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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: July 2019

1 - Race and Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate


In a major study, Bruce S. Hall treats race as fluid and adaptable to different ideological needs and social contexts. He sees blackness in the Niger Bend as a social construction, specifically as a lack of real or concocted Arabic ancestry, and argues that those who thought of themselves as non-blacks based on this criterion often justified the enslavement of black Africans in racial terms. Although the stereotype that some Africans were black because they did not have Arabic ancestry originated outside the Sokoto caliphate, Hall argues further that the idea eventually spread throughout that state, and that arguments associated with it were deliberately used to justify enslavement in the region. In advancing his argument, Hall draws on relatively few Arabic documents. I will seek to analyze diverse source materials, including many more Arabic documents written by jihad leaders, oral sources, and secondary sources, to determine the extent to which racial theories served to justify enslavement in the Sokoto caliphate. In analyzing these sources, I will seek to bring attention to the multiple definitions of race in Hall's relatively brief discussion on the Sokoto caliphate, and in the process cast some doubt on the utility of these definitions in our understanding of jihad and enslavement. To undermine the notion that racial rhetoric was deliberately employed to secure support for the jihad, and that such rhetoric was probably used to justify enslavement in the Sokoto caliphate to a greater extent than he indicated in his study, I will seek to show that 1) blackness and a lack of real or concocted Arabic descent did not prevent many freeborn people and slaves from holding key positions in society and from enjoying related privileges; 2) that estate owners and plantation administrators mainly used ethnic and religious slurs to victimize the field laborers on a daily basis; and 3) that Sokoto caliphate royal rulers, who were mainly Fulani with concocted Arabic ancestry, embraced the pre-jihad Fulani practice of assimilating themselves into Hausa culture, and sometimes described themselves as Hausa/Hausawa.

The fact that the Fulani assimilated themselves into Hausa culture is significant, because it reveals that there was no biological basis for blackness.