by Doctor Science
There are two types of laws in Mauritania. You have the "slave code," which legitimizes and codifies slavery, and which gives the law a sacred aspect. These are books that were written in the Muslim Middle Ages in the Maghreb area between the ninth and 16th century. These laws authorize the owning of black people. They decree that the black race is inferior.He says the reason slavery persists in Mauritania is that the law is "fluid":
Mauritania also has a modern law that it has codified, specifically a law against slavery. But these are not laws that are meant to be applied. The traditional law that decrees racial inequality and slavery and the inequality of women is considered superior and sacred. When there is a contradiction between the two, the traditional law trumps modern law each time.I haven't been able to find out what "traditional slave code" Dah Abeid is talking about, but he's saying that it authorizes race-based chattel slavery in Islamic North Africa.
Now, during the period he's talking about (9th to 16th century) galley slavery was common on both sides of the Mediterranean -- but it wasn't really race-based, it was equal-opportunity, who-can-you-grab slavery, a risk to everyone living within a day's march of the coast.
But this Maghreb slave code sounds very different. My gut instinct says that this race-based slavery arose for large-scale sugar production, which Arabs pioneered. Though I've read several books on the history of sugar and slavery (Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz, Sugar: a Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott), I've never felt as though I truly understand why sugar, in particular, seems to have been *dependent* on slave labor.
Once slaves were seen as necessary to sugar production, I can understand why slaves from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) were seen as the best choice. Sugar cane needs a hot, humid climate -- which is also ideal for any number of human diseases. Because humans are only truly native to SSA, people from SSA are enormously more genetically diverse than anyone else. And this means that if you cram a whole lot of people together, overwork and underfeed them, more Africans are likely to survive the inevitable epidemics.
But that doesn't explain why slave labor was necessary to make sugar. I'm going to try thinking this through. Sugar cane is heavy, so it wasn't worthwhile to transport it to the mill where it was crushed and the juice was extracted and boiled. Grain could be grown by small farmers, because they didn't have to ship the whole fresh (water-heavy) plant to a mill. Sugar milling, boiling, and preliminary refining, at least, was an industrial (or proto-industrial) process, because it required heavy equipment and a lot of fuel, much more so than grain milling.
So making sugar was an industrial-level process, requiring a big capital outlay and lots of workers coordinating their efforts. It's also very time-sensitive -- once the harvested cane is crushed, the sugar juice will ferment within 12-24 hours in the kind of climate where sugarcane grows, so that's the window where you have to start boiling it.
There's no *logical* reason this industrial process had to use slave labor, but it looks to me as though it was a nightmare of capitalism: the owners had great power and resources, while the labor involved was heavy, exhausting, and never gave workers enough skills to use as negotiating points. I think the fact that sugar was very high-value must have been involved, as well. Certainly, the notoriously high death rate of slaves on sugar plantations (and thus the need to always keep buying more) was only tolerable (to the owners) because the profits from sugar were obscenely high.
As far as I can tell, slavery in Mauritania today has no such economic pressure behind it, there's no industry or business sector that "demands" it. People keep up slavery because they -- the slave owners -- *like* it, for the daily satisfaction of dominating other human beings. It's now a habit -- or an addiction -- even if it started with the coldest of economic calculations.