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.
Routes to Emancipation in East Africa
Felicitas Becker and Michelle Liebst
Baz Lecocq and Lotte Pelckmans
Post-slavery is an academic analytical concept that signifies the fragmented legacies and continuities of past slavery and slave trade in contemporary societies after its formal legal abolition, and beyond emancipation processes. Legacies can take the form of discourses based in collective memories and ideologies of past slavery, while continuities can take the shape of continued relations of social hierarchy and dependency between people of slave descent and the descendants of slaveholders and other people of free descent, to the disadvantage of the formerly enslaved and their descendants. The social mechanisms of exclusion that uphold post-slavery situations include the invisibility of such situations to outsiders; structural racism and other forms of stigmatization; struggles surrounding gender relations; the social importance of genealogy, marriage, and family formation across the historical free-unfree divide; uneven access to physical and social capital, such as land and positions of authority; and the politics of history and memory. Post-slavery legacies and continuities form points on a continuum, ranging from explicit forms of exploitation that could qualify as slavery outside the law (de facto, but not de jure slavery), via structural racism and other forms of structural exclusion in society (post-slavery continuities), to the residual histories and memories that can continue to mark differences between the descendants of slave and free today (post-slavery legacies).
The History of Islam in Mauritania
The study of the long-term history of what has been known since 1960 as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is possible largely because of inhabitants’ early embrace of Islam in the 8th century. While research on the early pre-Islamic history of the region is limited by the availability of sources to primarily the archaeological, the arrival of Islam through trade networks crossing the Sahara from North Africa meant that Arab merchants and explorers supplied and produced knowledge about the region’s inhabitants, polities, and natural resources that was then written down in Arabic by Muslim chroniclers and historians. Early Muslims were largely Kharijite and Ibadi but the 11th-century Almoravid reformist and educational movement ensured that the region’s Muslims would predominantly follow Sunni Islam as defined by the Maliki school of law and ʿAshari theology. By the time the Almohad empire succeeded the Almoravid in the 12th century, important centers of Islamic scholarship were emerging in major trading towns in the Sahara and along the Senegal River. The expansion of Sufi thought and practice, the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Banu Hassan, and the subsequent development of political entities known as emirates occurred in ensuing centuries and played a part in the genesis of a social structure that valorized the Arabic language, the study of Islam, and claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The arrival of European merchants in the 15th century and the subsequent colonization of the region by the French led to rapid changes in the economic and cultural bases of political authority and social hierarchy, with colonial policy largely valorizing Sufi leaders as political interlocutors and community representatives. Independence from France in 1960 meant the establishment of an Islamic Republic whose laws are based on a mixed legal system of Maliki Islamic and French civil law. The basis of presidential rule is not religious in nature, though presidents have increasingly used a discourse of religion to legitimize their rule in the face of internal political opposition and external threats from extremist groups such as al-Qaʿeda.