agricultural schemes and establishment of a new Sudan Defence Force between 1920 and 1956, there was a huge increase in demand for male laborers, which powered the transition from slave to wage labor.65

Like practically every aspect of post-slavery, ex-slaves’ labor market participation was highly gendered. It was harder for ex-slave women to migrate, especially if they were unmarried and unaccompanied by their husbands, because local officials monitored their departures by dhow. Sometimes women traveled with men who they pretended were their husbands.66 Many of these women ended up in what would now be called the “informal sector” of the economy. In Mombasa, for instance, migrant ex-slave women made a living by stitching kofia (brimless cylindrical caps) or baking bread.67 On the southern coast of Tanganyika in Lindi and Kilwa, women were reported to fish for small fry or trap octopus—ways of fishing that could be practiced close to the shore.68 Market gardening products could be hawked to the labor force of nearby plantations, and there was some scope also for selling cooked food. It is noticeable that despite the customary obsession of colonial officials with the presence of women in urban spaces inducing various forms of “immorality,” there are practically no references to prostitution in the administrative files of the Swahili towns.69 Up-country, too, the lively demand for prostitution in places like Nairobi was not typically met by ex-slave women. In Sudan, too, female liberated slaves struggled to find a place in the colonial economy, and many of them had little option but to work as domestic servants, sex workers, or vendors of alcohol.70

Ex-slave laborers also moved between different segments of the labor market. In the Zanzibar archipelago, urban workers sometimes took to the fields, but only when picking was easy and wages were high, much to the annoyance of colonial officials.71 Work with set working times and contracts rarely provided ex-slaves with the incentives to become the sort of compliant, settled, and predictable wage laborers that colonial officials wanted.72 British and German colonial observers tended to interpret Africans’ resistance to the subordination of regular plantation labor as laziness and/or a lack of familiarity with wage labor.73 However, ex-slaves were simply resisting colonial efforts to control the conditions under which they would work. They negotiated for better wages and working conditions to supplement the cultivation of food crops. Most preferred kibarua work (day labor), as it did not demand the laborer’s commitment to their employer. It was said that Arabs paid considerably less than European employers but offered more flexibility and less severe discipline than Europeans’ formal contracts.74

The role of labor markets in emancipation changed with the decades. As Jan-Georg Deutsch shows, the establishment of European-run plantations paying wages in the vicinity of slave plantations was catalytic for the disintegration of slavery in German East Africa. It became more difficult for ex-slaves to find wage labor on their own terms in the 1920s. This was especially true for the ex-slaves in Zanzibar’s clove economy, who were dependent on picking work. Clove prices began to fall, and officials despaired that the free labor market was ruinous.75 In 1925, 81 percent of the recorded wage laborers worked in agriculture, and it is likely that this figure was underestimated. Amid the economic downturn of the 1930s, urban employment became even scarcer, and the casual labor that had been associated with flexibility was likely to lead to poverty.76

Another potential route to economic emancipation was to secure land, though the opportunities for this varied widely. Where land ownership was the most formal, slave plantations had been extensive; good land was scarce and land access was the most difficult, with Lamu being the prime example. By contrast, where plantations backed on usable and not too densely populated land, it was possible for ex-slaves to “melt away” into the expanding colonial peasantry. This occurred on a large scale on the southern Swahili coast, and, according to preliminary findings, also in the up-country node of plantation production at Tabora. While this “near exit option” is likely to have absorbed large numbers of ex-slaves in coastal and up-country Tanganyika, the people who took it are hard to trace. It is nevertheless clear that the livelihoods obtained through this peasantization process were precarious. Despite the relative self-sufficiency of peasant production, the unclaimed land that ex-slaves could access was typically relatively marginal, and they lacked the equipment, kinship networks, or ritual status claimed by the wenyeji, the (“firstcomers” or “original inhabitants”), whether those were ex-masters or free cultivators. Economic marginality, then, was intertwined with its social counterpart, about which the next section elaborates.

A different yet related situation, so far barely researched, obtained in Buganda. There it appears that ex-slaves’ ability to access land depended on their ability to claim membership of a lineage. The intrinsic “absorptiveness” of Ganda lineages has been noted as a crucial factor structuring the experience of slavery there.77 Given the relatively firm control over land established by colonial Baganda chiefs and the resulting inequalities even among the free Ganda population, it is likely that ex-slaves had to negotiate fairly marginal status among their new lineages, working less favored land or working harder than others. Here, too, the role of gender needs careful attention. Male slaves had sometimes pursued careers as soldiers or personal envoys and may have moved into relatively mobile urban livelihoods after emancipation. For women, the hierarchization of marriage in connection with Christianization, with lower-status “traditional” marriages coexisting with higher-status Christian ones, is liable to have structured their options.78

The politics around land access have been studied comprehensively for the Zanzibar archipelago. Here, it became increasingly difficult for freed slaves to procure land from the late 19th century. Even with established kinship groups and support networks, ex-slaves lacked communal rights in land. Zanzibari ex-slaves instead squatted on the land of former masters. Sometimes they paid the landowner rent, but mostly they were too poor to afford it.79 In Zanzibar town, land was increasingly commercialized from the 1890s, and the practice of charging ground rents was spreading in areas like Ng’ambo, the disreputable “other shore” outside the town’s coral stone-built urban core. Manumitted slaves made up the majority of tenants in this region. Initially, they protested against ground rents, arguing that their patrons (their former masters) had an obligation to supply them with rent-free land. By the 1910s, though, those living in Ng’ambo increasingly claimed rights to and security in property ownership—not as (ex-)slaves whose masters had an obligation to them but as Zanzibari citizens.80

In the 1920s, some opportunities emerged in the countryside of the islands as Arab plantation owners sold off land amid plummeting clove prices and rising production costs.81 On Pemba, many ex-slaves were unable to purchase their own land and ended up arranging share-cropping relationships with former owners, thus rendering them squatters.82 Elsewhere in the islands and on the Kenyan coast, colonial efforts to create an agricultural proletariat committed to steady labor on plantations had failed by the 1920s, and so had the Arab landowners’ attempt to keep ex-slaves as personal dependents tied to their estates.83 Frederick Cooper concludes that by restricting ex-slaves’ access to land in pursuit of labor discipline, supporting landowners’ formal rights but failing to provide the financial or material inputs that would have been needed for the landowners to become viable employers, officials effectively if unwittingly separated agricultural labor from the land. This outcome left ex-owners to sink into genteel poverty while ex-slaves struggled to get by as squatters, small-holders, or urban laborers.84

Evidently, ex-slaves’ access to both land and waged employment was hedged round with uncertainties, limited and often precarious. Nevertheless, the limited livelihoods it provided were central to ex-slaves’ ability to survive, loosen ties with former masters, and begin to pursue an identity no longer defined by the relationship to a master. That said, the relationship between livelihood and social status was two-way, as social status and livelihood constraints could both reinforce and undermine each other. The following section further considers the issues around ex-slave stigma and the reconstitution of identities.

Overcoming Slave Status After Abolition

While the labor regime of slavery disintegrated relatively quickly, the stigma around slave status persists in East Africa to this day. This section focusing on the period before political independence demonstrates how the slave/master distinction was recast in various ways through the categories of religion, ethnicity, and citizenship. In coastal East Africa, Muslim elites retained claims to high birth and moral authority despite the loss of their slaves, due to both established social practice and the colonial state’s interest in maintaining structures of authority.85 Patrician hegemony was particularly strong in Zanzibar and the Kenyan coast, because these areas were still technically part of the domains of the Sultan of Zanzibar. British officials hired Swahili patricians and Arab immigrants to work as intermediaries between themselves and the African population. This, in turn, protected the status of plantation owners.86 In Lamu “a rigid consciousness of social class” meant that slaves had “the lowest status, or ‘nothingness’, as social beings.”87 Lack of slave antecedents came to be roughly equated with the status of wenyeji, literally the “owners” of the town, that is, those with local or firstcomer status. In contrast, the watu wa kuja, that is, those that came from elsewhere, were likely to be associated with ex-slave status.88 Wenyeji insisted that former slaves revealed their slave pasts in their manner of dressing, accents, religious practices, and lack of familiarity with the cultures in place.89

That said, as Jonathon Glassman has shown, struggles for integration into these hierarchical communities had been ongoing since the heyday of coastal slavery.90 The profound changes in political and social relations attendant on colonization also changed these struggles, from the high drama of communal festivals, demonstrative violence, and conspicuous consumption in the era of big men and long-distance trade to the more modest displays and subdued conflicts of colonized peasant societies. In post-abolition Pemba, for instance, former slaves set in motion a transition in the meaning of heshima, from aristocratic, exclusive “honor” to more widely accessible “respectability,” a more widespread and humble quality that neighbors bestowed on each other. More malleable than honor, respectability was sought through patronage and behavior indicating social belonging. This meant that former slaves could attain respectability, but that it did not have the permanence of honor; it was easily lost.91

Achieving community membership and kinship were key to achieving effective emancipation. As ex-slaves renegotiated their social relations, making connections was crucial, but the effort to acquire status could also pit ex-slaves against each other.92 In particular, men’s efforts to become patriarchs could limit the autonomy of women. Lack of the right to marry when and whom you wanted and to provide for one’s children through inheritance had been among the most galling aspects of slave status.93 For example, in Lamu slaves had customarily only been allowed to marry other slaves with the same owner. Thus, kinship and community membership(s) defined trajectories of emancipation while also creating new hierarchical, especially gendered, relationships.94

An important path toward respectability was through clothing. Clothing could help ex-slaves transform their social identities from those of servile “outsiders” to respectable local residents with vested social, economic, and political interests.95 Popular culture reveals this social power of clothing. For instance, a common trope in 19th-century Swahili oral literature was that poor African freepersons or slaves could wield the power of magical clothing to transform into Arab or Shirazi sultans.96 Conversely, young elite men could find themselves socially and materially impoverished if they donned the clothing of slaves or women.97 In the colonial period, the—usually male—servants in colonial homes dressed in what an archetypal gentleman (mwungwana) would have worn in 19th-century Lamu or Siyu: a kilemba (“turban”) and long flowing robe, with a decorated sword or horn siwa to bring out on special occasions. This clothing, and the respectability it symbolized, is part of what made domestic service for Europeans such an attractive career in the colonial period.98 As for women, they sought out printed cloths and multiple pieces, seeking to keep up with rapidly changing fashions. In Pemba, the once-exclusive privilege of wearing shoes and buibui (a roomy black cloak securing Muslim standards of modesty in dress) no longer signaled that the wearer could control the labor of others.99 Women tended to experiment with clothing more than men, in ways that allowed them to symbolically traverse boundaries of class and ethnicity.100

Religious allegiance, both Muslim and Christian, became a crucial route toward emancipation. In the case of Islam, this entailed a kind of revaluation of values. While the coastal slave regime was fully functional, the proverb “a slave is . . . an enemy of God and the Prophet” encapsulated the widespread stereotyping of slaves as non-Muslim barbarians.101 Even then, some marginal people had nevertheless struggled to claim Muslim identity, and some learned men sought to accommodate them into urban communities. After the disintegration of plantation slavery, up-country villagers, marginalized urbanites, and accommodating sheikhs quietly cooperated to reinvent Muslim allegiance as a mark of shared, inclusive citizenship.102 This process was most pronounced in Tanganyika, where Arabs were no longer recognized as a separate status group and ex-slaves found it relatively easy to become cultivators.103 Descendants of slaves and slave owners could all claim Muslim allegiance, even if they disagreed about their place in local society or in its history, because there were so many diverse ways of interpreting what it meant to be Muslim.104 As a result, ex-slaves and other low-status converts established congregations with distinct ritual practices.

The expansion of Islam among rural and ex-slave populations took two distinct forms. On the one hand, rural people and peri-urban marginalized people “fetched Islam” from supportive coastal sheikhs, by adopting ritual practices for converting others or by asking for a student of the sheikh to take up residence with them as a teacher. While many or most of those who converted in this way had never been slaves, it helped dissociate Muslim identity from urban and elite status, or, as the villagers saw it, it allowed them to participate in uungwana, freeborn urban status, and thereby also helped ex-slaves. On the other hand, townspeople who were marginal due to their immigrant or ex-slave status benefitted from the supportive networks that arose from the Sufi tarika and their rituals. The Shadhili and Qadiri tarika had reached the coast in the 19th century, forming a loose network of chapters headed by local sheikhs and focused on teaching meditative ritual practices. By offering basic education and public ritual, the tarika helped immigrants become “of the town” and integrated as “local” persons. Tarika practices also encouraged women’s visible participation in public performances. While some high-status families maintained the ideal of domestic seclusion for women, female participants in Sufi ritual found it validating.105 Participation in Sufi ritual also mitigated the fact that women did not typically participate in Koranic school and mosque activities.106

Christian missions, for their part, had targeted ex-slaves as potential converts since the 1860s and greatly expanded their operations after the onset of colonialism.107 The effects of these settlements for ex-slaves were mixed and changing. Before colonialism, missions set up ex-slave settlements that were designed to act as small-scale Christian communities, populated mostly with those who had been captured in the British navy’s efforts to police the slave trade. Many of these settlements were begun with the ambition to “reform” ex-slaves and transform them into Christian wage workers or farmers. In these Christian communities, ex-slaves were encouraged to look upon themselves as both redeemed from the atrocities of slavery and brought into the “light” of Christian salvation.108

However, freed slave settlements became sites of great conflict between missionaries and Africans. This is partly because Africans and missionaries had different ideas about possible ways to shed the stigma of slave status. While missionaries imagined a return to “unspoiled” rural life, mission ex-slaves were drawn to the Swahili notion of urban ustaarabu, civilization, in contrast to the ushenzi, barbarism of the countryside.109 However “sinful” to the missionaries, the town offered better livelihoods and more ways to assert citizenship, such as dance societies or Sufi orders.110 Conversely, though, townspeople associated the mission settlements with slave antecedents. Thus, the mission simultaneously created a refuge for ex-slaves and perpetuated their slave status. Both missionaries and Africans saw slave status negatively, and the social mechanisms that made them despise slaves were surprisingly similar.111

Typically it was the most marginal, often displaced persons, including orphans, refugees, and runaway slaves, who were the first to come forward to live with missionaries and adopt Christianity. Before colonialism, this made missionaries liable to be seen as politically inconvenient, inept competitors, or de-facto slave owners by African powerbrokers nearby and was a factor in many conflicts between missionaries and surrounding populations.112 With colonialism established, these issues faded. In the context of the dramatic growth of Christianity in colonial-era East Africa, the history of ex-slaves within missions can be and has been told as a redemptive story. For example, mission stations in the Tabora region in Western Tanzania received numerous ex-slaves escaping the region’s trade routes and the plantations feeding them.113 Over the next two to three generations, they and their descendants became catechists, teachers, and priests as well as settled agriculturalists, and some of them moved on to become the mission-educated elites that inherited East Africa’s states at independence.114

But not all such mission stations and not all the ex-slaves in them thrived. Ex-slave converts who had given up all memberships but this one risked being considered of low status outside the missions, even if they did well within them.115 Rural mission stations were not completely removed from the tensions found near Zanzibar town, with ex-slaves torn between different ways of reckoning status and membership, and missionaries complaining of lack of commitment. In some regions, such as much of the hinterland of the southern coast and the Bondei region near Tanga in Tanganyika, mission stations were outcompeted by Muslim proselytizers, who offered their own paths to belonging without European oversight.116 Wages paid in mission stations remained low, the use of corporal punishment caused resentment, and mission teachers and domestic servants struggled to get by.117 The vast majority of converts did not make their way into the urban educated elites, and more remains to be discovered about whether or how slave antecedents continued to affect status among them.118

Like religious, so ethnic identity became a means to claim belonging and seek to distance oneself from slave origins. This process has been traced in Zanzibar. Here, censuses show that between 1910 and 1930, the island’s African population increasingly moved away from associating themselves with mainland ethnicities, such as the Nyasa, Yao, and Manyema. Many identified themselves as “Swahili” instead. By the time of the 1930 census, most defined themselves as indigenous islanders.119 As “Swahili” began to acquire overtones of “ex-slave,” more Zanzibaris moved on to calling themselves Shirazi, but this strategy was not open to all. For example, in interwar Tabora, Manyema identity was associated with slave origins and denigrated as such by some urban Nyamwezi and descendants of the town’s Omani settlers. Rather than seek to claim a different identity, Manyema responded by building their own mosque and forming a dance society.120 The importance of these dance societies for marginalized urban populations, ex-slaves among them, has been noted.

Evidently, then, ex-slaves found routes to social and cultural emancipation. And yet, all of these routes presented challenges. Some members of the old elites actively resisted ex-slaves’ efforts to undermine slavery-derived hierarchies, occasionally with the support of colonial officials. This is again particularly evident in Zanzibar. Here, both British colonial officers and kadhis (Islamic judiciary leaders) affirmed slaves’ kinlessness and illegitimate descent, which perpetuated their slave status. By the 1930s in Zanzibar, names in the kadhi’s courts were accompanied by ethnic categorizations, which contributed to the increasing ethnicization of Zanzibari society. Moreover, ethnicity increasingly became an exclusionary marker, and some ethnic designations circumlocutions for slave origins. This was made possible by the colonial categorization of the Sultan’s subjects into racial groups as well as, after World War II, the racialized ideas of African and Arab nationalists.121 Where ex-slaves successfully claimed erstwhile trappings of high status, their status tended to decline, as occurred with Omani dress styles or the designation “Swahili.”

Further research is required to uncover the analogues of such processes in rural, mainland settings, where slave descendants are liable to have remained excluded from ritual offices and limited in their choice of marriage partners. Some remained intensely vulnerable. In October 1931, the diary of the Anglican church at Masasi, rural Southern Tanzania, stated that “Simon Almasi brought Aida and a catechumen woman—both very old—former slaves of [the Yao chief] Matola at Mkomaindo to receive money help from church. The Matola family would have simply left them to die.”122 Again, in January 1933 “Lidia Malumba, an ex-slave, crippled—driven away by everybody now—has no home” was put on the list of church aid recipients.123

These women were typical of ex-slaves in that they sought community membership, even if for them this meant retaining their subordinate positions within the community of their slave owners. This reflects how belonging to a community could be highly oppressive, deny the ex-slave membership to other communities, and still leave ex-slaves vulnerable to exclusion in difficult times. Nevertheless, ex-slaves actively contributed to changes in social and cultural values and religious practices through their pursuit of emancipation. Some practices once associated with slave status, such as dances from the mainland, were integrated into the public culture of the towns. Amid these multiple and divergent changes, the life trajectories of individual ex-slaves varied wildly. But overall, the social and cultural markers of slave status became increasingly subtle by the mid-20th century. The following section considers the impact of independence, remnants of slave status, and the political valence of the history of slavery.

Slave Status in Post-Independence East Africa

When East Africa’s states became independent, official abolition was between three (for Tanzania) and over five (for Kenya and Uganda) decades in the past, and plantation slave labor, too, had been gone for half a century. Still, independence was an important caesura in the history of post-slavery in the region. It further eroded what remained of the status of former owners, who went from being coastal cosmopolitans and valued intermediaries in a transregional British empire to impoverished urbanites on the margins of territorial nation-states based on peasant economies.124 This turnaround took by far its most traumatic and violent form in Zanzibar, where the 1964 revolution displaced the formerly slave-owning elite.125 For their part, slave descendants made their own sense of the frequent invocation of uhuru, freedom, by independence campaigners to assert their citizen status.126 At the same time, independence reinforced avoidance of the issue of post-slavery by politicians, officials, and also historians, who were looking for useful pasts and keen to place slavery securely in the precolonial period. Nevertheless, the notion of slavery, and questions around responsibility and redress for it, retained implicit political valences that have become more salient, however intermittently, since political liberalization in the 1990s. Far from fading into the past, slavery has arguably become more important as a political reference point in the early 21st century, in connection with new forms of political polarization and attempts to establish heritage sites and heritage tourism.127

In Zanzibar, the slave past became both a crucial part of increasingly polarizing political rhetoric in the run-up to independence and part of what structured the social divisions that this rhetoric fed on and reinforced. As Glassman has shown, during the 1950s both racialized notions of African mainlanders’ barbarism that drew on slavery-era denigration of slaves, and invocations of slave owners’ cruelty and arrogance became increasingly current in the islands’ politics.128 The established elites whom British colonial officials wanted to inherit political power took an apologetic view on slavery, instead portraying Zanzibar as a beacon of Arab and Islamic civilization. Yet marginal townspeople and poor cultivators were increasingly drawn to activists who portrayed Zanzibaris of Arab extraction as foreigners and collectively responsible for the cruelties of slavery that they described in lurid detail, demanding that political power pass into racially African hands. In 1964, the establishment won the election, but the activists won the revolution, which was accompanied by massacres of perceived Arabs and sent many of the survivors into exile. The revolution inaugurated a self-consciously pan-Africanist regime that secured its base by redistributing land and housing, marginalized the old scholarly milieu, and asserted mainlanders’ ascendancy by various means, including forced marriages.129 It thereby created profound resentment and sense of loss, which would come to the fore decades later.

In Kenya, slavery took on a new life as a metaphor in connection with the campaign to make the coast a separate homeland for Muslim, Swahili-speaking urbanites.130 In Mombasa, a sheikh from the patrician Mazrui family warned of the ascendancy of Christian mainlanders over the coast by stating that if slavery were to return, it would be the mainland Africans selling coastal Muslims.131 Real-life status differences remained dramatic in more remote locations with few economic options. Ten years after independence, in 1974, a researcher in Lamu found that while ex-slaves had been integrated into Muslim rituals, their position relative to the descendants of freeborn and patrician citizens remained clearly subordinate.132 Just a year later, research in Mombasa also showed the persistence of hierarchies and dependencies derived from slavery, especially for women and in relation to kinship. Informants told Margaret Strobel that,

Nowadays people are not sold [as slaves], but something persists. They know that they cannot come to us inappropriately and say, “I want my child to marry yours.” We attend weddings and dances together, but they know their place. There is one thing, however; if a child of ours wants to set up household with them, it is the child’s own business. . . . Even nowadays, people are not [considered to be] of one kind [i.e., equal]. Even if we see that his thoughts are good, he will not receive a wife from us. We go to weddings together, but the matter of intermarriage creates problems. Older people still do not approve.133

Similarly, a former owner described her relationship with her former slave thus:

She was like my mother, so in the morning she would come and sweep for me. She lived in her own rented house. In the morning she came to sweep for me, she drew water for me, she cooked food for me. That’s it, children have been born there, and she has raised them and made them like her own. You can’t come and tell her, “do this.” . . . Once the British had come, you didn’t dare to call a person a slave. Mama, that’s all. You send her on errands, she is useful to you if she wants to be herself, out of her own kindness.134

While there is no research directly replicating Strobel’s approach from the more recent past, recent work suggests that slavery-derived hierarchies faded further as the people who had seen them fully operational died off. But even in the 2000s, Arab descent and Islamic learning remained a starting point for claims to high status on the Kenyan coast, in ways that obliquely referenced the history of slavery without ever quite explicating its relevance.135 Moreover, slave descendants near former mission settlements found themselves saddled with an ethnic designation that technically made them strangers in the country of their birth, as it was not listed as one of Kenya’s indigenous ethnic groups.136

In Sudan, with the resurgence of chattel slavery in the late 20th century, the persistence of descent-based discrimination is more acute.137 Moreover South Sudanese people, who are often descended from slaves and ex-slaves, have since the 1990s suffered colossal upheaval and displacement. According to a report from 2016, South Sudanese shantytown settlers reported a complete loss of citizenship as they suffered racism and lost their jobs.138

The Tanzanian experience was different yet again, given the greater obsolescence of racialized categories there already under colonialism, as well as the independence movement’s concerted efforts to minimize ethnic and social distinctions.139 Though Julius Nyerere only declared Tanzania socialist in 1967, he had campaigned already in the 1950s on the slogan watu wote sawa, all people are equal. On the southern Swahili coast, some people, both descendants of slaves and descendants of owners, characterized this line as the means for ex-slaves to finally claim full citizenship. Sometimes this was enacted through the public humiliation of owners’ descendants.140 In Tabora, the adherents of the Manyema mosque developed a reading of the Quran that took it effectively as an antislavery document.141 Their views chimed both with the assertive egalitarianism of the ruling party during Nyerere’s reign until 1986 and with the narratives of Christian communities that positioned Christianity as a redemptive force that had led Tanzanians out of the precolonial age of slavery and warfare.142

And yet, slavery-derived hierarchies did not altogether disappear in Tanzania, either. The situation in Zanzibar, part of Tanzania from 1964, has already been described. The remote island of Mafia, where ex-slaves were still subordinate in the 1960s, mirrored the case of Lamu more than anywhere on the southern coast of Tanzania.143 In the 2000s, a study of some Manyema informants in western Tanzania asserted that “Manyma hatutoki boi,” meaning “we Manyema do not have our origin in domestic work.”144 In making this assertion, they produced echoes of the old ex-slave stigma while eliding it into the low status of domestic employment, referred to as uboi since the colonial period and, while increasingly feminized, as widespread as ever. On the mainland as on the islands, light skin resembling Arab ethnicity continues to be identified with beauty, especially in women, as is evident in the results of beauty contests and the use of skin whitening creams.145 Occasionally urbanites will refer to dark skin as the mark of country-bound peasants, burned by the sun, or a dark-skinned man will complain that his complexion will disqualify him as a suitor in the eyes of some parents. A popular Tanzanian novel from the 1990s featured a prostitute beating up an Arab customer who tried to get away without paying her, as if she were a slave.146 The heritage of slavery here becomes bound up with class-based, ethnic, and racial prejudices derived from multiple frames of reference.

The afterlives of slavery in postcolonial Uganda are again little understood. Derek Peterson has shown that slavery was established as a political metaphor since the 1930s, when Nyoro people living under Ganda administration complained that their situation reduced them to slavery.147 The postcolonial career of this kind of rhetoric, though, remains to be established. Given the former prominence of the Bugandan court as a center of slave ownership, the political marginalization of the Bugandan royal house after independence is likely to have attenuated lingering stigma, but again research is needed to substantiate this possibility. Meanwhile Idi Amin, military dictator from 1971 to 1979, identified with an ethnic group known as “Nubi,” whose origins lay with a contingent of slave soldiers in the British imperial army. How this association with slavery informed either Amin’s actions or the way he was seen is unclear, though it is known that many people in his home region subsequently opted out of Nubi identity.148 What is evident is that amid the violence of his rule and the conflicts it engendered, women and children again faced a risk of enslavement, the former forced into sex work, the latter into soldiering, most notoriously for the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA).149 This group has been active in northern Uganda, southern South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic on and off since c. 1987 and over time abducted tens of thousands of children.150

The atrocities of the LRA formed a rare occasion when contemporary neo-abolitionist activism in the West, more often focused on the more salient remnants of slavery in West Africa, took interest in East Africa. Overall, international, activist, and tourist interest in the history of slavery in East Africa has remained limited. Likewise, efforts to memorialize it by national or local institutions remain limited, and at times problematic. Glassman has shown that a room billed a “slave prison” shown to tourists in Zanzibar town actually started life as a storeroom for mission medical supplies.151 Some efforts at memorialization, though, are developing. In particular, the National Museum of Kenya, with Patrick Abungu in the lead, is working on making the so-called “Shimoni slave caves,” formerly used as a holding pen for captives, a memorial site that reflects different strands of memory and ways of relating to the past.152

The limited official interest in memorialization becomes understandable when considering that there are, at close sight, tensions between the different redemptive narratives used to place slavery safely in the past. This is again particularly evident in Zanzibar. On the one hand, there has been some international fundraising to highlight the connections of the Anglican church near the town’s waterfront to antislavery intervention, the church having been built on the site of a former slave market.153 On the other hand, Zanzibari bookshops have been selling apologetic books that combine insistence that slave trading via Zanzibar was a European-led enterprise with insistence that slavery in Zanzibar was anyway benign.154 According to this narrative, Europeans, missionaries in particular, used slavery as a pretext to bring the islands under colonial control, leading ultimately to the islands’ incorporation into Tanzania, loss of sovereignty, unfettered immigration from the mainland, and thus the undermining of their cosmopolitan Islamic culture.155

This narrative is a further elaboration of the experience of the 1964 revolution and its aftermath. Its popularity, including among Zanzibaris with socially marginalized and mainland roots, indicates a peculiar kind of triumph for slave descendants in Zanzibar: they have been able to claim a narrative of victimhood that describes the experience of the islands’ displaced, formerly slave-owning elite as their own. In Zanzibar’s tense political climate, with elections manipulated, disputed, and accompanied by violence, this narrative has great political clout as a rationale for separatist demands.156 Those demands, in turn, fed widespread riots in 2012, brought under control only by jailing a large number of separatist activists. In effect, then, slave descendants have been able to “opt into” Zanzibari society by adopting elite resentment against more recent arrivals from the mainland. Nevertheless, the postrevolutionary regime retains support, not least among the recipients of redistributed property taken from former slave- and landowners in rural Ungura island.157 The result is an apparently irredeemably toxic political climate, informed by sharply divided views on the contemporary meaning of the history of slavery.

While the contrast between Anglican and activist Muslim views on the slave past in Zanzibar is distinctive to the islands, there is also a milder mainland version of this difference in perspective. As shown by Gregory Maddox and Ernest M. Kongola, many Christians closely identify the spread of Christianity on the East African mainland with the end of slavery and precolonial violence on the one hand, and the growth of the future independent nations on the other.158 They treat Christianity as a foundational and redemptive feature of the history of their countries while externalizing slavery as an atrocity committed by Arab, thus Muslim, outsiders. To Muslim ears, this comes close to blaming Islam for slavery. Muslims on the mainland tend to think of Islam as a force for abolition and egalitarianism, and of the role of Muslim Arabs in East African slavery as an aberration—the doing of Arabs, not of Muslims. Yet with increasing political competition, doctrinal debates among Muslims, and the buzz around the notion of globalization since the 1990s, mainland Muslims are also keen to emphasize their ancient ties to the Arab peninsula as the cradle of Islam. Their relationship to the history of slavery, then, is more complex and fraught than that of Christians. Attempts at memorialization would have to contend with these differences.

Also important is the fact that, arguably, the “silencing” of memories of slavery has been an important part of how slave descendants have claimed their places in postcolonial communities. As an informant from the hinterland of the southern coast in 2000 explained: “Whether someone’s ancestors were slaves or owned slaves is a big secret. . . . We have one child of Mzee Halfan, the pure Arab, living here, but even he these days would not say so and does not want to present himself as an Arab.”159 In a nearby town, a perceptive sheikh observed that by the time of independence, it was mostly “drunks in the palm wine parlours” who would raise other people’s slave ancestry: it was a sign of lack of social grace.160 This way of dealing with past evils by failing to acknowledge them contrasts conspicuously with the “truth and reconciliation” approach pioneered in post-apartheid South Africa and since redeployed in various regions, including Northern Uganda, in the aftermath of more recent atrocities.161 But arguably, it has done important work for many slave-descendants in the region.

Meandering Routes Toward Emancipation

The importance of silence and circumlocution in the history of post-slavery in East Africa highlights a striking feature of this history: the persistence of subtle but important social differences derived from slavery despite the rapid obsolescence of slavery as a way of controlling labor. While the labor regime ended over a century ago, status implications still linger, and the need to tread carefully around slave antecedents makes this very clear. This situation also highlights that the renegotiation of social relations in the aftermath of slavery occurred largely in emic terms. Colonial states set some conditions, most clearly with their failed efforts to create a stable plantation workforce on the Kenyan coast and in Zanzibar. But the significance of changing ethnic, religious, and social designations, such as Manyema, Christian, Muslim, and mwenyeji or “indigenous,” for the rebalancing of ex-slave identities arose predominantly from ex-slaves’ fine-grained, everyday interactions with those around them.

Broadly speaking, the routes to emancipation in East Africa resembled those in other parts of Africa, and beyond. Very briefly, they can be summed up as legal emancipation, migration (sometimes flight), wage employment, the search for access to land and other resources, opting into or reconstructing kinship networks, and the pursuit of unspoilt religious, social, urban, or ethnic identities. Legal emancipation, while important for individual slaves during the era of slavery, is best understood as the starting point for the longer process of ex-slaves’ emergence from slave status, which was driven largely by their own efforts. Migration and the pursuit of wage labor were crucial strategies, often in combination. The search for land, too, often entailed migration, if not necessarily over long distances.

The pursuit of belonging in kinship groups and of alternative identities, meanwhile, entailed a plethora of negotiations, reinventions, working misunderstandings and revaluations of values. Where 19th-century slave owners had appealed to their privileged Islamic knowledge as a marker of their superiority, ex-slaves and Sufi leaders focused on the equality of believers before God. While patrician families on the coast sought to assert that waungwana, freeborn citizens, were a category apart from and superior to others, displaced people and villagers in the countryside redeployed the term to mean “Muslim” or “honorable neighbor.” Heshima, honor, went from aristocratic privilege to shared, mutually conferred respectability.162 In the mid-20th century, development experts characterized “peasant egalitarianism” as a timeless, traditional feature of many East African societies. In fact, it is likely to have been a hard-won, recent achievement with a complicated history in places like Tabora on the Tanzanian mainland.

In keeping with the importance of access to land and labor markets for emancipation, both social and economic inequality derived from slavery remained the most pronounced in those places where these things were hard to come by, particularly the Kenyan coast and the islands of Lamu, the Zanzibar archipelago, and Mafia. Next to these geographic differences, gender was the most important factor in determining the individual trajectories of ex-slaves. Lack of political support for the emancipation of female slaves within owners’ households, women’s affective ties to children born to them in captivity, and the difficulty of migrating with children mean that many female ex-slaves’ renegotiations took place in hard-to-trace domestic settings. Unattached women who did migrate had to reckon with male ex-slaves’ ambitions to assert their own patriarchal status by controlling them.

As discussed in the section “Slave Status in Post-Independence East Africa,” the history of slavery remains socially and politically loaded, with potentially divisive uses, and can be open to new applications. Yet for the passing observer, it would be easy not to take cognizance that slavery existed, let alone was a major feature of the region not much over a century ago. A long debate could be had on whether the de facto silencing of the history of slavery here constitutes a quiet moral victory for slave descendants or signals their continuing marginality. The same answer may not apply everywhere. But surely the relative obsolescence of slavery in this region has to count, to some extent, as a remarkable if little-noted achievement of hundreds of thousands of ex-slaves, as well as those who accommodated them.

Discussion of the Literature

Research on emancipation is regionally uneven. The historiography on emancipation is much less developed regarding the case of East Africa than it is in West Africa. Within East Africa, the coast is overrepresented.163 Concomitantly, much more is known about Islamicate ideologies of slavery and strategies for emancipation that involved Islam than about how stances in support of or in opposition to slavery were constructed in places where Islam was less influential.164 Moreover, the enduring political obstacles to close examination of the slave past—its political inexpediency for colonialists, missionaries, and later nationalists alike—mean that there is a scarcity of both written sources and studies thereof for the period since the entrenchment of colonial rule.

This situation contributes to the chronological unevenness in the study of emancipation, as there is very little research on the afterlife of slavery past 1920. For the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an early focus in the historical literature was on the emancipatory role of missionaries and mission stations. An important finding from the nationalist Africanist literature of the 1950s and 1960s was that the capacity of missions to emancipate slaves was limited. For example, Roland Oliver showed in 1965 that ex-slave settlements unintentionally stimulated the slave trade.165 Some authors, such as Paul Kollman on the Holy Ghost mission, nevertheless sought to defend the missionaries’ commitment to the ex-slave settlement.166 Other authors at this time focused on the legal and diplomatic wrangling around ending the East African slave trade. In this vein, Moses Nwulia’s Britain and Slavery in East Africa published in 1975 abruptly ends with a chapter on the abolition of slavery treaties, declaring that “decades of vacillating anti-slavery policy had finally conferred freedom on thousands of East African slaves.”167 Since then, scholars have been much more wary to take the impact of abolition at face value and emphasized how emancipation generally took much longer to achieve.

Frederick Cooper’s Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa and From Slaves to Squatters, published around 1980, provided an important new departure by examining the fine-grained social relations between owners and slaves, the economic and social conditions of slaves and ex-slaves, and the economic effects of British policy toward ex-slaves. From Slaves to Squatters provided a cogent account of colonial policy failures and contradictions and their role in the economic stagnation of the colonial coast. It remains the go-to account of the end and aftermath of slavery.168 It inspired further work on the everyday social and cultural expressions of post-slavery on the coast, in particular Laura Fair’s Pastimes and Politics, which emphasizes the “incredible social flux” in Zanzibar, and Patricia Romero’s work on Lamu.169

Jan-Georg Deutsch’s Emancipation without Abolition, published in 2006, is the leading study on the aftermath of slavery on mainland East Africa, albeit limited to Tanganyika. He emphasized the importance of colonial labor markets and of improvised, opportunistic local policy decisions by colonial administrators for the disintegration of slave labor regimes. However, his account ends in 1920, and there are no similarly expansive studies taking on the question of emancipation after that date. Moreover, though Deutsch indicates what options may have been open to former slaves, we know very little of how these trajectories were experienced and what kind of emancipatory progress was actually possible.170 Felicitas Becker’s work on cultural practices, “firstcomer status,” and religious identity in rural areas near the southern coast demonstrates the enduring silences around slavery in mainland Tanzania. What those silences mean, though, is unclear. They might be attributed to a lack of tensions around ex-slaves. Or, it could be that the officials, missionaries, and nationalists who considered the slave past an embarrassment silenced discussion on the transition from slavery and integration of slaves.171

Former slaves’ livelihood strategies and life trajectories, along with their social and cultural life, seem to rapidly disappear into the broader history of the urban and rural poor.172 Reflecting this, some studies of colonial life in East Africa convey a lot about the nature of slavery’s aftermath, even if they are not framed as such. For example, August Nimtz describes the career of a Sufi leader of slave descent in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, and demonstrates the integration of ex-slaves into Muslim communities.173 Sarah Mirza and Margaret Strobel’s compilation of biographies of three Swahili women in Mombasa, Kenya, explores women’s communities, focusing on family and festive occasions, and reveals much of the experiences of former slave women.174 Memories of slavery also inform Glassman’s 2010 study of late-colonial political conflict and urban unrest in Zanzibar.175

The study of emancipation in East Africa has benefitted greatly from interdisciplinary research. In linguistics, Carol Eastman unpacked the language of slave status through terms like “Swahili,” “mtumwa” (“service”), “mwungwana,” and “boy,” and the way those terms changed meaning over time.176 In archaeology, Lydia Wilson Marshall has shown that settlement organization and landscape practices may shed light on how fugitive slaves pursue emancipation. Further collaboration between social historians and archaeologists could help confirm or deny Marshall’s hypothesis that the similarity of the rectilinear earthen houses represents an attempt to build a shared identity out of diverse pasts of fugitive slaves.177

Finally, studies of emancipation and religion have intersected in important ways. Janet McIntosh’s The Edge of Islam highlights the enduring social hierarchies, cast in religious terms and still shaped by the heritage of slavery, in modern-day Malindi in Kenya.178 Becker’s work on conversion to Islam in the countryside emphasizes the importance of Islamic allegiance as a form of citizenship, while Elisabeth McMahon traced the importance of Islamicate notions of respectability in colonial Pemba, and Elke Stockreiter the importance of Islamic law in maintaining and mitigating hierarchies in post-slavery Unguja.179 For Christianity, David Maxwell’s article demonstrated that the routes to emancipation through improving social status sat uneasily with their objective to instill humility in parishioners.180 This prompted many ex-slaves to join independent churches to attain respectability, which contributed to the decline of mission Christianity. A more recent PhD by Salvatory Nyanto traces the influence of the slave experience in Western Tanzanian mission communities to the mid-20th century. A forthcoming study by Liebst re-examines mission ex-slave settlements as sites of struggles for livelihood and status, emphasizing the varied and ambiguous outcomes.

Primary Sources


A great number of archives hold relevant material. In East Africa, the major archives are Kenya National Archive (Nairobi), Tanzania National Archives (Dar es Salaam), Zanzibar National Archives (Stone Town), and Uganda National Archives (Kampala). Some rich collections in other languages have so far not been consulted as sources relating to emancipation, such as those of the Riyadh Mosque of Lamu, digitized by a British Library Endangered Archives Fund project. Many churches and universities also hold relevant manuscripts, such as the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) logbooks at the University of Dar es Salaam Library. In the United Kingdom, government records are held at Kew National Archives. The Bodleian in Oxford holds the papers of the Anti-Slavery Society and UMCA. Other missionary society papers are held at University of Birmingham Cadbury Library (CMS), Friends House in Euston (Quakers), and the School of Oriental and African Studies (London Missionary Society, LMS). In Basel there are the Basel Mission Archives and in Rome there are the White Fathers and Sisters archives. The Spiritan Mission Archive is located in Chevilly-Larue near Paris. Berlin is the location of the archives of the Berliner Missionsgesellschaft, and further sources from Protestant missions are found at the archives of the Vereinte Evangelische Mission in Wuppertal. There are fewer resources in the United States, though the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University boasts many relevant documents and a rich photography collection, and there are some materials from the African Inland Mission in the Smithsonian Collection and at the New York Public Library.

There is a great shortage of written sources produced by slaves or ex-slaves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so researchers of this period are usually limited to interpreting European sources.181 Some precolonial Swahili writings at least allude to relations between owners and slaves, most notably the poem of Mwana Kupona, which reveals a patrician woman’s concern to maintain hierarchy through aloofness.182 Popular songs and sayings in Swahili can also be suggestive. Fully fledged ex-slave narratives can be found in mission accounts that employed the trope of conversion as a redemptive force for victims of the slave trade and slavery.183 For the colonial period, there is a striking discontinuity in the written record produced by missions, explorers, and early colonial administrations. In the late precolonial period, European actors engaged with the practice of slavery in a variety of ways, observing, describing, discussing policy, and occasionally opposing or competing with owners. Overall, there is a great deal of information on slaves and slavery in sources from this period. In coastal Kenya, slave masters were technically part of the domains of Zanzibar’s Omani Sultanate until Kenya’s independence in 1964. As ex-masters received compensation, their former slaves are a relatively traceable category in the colonial records.184

Compensation aside, these open references to slavery dry up, across the different categories of sources, in the first decade of the 20th century. In part, this silence is achieved through circumlocutions such as “wife” for concubine or “squatter” for landless ex-slave. It also reflects the departure of slaves from the plantations, where their subjection had been the most visible. For much of the colonial period and beyond, ex-slaves have to be found by reading archives against the grain, in categories such as poor urban women, mission dependents, or socially marginalized followers of Sufi leaders. There are a handful of exceptions to this rule, most prominently the Freretown settlement on the southern Kenyan coast, where slave origins were acknowledged throughout. Nevertheless, the limitations of the written record make the use of oral sources a matter of necessity.

Oral History

Mirza and Strobel’s work in Mombasa in the 1950s indicates how much might have been possible for the collection of ex-slave and slave-descendant testimony at that time, but the issue was marginal to the interests of both historians and anthropologists then. Moreover, oral information on the aftermath of slavery is strongly socially positioned and demands careful interpretation. This is evident in the debates that have dogged work on the aftermath of slavery in Lamu, where local notables objected to Abdul Hamid M. El Zein’s interpretation of their claims in the 1970s and Randall Pouwels criticized Romero’s choice of informants in the 1980s.185 At present, the greater distance in time may make it somewhat safer for informants to recall struggles for emancipation but is bound also to erode detail and accuracy. In more recent work, a challenge of oral history on slavery and emancipation is that respondents in locations formerly peopled by slaves tend to acknowledge the presence of slaves in general terms but avoid owning up to slave origins individually. This state of affairs indicates that the stigma of slave status lingers, but how this unease shapes the way in which informants respond to enquiries about ex-slaves’ predicament remains unpredictable. Existing studies using oral sources show that ritual practice, place of residence, and ethnic designations can serve as proxies for slave antecedents, but researchers have to keep an open mind about what such proxies might be in any one location.

Finally, when conducting oral history research, historians must consider the ethics of asking informants about an aspect of the past that may be associated with lingering trauma and may even have the potential to undermine present-day entitlements.186 There are ways of gauging whether respondents have slave ancestry without using the words “slave” and “ex-slave” upfront, as there existed many other designations for these terms. For instance, Justin Willis reasoned in his study of slavery among the Giryama that those who claimed “Digo” ancestry had been slaves from much further away.187 In fact, as the challenges of ex-slaves were embedded in broader inequalities, it may be that to go into oral history research using general terms such as “ex-slave” is to prejudge how social hierarchies derived from slavery are described by informants.


Research for this article received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon2020 research and innovation programme, grant agreements nos. 885418 and 818908.

Further Reading

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