Slaveri hos Tuaregerne i Sahara


  • Johannes Nicolaisen


Slavery, slaver, slave, slaveri, Tuareg, sahara, Muslim slaves, Muslimske slaver, eunuchs, eunukker, kinship system, familie kultur


Slavery among the Tuareg in the Sahara

A preliminary analysis of its structure.

Slavery is an institution of very considerable age. In Europe and the Orient it has been common for as far back as known history reaches, while slavery is, or has been, a recognised institution in other indigenous cultures throughout the world. We can fix no date to the beginning of slavery, which is lost in the mists of antiquity. Nevertheless, we can from a culture-historical viewpoint talk of the age of slavery, as it seems fairly certain that it does not belong naturally to the most primitive cultural stage, where livelihood is based on hunting, fishing and the collection of wild plants. True slavery has an economic basis which first appears to be found in the more developed cultural stages 1). Slavery is in particular common among settled agricultural peoples, but it also occurs among the pastoral nomads. Among many pastoral peoples, however, there does not appear to be any real economic basis for slavery. If there is a shortage of labour that problem can often be solved by intimate cooperation of several related individual families, which then form a so-called domestic group. This method is adopted everywhere among the pastoral peoples who inhabit the dry areas of steppe and desert in Asia and Africa. But for some of these nomads slavery is none the less of the highest importance, as it is in the case of the Tuareg, the light-skinned Berber pastoralists inhabiting the Sahara and the savanna immediately to its south. As will be seen from the map (fig. 2) the Tuareg are divided into several main groups partly corresponding to political alliances. It is among the Tuareg of the groups Kel Ahaggar (I), Kel Ajjer (II) and Kel Air (III) that I have carried out my investigations into slavery and its structure.

There are several reasons making it profitable for the Tuareg to hold slaves. They have several different sorts of domestic animals (goats, sheep, donkeys, camels, and in the extreme south cattle and horses), and it is not always possible for these animals all to graze on the same area, as the grazing grounds particularly suited to one type of animal are frequently unsuitable for another. The Tuareg in the Ahaggar Mountains must even frequently keep their herds of camels on grazing grounds which lie 500-600 kilometers distant from the camps where they keep their flocks of sheeps and goats. This naturally increases the demand for labour, but of even greater importance in this respect is the fact that the Tuareg nomads of the desert cannot exist at all on a basis of pastoralism alone. The produce of the herds and flocks is in the highest possible degree dependent upon climatical conditions. In years with abundant rainfall and well-grown pasturage the nomads will possess many beasts, which will give plentiful milk, some of which is made into butter and cheese. Rain is, however, a very scarce commodity in the desert, and frequently extreme poverty reigns in the camps of the pastoral Tuareg. Four years out of ten are simply so dry that fresh grazing practically speaking cannot be provided for the animals, and at such times not only do the Tuareg have no milk but it can often occur that a large proportion of their sheep and goats die of hunger and thirst. And even in periods of plentiful rainfall it is normally only during a small part of the year that the Tuareg of the Sahara can live exclusively upon their flocks and herds. They require in addition millet, wheat, dates or other vegetable foods, and these they obtain by cultivation, and in particular by caravan trade in which a considerable role is played by salt. The extensive trading expeditions to the oases of the northern Sahara and to the­millet-producing negro villages of the Sudan make great demands upon the labour force available to the Tuareg.

The slaves found today among the Tuareg are negroes descended from slaves captured from hostile tribes in the Sudan or bought in the slave markets in that area before the conquest of the country by France about the turn of the century. At that time the Tuareg were not only slave-owners but also slave-dealers, bringing large numbers of slaves from the Sudan to the oases of the northern Sahara. "Then," say the Tuareg, "we traded in slaves in the same way as we now trade in goats," and in the earlier literature about the Sahara there are examples to show that this is in no way an exaggeration. In earlier times the slave trade was of extreme importance to the nomads of the Sahara. It may thus be recalled that the famous Arab geographer Ibn Batutah, on a journey through the Sahara in the 14th century, joined a caravan carrying no fewer than 600 slave-girls 2), while in 19th century literature we find similar accounts of the business efficiency of the Tuareg as slavetraders 3). Although care was taken that the slaves, most of them young men and women, were in good condition when the caravans left the Sudan, nevertheless many of them succumbed to the desert journey. The loss could be considerable, but the trade was none the less remunerative, as a profit of 200- 500 % could be made on each slave. A great part of these slaves was sold to the Arabs and Berbers in the Atlas region and in the oases lying immediately to the south, where in many places a largely negroid population is now to be found as a result of the slave trade, but many slaves were also traded onward to Egypt and to Turkey. A particularly loathsome branch of the slave trade was the trade in eunuchs, who were used as harem guards throughout 'the Islamic world. The demand was large and prices high. In some regions in the Sudan - particularly among the Mossi and Bornu peoples - the healthiest of the boy slaves were therefore as a general rule castrated. It has been estimated that less than 10 % of them survived the operation 4).

The trade in eunuchs was a direct consequence of the introduction of Islam into North Africa, and Islam brought a vast increase to the scope of the slave trade in general. Arabs, Tuareg and other Islamic peoples in Africa have undoubtedly as slave-dealers been responsible for cruelties, as have their Christian European colleagues. But the actual practice of slavery was normally of a totally different character among Islamic peoples from that of the plantation and industrial slavery of Europe and America. As slavetraders the Tuareg were in the past far from tenderhearted, but they behaved completely differently towards the slaves who actually lived among them and who had adopted the Tuareg speech and way of life. Among the Tuareg many slaves, partly as a result of French influence, are now manumitted. In the southern Tuareg countries they live as independent agriculturalists, or as nomads organised into clans in somewhat the same way as their former Tuareg masters. In Ahaggar many freed slaves live as cultivators in the oases. They are normally under the necessity of cultivating the fields for the Tuareg, who are the actual owners of the land, in accordance with a contract which gives half the yield to the cultivator and the other half to the owner. But the latter is required to pay his cultivator foodstuff for six months, half the requirements of seed corn, and certain other expenses. It is not many years, however, since the rule was that the cultivator only received a fifth part of the yield. These negro farmers in the oases of the Sahara are economically, but not actually politically, dependant upon the Tuareg for whom they work. The case is, however, completely different with the large number of actual slaves which is still to be found among the Tuareg in Ahaggar. According to a census taken in 1941-46 there are in Ahaggar 4,611 light-skinned Tuareg and 1,642 negro slaves, living in the camps of the Tuareg 5). A Tuareg camp often consists of some few tents, inhabited by a domestic group which forms an economic unit in the manner already described. Each tent has its own slaves, which may belong either to the husband or the wife. Ownership of slaves is personal, but their work benefits all members of the household. The following example from a Tuareg camp, comprising 15 individuals spread over four tents in Ahaggar, serves to illustrate an ordinary group of slaves among the Tuareg:





1 grown man, 1 grown woman



1 grown man



1 boy



1 grown man



2 grown women, 1 boy


Slaves are thus their owners' property; they can no longer nowadays be traded, but even in pre-European days it was never usual to sell slaves out of ones own camp. The slaves are still inherited within one and the same family, and until a few years ago it was the custom for a slavegirl to form part of the bride-price. This may perhaps, despite everything, be taken as an indication that slaves are not conspicuously well treated among the Tuareg, and there are also examples of corporal punishment of slaves. This may occur even today, the rule being that certain misdemeanours which the light-skinned Tuareg atone for by paying a fine of domestic animals may be punished in the case of slaves by a flogging, on the orders of the senior chief to the Tuareg, who is called the Amenokal. It is, however, rare for a slave to be punished in this way by his own master. In the two years during which I have lived among the Tuareg I have, for example, only noted a single instance of corporal punishment, and that in a very mild form.

There are several reasons why the Tuareg practically speaking never punish their slaves, and a very interesting custom among the Ahaggar Tuareg may here be adduced. Here, if a slave is badly treated, he has always the recourse of changing masters, a system which is still in operation to this day. The means of obtaining his freedom from his former master is as follows: When he sees a riding camel belonging to a Tuareg whose slave he wishes to be, he runs up to it and cuts a piece from one of its ears. In consequence of this the owner of the camel is obliged to take possession of the slave, whose actual and original owner can no longer make any claim to recover his slave. This custom may appear remarkable, but it is in fact. a symbolical action with a deeper significance: to cut a piece from the ear of another man's camel is to damage it, and a Tuareg is responsible for the actions of his slave. The "guilty" slave therefore falls to the lot of the owner of the camel as a "compensation" for the "damage" done to his beast, and the original owner of the slave is forced to pay this "compensation". It is an extreme loss of prestige for a Tuareg to lose his slave in this way, just as it is a great mark of honour for the new master, who will receive his new slave with favour and give him clothes and a camel with saddle; there will thus be an excellent relationship between master and slave.

In cases where a slave simply runs away his master will always demand him back again. But the senior chieftain, the Amenokal, may intervene on behalf of the slave, if he learns that the runaway slave has been badly treated or is badly clothed. There are thus certain rules which serve to promote reasonably good conditions for the slaves. They eat, however, only under exceptional circumstances together with their masters, and they normally live, not in tents but in open windscreens or shades from the sun. In general, though, there is little difference between 'the way of life of the Tuareg and their slaves, and they wear fairly similar clothes and ornaments. The slaves also bear weapons, and in the old days, when cattle-raiding and warfare formed, as it were, a part of the economy of the Tuareg, they often accompanied their masters on raids. If a Tuareg family owns a sufficiently large number of slaves they will often not only carry out much of the heavier household work but will also watch over the flocks and herds; and as herdsmen they have often a position of considerable influence, as they are better acquainted with the care of the various types of animals than the Tuareg are themselves. To all this may be added a custom of particular interest. Among the light-skinned Tuareg each clan owns a particular portion of a beast, so that from a slaughtered beast one clan is entitled to a portion of the back, another to the heart, a third to the liver, and so on. The slaves have similar rights in such cases, being entitled to the neck and in some regions also to the tail and the feet. When a beast is slaughtered these portions must always be given to the slaves.

The slaves are thus not completely without rights. Nevertheless the ordinary rules of inheritance do not apply to them. If a slave has a good relationship with his master the latter will, in the course of the years, give him a certain number of goats as his personal possession - which he may, for example, slaughter or sell as he wishes. But when a slave dies his children cannot inherit his flocks or any other of his possessions. Everything then will become the property of his master.

In order properly to understand this and many other circumstances connected with slavery among the Tuareg it will now be necessary to give a short outline of the Tuareg kinship system, which gives to slavery an unique structure. Among the Tuareg there are very definite rules laying down how one should behave towards ones relatives, who are divided into a very few categories. Each category includes both close and distant relatives who are nevertheless all called by a single name. For example, the designations "father" and "mother" have a much wider significance than in our own society. The Tuareg can refer to all the following persons as "father" and "mother": parents, parents' brothers and sisters, the wives and husbands of parents' brothers and sisters, grandparents, parents' cousins and practically speaking all relations of ascendent generations. Brothers or the mother and certain other persons of the mother's family form an exception to this rule. They are all called "mother's brothers", which is natural to the Tuareg, among whom succession often follows the maternal line and not, as with us, the paternal. Towards all the people addressed or referred to as "father" and "mother" respect and obedience must be shown and the same respect is also the due of all elder brothers and sisters, as well as a whole series of relations of ones own generation - who are also called "elder brothers" or "elder sisters". Father's brothers' children, and mother's sisters' children - in other words the relatives whom we call parallel-cousins - are either ones elder or ones younger brothers and sisters. The so-called cross-cousins - i. e. children of ones father's sister or mother's brother - on the other hand are not ones brothers and sisters. They are described with the word ibobah (fem. tibobah), and between them is a remarkable relationship, normally termed in the literature on the subject a "joking relationship". Cross­cousins continually tease each other in a most impudent and gross manner, but all teasing and insolence is received with smiles and laughter, as to do otherwise would be to risk losing ones reputation as a decent person. Cross-cousins are regarded as the ideal marriage partners, but leasing between them ceases as soon as a marriage has been arranged. On the other hand the joking relationship remains towards the brothers and sisters of the husband or wife, who now, in addition to being cross-cousins, are also brothers and sisters­in-law; there will moreover always be a joking relationship towards brothers and sisters­in-law even in the cases where they are not cross-cousins. Between parents-in-law and children­in-law on the contrary, there is a relationship of avoidance, which is particularly strictly observed between father-in-law and daughter-in-law, and between mother-in-law and son-in-law. A man will thus always avoid his mother-in-law, never speaking or eating in her vicinity, while she will in turn consistently avoid her son-in-law.

Joking and avoidance appear to be two facets of the same custom, in so far as both lines of conduct serve to reduce strain and conflicts between groups or families which intermarry. It is obvious that the possibilities for conflict are reduced when the parties avoid one another, but to this end joking is just as effective a means, as, when any sort of grossness or insult - including theft - is permissible, it is impossible for disagreement to arise. Nor are joking or avoidance found associated with malice or enmity. On the contrary both relationships are accompanied by feelings of friendship and frequent exchange of gifts which, in cases where people are required to avoid one another, must be conveyed by a third party 6). Some Tuareg at Ieast see clearly the identical function of such outwardly different modes of conduct as joking and avoidance. Both are also found as customs for preventing conflict in relations between different Tuareg clans within one and the same political alliance. It is particularly interesting to find that between clans belonging to different social classes there is frequently a joking relationship of exactly the same character as between cross-cousins or brothers and sisters-in-law.

After this survey of the Tuareg kinship-system we may now at last return to the position of the slaves, as the relationship between the slaves and their masters shows in actual fact many analogies with the rules governing conduct between actual relatives. In other words, between slaves and masters there is a type of fictive kinship-bond. Thus a very young slave and an older master, for example, have much the same relationship to each other as father and son. The young slave must obey every imaginable order given by the much older master, and owes him all possible respect. Nor may the young slave marry without his master's permission, in the same way as a man must always, among the Tuareg, have his father's permission to marry. In return the father will normally help his son in payment of the bride-price, which will amount to from one to seven camels, dependant upon the social cass to which the prospective bride belongs. Similarly a Tuareg will, in accordance with his fictive relationship to his slave-son, assist the latter with payment of the bride-price, which, however, will only rarely amount to more than three or four goats. The bride-price will in this case be paid to the Tuareg who owns the slavegirl-bride. Where a slave is his master's fictive son his wife will be the master's "daughter-in-law", and there will be a degree of avoidance between them, in agreement with the rules of kinship behaviour described above. And this relationship of avoidance will also apply between the slave­girl and her husband's master's brothers, sisters and parents, as by the classificatory principle the Tuareg also count the brothers, sisters and parents of the true parents-in-law as themselves parents-in-law, who must be avoided.

The extent to which these rules for conduct between relatives are transferred to conduct between Tuareg and slaves may be illustrated by the following example: Among the Tuareg the ideal marriage-partners are, as related above, cross-cousins, and it is considered particularly appropriate for a man to marry his mother's brother's daughter. If, however, he marries a woman who is not his mother's brother's daughter, then he, or one of his brothers, gives a pair of sandals to the man who has this, as it were, first priority for marriage with her, as is shown in diagram I above (example A). In analogy with this custom, a slave on marriage must give a pair of sandals to his wife's master's sister's son, as he has a sort of marriage-priority towards his mother's brother's slave-daughter (example B).

The above examples of the application of the ordinary rules of kinship behaviour to relations between the Tuareg and their slaves are taken from the Ahaggar and Ajjer Tuareg. Among the Air Tuareg the custom of giving sandals is not found, but other examples can be adduced from the customs of this group to show clearly how the structure of slavery is based upon the kinship system. I here refer the reader to the diagram above (II), drawn up on a basis of information given to me by an old man of the Air Tuareg (A in the diagram). Slaves and Tuareg are denoted by letters, instead of personal names being used.

The diagram (II) is to be understood as follows: The Tuareg A owns a slave a of his own age, and, because the difference in age is only slight, their relationship to each other is that of brothers. A has a son B, who is of the same age as a's daughter, the slavegirl b, and the relationship between b and B is therefore approximately that of sister and brother. Both B and b must conduct themselves respectfully towards both A and a. On the other hand, B has a joking relationship towards b's husband, the slave c, as they are "brothers-in-law", while the slavegirl b teases B's wife, the Tuareg woman C, as they are "sisters-in-law". In the youngest generation we find that d-e and D-E are each other's cross­cousins, as they are the children of a "brother" and a "sister", and there is therefore a joking relationship between them. D-E must show respect towards all persons here named of an older generation. The same is true of the slave-children d-e, with the single exception that they have a joking relationship to the Tuareg woman C. This is in agreement with the fact that among many of the Tuareg in Air there is a joking relationship with ones mother's brother's wife. B is the fictive mother's brother of the slave-children d-e, and there is therefore a joking relationship between them and B's wife C.

The examples given in diagrams I and II of the fictive kinship ties between Tuareg and slaves would not be completely consistent if there was an absolute prohibition of marriage between the light-skinned masters and their black servants. There is in fact no prohibition, though actual legal marriages of that nature are quite rare. It more often occurs that a Tuareg keeps a slavegirl as a concubine, whereas a male slave can apparently never openly have an affair with a light-skinned Tuareg woman. But marriage between Tuareg and female slaves is permissible. It is however the case that a man may not marry any slavegirl. Among the Tuareg . there are very definite rules regulating which female relatives a man may marry, which he should not marry, and which he under no circumstances may marry. Thus, for example, it is not considered proper for a man, after his wife's death or divorce, to marry a woman classified as his mother-in-law or sister-in-law, and there is an absolute prohibition of marriage with daughters, actual sisters' daughters and daughters-in-law. Some of these rules governing permissible marriages are also transferred to corresponding fictive relatives among the slaves.

The fictive kinship ties between Tuareg and slaves contributes much towards preventing friction between the two classes. It results in the Tuareg having absolute authority over his very young slaves of both sexes, whereas that is not the case if they are much older than he is. An old slave will, of course, work for a much younger master, but he will not be given actual orders, and his master cannot, for example, ask him for water to drink. When the rules of conduct between masters and slaves correspond to those between brothers or between father and son, it is apparently in accord with these rules that the Tuareg inherit the property of their slaves. For children, brothers and sisters, and parents are the closest in line of inheritance.

The literature sometimes claims that the slaves are completely excluded from participance in the society. This, as we have seen, does not apply to slavery among the Tuareg. The classificatory kinship system makes the slaves an integrated part, not only of the society, but also of the actual family, and it is this integration which is characteristic of slavery among the Tuareg. As the slaves belong to the society and the family, it is only natural that they also politically belong to the clan to which their masters belong. If there is a joking relationship or a relationship of avoidance between two Tuareg clans, the same rule will apply to slaves belonging to these two clans.

Through the kinship system the slaves have a defined position within the social structure of the Tuareg, and this appears also to be true of slaves among other primitive peoples, as for example the pastoral Fulani in the western Sudan. As, however, social structure and kinship systems can take a variety of forms among primitive peoples, the relation of the Tuareg to their slaves cannot a priori be taken as a normal example of so-called primitive slavery. It can, however, serve to illustrate how primitive slavery assumes a structural form under the influence of the social structure of the ruling people.

Johannes Nicolaisen





Nicolaisen, J. (1957). Slaveri hos Tuaregerne i Sahara. Kuml, 7(7), 91–113. Hentet fra