Understanding slavery. By understanding the discourse on the
labour in the East Africa and Indian Ocean Africa requires one to begin to
consider a more nuanced and unpacked understanding of the term slavery that
moves us to see the fundamental differences in African slavery before the
Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Nevertheless, in order to understand the historical
development of slavery in Africa an evaluation of the relative importance of
the Trans-Atlantic slave trade to its development is required. As Lovejoy
states, “the opening of the Atlantic to trade marked a radical break in the
history of Africa.”1 It
can be said that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was profoundly different from
African slavery as it had played out before the late fifteenth century. This
paper will focus on the existence and development of slavery from 1350 – 1600 in
the regions of East Africa and Indian Ocean Africa. Suzanne Miers and Gwynn
Campbell takes on this challenge in their essays that takes us through the
debate of the different ways of defining slavery. Through the analysis by Miers,
the question of defining slavery brings to light the issue of comparisons
between the Indian Ocean World and the Atlantic World. The difficulty in
defining this word highlights the inherent problem that arises when the Indian
Ocean World is comparatively studied against the Atlantic World. Miers’ and
Campbell’s work shows that in the context of attempting to understand slavery
broadly as “unfree and forced labour”–––the Indian Ocean World loses
credibility and emphasis when it is understood in the context of the
Trans-Atlantic slave trade that gave rise to contemporary understandings of
slavery. By understanding the discourse on the term slavery we can gain a more situated
understanding of whether the payment of wages incurs “free” labour or whether
they can still be considered bonded labourers. Furthermore, through the studies
by Miers and Campbell I argue that the use of contemporary terminology and the
inherent bias of West-centered academic work has played a great role in the
conflation of the theoretical traditions of the Indian Ocean World studies with
those of the Atlantic World. With this in mind I will use terms such as unfree
labour, bonded labour, human trade, and forced labour to define the varying patterns
of labour seen in the Indian Ocean World.
fully understand the ever-changing systems of labour in the Indian Ocean World
we must define the ways in which various labour systems are understood. Wage
labour is understood as any type of work that is remunerated through a form of
monetary currency. Wage labour can include indentured labour, pawnship labour,
and mining labour. These are all labour forms seen in East Africa that result
in some type of wage either being paid or a monetary debt being paid off
through the work one did. Despite wage labour resulting in some form of
payment, it is not always uncoerced voluntary labour. For example, Swema’s
family owed money and so Swema was involuntarily loaned out in order to work
until she could pay the debt back.2
Swema is an example of a “non-slave servile labourer” who is an unfree labourer
until her family’s debt is paid back.3
Despite informally gaining a type of “wage” that was going towards a greater
debt, Swema’s labour is not free labour because she is not given the choice to
engage or not engage in this labour practice. The story of Swema is a classic
example of pawnship in which relatives could be used to repay debts and thereby
release the pawn from bondage. Children were usually the ones forced into
pawnship, they were redeemed when the debt was settled, they were not usually
mistreated, they legally could not be sold, and there was an understanding that
the term of servitude would be brief.4
It is also of note that the pawn was viewed as an additional dependent––though
not related by kinship. Though some may argue that free labour is not the antithesis
of unfree labour, the definitions of unfree labour serves to show that these
two forms of labour are starkly different. Unfree labour is categorized by people
who are employed against their will due to the threat of destitution,
detention, violence (including death), lawful compulsion, or other extreme
hardship to themselves or members of their families. This means that those who
are forced into labour to pay back debts or to gain a form of European currency
in order to pay colonial taxes (i.e., “Hut Tax”) are all under a system of
unfree labour even if they are being paid sums of money. The fact that unfree
labour is coerced does not categorize it as chattel slavery. Nevertheless, it can
still be understood as a type of labour that would have been slavery to those
in the historical context and situation of the Indian Ocean World.
Question of Modalities
an attempt to understand the type of labour that people of the Indian Ocean
World have been engaged in we are left with several questions of modality. Does
the method of acquisition determine one’s labour status? Is someone engaging in
forced labour necessarily someone sold or acquired against their will? Is it
the legal status of the labourer? Is the defining characteristic of forced
labour how the person is subsequently treated? To a degree I argue that all of
these questions can be used to define whether someone is engaging in unfree
bonded labour versus regular free labour.5
For example, in Mauritius there was a system of indentured labour. Even though
these labourers were theoretically supposed to have come from southern Indian
to Mauritius voluntarily, Richard Allen suggests that they were “”praedial
slaves,” or other unfree persons … who had no choice in the matter.”6
Furthermore, once in Mauritius “they were all confined to the plantations,
poorly fed, housed, and clothed, and worked just as the slaves had been.”7
This treatment was partially due to them
being outsiders who were alien by origin. The context of slavery in Mauritius
will be further expanded in a moment, but this goes to show that even those who
were not legally categorized as unfree slave labourers tended to find
themselves in situations that closely resembled forced slave labour. Slavery at
this time in Mauritius, was understood as an exploitative system of labour for
economic purposes and theoretically differed from indentured labour in a few
Indentured labourers often would have
their families accompany them and engage in labour practices with them.9
Indentured labourers were paid wages (usually quite minimal and low rates), and
most importantly they were bound by contracts that upon termination would grant
the labourers the freedom to leave the plantation.10
Despite these differences from unfree labour, as is popularly understood, these
labourers though “legally free” could often have their contracts extended by
The case of Mauritius is one of the ways in which unfree labour cannot be
measured only on the basis of legal status or method of acquisition, but that
the treatment and equity involved in the labour can define “free” wage labour
as bonded or unfree labour. Furthermore, in much of the Indian Ocean World those
legally defined as slaves were sometimes paid for the tasks that they did. This
was seen “on the Mrima (northern) coast of Tanzania in the late nineteenth
century when village slaves and urban vibarua
(unskilled daily wage labourers) ran off to enlist as trading-porters on
The running away by these people was known as a petits marrons, which occurred when a person left their slave
placement with the intention of coming back.13
This is just one of many examples that show the fluidity of labour in Indian
Ocean Africa and how labour cannot be dichotomously viewed as free once there
are wages involved.
Miers’ entire piece struggles to define slavery and so I will attempt to define
it the broadest way whereby slavery occurs when a person is the legal property
of another and is forced to obey them. This definition tends to include several
types of slavery and other servile relationships from unfree labour to bonded
labour and even concubinage (where a woman would not have the right to her own
sexuality and by extension her reproductive capacities), therefore working well
for the arguments I shall present here.14
Miers and Campbell point out that our contemporary understanding of slavery is
heavily dependent on the definition created by the United Nations and the
realities of chattel slavery during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.15
This exemplifies the reason why the term, a fairly modern one, should not be so
easily translated once again on centuries old Indian Ocean World history that
experienced a conflux of different types of unfree and forced labour styles. As
Miers says “since slavery was never a static
institution, all descriptions of it must be put into the context of their
time as well as considered together with the cultural and political outlook of
the author and informant.”16
Slavery in Africa was one of the many types of dependency which was paramount
since control over people was important for kinship based societies. Many of
these societies did not have a class of slaves and their presence was to
increase the influence of groups of related kin. Furthermore, the opportunity
to be absorbed into the kinship unit as a full member was available to slaves in
these societies. Slavery also was not a central institution which is starkly
different from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade which created slave societies in
which the practice of slavery was the central institution. Even outside of
slavery there are other categories of dependency which were discussed earlier
in the paper and include pawnship, junior age-sets, concubinage, and even
marriage. Once the greater sphere surrounding the various types of bonded
labour in the Indian Ocean World is addressed and properly understood we
frequently can find other definitions to more accurately define the type of
human trades that were occurring during that period in time. Furthermore, the
focus on the slavery from a predominately Western-supported international
institution and from the colonial construction of the term shows that
Eurocentric tendencies of academia place a high value on a term that exists out
of a Western promoted and created human trade model. This presents a reason as
to why we should aim to better define “slavery” and create characteristics and
definitions for new terms that more definitively represent what occurred in the
Indian Ocean World.
In summary, we find that
the defining of the term slavery become less convoluted and ambiguous when
comparisons are not made across the board to models of human trade that do not
match––in other words, comparing the Indian Ocean World to the Atlantic World. Moreover,
the fact that labour systems in the Indian Ocean World were not static
institutions make it difficult to draw a distinct line between the slave and
the free person.17
This is why it is best to understand the modalities of how one comes into
labour and engage with looser terms that lack the politicization of the term
slavery. Since unfree labour in East Africa and Indian Ocean Africa was never a
static institution we must be wary of our descriptions and ensure that they are
put into the context of their time while also being considered alongside “the
cultural and political outlook of the author or informant.”18
This means that one cannot indiscriminately presume that wage labour equates
“free” labour because an individual earning wages can still be an individual under
bonded, unfree, and/or coerced labour. More
importantly though, the removal of the Western created modern terms allows for
a more succinct and accurate historiographical analysis of these various
regions that will result in richer studies on African labour systems and the
types of labour that existed in all the different parts of the continent.
Therefore, African slavery before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is
fundamentally different phenomenon because it was not fuelled by the
ideological tenants that galvanized the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
1 Paul E. Lovejoy, ‘Africa
and Slavery’, in Transformation in
Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2012) pp. 1-23 (p. 18).
2 Edward A. Alpers,
‘The Story of Swema: Female Vulnerability in Nineteenth-Century East Africa’,
in Women and Slavery in Africa, ed.
by Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1997), pp. 185-200.
3 Edward A. Alpers,
‘The Story of Swema, in Women and Slavery
in Africa, ed. Robertson and Klein, pp. 185-200.
4 Paul E. Lovejoy, ‘Africa
and Slavery’, in Transformation in
Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy, p. 13.
5 Both of these labour forms sometimes engaged in the
payment of wages, this will be dealt with later in this essay.
6 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition’, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean
Africa and Asia, 24 (2003), 1-16 (p. 3) <10.1080/01440390308559152>.
7 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, p.
8 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.
9 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.
10 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.
11 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.
12 Edward A. Alpers,
‘Flight to Freedom: Escape from Slavery among Bonded Africans in the Indian
Ocean World c. 1750-1962’, A Journal of
Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 24 (2003), 51-68 (p. 57) <10.1080/01440390308559155>.
13 Edward A. Alpers,
‘Flight to Freedom: Escape from Slavery among Bonded Africans in the Indian
Ocean World c. 1750-1962’, pp. 51-68.
14 Paul E. Lovejoy, ‘Africa
and Slavery’, in Transformation in
Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy, p. 1.
15 The United Nations roughly defines slavery as the
“status of a person over whom any or all
of the powers of ownership are exercised.” The UN definition extends into
numerous international law conventions and has expanded to consider many forms
of illicit labour both contemporary and historically. I do not use this
definition for the paper because it is not of historiographical accuracy and
encompasses years of slave history that are not present during much of the
Indian Ocean World trade.
Gwynn Campbell, ‘Introduction: Slavery and Other Forms
of Unfree Labour in the Indian Ocean World’, A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, 24 (2003), ix-xxxii
(p. viii) <10.1080/01440390308559151>.
Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.
16 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.
17 Gwynn Campbell, ‘Introduction: Slavery and Other Forms
of Unfree Labour in the Indian Ocean World’, p. ix.
18 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.