Clipping Their Whiskers

John Reader

  • The Physician and the Slave Trade: John Kirk, the Livingstone Expeditions, and the Crusade against Slavery in East Africa by Daniel Liebowitz
    Freeman, 314 pp, £17.95, May 1999, ISBN 0 7167 3098 7

I have three daughters and could have sold them several times over in the places I have visited where slavery in some form or other is still customary practice. Most recently in Timbuktu, for instance, on an evening stroll beyond the confines of the town, tramping through the dunes with my Tuareg informant, Mohamed Ali, while a camel train trudged by with a load of gravestone-sized slabs of salt from the mines at Taoudeni. We were talking about our families, and I showed Mohamed a photograph of my youngest daughter on a pony, taken when she was 15. He immediately offered 200 camels for her, with or without the pony, assuring me she would be happy and well cared for as his second wife in Araouane, an oasis 250 kilometres north of Timbuktu, where she would join his first wife as an honoured member of the extended family. Timbuktu itself would not be a good place for her to stay, he explained, because in Timbuktu all women eventually become bandy-legged – which I assumed was an oblique way of telling me that females in urban areas cannot be trusted to observe moral etiquette.

We discussed what I could do with 200 camels, since hauling salt from Taoudeni to Timbuktu was not an occupation I cared to consider, and Mohamed Ali subsequently confirmed his offer with a letter to my daughter in which he said that if I could not afford the transportation costs he would send a camel for her, thus leavening negotiations with a rather good Tuareg joke, we thought. I was invited to his house: walls of concrete blocks, roof of corrugated iron, floors of deep Sahara sand so fine and dry that it pours like water. We sat on rugs and drank sweet tea. I was introduced to his cousins, but a darker-skinned man at the edge of the circle was ignored until I discreetly asked who he was. The reply was dismissive: ‘Oh, that’s Marushad, one of our slaves.’

The Tuareg are quite open about slavery and it is not as bad as it sounds. Marushad had joined Mohamed Ali’s family voluntarily, along with a wife and children, when he had fallen on hard times. In return for doing the chores and working on the camel trains, Marushad and his family were given food and shelter and have gradually become incorporated into Tuareg society. His wife is treated in exactly the same way as Tuareg wives; his children are eligible to marry into Tuareg families and Mohamed Ali is obliged to pay the required bride-wealth if they do. In fact, the principal reason for assuming responsibility for the welfare of Marushad and his family is to attach their reproductive potential to the lineage and thus increase the size of the family unit and its workforce. And once the relationship is established to the satisfaction of all parties, Tuareg slaves rarely change owners, or petition for freedom.

Freedom, of course, is a relative term. Marushad and his family are better off with Mohamed Ali than they would be otherwise. Slavery, in his case, is one of the kinder human relationships that anthropologists describe collectively as rights-in-persons, meaning relationships which give one person the rights of control over another. Rights-in-persons are found in societies around the world, and throughout history. They form a continuum, with the tacit obligations and entitlements of kinship, marriage and parentage at one end, the rights of employers and employees somewhere in the middle and the actual right to use people as chattels – goods that may be bought, sold or exchanged – at the other. And in precolonial Africa, for instance, where rates of natural population growth achieved by marrying and begetting were consistently low, it was customary to augment households by acquiring people ‘ready-made’, as Marx put it, especially in regions where food production was locally variable and uncertain. An impoverished family could voluntarily join a richer household, as Marushad did. A child could be exchanged for a supply of grain, thus enhancing the survival prospects both of the child and of its parents.

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