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Research picture: Graffito on a private wall, Janjanbureh Island © Alice Bellagamba
Slavery represents a dark and unclosed page in the history of mankind. Even if legally abolished by all countries of the world, its legacies shape the present in a plurality of ways and often overlap with the phenomena that scholars, activists and policy-makers target as new slaveries. Which are the consequences of slavery after its legal death? Should new forms of labor exploitation and human bondage also be read in this key? Or are they the result of recent economic, political and social transformations?
Prof. Alice Bellagamba investigates the contemporary repercussion of historical slavery in a unique interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study that draws on historical documents, oral history and ethnographic research. From the 19th century up to our days, she reconstructs the end of historical slavery, the renegotiated relationships between freed slaves and their former masters, and the multiple pathways to social emancipation of former slaves and other socially marginal groups. This is not the history of how the beacon of freedom swept away the obscurity of slavery but of the changing contours and contents of both slavery and freedom, and of the kinds of unfreedom that developed in the wake of abolition.
Through her ERC project, Prof. Bellagamba intends to obtain a picture of what slavery meant for individuals and for society and how its legacies interact with contemporary inequality and exploitation. Through an approach that valorises the voices of the people involved, the project questions the meanings and experiences of slavery and freedom among peasants of southern Senegal, Guinea Bissau and Chad, female domestic workers of Senegal and Ghana, Tunisian black minorities, sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco, people of slave ancestry in the rural and urban areas of Madagascar, workers of Mauritius private manufacturing sector, brick-kiln workers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, migrant agricultural labourers in Italy.
This analytically integrated study of the aftermath of slavery captures both a variety of concrete case-studies and the larger history of connections between different regions of the world. In each of the contexts examined so far, the legacies of slavery show up in the dynamic interlacement of old and new forms of social stratification, and in the capacity of status and class hierarchies to shift under changing historical circumstances.