No One’s Memory: Blackness at the Limits of Comparative Slavery     

No One’s Memory: Blackness at the Limits of Comparative Slavery     

Parisa Vaziri, Cornell University 


“If it is true that historical knowledge demands that its object be isolated and withdrawn from any libidinal investment come from the historian, then it is certain that the only result of this way of ‘putting down’ [rédiger] history would be to ‘put it down’ [réduire].” [1]

In this paper, I reflect upon a series of patterns in Indian Ocean slavery historiography. My claim is that historiography’s inheritance of disciplinary authority about the truth of race is unearned, unthought. In cataloguing the recurring tropes of comparison between Indian Ocean slavery and its putative foil, Atlantic slavery, I argue that repeating comparisons express a stewing tension between Indian Ocean and Atlantic slavery historiography. This tension can best be understood as an incontrovertible debt that Indian Ocean slavery history bears to Atlantic slavery. This debt appears in various forms, in veritable signatures, and is rarely, if ever interrogated or addressed by those who reproduce, manage, and deflect it.

The debt I am speaking of appears most tellingly in the disavowal of racial blackness in Indian Ocean slavery historiography. Disavowal is never simple, never self-evident, not amenable to empirical proof or disproof. The disavowal of racial blackness is disguised. It appears as historicist indignation, in charges of anachronism, ahistoricism and other typical, ultimately moralizing tropes that hinge on the distinction between “good” and “bad” scholarship—for example, between the ethical, objectively accurate conclusions of historians, and the unethical, ahistorical claims of contemporary black studies; at other times, between the choice to conflate Africanness, blackness, and slavery, and the choice to treat these terms in their originary autonomy and referential plenitude, as if conflation rested simply upon poor, individual decision-making and bad scholarly practice.

The specters of anachronism and ahistoricism, which underlie attitudes toward disciplinary authority and capacity for knowledge-production, was, unsurprisingly a theme running through the February 2021 POMEPS-PASR conference discussions. Although mental habits prime us to presuppose the fundamental, even indisputable commensurability between slavery and history, I suggest the need to reinterrogate this assumption, as well as the full range of its consequences. For history is not just one among other genres of disciplinary discursivity. It is the genre entrusted with ultimate truth-telling capacity. In what follows, I will argue that Indian Ocean slavery historiography paradoxically depends upon 1) figures of lack and 2) distance from racial blackness in order to establish its own legitimacy and aspirations to objective truth-telling. By contrast, I will suggest that in exhibiting and repeating its own lack and in its almost obsessive self-distancing from racial blackness, Indian Ocean historiography only shows how deeply racial blackness saturates the very tools it has its disposal to think slavery at all.[2]


The Poverty of History

Archival paucity is a ubiquitous trope in Indian Ocean slavery scholarship. I know that field specialists may protest against this homogenization of Indian Ocean slavery research (such a broad field, as if it could really be generalized). My own research focuses primarily on the relationship between the slave trades from East Africa to Southwest Asia, and undeniably there are profound differences between the legacies resulting from this particular history and those that resulted from trans-Saharan slavery. Yet the one thing that unites this otherwise entirely heterogeneous body of work that falls under the heading of Indian Ocean slavery is a certain lament about lack of information, the raw data of the archives. Here is a random sampling of citations from a range of studies which bear witness to this agony. We have trouble “reconstructing the Indian Ocean slave trades” due to the “paucity of archival sources.”[3] “[A]rchival materials on the Arabian Peninsula are almost entirely lacking,” impeding an understanding of the “antiquity of African agricultural slavery.”[4] Administrative fragmentation makes “archival research a formidable task to any serious scholar.”[5]“[M]otley archiving practices” scatters history.[6] Despite the inexistence of specialized slave cargoes, even Arabic documents “captured aboard slaving vessels in the Indian Ocean…yielded little useful information.”[7] Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave ship, which was a regulated unit of transport…the trans-Saharan caravans were ephemeral.”[8] Quantitative estimation of the trade is “impossible” due to the “limited nature of extant records.”[9] Another random sampling of studies could have been chosen.

Overemphasizing the lack of information that exists about Indian Ocean world slavery is necessary. It is necessary because it throws into relief the questionable generalizations that have thus far been made about it: the supposedly debunked but notorious and in truth unrelenting “good-treatment thesis”; Indian Ocean slavery’s benign nature, and other forms of romanticization that cast as shadow effect a general disinterest in knowing more. Gentle, seamless histories are unfashionable. We know this story. On the other hand, such stress on historical dearth is unwarranted, because to accentuate paucity is in part to undermine the extent to which all historiography is impoverished by historiography’s very conditions of possibility: selectivity and contingency. Like archaeological finds, historical narrative depends on chance. Terms that supply a sense of destitution belong to a telos that begins and ends with history’s predetermined totality. In the context of Indian Ocean slavery, the presumption of teleology is shaped by the often unimaginative, and in truth, deceptive terms of comparison.

As Anjali Arondekar suggests in her reading of “invocations of lack, absence, and paucity” in the colonial archive, the discourse of archival absence is able to be “wrenched from its doomed associations and cast into a different teleology of knowledge production.” For the discourse of archival paucity and absence, paradoxically reaffirms the archive as “site of recovery and legitimacy.”[10]  It does so because paucity is the sign of a lack, and assumes that information about the past could and should exist as evidence, that historical recovery is an intrinsically desirable and worthy, even an unquestionably morally good, operation. What are the “processes of subjectification made possible (and desirable) through the very idiom of the archive?”[11] What are the conditions of possibility that lead to the assumption that we must look to the archive for the truth of slavery. Is there a truth of slavery? And if so, what suggests that this truth is located in history? What is the sense of “location” managed by this commonsense formulation? And finally, who is looking for which truth, why are they looking, and who is managing, policing the distinction between truth and its other?


Racial Blackness

In the 1960s historical recovery, and access to history, constituted an important element of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements. Black scholars’ access to historical archives, as well as to the arena of historical research, fundamentally transformed the way that we understand the history of Atlantic slavery today. If one looks at the development of academic discourses on the history of transatlantic slavery, for example, one inevitably finds parallels between historiography on Atlantic slavery (the early 1900s), and the early to present historiography on Indian Ocean slavery. For, though much older than Atlantic slavery, scholarship on Indian Ocean slavery is also much newer, dating back only as recently as the 1970s and 80s—apart from fragmented and dispersed observations across the 19th and 20thcenturies. Thus, just as the study of slavery in Ancient Rome and Greece accelerates only in the wake of slavery in the Atlantic world, despite a millennial gap in time, and is thereby inflected by it, so too does a much older history of Indian Ocean slavery appear only in the wake of Atlantic slavery history, suggesting forms of continuity that are forbidden from articulation in the otherwise ubiquitous logic of comparison.

The first historiographies of slavery in the Americas emphasized paternalism, good-treatment and benignness, before these adjectives were fiercely contested and overhauled by the revisionist historians of the postwar era. Ulrich Phillips’ American Negro Slavery (1918) for example, argued against the economic character of American chattel slavery, emphasized the paternalistic, as opposed to violent nature of American slaveholders, and stressed the socially beneficial character of slavery; for years Phillips’ scholarship remained the unquestioned touchstone for the truth of slavery, before the effects of a new cultural anthropology and Civil Rights-inspired postwar revisionism overhauled the racist substratum of extant transatlantic slavery historiography. Politically-incensed revisionist efforts on the subject of Atlantic slavery are today our unchallenged (or infrequently challenged) historical truth.[12]

It is not so much that transatlantic history became political for the first time in the postwar era, but that this history’s intrinsic politicism, as well as its intrinsic racism, was brought to light. By contrast to the unambiguously political drive that transformed Atlantic historiography in the 1950s and 60s, as Indian Ocean slavery scholars have claimed (though especially in light of recent formations of Black Southwest Asian and North African coalitions, this claim now needs revisiting),[13] no such political exigency fuels the study of slavery in the Indian Ocean context, either in the past or present: “the study of slavery in the Ottoman Empire has suffered from the lack of an interested, engaged constituency.”[14] According to the most conservative scholars, there should not even be an “engaged constituency” constituted by racial injury. The difference from the transatlantic slave trade is theorized across multiple settings, as is the denial of political exigency. In the early 2000s, John Hunwick mused about the lack of a “black consciousness” in North Africa: “former slaves have become so successfully integrated into these Arabo-Berber Muslim societies that they have no cultural need to explore their remote past or to question their present social status.”[15] (It remains usually unstated and unclear what criteria historians use to measure “consciousness” and “understanding,” and what such unarticulated criteria, necessarily limited by demands to perception, necessarily foreclose.)[16] Do “the descendants of Africans in the Indian Ocean world consider themselves to be African in any sense at all?”[17] Abdul Sheriff writes on the Western Indian Ocean generally: “slaves and their descendants [were] integrated into a society not fundamentally based on racial purity but on cultural integrity.”[18]

In the absence of Black consciousness, then, in the Indian Ocean, we get black disappearance, or more precisely, black non-existence: for blackness does not exist, has apparently, never existed, not as a self-avowed identity, the reports of historians, anthropologists, and indeed “laymen” over and over reaffirm. This is an important, if unresolved, observation. But, it leads to a further, equally important question, which historians themselves seem reluctant to ask. Without a demand for a politics of justice, for whom then, is historical recovery necessary and good in the Indian Ocean context? The answer is implied by these verdicts: no one. The positive value of absence here indicates the political neutrality, thus, the real objectivity, of Indian Ocean historiography. Indian Ocean slavery is not only different from Atlantic history because of the nature of its forms of enslavement; it is different because it is historically objective and politically neutral. By contrast, Atlantic slavery’s modern inheritance in black studies has radicalized, twisted, or thwarted the intrinsic objectivity of historical neutrality, historical specificity. In order for history to be what it is, a portal to truth, it must be an intrinsic good, an end in itself. Archives for the sake of archives. This ensures that the import of the return to the archives remains unavailable to us as a question.

In short, if Atlantic slavery is dominated by the torsions of an “enormous interest” in the “African diaspora,” as Indian Ocean scholars complain, what by contrast, is precisely the point of the historiography of Indian Ocean slavery? For according to historians’ own claims, the legacy of slavery in the Indian Ocean is, apparently, no one’s legacy. The pathos of archival paucity, by an inverse logic, reaffirms, every time it is invoked, the evidentiary goodness of the archive, its spiritual plenitude, foreclosing access to and more importantly, neutralizing the meaning of our acts of return. Once racial blackness is safely out of sight, what are we looking for?

The lament for the nonexistent archive in Indian Ocean slavery is supplemented on the one hand by exasperation with the concept of racial blackness on the other. Another random sampling of citations: Slavery studies “is still largely dominated by the Atlantic slave world,”[19] the Indian Ocean experts complain. “Slavery in various forms, configurations, and usages has existed in most societies…Yet…one paradigm has dominated the debate on slavery around the world.”[20]The “enormous interest” in the “African diaspora in the Americas” has “obscured…that vast exodus of enslaved human beings to the lands of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and South Asia.”[21] Scholars have “generally carried New World paradigms of slavery” to the Indian Ocean context, where “those exemplars are largely inappropriate.”[22] “The tendency among scholars of slavery is to think of the western Indian Ocean through the logic of the Atlantic.”[23] The “‘Atlantic model’” creates “a bias…reinforced by its fervent quest to identify and study the African diaspora.”[24] The “Atlantic model” disseminates an “Afro-centric focus in the historiography of Indian Ocean slavery” that is “overwhelming and overpowering.”[25] Interest in Indian Ocean slavery, complains a prominent historian of the field, “has been shaped largely by debates within Atlantic slave history.”[26]

Again, a comparative logic sutures Atlantic and Indian Ocean slavery, this time, not only along the lines of the archive’s comparative abundance or poverty, but in terms of the hegemony of racial blackness, which is not only “out of place,” but deranges Indian Ocean slavery’s nonracial truth. This means that, despite the purported lack of an “engaged constituency,” that is, despite the supposedly absent politics of slave descendent consciousness in the Indian Ocean, another kind of consciousness infects it—consciousness of blackness. The historian’s task is to immunize, defend against this infection. But what is this infection and where is its source? If the tenor of our conference discussion is any indication, black studies is itself partly to blame for the global diffusion of an infection that creates a disconcerting and unethical conflation of blackness with “slaveness,” Africanness with blackness, and that therefore ignores not only the historicity of Africa, in all its profound internal differentiation, but the profound differentiation of the forms that Africa has taken elsewhere, in diasporas not confined to the purportedly parochializing borders of the United States, the constraining boundaries of the North American academic hegemon and its neoliberal modes of knowledge-production and knowledge-reification.

Enfleshing slavery, racial blackness refuses to release slavery to a transparent and objective historiographical account of itself. Racial blackness arrests the machinations of historical realism in its tracks, prevents the objective historian from doing the serious work of history.

On a sympathetic reading, I am able to interpret this otherwise peculiar disavowal through the terms that were articulated during our conference discussion. Why, an interlocutor wondered after my presentation, was I conflating blackness with slavery, given the prevalence of other (non-African) forms of slavery practiced in the Indian Ocean—the largely Central Asian mamluk system for example? Another interlocutor asked about my understanding of racial blackness, in its distinction, for example, from Africanness. The scholarship on Indian Ocean slavery history seems to suggest, as do these interlocutors’ valid questions, that the conflation of (racial) blackness, Africanness, and slavery merely originates with good or bad faith, an ethical or unethical, responsible or irresponsible choice that is available to be made. My attention to the way that the language of transatlantic slavery, as of racial blackness, haunts, grips Indian Ocean slavery suggests not that historians are trying, but not trying hard enough, to exorcise racial slavery from nonracial slavery, to exorcise blackness from the figure of the transracial slave, but rather, that the problem of racial slavery, and therefore, of racial blackness, is built into the study of slavery in general. If this were not the case, we would have to explain what holds together the coherence of Indian Ocean slavery as a disciplinary subfield to begin with, if not the very abstraction of the figure of the universal “slave” that is itself the inheritance of modern racial slavery. The figure of the universal slave itself emerges inside the very process that distorts Africanness into racial blackness. If this distortion reappears in the efforts to narrate Indian Ocean slavery, it is less the effect of scholarly malpractice, and more the symptom of the way this distortion structures the very tools we have to think slavery in the first place. As the historiography of the historiography of comparative slavery indicates, modern slavery is a legacy of premodern slavery; but it is equally, if not more so the case, that premodern slavery is the legacy of modern slavery. Slavery annihilates causality. Though historians of Indian Ocean slavery are capable of identifying some of these problem, their implications are left suspended or subsumed into the implicit belief, perhaps wish, that it is possible to deactivate, to simply remove racial slavery from its mediating role in the very structures and frameworks that render thought possible in the first place.

My observation that racial blackness haunts the Indian Ocean does not hinge upon the imposed ascription of a foreign identity to population groups that otherwise choose to be named and identified differently. Rather, this observation emerges out of a close reading of historians’ own symptomatic objections against an infiltration which they struggle, unsuccessfully, to defend against. These objections are not, as it is commonly thought, and was commonly rehearsed during our conference, merely variations on the historian’s righteous defense against ahistoricism. Indeed, the “critical conceit” of ahistoricism “fails to address the materiality of the ahistoric,” and is an impoverished response to a problem that runs deeper that history.[27] Racial blackness is a historical process that is irreducible to history itself, and that historians of other slaveries cannot think their way outside of because it conditions the very tools they have at their disposal to think slavery at all. At the same time, the misidentification of this profound analytical impasse, divested of its force and recast into convenient and familiar terms that are themselves mobilized on the very horizon of historiography’s laws, moves us nowhere closer to understanding the legacy of Indian Ocean slavery—in its relation to transatlantic slavery—as a mode of violence that has ultimately led, as so many papers in our conference observed, to our global, anti-black present.

The “devalorization of racial blackness” as Sylvia Wynter reminds us, is itself “a function of another more deeply rooted phenomenon…the devalorization of the human being itself.”[28] We have to wonder whether historiography in itself possesses the tools to shed light on this formulation. If it does not, I wonder again, what exactly is the historiography of Indian Ocean slavery positioning itself to shed light on?




[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman : Reflections on Time (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 30.

[2] For an elaborate analysis of precisely this problem, please see Sara-Maria Sorentino, “So-called Indigenous Slavery: West African Historiography and the Limits of Interpretation,” Postmodern Culture 30, no. 3 (2020).

[3] Richard B. Allen, European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015), p. 7.

[4] Benjamin Reilly, Slavery, Agriculture, and Malaria in the Arabian Peninsula (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015).

[5] Markus Vink, “The World’s Oldest Trade”: Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of World History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), p. 134.

[6] Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton, Slavery and South Asian History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), p. xii.

[7] Matthew Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p. ix.

[8] Richard Jankowski, Stambeli: Music, Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), p. 50.

[9] Gwyn Campell, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia (London: Frank Cass, 2004), p. ix.

[10] Anjali Arondekar, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), pp. 11, 7.

[11] Arondekar, For the Record, 7.

[12] Robert William Fogel, The Slavery Debates: 1952-1990 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003). This sentence deserves a caveat, for of course, the history of transatlantic slavery does remain fiercely contested in certain of its aspects.

[13] For a survey of such recent coalitions in North Africa, see Eric Hahonou’s contribution to this issue. See also the work of the Collective for Black Iranians.

[14] Ehud Toledano, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), p. 158.

[15] John Hunwick and Eve Troutt Powell, “The Same but Different: Africans in Slavery in the Mediterranean Muslim World,” The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam, edited by John Hunwick (Princeton: Marcus Wiener Publishers, 2002), p. ix.

[16] I am thankful to Afifa Ltifi for this important insight.

[17] Edward Alpers, The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean: A Comparative Perspective,” in The African diaspora in the Indian Ocean, edited by Richard Pankhurst and Shihan de Jayasuriya (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2003), p. 19.

[18] Abdul Sheriff, “The Slave Trade and Slavery in the Western Indian Ocean,” in Facing up to the Past: Perspectives on the Commemoration of Slavery from Africa, the Americas and Europe, edited by Gert Oostindie (Ann Harbor: University of Michigan Press), p. 44.

[19] Campell, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia.

[20] Fatima Harrak, “ ‘Abid al-Bukhari and the Development of the Makhzen System in Seventeenth-Century Morocco,” in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 38, no. 2 (2018), p. 280.

[21] J.O. Hunwick, “African Slaves in the Mediterranean World: A Neglected Aspect of the African Diaspora,” in Global Dimensions of the African Diaspora, edited by Joseph Harris (Washington: Howard University Press, 1993), 289 [my emphasis].

[22] Gwyn Campell, Africa and the Indian Ocean World from Early Times to circa 1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 255.

[23] Pierre Larson, Ocean of Letters: Language and Creolization in an Indian Ocean Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. xvii.

[24] Gwyn Campell, “The Question of Slavery in Indian Ocean World History,” in The Indian Ocean: Oceanic Connections and the Creation of New Societies, edited by Abdul Sheriff and Engseng Ho (London: Hurst & Company, 2014), p. 124.

[25] Andrea Major, Slavery, Abolitionism and Empire in India: 1772-1845 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012), p. 18.

[26] Gwyn Campell, “The Question of Slavery in Indian Ocean World History,” p. 124.

[27] Sara-Maria Sorentino, “So-called Indigenous Slavery: West African Historiography and the Limits of Interpretation,” Postmodern Culture 30, no. 3 (2020), 7, my emphasis.

[28] Sylvia Wynter, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project,” in Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon (New York: Routledge, 2006), 119.