16 Apr
  • By Brian Cassidy

Mauritania – the country of Masters and Slaves

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Slavery seems likes an ancient relic to most of us, an obviously evil practice that the world rightfully abandoned centuries ago, and so rarely intrudes on our thoughts. This should not be the case. While global acceptance of indentured servitude ended over two hundred years ago, slavery still exists today, in many forms. Some of these are new to our modern world, like the sex slavery endemic to Eastern Europe, where cases of women being sold to brothels are well documented, or the practice of forcing illegal migrants to work for little to no payment, as has been seen in the United Kingdom and the United State, and elsewhere. The issue that I want to discuss today however, is of a form of slavery that is entirely unchanged from our historical view. Mauritania is a country where there are Masters, and Slaves, where some people are not seen as people, where they can be treated as animals, and less then animals.

Mauritania was the last nation on earth to make the owning of another human being illegal, in 1981, but the practice remains alive today, with the estimated number of slaves veering between 40,000 and 400,000 people, 1% to 10% of the population respectively. Accurate counts are difficult because the Mauritanian government does not include slaves in their censuses, and in fact denies that there are any slaves left in their country. The fact that it does still exist is in small part because the government did not actually add any serious legal repercussions for breaking their anti-slavery law until 2015, but it is in large part because the country’s society as a whole see nothing wrong with slavery as an institution. Even the slaves themselves accept it as the way of the world, and have done for generations. Boubacar Messaoud, a former slave and a co-founder of the anti-slavery non-governmental organisation, SOS Esclaves, has stated that…“Chains are for the slave who has just become a slave, who has… just been brought across the Atlantic…but the multigeneration slave, the slave descending from many generations, he is a slave even in his own head. And he is totally submissive. He is ready to sacrifice himself, even, for his master. And, unfortunately, it’s this type of slavery that we have today” — the slavery “American plantation owners dreamed of.”


Mauritania is a caste based society, with the Arab descended “White Moors” controlling the upper levels of government and society. They are traditionally masters of “Black Moor” slaves, who are themselves descended from people taken from sub-Saharan Africa, generations ago. There are also “Black Africans”, members of different local ethnic group who have not traditionally been enslaved, and “Haratine”, which translates to “freed slaves”, but can used to refer to those who exist on the murky border of slavery and freedom. The last are frequently the subject of abuse from other groups, including slaves, many of whom look down upon them for “betraying” their rightful masters.

There are several NGOs working to combat slavery in Mauritania and the ideas which perpetuate it, like the previously mentioned SOS Esclaves, as well as Anti-Slavery International and the Abolition Institute. Their task is made difficult by several factors, the Mauritanian government denying the existence of slavery in their country chief amongst them, but there is also the sheer size of the country to consider. Mauritania is over a million kilometres squared, with a population roughly equivalent to the Republic of Ireland, which itself is slightly over seventy thousand kilometres squared. The population is very scattered outside of urban areas, and 90% of its total area is in the Sahara. It is incredibly difficult to police thoroughly, leaving many households effectively free to continue practicing slavery even if it is technically illegal.

Despite all this, 2018 has seen something positive occur, as two slave-owners have recently been charged with slavery and given sentences of 10 and 20 years imprisonment. The charges were levelled by former slaves.

Slavery is half forgotten by many developed states, relegated to history, or works of fiction, and seen as something almost too obviously evil. To be deprived of the ability to choose is beyond our imagination, but for thousands of people today, it is a reality, and something that they cannot escape from without help. More anti-slavery activists have been arrested in Mauritania then slave-owners, yet their NGOs still work tirelessly to free their enslaved fellows, and I genuinely cannot think of a higher calling. Hopefully, the recent arrests and sentencing will begin a trend, but it will be a slow process, with the government admitting the existence of slaves a necessary step in the movement. Time will tell, but for now, the more people who know of the situation, the more chance that a genuine nation-wide change might occur, and it is on all of us to help.


“Mauritania court gives toughest sentence for slave owners”

« Mauritania: descent-based slavery »

«Slavery’s Last Stronghold » by John D. Sutter

The Global Slavery Index-Mauritania


Brian Cassidy holds a BA in World Religions and Theology, and an LLM in International Humanitarian Law, Peace Operations, and Conflict. He is dedicated to raising awareness about International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and the International Refugee Crisis, along with a few other topics, through writing and discussion.