Literature on Slavery in Mauritania
The Abolition Institute encourages those interested in the struggle against modern day slavery – in Mauritania and around the world – to explore a variety of literature on the topic. While our press page contains links to recent news articles, the books below also provide valuable perspective on this difficult subject.
Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy – by Kevin Bales
Kevin Bales is Professor of Contemporary Slavery at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation, University of Hull, UK and recently taught at the University of Chicago. He is Lead Author of the respected Global Slavery Index. Bales goes undercover to meet slaves and slaveholders in Disposable People, a Pulitzer nominated book which exposes how modern slavery penetrates the global economy. Chilling excerpts from Disposable People on the reality of slavery in Mauritania are included below.
Fighting Slavery in Chicago: Abolitionists, the Law of Slavery and Lincoln – by Thomas Campbell
Thomas Campbell, a winner of the Abolition Institute’s 2014 Aichana Abeid Boilil Award, wrote this compelling account of the motivations and struggles of early abolitionists. It is the legacy of these brave men and women – who often risked their lives so that others could be free – that inspires the Chicago-based Abolition Institute to continue the fight against slavery today.
History of Slavery, an Illustrated History of a Monstrous Evil, Susanne Everett
This recent and comprehensive book draws upon a variety of scholarly sources to provide a global and historical perspective on both the evils of slavery and the critical work of abolitionists.
Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, Sylviane A. Diouf
Mauritania is nearly entirely Muslim – and Muslim leaders in the country and throughout the world are among the leading voices for its true abolition. This book provides a compelling look at a largely hidden history – that of African Muslims who experienced slavery in the Americas. The book describes how their faith shaped their opposition to the practice. Stories of historic Muslim anti-slavery voices in the United States are also found in our Faith Traditions Against Slavery section.
Skeletons on the Zahara, Dean King
Skeletons on the Zahara tells the true story of shipwrecked American sailors who experienced firsthand the reality of enslavement in the harsh Sahara desert region. King’s book can help American readers understand the physical brutality of slavery in the region and is based on a popular 19th century narrative read and admired by Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist writer Henry David Thoreau.
Every day, members of the Mauritanian organizations SOS Slaves and El Hor work to help slaves into freedom. The story they bring to slaves, the example they set, shows the way out of bondage. Though their leaders are arrested and imprisoned, though their meetings are broken up and their publications censored, they are not giving up. Many of the leaders and members of both these organizations are ex-slaves, and like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman they are in the fight to the end.
Disposable People:New Slavery
in the Global Economy
Excerpts on Mauritania from Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy – by Kevin Bales:
Mauritania is a police state hiding the dirty secret of its slavery.... a kind of slavery practiced hundreds of years ago, and now existing nowhere else in the world. Slavery, which has been a significant part of Mauritanian culture for centuries, survives here in a primitive, tribal form. (page 83)
Their lives are hard, their spirits and potential suppressed, and their freedom taken away.
Another important distinction is made between male and female slaves. In Moor society, wealth was traditionally measured in the number of female slaves a man owned. Though they are infrequently sold, a young male slave might go for $500 to $700, a mature female for $700 to $1,000, and a young and healthy female for even more. Children of slave women always became and still become the property of their masters, in spite of the law abolishing slavery. Adult male slaves cannot be required by law to remain with their masters, but adult females, especially with children, are rarely protected in the courts. Masters may use force to keep a woman in slavery; or they may simply keep her by taking her children under tight control. To prevent escapes, children are often transferred away from their mothers to a member of the master's family in another part of the country. (page 84)
The pervasive nature of slavery also means that slaves have almost no alternatives. A slave who leaves his or her master's household is unlikely to find any other work. White Moor families have no need to hire laborers, as they have their own slaves.
When slaves do leave a master, they leave with nothing. With nowhere to live, no guarantee of food or clothing, they quickly fall into desperation. Some escaped women slaves become prostitutes and some men find a hard-scrabble existence in the city, but for most freedom means starvation. In a country organized into extended families, the escaped slave is an outcast. Immediately identifiable by color, clothing, and speech, an escaped slave would be asked, "Who do you belong to?" by any potential employer. From the perspective of those in control of jobs and resources, escaped slaves have already proved their untrustworthiness by turning their backs on their "families."
On the streets there are already a good number of beggars, many of them disabled, to remind slaves of where they would almost certainly end up. (page 87)
Slaves normally sleep on the ground outside their master's house or in crude lean-tos made of brush or scrap wood. For the poor, and for slaves, the diet is little more than rice or couscous (about a pound a day), mixed with the bones and scraps from their master's meal. Slaves are easily identified on the streets by their filthy, ragged clothes, the masters by their flowing and spotless robes. (page 96)
One finds that withered, ancient-looking slave women are in their thirties; and slave children are bony and stunted, often showing cuts and wounds that are slow to heal on their malnourished bodies. Children are everywhere: nearly half of the population is under the age of fourteen. This doesn't lessen productivity, however, since slave children receive no schooling and go to work at the age of five or six. In the town of Boutilimit, behind the large White Moor houses with courtyards, I found lean-tos and shacks that I first took to be crude shelters for goats. (page 97)
The slaveholders enjoy the advantages of using slave labor within a modern economy. It's true that the imported goods they buy are costly in the context of the Mauritanian economy, but profits based on slave labor are also high. The benefits pass up the economic chain as well. (page 100)
Some slaves have learned of the 1980 abolition law and believe themselves to be free. They assume that now they are not required to hand over half or more of their crop to their masters. Confronted with such resistance, the slaveholders simply drive the families from the land. And as the urban economy grows, more slaveholders are finding new uses for the land they control. When they need land for building or development, they take it from the slaves who have been farming it. Whatever the White Moors' motives, the courts regularly support the land claims of slaveholders....
It is only in the realm of foreign opinion that the existence of slavery, rather than its abolition, becomes a problem. International opinion is important to the Mauritanian government because it is so dependent on foreign aid. To ensure the flow of aid, it has chosen the easiest approach: mounting a campaign of disinformation rather than addressing the issue of slavery. (page 115)
As in the nineteenth-century American South, in Mauritania race matters intensely. Racism is the motor that drives Mauritanian society.
It will certainly be more difficult to dislodge slavery from Mauritania than from countries where the new slavery exists. The ruling White Moors' deep cultural and economic vested interest in slavery makes them as ready to fight for this privilege as the southern states of the United States fought for theirs. And in Mauritania there is no Abraham Lincoln, no Union Army-only a tiny and persecuted abolitionist movement.
All in all, this portends a long fight. Those who want to stop slavery in Mauritania face a more daunting prospect than did the American abolitionists of the 1850s when they looked south and saw 4 million slaves bound by two hundred years of violence, custom, and law. (page 119)
Every day, members of the Mauritanian organizations SOS Slaves and El Hor work to help slaves into freedom. The story they bring to slaves, the example they set, shows the way out of bondage. Though their leaders are arrested and imprisoned, though their meetings are broken up and their publications censored, they are not giving up. Many of the leaders and members of both these organizations are ex-slaves, and like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman they are in the fight to the end. (page 120)