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Routes to Emancipation in Ethiopia  

Alexander Meckelburg and Giulia Bonacci

Slavery and the trade in slaves are deeply rooted in the economic and cultural history of the Ethiopian–Eritrean region. Various polities and societies across the Christian, Semitic languages-speaking highlands, the Rift Valley, and its surrounding lowland regions—bordered by the Nile Valley on the west and the Red Sea coast to the east—engaged in practices of human bondage and trade. These societies practiced manumission culturally, while the legal abolition of slavery and the slave trade were lengthy processes lasting many decades. Abolitionism, as a political process, was influenced by domestic and international political bargaining among regional polities and Western imperial interests. As the leading force of abolition in the 19th century, Britain took relatively late interest in Ethiopia. British abolitionism emerged in the region in order to support colonial and imperial aspirations, which were attached to commercial treaties. Abolition thus looked like a Western import and is still often discussed from a singular Western perspective. The uneven production of knowledge by travelers, diplomats, or the British Anti-Slavery Society amplified the Western abolitionist ideologies and overshadowed the contemporary Ethiopian discourse on abolition. The abolition of slavery became a major bone of contention in Ethiopia’s attempt to become a member of the League of Nations in the 1920s. Eventually, it became a matter of state survival in the standoff between Ethiopia and the threat of an invasion by Italy, which used slavery as a pretext to justify its violent occupation. Despite a long period of abolitionist efforts, slavery died a slow death in Ethiopia and has left a durable imprint on the local societies. Emancipation was never achieved throughout Ethiopia. In some areas, people of slave descent suffer from exclusion and marginalization until the early 21st century.