Stigmas and Memory of Slavery in West Africa: Skin Color and Blood as Social Fracture Lines

Working paper in french.

The French colonial administration was confronted with severe obstacles for the implementation of the decree of April 27th, 1848 abolishing the slavery in colonies. But despite their proclaimed anti-slavery ideals, the arrival of these European powers in Africa never resulted in serious repression of the practices of slavery. Of course, laws were passed aiming at stopping the slave trade, but very often local decisions and administrative practices cancelled out the decisions taken in the metropole, made under pressure from abolitionist movement activists. It is not surprising that the practices of slavery have endured, surviving under various forms in West Africa. Even today, the practices of slavery, both as legacy and reality, are still present in diverse ways in the sub-region.

The political and military defeats of the indigenous African states did not, however, break the social and ideological power of the groups that had been dominant in these conquered states. Colonial governments had an overarching need for the support of these dominant groups in order to ensure the stability of the regime, given its lack of indigenous legitimacy. For this reason, colonial administrators were little inclined to support a social revolution that would have put in question the social hegemony of the defeated African aristocrats who succeeded in preserving, depending on the region, the ideology of blood purity and identity defined by skin color, as well as in perpetuating the legitimacy of domestic slavery.

Governments have systematically denied the existence of slave practices or have presented them as negligible and archaic. By advancing a historical account of slavery that is one of victimhood and the trans-Atlantic trade, governments have been able to effectively cover up the contemporary realities of slavery.