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The History of Slavery in Africa, a story

*African slavery is the subject of this date.  Enslaving people has historically been widespread in Africa.

Systems of servitude and slavery were standard in parts of Africa in ancient times, as they were in much of the rest of the ancient world. The 8th-century Roman and later Christian views on slavery, the Islamic institutions via the Muslim slave trade, and eventually the Atlantic slave trade are all Multiple forms of African slavery and servitude that were shaped by indigenous practices. Slavery was a part of the economic structure of African societies for many centuries, although the extent varied. Ibn Battuta, who visited the ancient kingdom of Mali in the mid-14th century, recounted that the local inhabitants vied with each other in the number of enslaved people and servants they had and was himself given a slave boy as a "hospitality gift."

In sub-Saharan Africa, the slave relationships were often complex, with rights and freedoms granted to individuals held in slavery and restrictions on sale and treatment by their masters. Many communities had hierarchies between different types of enslaved people, for example, differentiating between those who had been born into slavery and those who were captured through war. The forms of slavery in Africa were closely related to kinship structures. In many African communities, where land could not be owned, the enslavement of individuals was used to increase the influence a person had and expand connections.

This practice made enslaved people a permanent part of a master's lineage, and the children of enslaved people could become closely connected with the more extensive family ties. Children of enslaved people born into families could be integrated into the master's kinship group and rise to prominent positions within society, even to the level of a chief in some instances. However, stigma often remained attached, and there could be strict separations between slave members of a kinship group and those related to the master. When the trans-Saharan slave trade, Indian Ocean slave trade, and Atlantic slave trade (which started in the 16th century) began, many pre-existing local African slave systems began supplying captives for slave markets outside Africa.

Slavery in contemporary Africa continues despite it being illegal. In the relevant literature, African slavery is indigenous slavery and export slavery, depending on whether they were traded beyond the continent. Slavery in historical Africa had different forms: Debt slavery, the enslavement of war captives, military slavery, slavery for prostitution, and enslavement of criminals were all practiced.

Slavery for domestic and court purposes was widespread throughout Africa. Plantation slavery also occurred, primarily on the eastern coast of Africa. The importance of domestic plantation slavery increased during the 19th century due to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Many African states dependent on the international slave trade reoriented their economies towards legitimate commerce worked by slave labor.  Chattel slavery is a specific servitude relationship where the slave is the owner's property. As such, the owner is free to sell, trade, or treat the enslaved person as he would other pieces of property, and the children of the enslaved person often are retained as the property of the master. There is evidence of long histories of chattel slavery in the Nile River valley, much of the Sahel, and North Africa. Evidence is incomplete about the extent and practices of chattel slavery throughout much of the continent before written records by Arab or European traders.   

African Slavery in the 21st century continues.  Arab Berbers in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania continue to carry out the centuries-old practice of enslaving indigenous Black Africans.  Mauritania has been as vigorous in condemning slavery as any civil rights activist might wish. At least three times last century, slavery was outlawed there, first by the French, who banned it in 1905, then under the new Constitution drawn up after independence in 1960, and a third time in 1980, under the government of President Mohammed Khouna Ould Haidallah.

Nevertheless, the country is said to contain the world's largest population of chattel slaves. Depending on age and physical condition, they are sold for as little as $15, given as gifts, or traded for cars, camels, or other goods.  Research has uncovered this practice and has documented and analyzed the hatred the Arab minority holds for blacks, both slave and free, in a country where everyone is Muslim. In this part of the world, religion and language successfully enslave blacks, using a process by which Arab masters produce submissive slaves.

Some accounts reveal the capacity for hope and courage among former slaves, too. Many have become abolitionist leaders as well.  These modern slaves often served as maids, cooks, farm laborers, or cattle herders. Many were taken too young to remember their homes or families. Some who have tried to escape have been branded or have had their Achilles tendons cut; some have been castrated.  Many, both male and female, are regularly raped. Yet, the international community's influence is limited. The Organization of African Unity does not interfere in the internal affairs of its member states. The rules of the World Bank dictate that economic considerations, not human rights issues, determine support.  Sudan receives open support from Libya and other countries. It is a nation of 33 million people, Africa's largest country, located between Egypt and Ethiopia. It is greatly divided between the northern and southern areas of the country.

The north is mainly Arab and Muslim; the south is largely Black Africans and large Christian and Animist minorities. The country is about 70% Muslim, 20 to 25% Animist, and 5% Christian.  The northern population largely speaks Arabic; the southerners speak various languages. Many in the North advocate Shari'a (Islamic law) for the entire country; Southerners favor a secular federal government. When Sudan gained independence in 1956 from England and Egypt, many felt it could not peacefully survive long-term. A more sensible and stable political arrangement might have been needed to create two countries: North and South Sudan. Slavery is a result of Sudan’s instability.

Mauritania, part of what was once French West Africa, continues to receive aid from the French government, which argues that quiet diplomacy and economic development will prove more effective in improving human rights. Mauritania and Sudan remain remote in the eyes of most Americans, and the realities of geopolitics and economics handicap their people. The average annual per capita income in both places is roughly $500. They offer no sugar, oil, cotton, or tea for a boycott.

These facts are well known to Western governments and the United Nations, and reports on slavery do appear in the Western media from time to time. Yet they have failed to ignite the popular resentment that fired up the abolitionist and anti-apartheid movements.  Slavery has continued over centuries, but many African nations have been silent on this subject and the role of neocolonialism in continuing an unspeakable practice.  Another factor is the denial in the United States' black community. First, there is insufficient connection or respect between African Americans and Africans. An initial brotherhood between the groups turns out to be based on a nostalgic desire by the Americans about Africa, and it soon dissolves.

Secondly, many African Americans consider Islam an alternative to their racially prejudiced experience under Christianity.  This set of attitudes stops many from focusing on developments in Africa, preferring to believe that if it's Islamic, it's okay. Many African American converts to Islam look to Muslims for a social model. The reality of Muslims sponsoring slavery in Mauritania and Sudan triggers cognitive disagreement, which Blacks in America cannot resign themselves to. The time has come for African American Muslims to address the fact that their fellow Muslims not only keep slaves but also are making new ones.

In March 2004, a lawsuit in Rochester, Minnesota, was filed by a Nigerian woman who said she was enslaved from 2001 to 2003. Ezine Francisca Uzonwanne accused Doctor Jenny Barry George of false imprisonment and violating federal minimum wage laws. Her claims violate the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery.


World Population


Slavery in Modern Times
by Shirlee Newman
Copyright, 2001
Sagebrush Education Resources
ISBN: 0613341333

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