Excerpted From: Salvatory S. Nyanto and Felicitas M. Becker, In Pursuit of Freedom: Oaths, Slave Agency, and the Abolition of Slavery in Western Tanzania, 1905-1930, 42 Law and History Review 119 (February, 2024) (67 Footnotes) (Full Document)

NyantoBeckerThis article examines the practice of freeing slaves through a sequence of public declarations before witnesses followed by the issuing of a certificate of freedom, which was in use in the Tabora region, western Tanzania, during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Although nowhere codified in colonial law, this process became the default means for slaves to obtain their freedom. Drawing on elements of African, Islamic, and German legal practice, it shows that the law played a role in slave emancipation during these years despite German authorities' failure to legally abolish slavery, and that slaves themselves played an important role in shaping legal practice.

As one of the signatories to the General Act of the Anti-Slavery Conference of Brussels in 1890, and other international treaties on the suppression of slavery, the German colonial state took legal measures in German East Africa to improve conditions of slaves and to provide ways for them to obtain freedom. Nevertheless, the colonial government was skeptical of the ability of slaves to fend for themselves and concerned about the effects of abolition on the social hierarchies it sought to exploit for governance. The legislation was therefore very gradualist. Under these German laws, slaves could obtain freedom through ransom or manumission, official grant of certificates of freedom (Freibriefe), by passing 5 years without working as a slave, absence of heirs on the death of an owner, and by marriage (for slave women). Further, in 1905, the German colonial administration issued a decree that all children born to slaves after 1905 would be free. With these conditions, envisioned German colonial officials, slavery would die a natural death, ceasing to exist in German East Africa after 1930. These legal measures in what is today mainland Tanzania were considerably more cautious than the measures taken under British influence in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, where slavery was officially abolished, with compensation for owners, between 1897 and 1907.

The limited effectiveness of German-era legislation is evident from the fact that in Tabora town, only 3276 persons out of about 40,000 residents, thus less than 10%, had received certificates of freedom by 1912. This is in contrast to contemporary estimates that put the share of slaves in Tabora's population at considerably over 10%. Concomitantly, work on the end of slavery in German East Africa, above all Jan-Georg Deutsch's Emancipation without abolition, has focused on social and economic, rather than legal, mechanisms that undermined slave ownership in the German period. Deutsch characterizes the last decade and a half of German rule as a period of lively contestation between slaves and owners, as the former sought to emancipate themselves by exploiting the shifting power balances between themselves and owners. In particular, the development of a wage labor market in the colony and increasing limitations on the use of violence by slave traders and owners shifted the balance in enslaved people's favor. The outcome was a messy situation where continuing small-scale enslavement coexisted with widespread efforts for both de facto and legal emancipation.

After the World War I, British legislation on slavery was more straightforward, though its implementation, as will be seen was more complicated than the letter of the law. The Involuntary Servitude (Abolition) Ordinance, passed in June 1922, declared slave dealing a punishable offence under sections 370, 370A, and 371 of the Indian Penal Code. The sections of the Indian Penal Code invoked here prohibited trafficking of persons, exploitation of trafficked persons, and habitual dealing in slaves. The potential punishments ranged from fines to imprisonment for life. This application of the Indian Penal Code in Tanganyika was part of a broader process of the standardization of law within the British Empire, whereby sections of the Indian Penal Code had applied in Tanganyika since 1920. The ordinance further prohibited detention of a person against one's will in service as a slave or the recognition by courts of the status of slavery, and prohibited removal of property from a person alleged to have been a slave. These anti-slavery laws found some practical application in western Tanzania between 1920 and 1926, as local administrators dealt with small-scale cases of enslavement and slave dealing by local chiefs. Overall, though, sources from the region support Deutsch's contention that by around 1920, ownership of persons as a means to extract their labor power had come to an end in Tanganyika.

The present article seeks to show how legal practice mattered to emancipation despite the gradualist nature of German-era legislation and despite the primacy of political, social, and economic change in undermining the institution of slavery. It examines procedural innovations devised by slaves seeking freedom and their supporters in missions in interaction with colonial officials, which made public declarations before witnesses a means to shed slave status in the Tabora region during the German colonial period and into the British one. In devising these procedures, slaves demonstrated their own creativity in shaping the German and British legal systems. In due course, colonial administrators relied on these pronouncements before witnesses as prerequisite for certification of freedom to slaves who aspired to leave their owners. The declarations served to make emancipation valid to both sides, owner and slave, avoiding tensions which would otherwise arise between them, and between slave owners and missions. By examining the declarations, we show that the legal abolition of slavery was a protracted process involving struggles between slaves and their owners, individual initiatives, and slaves' own creation of a legal course of action that drew on long-standing indigenous legal practice, in particular the use of oaths. In the process, we rely on archival sources deposited in the archives of Tanzania and the United Kingdom, as well as oral history interviews and mission sources.

This locally devised legal process is likely to have had important implications for the further trajectories of former slaves. It is clear that even missions which were self-consciously abolitionist institutions often ended up reinforcing hierarchies that kept former slaves in lowly positions. Moreover, as has long been debated, questions remain as to how to understand the aspirations and aims of former slaves. Rather than a sovereign state of independence, they typically sought reinsertion into social networks, even if in a state of dependence. Nevertheless, ex-slaves also had clear ideas of autonomy or, as one contribution to the debate has called it, “freedom from below.” Importantly for the present context, the manner in which a person shed the slave status often shaped the subsequent status as a freed person. For instance, imposed emancipation according to colonial law was typically less socially valid than manumission according to long-current Islamic norms. The negotiated character of public declarations discussed here, with the explicit involvement of owners, is likely to have resulted in a more socially valid form of emancipation than by the fiat of colonial rulers. By the same token, though, it was a qualified emancipation that did not remove all traces of subservience. We return to this issue later.

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Meanwhile, the continuing importance of these certificates in the early British period gives the lie to the blithe assertions of British officialdom to the League of Nations that their takeover of the territory had made the legal status of slavery obsolete. Rather, local officials in Tabora seriously discussed owners' claims over their slaves weeks and months after official abolition, while seeking to use an ex-slave's certificate to control his movements. British administrators, too, were at first drawn into the legal reasoning whereby effective emancipation required an individual act of manumission, which in turn presupposed a pragmatic acceptance of the reality of the owner-slave dyad. Over the course of the 1920s, though, officials moved on to prosecuting slave trafficking, while the importance of Freibriefe and the practice of public declarations faded. Instead, former slaves now negotiated for inclusion and further emancipation by adopting and developing other ritual and legal practices, such as Christian marriage, which became the gateway to relatively autonomous settlement on mission land, while education became a potential gateway to employment. In this way, the history of former slaves becomes subsumed under some of the dominant themes of colonial-era social change in mainland East Africa.

Department of History, University of Dar es Salaam, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and

Department of History, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

Corresponding author: Felicitas M. Becker; Email: feli.becker@ugent.b