The Persistence of Slavery in the Southern Red Sea Region in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

  • Steven Serels


Slavery persists in the Southern Red Sea Region (SRSR). Encompassing parts of modern-day Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia (Somaliland), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan, the SRSR was historically home to a regional slave system structured by large-scale raiding, slave caravans, open markets, and, often though not exclusively, domestic service. Over the past century and a half, this system has transformed. It is now defined primarily by the enslavement in Saudi Arabia of vulnerable impoverished migrant workers from elsewhere in the region. This chapter demonstrates that the modern SRSR slave system grew directly out of the traditional system because states in the region consistently failed to follow through on their public commitments to abolition. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, British, French, Italian, Ottoman, and Egyptian imperial officials refused to build up a rigorous policing mechanism capable of combatting the slave trade and bringing about an end to slavery. Post-independence states, backed by their American and Soviet allies, similarly ignored the practice of slavery in their respective territory and continued to use the rhetoric of abolition for short-term diplomatic goals. As a result, those who were invested in slavery and the slave trade could easily outmanoeuvre poorly developed anti-slavery institutions. With few legal impediments, they were able to adapt their practices to meet the changing regional economic situation.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven Serels
    • 1
  1. 1.Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Regionalstudien (ZIRS), Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-WittenbergHalleGermany

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