Posts Tagged ‘Kano’

The Experiences of Enslaved Africans in the Past and Today

January 24, 2022

One of the extremely positive features of Sean Stillwell’s Slavery and Slaving in African History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2014) is that includes short descriptions and quotations from slaves, slavers and slave masters in Africa describing their careers and situation. There was a striking variety of slave systems in Africa. In some societies, slaves were acquired for use and soldiers and could rise to high social rank through their connections to powerful chiefs., One of these was the Sokoto royal slave Dan Rimi Nuhu. The book states

‘At the end of the nineteenth century, during a civil was in Kano (located in what is now northern Nigeria) Emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate, Dan Rimi Nuhu, a powerful royal slave official, soldier, and titleholder, crowned the rebel pretender, Yusufu, as emir. Nuhu had long supported Yusufu’s cause and claim. Nuhu was a well-known and powerful slave i8n the palace, but he had joined the war camp of Yusufu early on in the struggle. When Nuhu arrived on horseback, Yusufu said, “Our trip is successful, our trip is successful since Nuhu has joined us, he has joined our camp!” Thereafter, Nuhu transformed Yusufu’s military camp into the proper seat of a rival emir. He gave Yusufu the royal regalia and insisted that he follow Kano court protocol. With Nuhu’s support the rebels later took the Kano throne. Afterward, the royal slaves and their families who supported the new emir gained a substantial amount of power.’ ( pp.89-90).

Others were not so well treated.

‘Msatulwa Mwachitete grew up in Chitete, located in central East Africa, to the west of Lake Malawai, in the house of his father, who had twelve wives. Their home was attacked numerous times by Mkomas of the Inamwanga, who regularly carried off women and children into slavery after setting fire to surrounding villages. During one such attack, Msatulwa was captured, along with his mother and brother. He was taken some distance from his home and given as a slave to Mitano. Msatulwa was forced to grind corn, cut firewood, cook, hoe fields, and fetch water, but was eventually given to another person, who treated him better. In the end Msatulwa found his way home after running away.’

Horrifically, slavery isn’t a thing of the past. The Islamists that have seized power in one part of Libya after the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafy have reopened the slave markets, selling the Black migrants who have travelled north in the hope of reaching Europe. Slave markets have also reopened in Uganda. The book also gives the testimony of Ahok Ahok, an enslaved Dinka woman, given to Anti-Slavery International. She was captured and forced into slavery during the Sudanese civil war in the ’90s.

‘Our family was captured about six years ago [i.e., about 1994] when we were already fleeing north and had crossed into the North into Kordofan. I was captured with my son, Akai, and my two daughters, this one called Abuk … who was about eight at the time, and a younger one, about two. We were taken by a tribe called Humr [i.e. Misseriya Humr], who split the three of us up. The man who took me subsequently sold me on to some other nomads to look after cattle, for about 130 Sudanese Pounds. I had to look after their cows and spent about six years with them before I managed to escape to Makaringa village…. Meanwhile my three children had been taken by others. For six years, until I reached Makaringa village, I had no news of them. When I reached the village, my son Akai heard where I was and joined me there. He is with us at this CEAWC centre. We then contacted the Dinka Committee and they were able to find my daughter Abuk, who had been renamed Khadija. She had initially been put to work looking after livestock, but had got into trouble when some animals had escaped – she was too little to look after them. After that she was employed as a domestic servant. She hardly speaks any Dinka language now, only Arabic… I still have no news of my youngest daughter and am still hoping to find her.’ (211-2).

The book also gives the names of some of the African organisations set up to help slaves. These include Timidria in Niger, the Dinka Committee in Sudan; El Hor (Free Man), set up in the 1970s by former slaves in Mauretania; and SOS-Esclaves, set up in 1995. These organisations face continuing difficulties to fight slavery and improve conditions for former slaves, as shown by an additional piece of testimony:

‘It is uphill work…. Some of their members have been imprisoned. Seeking help through the courts is usually useless. Sharia courts maintain that slavery is legal. Since no laws have been passed, laying down penalties for enslavement or detailing the rights of slaves, other courts and local officials maintain that they have jurisdiction if slaves bring cases for custody of their children or try to establish their right to remain on the land they farm. Former owners may claim the property even of freed slaves when they die.’ (213).

These slaves are not going to get any help from the western advocates of Postcolonial and Critical Race Theory, because these disciplines are exclusively focused on White racism and the horrors of White colonialism. I’ve mentioned that feminists in India and the Middle East have been bitterly critical about the refusal of the activists and scholars supporting these forms of Critical Theory to criticise the treatment of women and LGBTQ folk in these countries. Indeed, Indian progressives have attacked these postmodern ideologies for giving support to the most reactionary elements of these societies on the grounds that, as they are part of these societies’ traditional structures and not the product of western colonialism, they are exempt from criticism. And you could see the attitude in a speech given by Barbara Barnaby, the head of the British branch of Black Lives Matter to a fringe meeting of the Labour party last summer. She criticised the resurgence of slavery in Libya, because this was a product of Blair’s colonialism. But she didn’t condemn it elsewhere in Africa, where it is the product of indigenous forces. Her demand that Britain and the other European countries was based on the abuse of the peoples of the global south during colonialism, but made no mention or criticism of the tyranny, corruption and poverty of African rulers and regimes that is behind much of the migration to Europe.

This isn’t, as Kate Maltby tried to claim in the I a few years ago, an attempt to avoid being diverted from the campaign for equality and social justice in the west into criticism and activism against non-European slavery. It is the product of a profoundly racist ideology that sees slavery and other human rights abuses as only worth fighting if they are committed by Whites.

Barnaby, Black Lives Matter and similar organisations may have the best intentions, but their exclusive focus of White racism is actively hindering real anti-racism and campaigns to eradicate modern slavery.

History Book on Slavery in Africa

January 20, 2022

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.