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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 Stilwell 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 slaves themselves.
In 1819, Barka became dan rimi, a powerful, titled, and official position specifically for slaves in the government of Kano (a major city in the nineteenth-century Sokoto Caliphate – now northern Nigeria). In his capacity as dan rimi and over the course of roughly thirty years, Barka advised two emirs – Ibrahim Dabo and Usman – on matters of war, state, and politics. Barka had numerous wives and children all of whom occupied a special section of the palace; wore expensive and ornate robes of state; owned many horses; commanded soldiers; supervised tax collection; and became an absolute force in affairs of state. After his death, a number of Barka’s children became dan rimi and worked alongside numerous emirs at the highest levels of authority and power. He is well remembered today by his descendants in Kano, Nigeria.
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 Mkoma 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.
In August 1710, Andries Barendse requested his freedom. He based his request on the fact that he had been born in the Cape Town slave lodge and had worked as a mason for the Dutch East India Company (as its slave) for more than twenty years. The Council of Policy agreed and freed him. Andries was then given a job to work for the Company as a mason at a rate of pay of 10 guilders per month, only 1 guilder more than the starting pay for a teenage soldier or sailor in the service of the Company. Over the course of 170 years of Company rule in South Africa, only 108 of its slaves were given their freedom in this manner.
At the end of the nineteenth century, during a civil war 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 in 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.
In 1685, Michel Jajolet de La Courbe visited a slave agricultural estate of a powerful official of Waalo, a Wolof state in what is now Senegal. These large farms produced food crops that fed the Wolof political elite and were exchanged for livestock and animal products. La Courbe noted that after his arrival on the estate, he found the man he sought “in the middle of his field with his sword at his side and his spear in his hand, which encouraged his people in their work.” He noted that the slaves “numbered more than sixty, and were naked. Each one held a small rounded iron hoe with a cutting blade at the end, which was attached to a handle and which they used to cut down the weeds and work the soil at the same time, working only the top surface of the soil. All of this was accomplished to the sound and rhythm of the energetic music of six griots, who played drums and sang. It was a pleasure to watch them move as if they were possessed, quickening or slowing the pace of their work as the beat of the drums rose and fell.”
In South Africa, by the middle of the eighteenth century, many slaves worked the wheat and wine farms that surrounded Cape Town. At the height of the harvest, slaves performed numerous tasks. According to O. F. Mentzel, who observed these farms in the 1730s, “Every grape cutter at the vintage has a small basket, made of thin split Spanish reed standing next to him which when full, is carried to the pressing house ... a ‘balie’ or barrel ... when is pierced at the bottom and along the sides with holes made with a half-inch drill, stands on a trestle in a second larger barrel, without holes except for a bung hole, through which the must that is trodden out, passes into a pail or barrel placed beneath it. A slave stands in the perforated barrel, holds on to a short piece of rope stretched above him and treads the grapes with which it is filled with bare feet.”
The struggles that slaves and the descendants of slaves continue to face in parts of contemporary Africa should serve as a reminder of just how common those struggles were in the African past. This book has examined different societies across what was – and is – a large and diverse continent. There were multiple African slaveries; indeed, I have repeatedly emphasized that forms of exploitation varied and that the opportunities for integration differed. But exploitation was always at the center of slavery. Masters and slaves repeatedly struggled – and sometimes came to negotiated agreements – about the way(s) slavery operated. More broadly, the consolidation of slavery was ultimately tied to specific political and economic strategies pursued by Africans. Attaching outsiders via slavery gave African slave owners access to the exploitable political, reproductive, social, and/or economic labor of slave dependents. How they were attached was dependent on the social structures of the societies using the slaves. At key moments in the African past, then, insiders built new forms of power, innovative states, or more productive economies by using outsiders as slaves. That is, some Africans used slavery to access and control fully exploitable dependents outside the normal ways (i.e., birth, marriage) dependents were acquired. This proved to be a huge advantage in local political struggles over belonging, power, and resources. As high-density slavery coalesced in parts of the continent, the integrative ideal sometimes present in low-density settings was transformed. Although emancipation and amelioration were always possible, the more commercialized and central the institution of slavery became, the more masters resisted the requests of slaves for protection, their claims to belong, and their desire for autonomy from slavery.
Slavery and Slaving in African History is a synthetic and interpretive history of slavery in Africa from its earliest manifestations through to the early twentieth century, when slavery in most parts of the continent had ceased to exist. It reconstructs the processes that led to the consolidation of slavery with the broader goal of understanding – as best we can – the lived experience of slaves. Throughout the book, I integrate an analysis of the personal and relational aspect of slavery (between master and slave) into a broader examination of slavery as an institution. I focus especially on the way slavery emerged and changed over time. Mythologies about Africa have often made the study of slavery difficult. In popular imagination, the African past before the twentieth century is often portrayed as fundamentally rural, isolated, unspoiled, simple, and egalitarian. Slavery was rare, while slaves were not exploited as slaves but rather became part of African families. In other cases, Africa is portrayed as little more than the home to unknowable, savage “tribes” gleefully waging war only to sacrifice or sell their victims. An important purpose of Slavery and Slaving in African History is to present Africa, Africans, and slavery in a more realistic and accurate way. Africa was historically diverse; indeed, Africans would not have thought of themselves as “African” until quite recently. Before the twentieth century, the most important local allegiances were to kinship groups, religious orders, occupational groups, villages, cities, or states (among many other possibilities). Africans created cities, armies, polities, and religions over the course of centuries. Although African economies are commonly portrayed as subsistence orientated or fundamentally concerned with the redistribution of goods and resources, over time parts of the continent were increasingly orientated toward production and market exchange. People in some regions used currencies in the form of cowrie shells, for example, while groups of merchants sought actively to profit via the exchange of goods.
A Balanta man, Mam Nambtacha, described how Balanta communities dealt with the captives they acquired in the past, and focused on the way that children might eventually be incorporated after a long period of time living within a household:
People went to distant tabancas [villages] to conduct ostemoré [a raid]. They carried away cows and other goods.... Captives could also be taken. The families could pay something and in the end could gain the liberty of the captured people. If the families could not pay, the captives stayed in the houses of their captors. For example, in the tabanca of Cumbumba, there was once an old man called Mpas Na Uale who was said to be in the subgroup Mansoanca. He had been captured in ostemoré. Since his family did not have the courage to pay a ransom and retrieve him from the tabanca of Cumbumba, Mpas Na Uale stayed there until he died. At that point he was not Balanta Mansoanca but a Balanta Nhacra. The practice of ostemoré was one of the things that led to the mixing of the Balanta with other ethnic groups.
During 1903 and 1904, Salemi fled from the interior to the coast of Italian Somalia after a number of laws were passed by the colonial government that – at least in theory – abolished the institution of slavery. Salemi had, twenty years previously, been captured as a slave on the Mrima coast. He was then taken by traders to Merka, where he was sold to Sherif Omar, who kept him until 1896, when he was sent to Abiker bin Mire to pay off a debt. His new master worked him very hard in the fields, and even put him in leg irons. Salemi eventually escaped and fled to the coast. Many other slaves also fled the plantation. Of Abiker bin Mire’s original twenty working slaves, only eight remained by 1904.
We never paid a zakat, partly because there were no cereals, but primarily because we did not own anything, we could not give anything because we had no ownership over anything at all. We could not even marry. After the arrival of the French, if we wanted to become independent we could try to pay a sum [fansa] to the master, and the master would have to free us. Money was rare, back then, so one would give animals. But before the French, ransom was not possible because we had nothing, we could not earn anything either.... Life was different, and a slave had no independence. A slave was like one of the animals of his master. He could not move without his master’s agreement.... Now many old masters are not powerful anymore. The sources of their wealth were animals and milk, which allowed them to support their dependents. But now it’s the time of money and tuwo. Now, the old masters are our younger brothers. We may even send each other reciprocal gifts to commemorate our past relation. Our old masters can remember about us and send us clothes or sugar. There is no more slavery. Thanks to the [whites], we have entered the market.... I have two arms. Give me one job, any job that I can do, and I will not look for the former masters again. And even if an old woman cannot work, she can still go to her relatives, rather than her masters, if they have a job and can support her.
During times of famine, if a father wanted to sell a child in order to buy food, he would first scatter a little millet on the ground and tell the children to gather it up. He would then tell the slave merchant, with whom he had already negotiated a price, to choose the one he wanted. The victim would then be tied up and taken away. In this way, children were sold just like chickens. With the proceeds gained, food could be purchased to sustain the family.
Long ago the people up the river were very hungry, and I took some food in my canoe and went to visit them. For this food I bought two little boys, and then returned to my house. When the boys had grown fat and strong, I bought them a gun and gave them spears. Then we went up the river, and the gun frightened the people. They ran away, but we caught three and brought them down with us. I made them build a house for me, and soon I had a town all my own, and my name was feared. So when I went up the river the third time, I easily took more slaves and in this way I became very rich and great.
A powerful community of royal slaves emerged in Kano Emirate in the wake of Usman dan Fodio's jihad (1804-08), which established the Sokoto Caliphate. These elite slaves held administrative and military positions of great power, and over the course of the nineteenth century played an increasing prominent role in the political, economic, and social life of Kano. However, the individuals who occupied slave offices have largely been rendered silent by the extant historical record. They seldom appear in written sources from the period, and then usually only in passing. Likewise, certain officials and offices are mentioned in official sources from the colonial period, but only in the context of broader colonial concerns and policies, usually related to issues about taxation and the proper structure of indirect rule.
As the following interview demonstrates, the collection and interpretation of oral sources can help to fill these silences. By listening to the words and histories of the descendents of royal slaves, as well as current royal slave titleholders, we can begin to reconstruct the social history of nineteenth-century royal slave society, including the nature of slave labor and work, the organization the vast plantation system that surrounded Kano, and the ideology and culture of royal slaves themselves.
The interview is but one example of a series of interviews conducted with current and past members of this royal slave hierarchy by Yusufu Yunusa. As discussed below, Sallama Dako belonged to the royal slave palace community in Kano. By royal slave, we mean highly privileged and powerful slaves who were owned by the emir, known in Hausa as bayin sarki (slaves of the emir or king).
This article takes issue with ahistorical typologies that depict all slaves as ‘dishonoured’ persons. It demonstrates that royal slaves in Kano emirate of the Sokoto Caliphate were initially valuable to the elite because they were indeed dishonoured outsiders. But, over time, slaves tried to limit their exploitation by developing their own systems of honour and status. The article traces when, where and how royal slaves in Kano acquired and attempted to acquire ‘honour’ as officials, kin and members of a broader social world. However, it concludes that, although slaves did indeed develop systems of honour, their ability to acquire an honourable identity was nonetheless limited by their status as slaves, which they remained despite their power and position.
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