Gender and the End of Slavery in the Region of Kayes, French Soudan : The Sam’s Court Cases (1925-1926)

Through a detailed examination of a series of court cases, which took place in French Soudan in the 1920s and which all concerned marital disputes between the spouses Sams, this paper aims to analyze some of the consequences of the end of slavery and colonialism on gender in the region of Kayes in the first quarter of the 20th century. On 17 May 1925, Mariam Sam went to court in Kayes in order to obtain 50 000 francs back from her husband, Boubakar Sam, that were the result of the sell of a property belonging to her. She declared that her husband had received this money wrongfully and had given her only a small part of it. The court decided that Boubakar had to give the money back to his wife. Boubakar, however, went on appeal. From this first judgment and Boubakar’s appeal onward, a series of court cases started between Boubakar, his wife, and the colonial prosecutor, most of these judgments would be ultimately declared as Mariam’s fault. These series of court cases took place over 16 months with a final decision on September 1926 denying Mariam Sam the property rights that were involved during the first judgment of 1925 because of her former slave status.

This case is quite exceptional as it allows us identifying the different discourses on slavery, which were clearly expressed by the different litigants during the proceedings. It is also unique by its length over 16 months and for all the new developments that regularly occurred between 1925-1926. Besides, the final decision in the last judgment tells us much about how the colonial administration ultimately dealt with the legacy of slavery. It also shows the increasing intervention of the colonial power into the regulation of marital relations. Finally, the Sams court cases demonstrate how the reorganization of property in post-abolition Mali entailed numerous social and gender conflicts between former slaves and former masters. It shows how investment in real estate became an important post-abolition stake not only for noble families but also for those men and women of slave origin who had some success in accumulating wealth over the first twenty years of the twentieth century.

Marie Rodet is Lecturer in the History of Africa at SOAS (University of London). Her research interests lies in the field of modern gender and migration history in francophone West Africa. Her Ph.D. work examined Malian female migration networks in West Africa during the colonial era (1900-1946). She used archival sources and oral interviews in order to analyze neglected patterns of female migration, such as women’s participation in slave exodus, family migratory itineraries to the Senegambian peanut basin, as well as female desertion of the marital home into colonial cities. Her thesis, published by Karthala (Paris 2009), reintegrates women into the narrative of African migratory history. Her current research offers a historical overview of gender dynamics in the context of abolition. The project examines the complex interactions between gender, mobility, and the end of slavery in Mali/West Africa at the turn of the twentieth century (1890-1920), focusing on slave women from the Malian region of Kayes. She approaches this subject through three topical aspects: Retrieving Slave Women’s Voices in the Emancipation Process; Gender, Migration, and the End of Slavery; Sex, Power, and Slave Women’s Emancipation. In 2009, she devoted four months to a project to salvage 100 years of archival materials for the cercle (colonial administrative district) of Kayes. Concomitantly, she has been collecting oral and written data on slavery in Mali and in Senegal.


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