Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Female Seclusion in the Aftermath of Slavery on the Southern Swahili Coast: Transformations of Slavery in Unexpected Places

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Female Seclusion in the Aftermath of Slavery on the Southern Swahili Coast: Transformations of Slavery in Unexpected Places

Article excerpt

This article examines a practice that at first sight appears to have little relation to the history of slavery: the temporary seclusion of girls between menarche and marriage. It gained and then lost popularity on parts of the Swahili coast during the twentieth century after slavery had ended. The memory of slavery does not explicitly figure in the recollections of those who experienced seclusion. Nevertheless I will argue that a plausible case can be made that the experience of slavery informed the use of temporary seclusion. I thus also argue that, while historians may rightly hesitate to impute to historical actors motivations that cannot be traced in their own utterances, slavery may inform subsequent history in precisely such unadmitted and socially inadmissible ways. We would limit our understanding of the aftermath of slavery if we were not willing to consider them.

This is especially true as, considering how salient slavery was on the nineteenth-century Swahili Coast, the historical record for the twentieth century reveals a conspicuous silence on the topic. There was, of course, the administrative discussion on managing the aftermath of slavery in terms of compensation, labor, and land rights that Frederick Cooper has used so productively.1 But the livelihood strategies and life trajectories of former slaves, their social relations both among themselves and with wider society, and their cultures, appear to melt into the broader history of the urban and rural poor almost overnight.

The topic of the aftermath of slavery is palpable in some studies on colonial urban life, especially in August Nimtz's Islam and Politics in East Africa, which examines the career of Sheikh Ramiya, a former slave who became an eminent religious leader.2 But Nimtz did not frame his study with reference to the aftermath of slavery. Laura Fair's Pastimes and Politics was somewhat more explicit about the way memories of slavery lingered, but focused on broader contests about status and livelihood in colonial urban Zanzibar.3

Interest in the aftermath of slavery has increased recently, as signaled by the publication of two works that take the study of the end of slavery beyond the milestone established by Cooper. Jan Georg Deutsch's Emancipation without Abolition in German East Africa clearly demonstrates the importance of slaves' agency in ending slavery amid the vagaries and ambiguities of colonial policy, and the importance of early colonial economic change in allowing them to do so. Elizabeth McMahon's Slavery and Emancipation in Islamic East Africa shows how hard ex-slaves on Pemba Island struggled to distance themselves from slave status, notwithstanding the official British commitment to ending slavery.4

A number of other books examine the aftermath of slavery without making it the main focus. Kai Kresse's Philosophising in Mombasa examines status contests in that town in the first half of the twentieth century that were suffused with the memory of slavery and Omani slave-owners' dominance.5 Jonathon Glassman's War of Words, War of Stones shows how the memory of slavery and the dominance of Omani slave owners (or, to their descendants' and supporters' mind, of Omani civilization) was politicized in the run-up to Zanzibar's independence, feeding into outbursts of gruesome violence.6 Felicitas Becker's Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania examines careers reminiscent of Sheikh Ramiya's, where Sufi sheikhs mediated the integration of ex-slaves into urban communities.7

These East African studies form part of the on-going, painstaking effort to build a picture of the aftermath of slavery across Africa. For West Africa, Rosalind Shaw's Memories of the Slave Trade, a recent Journal of African History special section on the aftermath of slavery and migration, and Benedetta Rossi's Reconfiguring Slavery have broken new ground.8 In different ways, both authors show just how far the history of slavery reverberates down through the years, into phenomena as wildly different as contemporary notions of witchcraft and the wilderness (Shaw) or the politics of independence and the status implications of salaried employment in the postcolonial period (Rossi). …

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