Chattel Slavery

Chattel Slavery

Chattel Slavery

chat·tel –noun

  • 1. Law: A movable article of personal property.
  • 2. Any article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to land.
  • 3. A slave.

Chattel slavery is what most people have in mind when they think of the kind of slavery that existed in the United States before the Civil War, and that existed legally throughout many parts of the world as far back as recorded history. Slaves were actual property who could be bought, sold, traded or inherited. They might be abused, branded, bred, exploited or killed. Shamefully, this exact kind of slavery still exists today, mostly in the East African countries of Mauritania and Sudan. While this practice is probably the least prevalent of the contemporary forms of slavery, still many thousands of people are so enslaved.

Chattel slavery in Mauritania and Sudan is quite gruesome. These two countries divide the African and Arab cultures. A person can become the property of another for life, bought, traded, inherited or acquired as a gift. Girls as young as ten are being captured on raids of villages. To prevent escape they are branded like cattle with hot metal objects. Female genital mutilation and castration are frequently imposed punishments. Attempted escape may result in being permanently hobbled by having the Achilles’ tendon severed leaving the victim lame.

Republic of the Sudan

This war torn country has seen unending civil strife in recent decades, including the genocide in Darfur.  In Sudan, slavery is making a comeback as the result of a war waged over the past twelve years by the Muslim north against the Christians and Animists in the south. According to James Aguir of the Government of Sudan’s Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children: “Despite the suspension of the capture of Sudanese slaves as a result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, over 35,000 slaves remain in bondage in Northern Sudan.” According to the American Anti-Slavery Group, black Africans in southern Sudan have been abducted for centuries in the Arab slave trade.

However, the number of war prisoners abducted into slavery increased dramatically during and after the Second Sudanese Civil War. Omar al-Bashir seized power in 1989 and created a totalitarian federal government supporting Arab militias terrorizing the southern regions, often raiding non-Afro Arab villages and looting them both for property and for slaves. Reports to the UN Commission on Human Rights have underscored the racial aspect of such practices. Government-armed Arab militias are known to kill the men and enslave the women and children as personal property or to march them north to be auctioned off and sold. Anti-Slavery International reports that there is probably no village in the north without kidnapped black slaves. Gasper Biro, a special UN human rights monitor, has reported that the price of slavery has changed over time. “In 1988, one automatic weapon could be traded for six or seven child slaves. In 1989, a woman or child could be bought from the Dinka tribe – an exceedingly tall and proud pastoral people of the Nile, could be bought for ninety dollars.”


Slavery in Mauritania is an entrenched social, cultural and historic phenomenon. Although the national government has repeatedly banned the practice, most recently in 2007, many human rights group see this as mere window-dressing with little enforcement effort.The descendants of black Africans abducted into slavery now live in Mauritania as “black Moors” or haratin and partially still serve the “white Moors”, or bidhan, as slaves. The number of slaves in the country is not known exactly, and estimates range widely.  At least 90,000 darker-skinned Africans still live as the property of the Muslim Berber communities. Other estimates, perhaps using a broader definition, claim up to 600,000 men, women and children, or 20% of the population are slaves to North African Arabs. This percentage of slaves is the highest in the world.

These slaves are chattel. They are used for house or farm labor, for sex, and for breeding. They may be exchanged for camels, trucks, guns, or money. Children of chattel slaves remain the property of their master. And even among freed slaves, a tribute is often paid to former masters, who also maintain inheritance rights over freed slaves’ property. Many are born into slavery and  die in slavery never having experienced freedom. Although the Africans in Mauritania converted to Islam more than 100 years ago, and the Qur’an forbids the enslavement of fellow Muslims, race seems to trump religious doctrine.

Fatma Mint Mamodou, Mauritania

Fatma Mint Mamodou was born a slave, just as everyone in her family had for generations been born into slavery. This state is not remarkable to her. Not much is remarkable to her. When asked if she and the other slave girls in her village were raped, she responded, “Of course they would come in the night when they needed to breed us. Is that what you mean by rape?”

For years – all of her adult life, in fact – Fatma would begin her day by finding water, cooking breakfast, cleaning the tents, tending to the goats, and nursing her mistress’ children. She gave birth to her own son in a field with the goats. He would immediately become the property of her master, just as she had.

“God created me to be a slave, just as he created a camel to be a camel.”

Only after one particularly brutal beating – of which Fatma explains, “I was sure he would slaughter me” – did she flee her master’s home, leaving behind her three small children.

The Sudan Slave Story: A Saga of Genocide and Enslavement

STOLEN: 2009 documentary
In 2006 we went to the Polisario refugee camps in the Algerian desert to make a film about a family reunion, but everything changed when the black Saharawis revealed to us a forbidden secret. They’re caught in a society where slavery is an institution, the same slavery that was thought to be abolished 200 years ago.

Slavery’s Last Stronghold, CNN in-depth report on slavery in Mauritania by John D. Sutter,  Photography and video by Edythe McNamee, 2013