Spatiality and the Interpretation of Identity Formation: Fugitive Slave Community Creation in Nineteenth-Century Kenya

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In the nineteenth century, the coalescence of a plantation economy on the Swahili Coast provoked an upsurge in the local slave trade. Increasing numbers of enslaved workers fled inland, and, by the 1840s, some had created independent settlements. In Swahili, runaway slaves were known as watoro. Forged by men and women of diverse cultural backgrounds, watoro communities offer broad insight into how groups form and sustain themselves. This study explores how watoro settlement organization and landscape practices reflect the process of community formation. Particular attention is paid to watoro communities' participation in regional networks and the degree to which fugitive slaves developed homogenized sociocultural norms or maintained long-term cultural plurality. This paper adopts a spatial archaeological approach centered on settlement location, housing density, and domestic architecture. Dissonances between these spatial data and artifact distributions reveal the ways in which both heterogeneity and homogeneity were expressed and experienced. Articulations and disarticulations between different evidentiary types also help to better reveal the diverse range of inter-group interactions that fugitive slaves pursued and avoided.

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