Understandinglabour in the East Africa and Indian Ocean Africa requires one to begin toconsider a more nuanced and unpacked understanding of the term slavery thatmoves us to see the fundamental differences in African slavery before theTrans-Atlantic slave trade. Nevertheless, in order to understand the historicaldevelopment of slavery in Africa an evaluation of the relative importance ofthe Trans-Atlantic slave trade to its development is required. As Lovejoystates, “the opening of the Atlantic to trade marked a radical break in thehistory of Africa.”1 Itcan be said that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was profoundly different fromAfrican slavery as it had played out before the late fifteenth century.
Thispaper will focus on the existence and development of slavery from 1350 – 1600 inthe regions of East Africa and Indian Ocean Africa. Suzanne Miers and GwynnCampbell takes on this challenge in their essays that takes us through thedebate of the different ways of defining slavery. Through the analysis by Miers,the question of defining slavery brings to light the issue of comparisonsbetween the Indian Ocean World and the Atlantic World. The difficulty indefining this word highlights the inherent problem that arises when the IndianOcean World is comparatively studied against the Atlantic World. Miers’ andCampbell’s work shows that in the context of attempting to understand slaverybroadly as “unfree and forced labour”–––the Indian Ocean World losescredibility and emphasis when it is understood in the context of theTrans-Atlantic slave trade that gave rise to contemporary understandings ofslavery.
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By understanding the discourse on the term slavery we can gain a more situatedunderstanding of whether the payment of wages incurs “free” labour or whetherthey can still be considered bonded labourers. Furthermore, through the studiesby Miers and Campbell I argue that the use of contemporary terminology and theinherent bias of West-centered academic work has played a great role in theconflation of the theoretical traditions of the Indian Ocean World studies withthose of the Atlantic World. With this in mind I will use terms such as unfreelabour, bonded labour, human trade, and forced labour to define the varying patternsof labour seen in the Indian Ocean World. DefinitionsTofully understand the ever-changing systems of labour in the Indian Ocean Worldwe must define the ways in which various labour systems are understood.
Wagelabour is understood as any type of work that is remunerated through a form ofmonetary currency. Wage labour can include indentured labour, pawnship labour,and mining labour. These are all labour forms seen in East Africa that resultin some type of wage either being paid or a monetary debt being paid offthrough the work one did. Despite wage labour resulting in some form ofpayment, it is not always uncoerced voluntary labour. For example, Swema’sfamily owed money and so Swema was involuntarily loaned out in order to workuntil she could pay the debt back.2Swema is an example of a “non-slave servile labourer” who is an unfree laboureruntil her family’s debt is paid back.3Despite informally gaining a type of “wage” that was going towards a greaterdebt, Swema’s labour is not free labour because she is not given the choice toengage or not engage in this labour practice.
The story of Swema is a classicexample of pawnship in which relatives could be used to repay debts and therebyrelease the pawn from bondage. Children were usually the ones forced intopawnship, they were redeemed when the debt was settled, they were not usuallymistreated, they legally could not be sold, and there was an understanding thatthe term of servitude would be brief.4It is also of note that the pawn was viewed as an additional dependent––thoughnot related by kinship. Though some may argue that free labour is not the antithesisof unfree labour, the definitions of unfree labour serves to show that thesetwo forms of labour are starkly different. Unfree labour is categorized by peoplewho are employed against their will due to the threat of destitution,detention, violence (including death), lawful compulsion, or other extremehardship to themselves or members of their families. This means that those whoare forced into labour to pay back debts or to gain a form of European currencyin order to pay colonial taxes (i.e.
, “Hut Tax”) are all under a system ofunfree labour even if they are being paid sums of money. The fact that unfreelabour is coerced does not categorize it as chattel slavery. Nevertheless, it canstill be understood as a type of labour that would have been slavery to thosein the historical context and situation of the Indian Ocean World.TheQuestion of ModalitiesInan attempt to understand the type of labour that people of the Indian OceanWorld have been engaged in we are left with several questions of modality. Doesthe method of acquisition determine one’s labour status? Is someone engaging inforced labour necessarily someone sold or acquired against their will? Is itthe legal status of the labourer? Is the defining characteristic of forcedlabour how the person is subsequently treated? To a degree I argue that all ofthese questions can be used to define whether someone is engaging in unfreebonded labour versus regular free labour.5For example, in Mauritius there was a system of indentured labour.
Even thoughthese labourers were theoretically supposed to have come from southern Indianto Mauritius voluntarily, Richard Allen suggests that they were “”praedialslaves,” or other unfree persons … who had no choice in the matter.”6Furthermore, 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 thembeing outsiders who were alien by origin. The context of slavery in Mauritiuswill be further expanded in a moment, but this goes to show that even those whowere not legally categorized as unfree slave labourers tended to findthemselves in situations that closely resembled forced slave labour.
Slavery atthis time in Mauritius, was understood as an exploitative system of labour foreconomic purposes and theoretically differed from indentured labour in a fewways. 8 Indentured labourers often would havetheir families accompany them and engage in labour practices with them.9Indentured labourers were paid wages (usually quite minimal and low rates), andmost importantly they were bound by contracts that upon termination would grantthe labourers the freedom to leave the plantation.
10Despite these differences from unfree labour, as is popularly understood, theselabourers though “legally free” could often have their contracts extended byplantation owners.11The case of Mauritius is one of the ways in which unfree labour cannot bemeasured only on the basis of legal status or method of acquisition, but thatthe treatment and equity involved in the labour can define “free” wage labouras bonded or unfree labour. Furthermore, in much of the Indian Ocean World thoselegally defined as slaves were sometimes paid for the tasks that they did. Thiswas seen “on the Mrima (northern) coast of Tanzania in the late nineteenthcentury when village slaves and urban vibarua(unskilled daily wage labourers) ran off to enlist as trading-porters onupcountry caravans.”12The running away by these people was known as a petits marrons, which occurred when a person left their slaveplacement with the intention of coming back.13This is just one of many examples that show the fluidity of labour in IndianOcean Africa and how labour cannot be dichotomously viewed as free once thereare wages involved.
NewInterpretations SuzanneMiers’ entire piece struggles to define slavery and so I will attempt to defineit the broadest way whereby slavery occurs when a person is the legal propertyof another and is forced to obey them. This definition tends to include severaltypes of slavery and other servile relationships from unfree labour to bondedlabour and even concubinage (where a woman would not have the right to her ownsexuality and by extension her reproductive capacities), therefore working wellfor the arguments I shall present here.14Miers and Campbell point out that our contemporary understanding of slavery isheavily dependent on the definition created by the United Nations and therealities of chattel slavery during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.15This exemplifies the reason why the term, a fairly modern one, should not be soeasily translated once again on centuries old Indian Ocean World history thatexperienced a conflux of different types of unfree and forced labour styles. AsMiers says “since slavery was never a staticinstitution, all descriptions of it must be put into the context of theirtime as well as considered together with the cultural and political outlook ofthe author and informant.
“16Slavery in Africa was one of the many types of dependency which was paramountsince control over people was important for kinship based societies. Many ofthese societies did not have a class of slaves and their presence was toincrease the influence of groups of related kin. Furthermore, the opportunityto be absorbed into the kinship unit as a full member was available to slaves inthese societies. Slavery also was not a central institution which is starklydifferent from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade which created slave societies inwhich the practice of slavery was the central institution. Even outside ofslavery there are other categories of dependency which were discussed earlierin the paper and include pawnship, junior age-sets, concubinage, and evenmarriage. Once the greater sphere surrounding the various types of bondedlabour in the Indian Ocean World is addressed and properly understood wefrequently can find other definitions to more accurately define the type ofhuman trades that were occurring during that period in time.
Furthermore, thefocus on the slavery from a predominately Western-supported internationalinstitution and from the colonial construction of the term shows thatEurocentric tendencies of academia place a high value on a term that exists outof a Western promoted and created human trade model. This presents a reason asto why we should aim to better define “slavery” and create characteristics anddefinitions for new terms that more definitively represent what occurred in theIndian Ocean World. ConclusionsIn summary, we find thatthe defining of the term slavery become less convoluted and ambiguous whencomparisons are not made across the board to models of human trade that do notmatch––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 staticinstitutions make it difficult to draw a distinct line between the slave andthe free person.17This is why it is best to understand the modalities of how one comes intolabour and engage with looser terms that lack the politicization of the termslavery. Since unfree labour in East Africa and Indian Ocean Africa was never astatic institution we must be wary of our descriptions and ensure that they areput into the context of their time while also being considered alongside “thecultural and political outlook of the author or informant.
“18This means that one cannot indiscriminately presume that wage labour equates”free” labour because an individual earning wages can still be an individual underbonded, unfree, and/or coerced labour. Moreimportantly though, the removal of the Western created modern terms allows fora more succinct and accurate historiographical analysis of these variousregions that will result in richer studies on African labour systems and thetypes of labour that existed in all the different parts of the continent.Therefore, African slavery before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade isfundamentally different phenomenon because it was not fuelled by theideological tenants that galvanized the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.1 Paul E.
Lovejoy, ‘Africaand Slavery’, in Transformation inSlavery: 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 Slaveryin Africa, ed.
Robertson and Klein, pp. 185-200. 4 Paul E. Lovejoy, ‘Africaand Slavery’, in Transformation inSlavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, ed. Paul E. Lovejoy, p.
13.5 Both of these labour forms sometimes engaged in thepayment 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 OceanAfrica and Asia, 24 (2003), 1-16 (p. 3) <10.1080/01440390308559152>.7 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, p.3.8 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.
1-16.9 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.1-16.10 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.1-16.
11 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.1-16.12 Edward A. Alpers,’Flight to Freedom: Escape from Slavery among Bonded Africans in the IndianOcean World c. 1750-1962’, A Journal ofSlave 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 IndianOcean World c. 1750-1962′, pp. 51-68.14 Paul E. Lovejoy, ‘Africaand Slavery’, in Transformation inSlavery: 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 allof the powers of ownership are exercised.
” The UN definition extends intonumerous international law conventions and has expanded to consider many formsof illicit labour both contemporary and historically. I do not use thisdefinition for the paper because it is not of historiographical accuracy andencompasses years of slave history that are not present during much of theIndian Ocean World trade.Gwynn Campbell, ‘Introduction: Slavery and Other Formsof 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.
11.16 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.10.17 Gwynn Campbell, ‘Introduction: Slavery and Other Formsof Unfree Labour in the Indian Ocean World’, p. ix. 18 Suzanne Miers, ‘Slavery: A Question of Definition, pp.10.