Symbolic Subjection and Social Rebirth

Jeremy Prestholdt

in Domesticating the World

Published by University of California Press

Published in print January 2008 | ISBN: 9780520254244
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520941472 | DOI:
Symbolic Subjection and Social Rebirth

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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This chapter examines the confluence of slavery, social relations, and imperialism. It is tempered by a focus on multiple and intersecting processes of rhetorical subjection on the one hand and slaves' own corporeal refashioning on the other. The chapter addresses the following: how some slaves in late nineteenth-century Zanzibar City were used in ways akin to objects of display; and slaves' strategies for projecting desirable images of themselves within the circumscribed spaces of subjection. This chapter's focus is therefore narrow, on urban slaves and their symbolic uses as well as their rhetorical value to slave-owners and antislavery activists. The making of symbols out of people—a process that was called symbolic subjection—was essential to Zanzibari social life, and the notion of slaves as nothing more than blank slates onto which the interests of others could be written was a constant thread in British humanitarian discourse concerned with East Africa.

Keywords: slavery; symbolic subjection; British humanitarian; symbol; slave-owners

Chapter.  12357 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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