Slavery still exists. It is not a practice banished by history, locked within the “shameful episode” chapter of a textbook. It is a practice alive and well. And in some cases, it is thriving. One of the places most wounded by this disgraceful institution is the West-African country Mauritania, which CNN aptly dubbed “slavery’s last stronghold.”
Determining the number of people enslaved in Mauritania is difficult, and a wide array of estimates exist. Global Slavery Index estimates that about two percent of the population (90,000 people) is enslaved, but the Mauritanian abolitionist group SOS Esclaves, claims that the number is closer to eighteen percent of the total population (500,000 people). While the number of enslaved people is uncertain, what is certain is that those enslaved are exclusively Black Afro-Mauritanians, specifically from the Haratin ethnic group.
This essay will explore modern slavery in Mauritania as it relates to the Haratin ethnic group, and it will consist of two parts: (1) a detailing of the history of slavery and social relations in Mauritania; and (2) an examination of modern-day trends of forced labor in the country, centered around a conversation I had with Seif Kousmate, a Moroccon photojournalist who traveled to Mauritania to document its slavery problem.
Part 1: The History of Slavery in Mauritania
Mauritania’s geography deserves special attention. It is located between North-African countries like Algeria and Morocco that have large populations of people of Arab descent, and Sub-Saharan countries like Senegal and Mali that have large populations of Black Indigenous people. As early as the 8th century, Berbers traveling into what is now Mauritania would force out, kidnap, and subjugate the darker-skinned Black Indigenous Africans inhabiting the area. This practice laid the foundation for a caste system that would later be cemented by the 11th century Beni Ḥassān Muslim conquests. When the Beni Ḥassān people came into what is now Mauritania, they captured, enslaved, and traded Indigenous Africans on a wide scale. A de-facto caste system based on color was in turn firmly stamped into the social fabric, and discriminatory social relations based on color and race were normalized.
These discriminatory relations persisted for centuries, and over time the caste system became more rigidly-defined. This became apparent during the Sharr Bubba, or the Mauritanian Thirty Years’ War (1644-74), in which the Berbers in what is now Mauritania attempted to fight against the growing “Arabization” trend sweeping across Western Africa. Their efforts were unsuccessful, and as a result, the caste system became more fixed, with the Arab conquerors topping the social ladder. The Berber people were able to maintain status, thanks in part to their adoption of Islam. The Black Indigenous Africans, however, witnessed no increase in status. They remained enslaved and heavily discriminated against.
After the decline of the Atlantic Trade at the end of the 18th century, gum arabic became the single-most-important export of West Africa. Seeing the opportunity for profit, France established a colonial post along the Senegal River and gradually enlarged its presence in West Africa.
By the mid-1800s, France declared ownership over the area that is now Mauritania. Beyond the trade along the Senegal River, however, France showed little interest for mainland Mauritania, as most of the inland territory consists of desert and hinterlands. It would not be until the imperialism movement of the early 20th century that France would truly enter mainland Mauritania.
In 1904, France issued a decree abolishing slavery. This decree, however, failed to effectively stop its practice. In a letter written in 1906 regarding the failure of abolition, the peculiarity of Mauritania’s slavery was noted. It was argued that enslaved people were not “ready” to be given freedom. Slavery was an integral part of life in Mauritania, it said, and to disrupt it would be to disrupt the social order.
Division in Mauritania over race and forced labor carried over into the country’s movement for freedom from colonial domination. In the period leading up to Mauritania’s independence, questions about Mauritanian unity were brought to the forefront of national consciousness. It proved incredibly difficult, however, to find a common glue through which the different social classes could be held together. While many Haratin-Mauritanians wanted to join the Mali Federation, Arab and Arab-Berbers wanted to give Morocco control over Mauritania. These conflicting desires led to deepening polarization, which contributed to the ultimate failure of plans for a unified Mauritanian society.
In an effort to curtail the complete fracturing of Mauritanian social life, French officials called a meeting between both sides of the conflict. This meeting, however, deliberately excluded certain important Mauritanian political figures, and this gave rise to a strong anti-colonial sentiment. In July of 1958, the Mauritanian National Resistance Party formed, paving the road to independence.
While anti-colonial sentiments grew in influence, the popularity of the National Resistance Party was usually limited to those who already had political power, namely Arab and Arab-Berber Mauritanians. Black Mauritanians, who had next to no power in society, expressed little to no support for the party—mainly because it failed to address the problem of slavery. Tensions, as well as political instability, only increased.
Mauritania declared its independence from France on November 28, 1960. The entire political structure of Mauritania crumbled, and a new one began to take shape. Those who held political power in colonial Mauritania – Arabs and Arab-Berbers – became the powerful ruling class of post-colonial Mauritania. In 1961, the Convention Against Forced Labor was ratified in another attempt to do away with slavery. However, enforcement was extremely lax. The institution of slavery was able to live.
Shortly after the Convention was ratified, Mauritania’s political scheme centralized into a single-party system led by Arabs and Arab-Berbers. This new party imposed a country-wide “gag-rule,” banning all talk of race issues. The government also actively silenced critics of the centralized party. The Haratin people were now not only actively oppressed through slavery, but also legally intimidated into silence.
In 1981, Mauritania, under international pressure, became the last country in the world to formally abolish slavery. Though “abolished,” the practice would not be criminalized until 2007. Indeed, these efforts have not managed to end slavery. The first successful prosecution would not be achieved until 2011. And even then, the defendant in that prosecution was only given a two-year sentence for the enslavement of two boys. The man was released on bail after four months of detention.
In 2011, a new law replaced the 2007 one, this time increasing the maximum jail time from 5-10 years to 10-20 years. It also, for the first time, lucidly defined slavery as a “crime against humanity.” In 2015, three tribunals were established to investigate and prosecute slavery. Their first prosecution was in 2016; however, this was only the second successful prosecution since the 2007 law. Additionally, the African Union condemned Mauritania’s failure to act on slavery in 2017, and many human rights organizations have been explicitly critical toward the practice that the government allows to perpetuate.
Part II: Present-day Mauritania
Seif Kousmate, a photojournalist specializing in social issues, went to Mauritania to photograph what its slavery problem looks like. When the Mauritanian government discovered what he was doing, they confiscated his photography equipment and jailed him. The government released him four days later and returned his photography equipment, while keeping some of his memory cards.
Seif stressed the importance of being wary of statistics. Mauritania has a large and dispersed desert terrain, lacking a central highway. Conducting studies can, therefore, be very difficult and unreliable. Seif also emphasized that some estimates for how many people are enslaved – such as the Global Slavery Index’s 2% estimate – are unreliable because they fail to account for those who are free in title but are still bound by the shackles of de-facto social slavery. Though not technically owned by a “master,” many “free” Haratin people are heavily discriminated against and forced to work the most undesirable jobs, with their children often being barred from receiving public education.
When chatting about the defining characteristics of Mauritania’s slavery in the present, Seif revealed a grave truth: many do not even realize that they are enslaved. A lot of Haratin people, Seif explained, have been told for centuries that servitude is “their mission,” and they, in turn, believe it to be true. They see their condition as just the way it is – just the way life is intended to be. This kind of belief is showcased in a CNN investigative documentary piece, in which an enslaved Haratin woman says that “God decided to weaken this [the Haratin] people.” Further underscoring the pervasiveness of this belief, in the same documentary a man claims, “Chains are for the new slave, but for the multigenerational slave, he is a slave in his own head. He is totally submissive.”
When I asked Seif how the Arab-Berber “masters” were able to indoctrinate the Haratin people into assenting to these beliefs, he told me that one of the key ways in which it is done is through religion. There is a saying common to Mauritania that “Paradise is found under the feet of your master,” which is a distortion of a quote found in the Quran. In this way, the ruling elite have been able to oppress the Haratin people through almost every facet of life and culture. Enslavement not only has a physical dimension to it, but also a psychological, intellectual, and religious one.
Karine Penrose-Theis, the Africa Program Coordinator for Anti-Slavery, underscores this multi-faceted approach to slavery, stating, “If you’re expecting to see people in chains then you won’t see that. The dependency relationship can be much subtler, much more invisible than that.” This not only makes it incredibly hard to quantify how many are enslaved in Mauritania, but it also makes the practice that much more difficult to eradicate.
ABOLITION AND THE ROAD TO LIBERATION
The road to liberation has proven perilous and strenuous. The current situation in Mauritania is not a spectacle. It is the direct result of a caste system that has sunk its roots deep into the minds and souls of the Mauritanian people. Overthrowing the institution of slavery would require overhauling the entire status quo and social scheme that has taken foot for centuries.
This is not to say that there have been no activist efforts. However, at every point in abolitionists’ efforts, there have been massive roadblocks impeding progress. For example, a capture system – eerily reminiscent of that of the US’ during the Antebellum period – has emerged as a result of activists freeing enslaved people. Another significant roadblock has been the government’s repeated refusal to acknowledge the existence of slavery within its borders. The first step to addressing this issue is, after all, accepting that the issue exists.
The two most prominent activist groups in Mauritania are, according to Seif, SOS Esclaves and the IRA, or Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement. SOS Esclaves provides support for people who are freed. One of their most recent initiatives is supporting Haratin people in gaining property rights. The IRA is a more political organization and helps free enslaved people. According to Seif, the government views the IRA as problematic because it has become a means through which Haratin people can achieve political freedom. In fact, in 2016, thirteen IRA activists were jailed for merely protesting the existence of slavery.
In whole, for the past decade Mauritania has suffered from a vicious cycle of activist efforts and governmental pushback, with small and unreliable concessions coming from the government. If this current trend of action in Mauritania continues, its future will look a lot like its past. Slavery will persist alongside discriminatory social relations and the active repression of activists.
However, while the government’s concessions have been sub-optimal, the increasing awareness of Mauritania’s slavery by multi-national organizations like the African Union and the UN signals that perhaps real change is coming. We can contribute to these changes by supporting activist organizations and bringing more attention to this issue. If we do, and if strong international pressure continues to be applied to Mauritania, then perhaps the Haratin people can finally be liberated and enjoy equal and fair treatment.