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This Day in Labor History: May 15, 1905

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On May 15, 1905, a Maraka noble in modern-day Mali killed a slave who was part of a broader slave exodus that helped bring the end to official slavery in the French African colonies. This can serve as a moment in the larger transformation of slave societies in west Africa that led to the widespread reorganization of work and social relations.

African slavery existed in many forms long before Europeans arrived on the scene to build capitalist empires off the slave trade. The Maraka, or Marka as they are often called, are a Mande people in modern Mali. Slavery seems to have been part of their lives for a very long time as they served as brokers between the Moors of the Sahara and peoples further south, both of which who had slave traditions of their own. The Maraka plantation economy grew with the Atlantic slave trade and the transformation of African slavery for the market. They often helped supply Europeans with slaves, but often kept slaves for themselves as well. French military activity during colonialism and the growth of slavery in Sudan in the 19th century continued to reinforce slavery in the Niger valley after the transatlantic slave trade had ended.

The town of Banamba, in the middle Niger Valley, became a major Maraka trading center by the 1840s. By 1890, it was the leading center for slaves being moved into the peanut fields of coastal Senegal from the inland. But because most of these slaves came from a single area, there was the potential for resistance because they could understand each other. By the early 1900s, that would become a major factor in reshaping Africa. This form of slavery that developed among the Maraka was based around the exchange of labor for subsistence. Slaves worked five or six days a week. Other days they produced for themselves, whether food or clothing. Slaves did have the right for free time and the use of land for that self-production. Slaves had de facto property rights as well. Masters had right for control over slave children, but those children also had the right to exist within the slave community. Slaves could be physically punished and while there were plenty of slaves that escaped, they usually returned because where they were they going to go? In areas such as around Banamba, slaves made up about 2/3 of the population.

The French had technically abolished slavery in their colonial empire in 1848, but had no will to actually enforce that in Africa, especially after Senegal basically told the French they wouldn’t comply. In the interior, such as modern Mali, real French control was limited anyway. But by the 1890s, the French did more to control the slave trade and brought many of the slave trading centers under its control. The French also wanted to build the railroad to Bamako, today the capital of Mali. That meant they were not going to prosecute the end of slavery very harshly to smooth over relations for that higher priority.

Despite some French opposition to slavery, like in the United States, it was slaves’ actions themselves that ended the institution. This doesn’t mean the French had no influence. They had created new labor markets for grain that gave people other economic opportunities and a place to go. They also eliminated the ability to take large numbers of slaves by taking control over those areas. Slave revolts began as early as 1895. In 1901, 27 slaves revolted. In March 1905, their slaves began to leave and this was the revolt that began the end of an era. Many of these slaves were from what is today Cote d’Ivoire and they began returning home.

By April, the Maraka elite decided to oppose this by force and on May 15, one slave was killed, providing the date for this post. The French, seeing a situation spiral out of control, encouraged the chiefs to stop the revolt. Masters confiscated slave property and captured their wives and children to stop it, while claiming their society could not continue without slavery. But the slaves said slavery was over because they decided it was. A brief truce was created, but by 1906, slaves began to leave again, knowing that the French had committed themselves to at least theoretical rights for them to leave. The Maraka continued resisting but this time, the French decided that it was time to end this and supported the slaves. Between April and May 1906, 3,000 slaves left their Maraka masters.

By 1908, waves of slave departures had transformed the Middle Niger valley, then extending into Sudan. A few slaves remained, but they renegotiated their lives to gain much more lives. Most of the slaves had left. The French responded to all this by pushing forms of sharecropping; after all, a colonial power still was there to strip wealth from Africans and that required orderly agricultural production. But in the end, perhaps 200,000 slaves around west Africa left their masters in these years. Some did not leave however, largely because slavery was all they ever knew and to leave it did entail a big risk. That was physical at first, but even after the threat of retaliation disappeared, the first years of freedom still were often fraught with hardship and deep poverty.

The ultimate impact was pretty huge. First, slavery was no longer the central labor relationship of the French colonial economy. For those slaves who remained, they could no longer be coerced in the same way because the threat was there. That made a huge impact on issues such as control over their children. Second, this significantly weakened the strongest and wealthiest families of the Malaka and other peoples, which directly served French aims. Third, the freed slaves added a lot to the economic power of the French colonies. Some went home to farm. Others provided ready labor for railroads and mines. Still others went into weaving for export. This all significantly changed the economy and society of this entire region. In the end, this is an important and nearly totally unknown moment in the history of slavery and colonialism

The material for this post came from Richard Roberts and Martin A. Klein, “The Banamba Slave Exodus of 1905 and the Decline of Slavery in the Western Sudan” in a 1980 issue of The Journal of African History. To say the least, I’ve stretched myself a bit for this post, so forgive any inaccuracies about African history.

This is the 312th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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