Slaves of history

tags: slavery, Senegal

Jori Lewis is a freelance writer and a radio journalist. She reports on the environment, agriculture and global development. She is based in Dakar, Senegal, where she is writing a book about the early history of peanuts in West Africa.

... Senegal’s hierarchical societies had historically included slaves who could be acquired in many ways. Some were captured in raids or taken as prisoners during war. Others were enslaved for debts or crimes. Still others were enslaved willingly, delivering themselves to a powerful leader in return for protection.

The practice of slavery in Senegal and throughout most of West Africa, was both similar and different from the slavery we had in the United States or the Caribbean. As in our system, a slave was not free to come and go as he pleased. His labour mostly belonged to his master and, often, so did his children.

But here the slave was not simply chattel. In fact, the rights and responsibilities of slaves varied from place to place. There were crown slaves who belonged to the king and performed key administrative duties in government or worked in the military as warriors. Those slaves often had slaves themselves. There were domestic slaves, who might have been born within the community. They usually could not be sold and were integrated into the larger society, almost as kin. And there were trade slaves who were probably recent captives. They could be sold to other communities.

Though legal slavery in Senegal has been over for more than 100 years, I was curious about how the descendants of slaves in that Sine-Saloum village saw their legacy. I wanted to talk to them about their experiences and try to understand their stories. But my boyfriend refused. He said that if I asked people about their slave past, I would hurt and insult them. Worst of all, if it were known that he was the one who brought me there, then it would make it hard for him to work with them. He would be known as that man who told that nosy American that they were descendants of slaves. ...

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