Migration and emancipation in West Africa's labour history : the missing links

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Strategies of emancipation included projects of migration conceived and unfolded by migrants of slave descent. This article suggests that looking at how these migrants chose to move when they could control their mobility, and at the obstacles they faced, reveals aspects of the experience of enslavement and emancipation that have not yet been fully explored in the relevant historiography. While historians of African slavery have described the large-scale movements of ex-slaves that followed legal status abolition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, only few studies provide detailed analyses of these trajectories from the perspective of the enslaved. Outside the field of slavery studies, both West African labour history and migration studies have been emphasising ethnicity over status, thereby underestimating how slave descent shaped the practices and aspirations of a large proportion of labour migrants. The autobiographic testimonies of migrants of slave descent provide insights into their strategies and expose differences across gender, age and location. Through an analysis of these sources, this article highlights the missing links in our reconstructions of the history of West African workers.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-46
JournalSlavery and Abolition
Issue number1
Early online date13 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2014