Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Slavery vs. forced labor

In the months before a French officer assassinated Sultan Senoussi and his probable successor, colonial officials sent a flurry of reports (flurry at least considering the difficulties of transport through the territory) crescendoing in alarm over the dangers the Sultan posed to their dominance. After Senoussi's death, the French justifications for killing him increased in moralizing and rationality. The moral arguments centered on the fact that the primary driver of Senoussi's economy was slave-raiding. He trades men the way only cattle should be treated, they wrote. Now, the people of Dar el Kuti can be human again, and their land can prosper. The rational arguments centered on the way that Senoussi would agree to their administrative projects, as if he shared in them, and then go and do his own thing (raiding, trading) anyway. This became a critical issue because the French sorely lacked food and labor. They told Senoussi to conscript laborers for their road-building and plantations, and they told him to uproot several villages and re-site them along their supply route, the better for inhabitants to "offer" their services as porters. (The institution of "portage" in CAR has an ugly history. Porters were forced to carry loads as heavy as 65 kg -- for the Americans out there, that's 143 pounds -- and often went unfed and unhoused during their treks.) In sore need of labor and food himself, and with his own projects for expansion, Senoussi did not fulfill these demands.

With Senoussi (and, over a span of some twenty years, the region's other sultans as well) gone, the French system of forced labor became institutionalized through the "impôt" (tax). The continual problem of colonies like Oubangui-Chari was their insolvency. Concessionary companies could turn good profits, but administration required creating a tax base in a place where no one had any money. So people could only acquit their debt through labor, often for a substantial portion of the year. In many of the documents I have found describing the early years of the impôt, administrators' main worry is population exodus -- people fled to Anglo-Egyptian Sudan or even the notorious Belgian Congo to escape such an onerous demand. In theory, taxes are supposed to be a trade: you pay something, you get something back (protection, social services). But people in Oubangui-Chari paid something, and got nothing back. A directive from the Lt. Governor in Bangui in 1918, for instance, ordered administrators to halt treatment for sleeping sickness (too expensive). (The Belgians in Congo, in contrast, still offered it, making their side of the river attractive to Central African sufferers.)

This state of affairs begs a comparison: in what ways was the political economy of raiding and slavery under Senoussi different from the political economy of forced resettlement and forced labor under the French? According to the French, people were happy to be out from Senoussi's grip. Residents no doubt hoped the people of "Dar Franci" (the land of the French) would protect them from raiders while permitting them to live on their own. And with the defeat of the sultanates of Wadai and Darfur, they no longer faced such threats from marauders. But in some ways, the actual changes to their lives were few: they were still being controlled in ways quite different from how they lived on their own.

When tracing the trajectory political life has taken, it is important to parse out both the continuities and the ruptures. Anthropologists, led by Clifford Geertz, are trained to interpret. Historians are trained never to do so. I try to keep my anthropologist tendencies in check when perusing these archives, but refraining from reading into the words is a constant battle when faced with the tedium of fat files of disorganized memos.

I still have many questions about slavery and forced labor, and especially how people experienced them, and I will return to this topic in future posts.

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