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Spanish Colonial Policy Toward Slavery in Morocco (1880-1930)

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After the formal abolition of slavery in the American colonies, Spain was confronted again with the phenomenon when the colonial penetration in Morocco began in the late nineteenth century. In the Moroccan Empire, there existed many different forms of slavery which contrasted with the American system of plantations. In this article we show the images generated by Africanist literature on this slave population, mostly black African, and the racial prejudices that characterized those definitions. The most remarkable result of the research, based on colonial sources, is the ambivalence of the Spanish policy toward the phenomenon after the creation of the Protectorate of Morocco in 1912. In fact, the colonial authorities never issued a decree derogating slavery and they simply prohibited slave trade.
Font: B. Meaking. 1905. Life in Morocco and Glimpses Beyond, London, Chatto & Windus, pp. 185.

Author: Autor:

During the last third of the nineteenth century the last Spanish colonies in America were witnessing the formal abolition of slavery, while Spain was exploring the possibilities for a colonial expansion in North Africa, where slavery was still an institutionalized practice, despite international bans and some dissenting voices within Muslim society itself.
The attitude of the Spanish authorities regarding the issue of slavery still remains a relatively unknown topic in Africanist literature. The Spanish colonial penetration also generated knowledge about the black populations of North Africa and especially those in situations of slavery and servitude. Racialism was the predominant approach from which Europeans classified those populations, under a scientific legitimacy that presented them as an inferior form of humanity despite the anti-abolitionist debates of the time.

Figure 1. Source: R. Forbes. 1924. Raisoeni. De Sultan van de Bergen, Amsterdam, Em. Querido, p. 247.
The pre-colonial Morocco seen by consuls and missionaries sheltered thousands of people of slave origin in very different situations, either as soldiers of the Sultan, as agricultural laborers or mainly as domestic servants, especially in the case of women. These slaves were purchased in markets that continued to operate well into the French and Spanish Protectorates started in 1912.
Mostremarkable about this is that despite the existence of international law prohibiting slavery, this practice remained implicit for almost the entire colonial period, although the sale of slaves was banned in the early 1920s. Spanish colonial authorities, however, remained ambivalent towards the slaves as they chose not to ban the practice of servility and simply accepted the facts. The explanation for this policy of non-interference may be found in pragmatic reasons: the Moroccan elites who maintained clientelistic relationships with the colonial authorities to maintain the colonial administrative system, lodged in their houses dozens of men and women of slave origin, especially in the city of Tétouan, but also in other cities and rural areas.

The article presents two unpublished reports made ​​by reknowned maroquinistes, such as the Franciscan Fray José Lerchundi in 1889, and the Arabist officer and interpreter Clemente Cerdeira in 1923. While Lerchundi’s report was done before the Protectorate and he tried to eradicate the sale of slaves and to promote evangelization among them, Cerdeira’s report is a principles declaration of the Spanish official policy: to respect slavery, since its nature was not based on an open exploitation, so that “the abolition of the system of slavery in Morocco, we believe that it would be inappropriate and certainly cause enough reason to generate serious disorders in the country (...).” The fact is that most of the Moroccan notables of the Protectorate’s capital had maids purchased in markets or through particular transfers, and the colonial authorities chose to leave out the issue, refusing even to respond to the demands of information from the League of Nations since 1921.
This research is part of a more ambitious project that aims to show the historical roots of current debates about the existence of racism in Morocco, and particularly the institutional violence practiced both by Spain and Morocco on the Africans caught at the borders of Ceuta and Melilla.

Josep Lluís Mateo Dieste
AHCISP (Antropologia i Història de la Construcció de les Identitats Socials i Polítiques)
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology


Mateo Dieste, Josep Lluís. Imágenes y ambivalencias de la política española hacia la esclavitud en Marruecos (1880-1930). Historia y Política. 2014, vol. 31, p. 255-280.

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