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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2012

Zentrum Moderner Orient


The end of internal slavery in West Africa is generally associated with an increase in labour mobility. This article complicates this picture by showing that the effects of status – the rank effect – on people's ability to migrate often outlasted emancipation. In Sabi, a Soninke village in Upper River Gambia, economic migration intensified and globalised from the 1950s onwards. Although they have since been free to move, the descendants of slaves have migrated less than those of the freeborn. The article attributes this relative immobility to the enduring dynamics of socioeconomic marginalisation based on slave descent.

Mobility, Slavery, and Freedom in Mali and the Gambia
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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This article is to a significant extent the result of a collaborative project begun at a workshop on migration and post-slavery in West Africa organised by Benedetta Rossi at the University of Liverpool in 2010. Dr. Rossi offered extensive commentary on previous versions of this article. Valuable comments were also provided by Alice Bellagamba, Laura Menin, Aïssatou Mbodj, Lotte Pelckmans, and three anonymous reviewers of this journal. Research for this article was generously funded by: University of Milano Bicocca with Unicredit Foundation, Italy's Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Missione Etnologica in Benin e Africa Occidentale (MEBAO), and Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).


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2 B. Rossi, ‘Slavery and migration: social and physical mobility in Ader (Niger)’, in B. Rossi (ed.), Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories (Liverpool, 2009), 182.

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5 I. Kopytoff and S. Miers, ‘African “slavery” as an institution of marginality’, in S. Miers and I. Kopytoff (eds.), Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison, 1977), 3–11.

6 Klein, ‘Slave descent’.

7 Carling, J., ‘Migration in the age of involuntary immobility: theoretical reflections and Cape Verdean experiences’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 28:1 (2002), 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Elsewhere I suggest that some forms of immobility are an integral element to the migratory process. Here, I will only refer to immobility as inhibited mobility. For other work, see P. Gaibazzi, ‘Migration, Soninke young men and the dynamics of staying behind (The Gambia)’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Milano-Bicocca, 2010), 21–9.

8 Pollet, E. and Winter, G., La Société Soninké (Dyahunu, Mali) (Bruxelles, 1971)Google Scholar, 250ff.

9 Manchuelle, F., Willing Migrants: Soninke Labor Diasporas, 1848–1960 (Athens, OH, 1997), 144Google Scholar and 186.

10 J. Schmitz, ‘Islamic patronage and republican emancipation: the slaves of the Almaami in the Senegal river valley’, in Rossi (ed.), Reconfiguring Slavery, 91.

11 Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 3 May 2012.

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15 Manchuelle, ‘Slavery’, 99–101.

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18 See also Pelckmans, L., Travelling Hierarchies: Roads In and Out of Slave Status in a Central Malian Fulbe Network (Leiden, 2011), 22Google Scholar.

19 See Bellagamba, A., ‘Slavery and emancipation in the colonial archives: British officials, slave-owners, and slaves in the Protectorate of the Gambia (1890–1936)’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 39:1 (2005), 33Google Scholar.

20 For further details, see Gaibazzi, ‘Migration’, 39–88.

21 Gambia National Archives, Banjul (GNA) Colonial Secretary Office (CSO) 18/1, ‘The records of Fuludu East District of the Upper River Province together with a short history’, 1933.

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24 Interview with S. K., Sabi, 21 Oct. 2007; Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, 171–2.

25 Rodet, Les Migrantes, 107–20.

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28 GNA ARP 31/9-11, ‘Upper River Division Annual Report’, 1949, 1951, 1956 & 1957. See also Gailey, H. A., A History of the Gambia (London, 1964), 162–3Google Scholar.

29 Manchuelle, Willing Migrants, chs. 2–5.

30 Condé, J., Diagne, P. S., and Ouaidou, N. G., Les migrations internationales Sud-Nord: une étude de cas: les migrants Maliens, Mauritaniens et Sénégalais de la vallée du fleuve Sénégal, en France (Paris, 1986)Google Scholar.

31 Soninke domestic units (kanu, sing. ka) are patrilocal units. They can be divided internally into sub-units, or households. A household is usually defined as having a hearth (i.e., a consumption unit), organising production on its land, and distributing produce internally. The majority of households correspond to an entire ka. (The status of the informants was provided by research assistants.)

32 Komo households were almost all located in komonkanu (slave quarters), while larger and wealthier komo households are often in other parts of the village.

33 Figures exclude men who have formed independent households in the Gambian capital, and seasonal rural-urban migrants, but include people having a permanent activity in the city.

34 A. Benini, ‘Community development in a multi-ethnic society: the URD of The Gambia, West Africa’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bielefeld, 1980), 171.

35 M. Samuel, ‘Les contradictions internes à la paysannerie continuent à agir au sein de la migration en ‘rance’, in E. Le Bris, P.-P. Rey, and M. Samuel (eds.), Capitalisme Négrier: le Marche des Paysans Vers le Proletariat (Paris, 1976), 110–1.

36 Manchuelle, Willing Migrants, 129–30.

37 Bellagamba, ‘Slavery’, 5–41.

38 Ibid. 27.

39 GNA CSO 76, ‘Dr. Gamble's files, n. 19, Slavery, Report of the Upper River’, 104–6.

40 Weil, ‘Slavery’, 109–11.

41 Writing about Allunhare, a Soninke village near Sabi, André van Dokkum has estimated that overall seasonal migrant farmers were cheaper even to employ than domestic slaves. See van Dokkum, A., You Cannot Fight a Wild Beast Alone: Land, Labour and Relations in the Strange Farmer System of the Gambia (Leiden, 1992), 50Google Scholar.

42 Swindell, K., ‘Serawoollies, Tillibunkas and Strange Farmers: the development of migrant groundnut farming along the Gambia river, 1848–95’, Journal of African History, 21:1 (1980), 101CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, 118–28. Similar changes occurred in other Soninke areas: see Manchuelle, Willing Migrants, 138–9.

43 Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, 118–28.

44 Interview with K. Silla, Sabi, 16 and 17 Jan. 2008.

46 Interview with M. D., Sabi, 2 Feb. 2008. During the 1960s in Jafunu (Mali), some male descendants of slaves lived and worked in their masters’ compound until they married, like other juniors. Then they continued to work on Saturday and Sunday mornings or remitted a small portion of their harvest. Pollet and Winter, La Société, 257.

47 Interview with Bafula Kamara, Sabi, 15 Dec. 2007.

48 The peak during the First World War was partly due to French subjects crossing the border to avoid conscription. GNA CSO 18/1, ‘The records of Fuludu East District of the Upper River Province together with a short history’, 1933; CSO 2/1903, Report on MacCarthy and Upper River Provinces for the year 1940, 1940; ARP 31/8, Annual Reports of the Upper River, 1934–6 and 1943–5. See also: Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, 169–73 and fig. 5.6.

49 Meillassoux, C., The Anthropology of Slavery: The Womb of Iron and Gold (Chicago, 1991)Google Scholar.

50 Kome women can marry freeborn men. Prior to the wedding, the bride is ritually purified of her slave status to prevent her children from inheriting it.

51 Pollet and Winter, La Société, 257; Manchuelle, Willing Migrants, 57.

52 See esp. Bellagamba, A., ‘Entrustment and its changing political meanings in Fuladu, the Gambia (1880–1994)’, Africa, 74:3 (2004), 383410CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Rodet, Les Migrantes, esp. 107–20.

54 Interview with K. Silla; see also Bellagamba, ‘Slavery’, 18 and 32.

55 Interview with S. K.

56 Interview with M. D., Sabi, 6 Jan. 2008.

57 Interview with K. Silla.

58 In contrast, see Bellagamba, ‘Slavery’, 27–8.

59 Author's Fieldnotes, 20–3 Nov. 2007 and 1–6 Jan. 2008.

60 I thank Alice Bellagamba for pointing out to me that some immigrants might have been expelled from their communities.

61 Rodet, Les Migrantes, 102–20.

62 In this and the following case study, pseudonyms are used to protect the identities of the informants. The story of the Samagare family is based on interviews and informal conversations with its members and with other villagers (in particular: M. Y., Sabi, 31 Jan. and 1 Feb. 2008; M., Sabi, Dec. 2007).

63 Cattle had begun replacing slaves as a form of capital. See Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, 123.

64 For a description of the Basse traders in this period, see Barrett, H. R., The Marketing of Foodstuffs in the Gambia, 1400–1980: A Geographical Analysis (Aldershot, UK, 1988), 98Google Scholar and 105–6.

65 Tamba is not in Commissioner Jeffs's 1933 list of prominent figures of the Fuladu East district. GNA CSO 18/1, ‘The records of Fuludu East District of the Upper River Province together with a short history’, 1933, 24–7.

66 On cattle epidemics in the Upper River, see GNA CSO 18/1, ‘The records of Fuludu East District of the Upper River Province together with a short history’, 1933; and ARP 31/12, Confidential Diary, Travelling Commissioner, Upper River Province, 1921.

67 M. Mbodji, ‘D'une frontière a l'autre, ou l'histoire de la marginalisation des commerçants senegambiens sur la longue durée: la Gambie de 1816 à 1979’, in P. Kipré, L. Harding and B. Barry (eds.), Commerce et Commerçants en Afrique de l'Ouest (Paris, 1992), 233–4.

68 The term ‘kunda’ is a local suffix meaning ‘household of’.

69 The account is primarily based on interviews (esp. with M., Sabi, 2 Mar. 2007 and 6 Jan. 2008) and informal conversations (2007–8) with the Singate.

70 Interview with S. S., Sabi, Dec. 2007; see also Bellagamba, ‘Slavery’, 25.

71 The problem of indebtedness and deficient food production recurs in almost all colonial reports on the agricultural situation in the Upper River Division. Swindell and Jeng have detailed how the persistence of such concerns among the colonial officials led to a stepping up of public investment in the agricultural sector. Swindell and Jeng, Migrants.

72 In 1932, a 25 per cent increase in the Yard Tax probably accelerated the exit of permanent guests and slaves from their masters’ compounds.

73 Some of the wealthy komo did manumit their children and their sons’ wives by paying their former masters; the manumitted women would beget children who owed no rent in labour to their master. This does not mean that they could marry a ‘freeborn’.

74 Interview with Y. K., Sabi, 16 Dec. 2007.

75 In a 1949 survey of Genieri, a Mandinka village in the Middle River valley, Margaret Haswell found that ‘compounds of peoples of slave origin “owned” by particular freeborn groups were much smaller numerically [than freeborn ones].’ Haswell, M. R., The Nature of Poverty: A Case-History of the First Quarter-Century after World War II (London, 1975), 31–2Google Scholar.

76 Figures are based on a census carried out by Youth With A Mission (YWAM). See YWAM, Sabi Monographic Study (unpublished manuscript, Sabi, 2006). According to my survey, kome households have an average of 28 people, while the hoore ones have 36 (about 21 per cent more populous on average).

77 Interview with Kau Kaba, Sabi, 14 Dec. 2006; see also Manchuelle, Willing Migrants, 28.

78 Interview with M. D., Sabi, 7 Feb. 2007.

79 Timera, M., Les Soninké en France: d'une histoire à l'autre (Paris, 1996), 66–8Google Scholar.

80 Author's translation, Ibid. 67.

81 Findley, S. E., ‘Choosing between African and French destinations: the role of family and community factors in migration from the Senegal River Valley’, Working Papers in African Studies, 142 (1989)Google Scholar; Findley, S. E., ‘Does drought increase migration? a study of migration from rural Mali during the 1983–1985 drought’, International Migration Review, 28:3 (1994), 539–53CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

82 Weigel, J.-Y., Migration et production domestique des Soninké du Sénégal (Paris, 1982), 61–3Google Scholar; Barrett, Marketing, 69–72 ; Klein, ‘Slave descent’, 33.

83 Weigel, Migration, 62–3.

84 Author's fieldnotes, 10–11 Feb. 2007.

85 Kothari, U., ‘Staying put and staying poor?’, Journal of International Development, 15:5 (2003), 645–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

86 Rossi, ‘Slavery’, 182–206.

87 Most wealthy traders in Sabi either emigrated or supported their sons’ emigration to West Africa. Interview with Fode Kaira, Sabi, 25 Feb. 2008.

88 Portes, A., (ed.), The Economic Sociology of Immigration: Essays on Networks, Ethnicity, and Entrepreneurship (New York, 1995)Google Scholar; Manchuelle, Willing Migrants, 118–30.

89 In northern Senegal, Sufi brotherhoods played a crucial role in the emancipation of slaves, and later on in organising migrant networks: see Moitt, ‘Slavery’. Among the Soninke, however, Sufi brotherhoods are substantially absent, and Islamic teachers do not materially support the emigration of their students.

90 Gaibazzi, ‘Migration’, 41–6.

91 Zack-Williams, A., Tributors, Supporters, and Merchant Capital: Mining and Underdevelopment in Sierra Leone (Aldershot, UK, 1995), 145Google Scholar.

92 For example, see Swindell and Jeng, Migrants, 124–8; and Weil, ‘Slavery’, 77–119.