In the early-twentieth century Northern Sudan, use of the term “Black” described more an idea than a color. In short, both “Black” and “Sudanese” were a comment on low social status made by those who claimed a higher status. These terms usually referred to slaves, or to those of slave descent, whose relatives had belonged to a non-Muslim group from the South or from the Nuba mountains (possibly from even farther afield, e.g., from Abyssinia). Islam figured in this story of slavery through legal custom; since Islamic law proscribes the enslavement of Muslims, non Muslims had been historically the targets for enslavement. In the Sudan today, a memory of this connection between Southerness and the stigma of slavery recurs in the term abid, meaning “slaves,” which Northern Sudanese in the post colonial period have sometimes used in derogatory, belittling manner to refer to Southerners.
The history of slavery and the slave trade in the Sudan stretches back to ancient Egyptian times. The early nineteenth century, however witnessed a burgeoning domestic, as opposed to export, trade in Muslim northern regions. The stimulus came from the region’s new Turco-Egyptian rulers, who sponsored raiding in non-Muslim reiongs as a way, first of securing male slaves for their armies, and second, of profiting through the sale of women and children in both internal (Northern Sudanese) and external (Egyptian, Arabian and Ottoman) markets. Slaves became so plentiful and cheap as a result of this intensified raiding that even the humblest families of the central river in North were able to purchase a slave or two.
This influx of slaves transformed patterns of labor and attitudes toward labor. For example, whereas free cultivators from the region north of the Nile confluence had performed most agricultural work before 1820, by the end of the nineteenth century slaves had come to do virtually all of that labor. According to one historian, slaves accounted for approximately one-third of the Northern population by the tim of the 1898 conquest. In the Sudan, as in northern Nigeria, Zanzibar, and others British African territories, post conquest policies aimed to abolish slave raiding and to trans form ex-slaves into wage laborers, who would in turn generate tax revnues and stimulate cash based markets. As slave men and women asserted their freedom (by obtaining manumission papers or simply by fleeing), many migrated from rural areas to the growing urban centers, where they provided important labor (e.g., as construction and sanitation workers) for both the public and private sectors.
Although British officials welcomed the transformation of slaves into workers, they nevertheless tolerated or encouraged the continuation of some slavery. They particularly encouraged slave women to remain under or return to the control of their masters, fearing that the women would otherwise slip into prostitution and thence become vectors of vice and venereal disease. By taking such a gradualist policy toward slavery, especially vis-a-vis slave women, officials also hoped to appease and accommodate the slave owning classes, who were potential allies of the new regime. Patterns of assimilation were complex for slaves who gained freedom in the Anglo-Egyptian period or in previous generations. Although slaves taken North had routinely converted to Islam and had learned Arabic, it was far easier for them to become Muslims than to become Arabs in the eyes of the slave owning classes. Moreover, such cultural assimilation on the basis of religion and language rarely entailed a dramatic improvement in status, since low social status stuck to those of servile descent even after manumission.
One anthropologist who did fieldwork in the 1960s in a village along the Nile near Merowe, for example, noted that the village’s continued to have social obligations toward families who had owned them or their forebears. Since those of higher status frowned upon intermarriage with them, the group had remained largely endogamous. Slave descent, therefore, “blackened” an individual in social terms. Skin color was no index, since in the years before the nationalist transformation that would make Sudanese-ness acceptable, a person of high status could have had dark skin without being regarded as “Black,” or “Sudanese,’ by his community. Such an individual would most likely have identified himself instead as “Arab,’ which conveyed not simply his use of the Arabic language, but, more importantly, his claim of distinguished parentage. Good parentage derived from membership in a patrilineally reckoned tribal group (e.g., the Sha’iqiyya or Baqqara) that claimed a distant Arabian progenitor. The father’s line was paramount, though high status on the mother’s side enhanced social position.
Ultimately, “Arab” and “Black” were both more important to the Northern Sudanese as labels of status and class rather than of ethnicity or color. The British appear to have absorbed some of these attitudes, in the form of an “Arab”/”Black” classification system that easily dovetailed with their own prejudices and notions of race. The system was also reinforced by their partnership with the Egyptians in the Condominium, since Egyptians tended to carry their own racialized stereotypes about Sudanese slavery and servitude. The result, by and large, was the promotion of policies that favored Arabs over Blacks–high status over low—for the finest academic educations and the most lucrative office jobs. A British soldier, D.C.E. Comyn, provided an insight into this rough classification system in his memoirs, publishd as follows: “Of the 150 men, 50 were pure, straight-haired Arabs; 70 were Kordofan Arabs, who, by intermarriage with the Nubas, tc., have the curly hair of the latter. The remainder were Sudanese.
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