History Book on Slavery in Africa

Sean Stillwell, Slavery and Slaving in African History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2014)

I ordered this book from Amazon and got it through the post yesterday. I’ve done no more than skim it, but it appears to be an excellent history of slavery and slaving in Africa from its origins in the ancient past to the transatlantic slave trade and today, when, horrifically, Africans are still being enslaved. The blurb for the book states

‘This book is a comprehensive history of slavery in Africa from the earliest times to the end of the twentieth century, when slavery in most parts of the continent ceased to exist. It connects the emergence and consolidation of slavery to specific historical forces both internal and external to the African continent. Sean Stillwell pays special attention to the development of settled agriculture, the invention of kinship, “big men” and centralized states, the role of African economic production and exchange, the interaction of local structures of dependence with the external slave trades (transatlantic, trans-Saharan, Indian Ocean) and the impact of colonialism on slavery in the twentieth century. He also provides an introduction to the central debates that have shaped current understanding of slavery in Africa. The book examines different forms of slavery that developed over time in Africa and introduces readers to the lives, work, and struggles of slave themselves.’

Africa isn’t a single nation, but a continent with many different cultures and peoples, and the forms slavery took are similarly varied. In some cultures, slaves could rise through their relationship to their masters to high social positions, often in preference to their masters’ own sons. Some states used slaves as soldiers, arming them with guns. These slave soldiers appear largely to have been satisfied with their position and were unlikely to revolt. This reminded me of the episode in the British Caribbean when, faced with the threat of invasion from Napoleonic France, the British reluctantly armed their slaves. I’m not sure, but I got a feeling that this infused the enslaved peoples with pride. After the American Revolution, Black loyalists were also settled in the Caribbean. They were described as living under military discipline, with their own colonels and officers and to be largely satisfied with their condition. I think this says something about the importance of combat and militarism to masculine self-worth.

One positive feature of the book is that includes testimony and statements from slavers, slave masters and the enslaved themselves. Again, it’s important, as all too rarely the enslaved speak for themselves, although, of course, there are a number of books and literature from former slaves like Frederick Douglas and Olaudah Equiano denouncing slavery and demanding its abolition. The final chapter, which also discusses the persistence of slavery in Africa, also includes statements and testimony from former slaves. It also discusses the various anti-slavery organisations that have emerged recently in Africa, many of them led or founded by former slaves.

Part of the rationale behind the British invasion of Africa was to combat the slave trade at its source. Unfortunately this goal, and the hope of many enslaved Africans, was frustrated by the colonial authorities. These sided with slaveowners and existing power structures. Runaway slaves could find themselves returned to their masters, and obstacles, like higher taxes, placed in the way of slaves seeking to gain their emancipation. Lord Lugard is a prime offender in this, and there’s a quote from him where he states clearly that the people at home would go berserk if they knew what he was doing. But in some areas the arrival of the British was initially welcomed by the enslaved population as liberators. When we conquered Kano, in what is now modern Nigeria, the slaves were desperate to touch the British flag, because they believed this would secure their freedom. They sang the following song:

A flag touching dance

Is performed by freeborns alone.

Anybody who touches the flag,

Becomes free.

He and his father [master].

Become equals.

It is one of the injustices of colonialism that, for many slaves, this was not realised, and it is disgusting that slavery has persisted on the continent, so that slave markets have reopened in Uganda and Libya.

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