Slavery and Agency Inside a 19th-century Saharan Commercial House in Timbuktu

Wednesday, March 5
4:00 pm - 7:00 pm

Regenstein Library, Room A-11 (lower level)
1100 East 57th Street
Chicago, Illinois 60637

Bruce Hall (Duke University)

shorter presentation by William Sewell (UChicago)
"The Ecology of Firms in the Eighteenth-Century Lyonnais Silk Industry"

Free and open to the public. 

About the paper:

‘We must correspond with the slaves in order to gather news’:
Slavery and Agency inside the 19th-century Saharan Commercial House of `Isa b. Hmida al-Ghadamisi in Timbuktu

The paper seeks to explain how slaves came to be used as commercial agents by trans-Saharan trade networks in the period before European colonial occupation of Africa. I argue that employing slaves as traveling agents was an important means of overcoming problems of trust that were so crucial in the Sahara. My research reveals that slavery was highly adaptive to the social needs of merchants in African societies. Based on previously unknown Arabic letters written by members of a single extended family of trans-Saharan merchants in the nineteenth century, the paper opens a window on the functioning of trans-Saharan commerce. It questions the widely-held understanding that commercial agency was often a strategy of social mobility in in pre-modern long-distance trade.

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Bruce Hall is an associate professor of history at Duke University. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2005. His first book, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), is about the development of ideas about racial difference along the West African Sahel. The research for this project was focused in and around the Malian town of Timbuktu. His current research centers on a nineteenth-century commercial network that connected Timbuktu with Ghadames (Libya), and which involved a number of literate slaves as commercial agents. The research for this project is largely based on a cache of hundreds of Arabic letters which were written by members of a single extended family of merchants.


Slavery and Agency Inside a 19th-century Saharan Commercial House in Timbuktu

Bruce Hall, Associate Professor of History at Duke University


The Ecology of Firms in the Eighteenth-Century Lyonnais Silk Industry

William Sewell, Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago