SOAS University of London

Centre of African Studies


Twenty-five years since Igor Kopytoff asked, in a review of anthropological contributions to the study of slavery, why modern anthropology had 'consistently ignored so widespread a phenomenon,' the Anthropology of Slavery has remained a relatively narrow field. Although there have been important contributions that constitute, today, 'classical' ethnographies of slavery, most of the data we dispose of are historical and focused primarily on the Americas and the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Atlantic trade constituted a massive African diaspora. The descendents of African slaves have formed communities in the Americas, where the study of slavery has become intertwined with a number of other themes, including race, politics, and religion. Historical studies focusing on Africa have tended to end their analytical itinerary three or four decades into the twentieth century. The 1930s/1940s witnessed the 'sedimentation' of prolonged ideological and political negotiations over the question of slavery in the colonies, reflected in a series of administrative measures that changed the configuration of opportunities available to people of slave status. They also led to the establishment of new governmentalities, economic arrangements, trade dynamics, and forms of labour. However, most students of slavery agree that they did not mark the end of slavery. African slavery is a complex phenomenon that cuts across multiple social domains and articulates, at different times and in different contexts, changing ways of thinking about hierarchy and sociality. Such complexity inevitably calls into question the appropriateness of any single term to define the polymorphism of African slavery, and of any single date to mark its extinction. Thus, in their study of the decline of slavery in Northern Nigeria from 1987 to 1936, Lovejoy and Hogendorn note that '[t]oday people can still be found who are considered slaves, although the actual number of people still technically so has declined to relative insignificance. The death of slavery, pronounced by so many observers, has been a protracted one and is still not over' (1993:30).

The disappearance of slavery from official representations of African society and its actual resilience in the lived experience of people constitutes a critical sociological tension within many contemporary African countries. Certain people are characterised as being of slave origin, or as members of ethnically or geographically defined areas that imply slave status. Common parlance is replete with stereotypes that identify people of slave status on the basis of their physical and/or psychological traits, their habits and lifestyle, their ways of talking, moving, and thinking. 'Slavery' is either conceived of as something that can be 'read' on the body and behaviour of its bearers; or it constitutes secret knowledge accessible only in particular circumstances. People of slave descent often struggle to conceal their origins but not everyone is equally successful at 'passing as non-slave.' In some cases, descendents of slaves have been able to negotiate a new social status for themselves and their children through migration, the adoption of new identities, and various strategies of upward mobility. But for the weaker and poorer amongst them, a rupture with the past may be more costly or risky than keeping alive ties of dependence from benign old masters. In times of hardship we witness relapses in institutionalised forms of dependence that decrease the risk of livelihood failure. The evolution of new hierarchies and new dynamics of mise en dépendance calls for a critical reassessment of analytical frameworks, terminologies, and theoretical paradigms to understand African slavery in its contemporary manifestations and regional diversity. For a variety of reasons, including issues related to the history of anthropological thought, the difficulties inherent in obtaining information about a condition that carries considerable social stigma, and the reluctance of African governments and national research institutions to support research on this theme, slavery is rarely addressed directly in contemporary anthropological debate. Despite these objective difficulties, African slavery today raises questions of sociological and ethical import. Does the term 'slavery' provide an accurate definition for the multiple forms of labour and dependence that are often labelled so? How does slavery as an inherited status relate to new forms of dependent labour and the structural exploitation of certain categories of people? What are the axes of continuity and change with past forms of slavery, and in the historical experience of 'slaves'? How far does slave status affect the economic and social opportunities of its bearers? How does it influence their strategies and aspirations? The Seminar's focus on 'trajectories of slavery' emphasises agency and process. It aims at advancing our understanding of how socially and historically constituted knowledge about 'slavery' is embodied in a whole set of institutions and in the everyday practices of people in contemporary African societies. Provisionally structured around the following themes, the Seminar welcomes proposals for papers from any African region and theoretical perspective:

(1) Definitions and dimensions of slavery:

Perceptions and interpretations of 'slavery' across groups and institutions; epistemological negotiations over the meanings and implications of 'slavery'; relations with notions of class, caste, and hierarchy; conflicting discourses of 'slavery' across social groups and contexts; political, religious, mythical, and economic dimensions of 'slavery' and related phenomena.

(2) Practices of slavery:

Practices related to 'slavery', enslaving, and emancipation; how slavery, servility and dependence relate to particular livelihood strategies and coping mechanisms; functional aspects of status and rank; the sensitivity of slavery, as an institution, to changing economic and political circumstances.

(3) Experiences of slavery:

Life histories and actor oriented accounts of slavery and related institutions in today's African societies; forms of religious and artistic expression related to slavery; slavery experienced through the body; physical, imaginative, and ritual environments in which 'slavery' is experienced and/or enacted.

We hope the Workshop will provide an inspiring context for open and constructive debate around the contemporary meanings and implications of 'slavery' in Africa.


The working language of the seminar is English, but some presentations will be in French.

Fees and costs:

The Seminar has a participation fee of UK £10 per person.

Final date for submission of abstracts:

07 December 2006

Notification of accepted papers:

15 January 2007

Contacts and correspondence:

Dr. Benedetta Rossi,
Ms. Angelica Baschiera,