Anti-Black Racism and Slavery in Desert and Non-Desert Zones of North Africa

Anti-Black Racism and Slavery in Desert and Non-Desert Zones of North Africa

Stephen J. King, Georgetown University


There is a geographic dimension to slavery and anti-Black racism in the Arab world. Black-White relationships differ in Saharan zones versus northern non-desert zones of Maghrebi countries, largely based on the historical roles in economy and society that enslaved Black Africans and their descendants have played in the two zones.[1] Slavery was crueler and more brutalizing, and contemporary anti-Black racism has been harsher in the southern Saharan zone than along the Mediterranean. Slavery has also lingered in the Saharan zone until the present day. Demographically, Blacks in the Maghreb are concentrated in southern desert regions.

In the southern zone, such as the oases of Southern Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, we find Black populations that reach as high as 75% of the population. That number is probably higher in Mauritania and among the nomadic (Amazigh/Berber) Tuareg who roam the Sahara across state boundaries. Unlike in northern areas of North Africa, where enslaved blacks were largely exploited as household servants and concubines, in the Saharan zones they were central to the economy. Indeed, a (Black) slave mode of production emerged in the Sahara, and the slavery in the area—which has not yet completely ended— is brutal, hereditary, chattel slavery in which Black people are treated as property. In the Saharan zones of North African countries, slave labor not wage labor dominated, and as Mosley Finley has noted, “Slavery is transformed [into a more exploitative and brutal version] …when slaves play an essential role in the economy.”[2]

In general, the majority White Arab and Amazigh (Berber) populations are concentrated in northern coastal areas. In comparison to the Sahara, far fewer Blacks have settled among them.

In the northern zone, enslaved Blacks were exploited as domestic servants, concubines and porters, and even as elite praetorian guards under Morocco’s Moulay Ismail (1672-1727). Across northern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya domestic, household slavery predominated. Master-slave relations tended to be face-to-face and relatively more humane than the hereditary chattel slavery found in the vast Sahara. In northern parts of North Africa, enslaved Blacks were not mere property to be worked to death like farm animals while undertaking the difficult tasks of farming and herding in a desert. Often, they lived with the family. The Black concubinage that took place was largely socially accepted (It occurred most frequently among the elite), and the children of such unions were typically recognized as free.

While meaningful, the relative mildness of slavery and anti-Black racism in northern zones of North Africa can be exaggerated. Black concubinage was often a matter of repetitive rape. The children of White slavers with Black concubines were sometimes sold on the slave market. Noted historian, L. Carl Brown, was probably too positive about contemporary White-Black relationships in northern parts of the Maghreb when he asserted that:

Color prejudice has always been relatively weak in northern zones of North Africa. Miscegenation has always been socially accepted and no color bar to marriage developed in the area; intermarriage has been at most a mesalliance. There was never anything approaching segregation by color.  While northern Africa is not color-blind, it is hardly color conscious. In many of the most fundamental social relations, a northern African is more likely to distinguish and discriminate on the basis of religion, language, or way of life than on the basis of color. In Northern Africa, there is nothing taboo about color[3]

In Brown’s view, resistance to social mobility was the main prejudice Blacks faced in non-desert areas of North Africa: “the economic and social position of the Black man best explains any aspects of the black white relationship there.”[4]Whites in northern zones of the Maghreb are accustomed to seeing Blacks at or close to the bottom of the socioeconomic scale.[5] That point is made vivid, as Brown acknowledges, by the fact that the most common words in Arabic for a Black person is ‘abd, which means slave, and Khadim, which means servant.[6]

In contrast to Brown’s rosier assessment, a contemporary observer of Black-White relations in all parts of North Africa (Saharan and Mediterranean) could reasonably assert that despite some differences between the two zones— across both— Negrophobia is common, interracial marriage is a taboo, and racial discrimination is pervasive.

This essay compares and contrasts slavery and anti-Black racism in Northern and Saharan zones of North Africa. It argues that slavery and anti-Black racism has been and continues to be harsher in Saharan zones. In the Sahara, a slave mode of economic production emerged on the backs of enslaved Blacks. When slavery dominates economic production, it takes a crueler form. In the Sahara, brutally enforced, racialized, hereditary, chattel slavery emerged. In contrast, in northern zones of the Maghreb, enslaved Blacks were mainly exploited as domestic servants and concubines, in warmer, face-face interactions. Post-slavery, racial discrimination has likely also been milder in northern zones than in Saharan areas. Slavery itself has lingered in Saharan areas.


Desert Slavery versus Domestic Slavery

The labor of enslaved Black Africans made the Sahara habitable. The initial wells and irrigation in the Sahara were dug and operated by slave labor.[7] Enslaved Blacks dug and tended wells, excavated and maintained the underground channels of foggara, irrigated gardens, cultivated dates, and tended flocks.[8] The arduous and relentless work to irrigate in a desert included digging channels tens of feet into the sand, with the risk of being drowned under it.[9] The oases across the Saharan zones of North African countries, still reveal remnants of a racialized slave mode of production.  The same is true for parts of the Sahara loosely controlled by states.

Historically, the slavers in the Sahara have been Islamicized Arabic-speaking, Arab-Berber, self-identified Whites; and Islamicized relatively darker-skinned, Tamazight-speaking Berber Tuaregs, who also self-identify as White. In the 17thcentury, these nomadic herders imposed themselves on sedentary Black Africans in the Sahara after desertification and access to camels made them strong enough to establish their rule and control of the labor power of enslaved Blacks:

“Progressive desiccation of the Southern Sahara after the sixteenth century allowed Arabo-Berber pastoralists to attain an increasingly dominant position vis-a`-vis ‘Black’ African agricultural peoples in areas along the southward moving ecological frontier of the desert. Increasing aridity gave pastoral groups a number of tactical advantages in competition for control over resources with sedentary communities, whose inhabitants were forced to either migrate further to the south, or to enter into subordinate relationships with pastoral overlords. The desert edge region that had once been controlled by large medieval states based in the lands to the south of the desert such as Ancient Ghana, Mali and Songhay disappeared and were replaced by much more localized political formations in which power often lay in the hands of Arabic- or Berber-speaking groups based either along the desert edge or in the southern confines of the desert itself.” [10]

North Africa’s Whites came to look upon Blacks as an abject race of slaves and treated them accordingly.[11] Tuaregs utilized superior arms, transport, fear, intimidation and their knowledge of the vast Sahara and control of Saharan resources to rule and exploit enslaved Blacks (Ikelan).[12] Under rising nomadic power, both Arabic speaking and Berber/Tamazight speaking pastoralists began to use racial identity as a more explicitly ideological justification of their position of domination over sedentary communities.[13] The common feature in the emerging color-coded schemes of social status and identity in the Sahara was the negative and servile connotation of blackness.[14] Thus, in the period just prior to European colonization, ‘race’ functioned primarily as a legitimization of domination and enslavement of people defined as ‘Black.[15] Along these lines, local Arabo-Berber intellectuals in the Sahara rewrote the history of relations between their ancestors and ‘Black’ Africans in a way that made them, in addition to rightful slave masters of Blacks, the bearers of Islamic orthodoxy and holders of religious authority.[16]

In the 17th century, within parts of the Sahara—almost all of Mauritania and northward to southern Morocco— a caste-like racial hierarchy emerged as the dominant form of sociopolitical organization.[17] At the top, were the Beydannes(The Whites) led by white Arab warrior tribes and their associated white Berber clerical tribes, though the vast majority of Berbers in this part of the Sahara Arabized and proclaimed their shared whiteness, after they were conquered by Arab tribes from the East centuries ago. The Whites “own” long-Arabized and Islamicized enslaved Black Africans Abid(Slaves). Former or freed enslaved Blacks are called Haratines. They also may be called Black Arabs. In the mix, in Mauritania are Black sub-Saharan African ethnic groups who have maintained their languages and have never been enslaved by the Whites (Beydannes).

Historically, a slave mode of production characterized this area of the Sahara. Unlike the domestic slavery most common in the northern parts of the Maghreb, slavery in this desert zone was more of a racialized chattel slavery. It was characterized by harsh agricultural work, in a desert, imposed on Black people. Most other work was also done by enslaved Blacks. They herded animals, collected dates and gum Arabic. They also fetched water and firewood in addition to performing all domestic tasks such as cooking and cleaning. Black female slaves were forced to become concubines – they were repetitively raped – and their off-spring were born unfree, even if white ‘masters’ were the fathers of their children. Concubines could not improve their own status through intimate ties with slave masters.[18]

Enslaved Blacks in this Eastern portion of the Sahara, ranging northward into southern Morocco, were considered animals that white masters could force to submit to all sorts of work and services.[19] They were forced to work without pay. They were bought and sold, rented, given away, or loaned.[20] They needed permission to marry, and families were routinely broken up to the economic advantage of slave owners.[21] They could literally be worked to death without consequences for their masters.[22]

Farther west in the Sahara, including in southern Algeria and Libya, a similar racialized hierarchical form of social organization emerged. Semi-nomadic herding Tuaregs—lslamicized but not Arabized Berbers—enslaved Black Africans over the centuries that they call Iklan (the slaves). Different Tuareg groups are ranked above the Iklan. At the top are the warrior Imajeghan (ruling nobles who claim to offer protection to their dependencies). Below them are the Ineslemen (Islamic marabouts) and then the Inaden (artisans). The Imghad (vassels) are stationed just above the Iklan (slaves).[23]The majority of the Iklan are descendants of Blacks taken during raids just south of the Sahara.[24] Historically, enslaved Blacks played an essential role in the Tuareg economy. The Iklan worked primarily on oases controlled by their ‘owners.’[25] They also shared communal work projects (irrigation in a desert).[26]

In contrast to the racialized, descent-based, chattel slavery of the Sahara, domestic slavery predominated north of the Sahara, nearer to the Mediterranean. Enslaved Blacks were not treated as pure property/chattel, brutally coerced for free labor. The majority of enslaved Blacks were domestic servants, porters, guards, and concubines that shared their “masters’” household. The enslavement of Black Africans served as a source of prestige for the wealthy as much as a free labor supply. Concubinage could turn enslaved Blacks into a part of the slave master’s family, including recognition of offspring of these unions, who are born free (and are considered legitimate children of their father with full rights of name and inheritance), and the improvement in social status of their enslaved Black mothers who are in general freed, and become umm walad (mother of the child). In contrast, Black concubines in southern Saharan zones are exploited sexually by White masters to produce new slaves to carry out grueling desert agricultural work. Neither mother nor child are freed.


Contemporary Slavery and anti-Black Racism in Desert and non-Desert Zones of North African Countries

The two zones today, as in the past, reveal different dynamics of slavery and anti-Black racism. Within the Sahara, an astonishing amount of slavery continues to operate. While illegal, in practice, due to reasons discussed below, socio-economic relations in parts of Mauritania and other parts of the Sahara continue to mirror the racialized, hereditary, chattel slavery of the past.[27] Mauritania is often cited as the country currently with the highest percentage of enslaved people within its borders in the world: out of 4.5 million citizens approximately 450,000– 900,000 Black Arabs and Haratines are enslaved today in Mauritania and enslaved Blacks remain essential to the Mauritanian.[28] Very few own land, yet they continue to do virtually all of the country’s (desert) agricultural work, for their ‘masters’, without pay.[29]Even if  ‘fathered’ by a White man, children of enslaved Black women are not free, they are exploited as slaves. The life conditions of enslaved Blacks in Mauritania have changed little since their ancestors were enslaved by ascending nomadic white Arab-Berbers beginning in the 17th century.[30]

Ignoring the numerous times slavery has been abolished in Mauritania under the French and under post-Independence governments, the Mauritanian white elite and the state institutions they control (including the police, security sector, and judicial system) refuse to end slavery. They get away with it for several reasons. They control most of the economic resources in a resource poor environment, fleeing in a vast desert could be catastrophic. They lie to a largely disinterested international community and largely prevent Haratines from traveling or speaking to foreigners.[31] They sustain ideological control over freed and enslaved Black Moors/Arabs through the country’s official interpretation of Islam—Mauritania is an Islamic Republic—that declares that Blacks are meant to be slaves to their white Arab masters of Arabic and Islam.[32] Their servitude is following God’s will. Making up 40 percent of the Mauritanian population, significant support from the country’s Black Arabs/Moors, sustains the dominance of minority white Arab-Berber Moors. Control is aided by deliberate efforts to deprive Blacks, in their sphere, of education.[33] They utilize state security institutions to torture Blacks seeking the end of their servitude.[34] The judicial system refuses to prosecute slavers.[35]

This racialized socioeconomic hierarchy, including racial terms and enslavement, extends north-ward into southern Morocco. The oases in the Sahara of southern Morocco operate socially in a fashion similar to Mauritania. An Arab-Berber elite dominates the descendants of their former Black slaves, Haratins. Much of their existence is dissimilar from that of a free people. Most remain dependent on their former slave-owners’ families. They work in the fields of palm groves and as herdsmen.

However, the Moroccan monarchy is more a creature of the Northern zone, and its history of domestic and government/military slavery, so actual chattel slavery is much less likely in the contemporary Moroccan Sahara. Slavery is certainly not essential to the Moroccan economy, nor is it defended by the Moroccan state, as it is in Mauritania. Still, there may be remnants of racialized chattel slavery in the oases of all the Maghrebi countries and it may remain significant among the Tuaregs.[36] The French, during the colonial period (which ended in the late-1950s and early 1960s), in North Africa tended to exchange turning a blind eye to slavery for social control and intelligence from slave masters about distant—from the Mediterranean coast–areas in the Sahara.[37] The feminist Moroccan scholar, Fatima Mernissi, and the renowned Moroccan author of fiction, Tahar Ben Jelloun, reported black enslaved girls being brought into their homes as concubines and servants in the 1950s.[38]

The lingering influence of desert chattel slavery has made anti-Black racism stronger in the Saharan zone of North African countries than in the northern zone of domestic slavery. First, there are more Blacks there due to centuries of a (Black) slave mode of production in the desert, and they are more likely to be viewed as servile. As a recent case revealed, national identity cards of Blacks in southern Tunisia include the name of the family who once owned their ancestors.[39]

Partly due to an influx of clandestine sub-Saharan Black migrants seeking passage to Europe or better life opportunities in North Africa, anti-Black racism in the northern zone of North African countries seems to be increasing.[40] The contempt for people with black skin has increased. In the streets of northern North Africa, Blacks are assaulted by a range of racial insults. As noted, long ago in the Maghreb, the Arabic word designating slave – ‘Abd , pl. ‘Abid –  in daily language, took on the meaning of a black person or black people. To attack the humanity of Black Maghrebis, the Arabic word for servant, Khadim pl. Khuddam, also became a common collective noun for black people, especially Black women.

Blacks in northern (and Saharan) zones of the Maghreb are also peppered with more country-specific racial insults. Haratine, signifying the slaves and ‘freed slaves’of Arab-Berber whites

in Mauritania, is a general pejorative that connotes subordination in Morocco. Moroccans also utilize the racial slur, Azzi. Kahlouch, a perjorative for a Black person (Khal is Black in Arabic) is most frequently hurled at the innocent in Algeria. In Tunisia, Chaouachine is a term for black people forged to designate an immediate category between the free and the enslaved. As a racial epithet, white Tunisians utilize Oussif, meaning servant, maid, slave. The opposite of Oussif is Horr, which means free and designates a white person.

Across the northern zone of the Maghreb, Black people are frequently called, to their faces, qird (monkey), khanzir (pig), akul lahmi albashar (cannibal), and hayawan (animals).[41] They may be greeted by the sounds monkeys make, guera; guera. The color of some olives inspires the racial insult zeitoun.  The color of the candy bar snickers, has turned the word ‘snickers’ into a racial epithet.

To summarize, due to the historic, primary economic role of enslaved Blacks in the desert zones of North Africa, slavery and anti-Black racism has been crueler and more pervasive in the Sahara than nearer to the Mediterranean. Domestic slavery in the north has ended and contemporary anti-Black racism nearer to the Mediterranean is probably milder than in the Saharan zones where most Blacks live and where hereditary chattel slavery lingers.



[1] Leon Carl Brown, “Color in Northern Africa,” Daedalus, Vol. 96, No. 2 Spring 1967, pp. 464-482.

[2] Moses I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology  (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers Inc, 1998), p. 310.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 469.

[5] Ibid, p. 472.

[6] Ibid, p. 470.

[7] A. G. Hopkins, An Economic History of West Africa, 2nd edition, (New York: Routledge Press, 2020), p. 82.

[8] Benjamin Claude Bower, Rethinking Abolition in Algeria, Cahier D’Etudes Africaine 49, 2009.

[9] Ibid.

[10] James Webb, quoted in Bruce Hall, “The Question of Race in the Pre-Colonial Southern Sahara,” The Journal of North African Studies 2005 10 (3-4).

[11] Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, Kate Ferguson Marsters (ed.) (Durham: Duke

University Press 2000), p. 140.

[12] Rene´ Caillie´, Journal d’un voyage a` Temboctou et a` Jenne´, dans l’Afrique centrale (Paris: Editions

Anthropos 1830), v.2, pp. 281–82.

[13] James Webb, Desert Frontier: Ecological and Economic Change along the Western Sahel, 1600–

1850 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1995).

[14] Hall, op.cit, p.341.

[15] Ibid, p. 344.

[16] Ibid, p. 345.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Mohamed Yahya, La Mauritanie (Paris: 2014).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Andrew Alesbury, “A Society in Motion: The Tuareg from the Pre-colonial Era to Today,” Nomadic Peoples (2013) Volume 17, Issue 2, p. 109.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Susan J. Rasmussen, The Slave Narrative in Life and History, and Problems of Ethnographic Representation of the Tuareg Cultural Predicament, Ethnohistory, Winter, 1999, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Winter, 1999).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mohamed Ould Cire, in La Mauritanie (Paris: L’Harrmattan, 2014) ; Zekeria Ould Ahmed Salem, “The Politics of the Haratin Social Movement in Mauritania, 1978-2014,” in Osama Abi Merched, Social Currents in North Africa: Culture and Governance after the Arab Spring (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); John Sutter and E. McNamee, “Slavery’s Last Stand,” March 2012. Accessed May 29th, 2021; . Anne Mcdougal, “Mauritania: Aiive and Well in Mauritania? Slavery and Its Stubborn Vestiges”; Khalid Essesissah, Paradise is Under the Feet of Your Master: The Construction of the Religious Basis of Racial Slavery in the Mauritanian Arab-Berber Community,” Journal of Black Studies Vol. 47 (1), 2016.

[28] Ould Ciré, Mohamed Yahya. 2014. La Mauritanie. Paris: L’Harmattan; Sutter, John D. 2012. “Slavery’s Last Stronghold.” CNN. 2012/03/world/mauritania.slaverys.last.stronghold/index.html..

[29] Ould Cire, op.cit.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid

[32] Esseissah, Khaled. 2015. “Paradise Is Under the Feet of Your Master: The Construction of the Religious Basis of Racial Slavery in the Mauritanian Arab-Berber Community.” Journal of Black Studies 47 (1): 3–23. doi:10.1177/0021934715609915.

[33] Cire, op.cit.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Slavery among the Bankilaré Tuareg in the Mirror of Circular Migrations Boyer, Florence Cahiers d’études africaines, 2005, Vol.XLV (3-4)

[37] Brower, Benjamin Claude. 2009. “Rethinking Abolition in Algeria. Slavery and the ‘Indigenous Question’.” Cahiers D’études Africaines 49 (195): 805–828. doi:10.4000/etudesafricaines.15654.

[38] El Meknessi, Bouabid. 2016. “Tahar Ben Jelloun Dénonce Le Racisme Ordinaire.” Al Huffpost Maghreb. oun_n_9550484.html; Marouan, Maha. 2016. “Incomplete Forgetting: Race and Slavery in Morocco.” Islamic Africa 7 (2): 267–271. doi:10.1163/21540993-00702002.


[40] See Stephen J. King, “Black Arabs and African Migrants: between Slavery and racism in North Africa,” The Journal of North African Studies, October 2019, pp. 32-33.

[41] Ibid.