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Evans-Pritchard Lectures - Exit, voice and loyalty: the options of (ex-)slaves, 1926-1946

Dr Benedetta Rossi


Thursday, 5 May - 5:00pm



This lecture examines the initial consequences of abolitionism and the early stages of the slaves’ emancipation struggles. It covers a period for which it is possible to distinguish three main strategies of emancipation that can be summarized as exit, voice, and loyalty. ‘Exit’, the choice to migrate away from the site of enslavement, has been an effective and well-documented strategy. Some migrants – men and women - travelled in order to interrupt relations with their former owners, temporarily or permanently. Others chose ‘loyalty’ and benefited from the patronage of former masters at home and/or at the destination of their migrations. In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘voice’ option appears to have been chosen primarily by workers of free descent, or workers who did not wish to reveal or
publicise their status. Strike movements in East and West Africa attest to the early political mobilization of African workers of both sexes, but few studies distinguish the specific strategies of workers of slave descent from those of freeborn workers in these movements. Organized strikes happened mainly in cities. By contrast, seasonal migrants from rural hinterlands who took temporary jobs in the same urban centres appear to have remained relatively disconnected from the political movements of city workers. Many of these migrants were former slaves. Class and gender mattered and intertwined in shaping the ex-slaves’ horizons of opportunity. Women of free descent had an interest in retaining the labour of their female slaves resulting in class solidarities between male and female elites. This lecture situates the emancipation strategies of ex-slaves in the broader context of African labour movements in the first half of the twentieth century. It shows that slave descendants did not develop a class consciousness based upon solidarity derived from a feeling of common exploitation, and it uses case studies to explain why this was the case.