Chic African Culture Africa Factbook

The Practice of Pawning People in Liberia

The practice of pawning in Liberia is similar to indentured labor agreements. 

The fact that the Republic of  Liberia had been founded as a refuge for slaves from America gave special importance to the topic of pawning vs. slavery.

In early Liberia, some individuals voluntarily entered into indentured labor agreements. These agreements were called pawning and involved individuals committing to work for a set period, often seven years, in exchange for passage to Liberia, land, and basic necessities.

pawning in Liberia
Pawning in Liberia

Pawning and slavery are two different labor arrangements with key differences.

One of the primary distinctions is voluntariness. In the context of pawning, individuals typically entered into labor agreements voluntarily, even if they might have faced economic pressures or other incentives. In contrast, slavery is characterized by the complete lack of freedom and choice; enslaved individuals are forced into a life of servitude against their will.

Pawning involved labor contracts with a specified duration, such as a few years, after which individuals would regain their freedom. Slavery, on the other hand, is a lifelong condition, and enslaved individuals have no expectation of regaining their freedom unless through exceptional circumstances.

In pawning arrangements, individuals were usually considered indentured servants rather than property. They had certain rights and protections under the law, which could vary depending on the time and place. In contrast, enslaved people were treated as property, devoid of legal rights or protections.

Enslaved individuals and their descendants are considered the property of their owners and could be bought, sold, or inherited as such. In pawning, the contractual obligations usually did not extend to the descendants of the indentured laborers.

Slaves are subjected to severe social and legal restrictions, including being denied the right to marry, hold property, or receive education. Individuals had more legal and social rights in pawning arrangements, albeit limited during the contract period.

Pawning, as defined in the anti-slavery convention

Pawning is the oppressive practice restricting of the freedom of persons, constituting conditions analogous to slavery and tending to acquire the status of common or classic slavery. The Commission is convinced that the definition of slavery is not so important to the welfare of Liberia and all of its people as the study of the conditions themselves, with a view to their ultimate correction, and is, therefore, content to let the facts both speak for and classify themselves.

In 1923, the President decreed that “pawns may redeem themselves." 3 The stipulation that the pawn must give his consent is further questionable as amelioration of the status since most of the pawns are children and incapable both under civilized and native law of giving consent.

If a pawn escapes or passes away, the possessor is eligible to receive the money originally paid for their service or have the option to substitute the departed pawn. The holder also has the authority to re-engage the pawn's services if they choose to do so.

In modern times, most countries worldwide have abolished the historical practices of pawning indentured labor agreements, recognizing the inherent violations of human rights and labor dignity they entail. These legal frameworks are instrumental in guaranteeing that individuals have the freedom to choose their employment, work in safe and humane environments, and are compensated fairly for their labor. 

Did you know?

Domestic slavery was most prevalent among certain tribes, notably the Vais, Kpellis, Boosies, and to some extent, the Bassas. While not uncommon in other tribes, it was notably absent among the Krus and the Grebos.

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