Academic journal article African Economic History

Slavery, Exchange and Islamic Law: A Glimpse from the Archives of Mali and Mauritania*

Academic journal article African Economic History

Slavery, Exchange and Islamic Law: A Glimpse from the Archives of Mali and Mauritania*

Article excerpt

Many pages have been written about slavery and the slave trades in and out of Africa. Much less attention has been paid to the local laws that governed such dealings in the past. While several detailed studies document the pervasiveness of slave pawns in the credit and loan markets, our knowledge of both the legal and the financial institutions that once regulated such transactions in Africa is still limited.1 This is particularly true of scholarship on Muslims who were more likely to leave written records of their commercial activities. Indeed, because of the availability of such sources, and given that slavery is such a popular subject of historical investigation, one would expect that the rules governing commercial exchange in slaves between Muslims in precolonial West Africa, and the place of Islamic law as a referent, would be better understood.2

Based on a reading of Islamic legal theory, and relying on a handful of commercial and legal sources, this article is a modest contribution to our understanding of exchanges in slaves among Muslims in nineteenth-century Mali and Mauritania. After setting the context for these documents with a brief discussion of the transSaharan slave trade in the nineteenth century and Muslim justifications of it, I examine the provisions regulating sales and purchases of slaves according to the Maliki doctrine of Islamic law prevailing in the region. I review how such transactions were defined in key references, including the two most commonly used legal manuals in West Africa: the compendia of Abu Muhammad 'Abdullah ibn Abu Zayd al-Qayrawani and Khalil ibn Ishaq al-Jundi.3 Then I turn to the local evidence documenting transactions in the human commodity in order to ascertain to what extent Islamic law provided a framework for commercial exchange and the regulation of slave property rights. From this limited sample of sources I make the following three preliminary observations. First, Islamic legal principles on transactions in slaves were well known among learned Muslims who tended to be traders as well as conspicuous consumers of slaves. Second, local jurists provided legal intermediation to Muslims who actively sought counsel or arbitration in matters concerning slave transactions. Finally, Islamic law, as defined in classic legal manuals and represented in the official record of slave transactions, while offering guidelines, was not always followed, applied or enforced among these ostensibly litigious societies.

I. The Setting: Trade, Slavery and Islamic Practice

Most historians concur that the volume of trans-Saharan trade, including the trafficking of enslaved Africans from West Africa to the Maghrib, over to northeast Africa and beyond to the markets of the Middle East, grew significantly in the nineteenth century.4 In the early part of the century, European imperial powers, starting with Denmark and followed by Britain and then France, eventually put an end to the Atlantic slave trade. While on the coast slave markets experienced a 'slow death', in the Western Sudanic interior they remained active well into the twentieth century. For the region that concerns us these markets included the northern desert-edge market of Guelmim, the Mauritanian desert-oasis of Tishit, ports of trade along the Senegal River, the Malian center of Timbuktu, and the Libyan market of Ghadamis. Prices of enslaved Africans may have shifted as a consequence of the drop in the Atlantic-side demand, perhaps reaching one of their lowest levels in West Africa sometime in the nineteenth century. Martin Klein found that the overall prices of slaves would have dropped in the first three decades before rising again for the remainder of the century.5 This may well have been the period when, based on real or imagined facts, a slave's worth in salt was the size of a foot cut out in a slab of salt. At the same time, European mercantilism along the coast of West Africa now imported ever larger quantities of goods, from industrial cotton cloth and paper to sugar and tea, which transformed consumption patterns and African demand in the hinterland. …

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