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Though the history of slavery is a central topic for African, Atlantic world and world history, most of the sources presenting research in this area are European in origin. To cast light on African perspectives, and on the point of view of enslaved men and women, this group of top Africanist scholars has examined both conventional historical sources (such as European travel accounts, colonial documents, court cases, and missionary records) and less-explored sources of information (such as folklore, oral traditions, songs and proverbs, life histories collected by missionaries and colonial officials, correspondence in Arabic, and consular and admiralty interviews with runaway slaves). Each source has a short introduction highlighting its significance and orienting the reader. This first of two volumes provides students and scholars with a trove of African sources for studying African slavery and the slave trade.


‘By combining so many studies that give voice to enslaved Africans into a single forum, Bellagamba, Greene, and Klein have transformed the study of slavery in a way that will require a revolutionary reassessment of what we think about slavery and how we study enslavement and resistance … a tour de force of global significance for historians, students, and all people concerned with social justice.’

Paul E. Lovejoy - Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History, York University

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Page 1 of 3

  • 9 - Introduction:
    pp 117-120
  • Songs, Prayers, Proverbs, and Material Culture
  • View abstract


    The state of Asante was founded in the late seventeenth century in what is now central southern Ghana. In one place an individual is recalled as a major figure in their community; in another location, that same person is remembered only because they became so prominent in Asante. This chapter addresses this question by focusing on the oral traditions associated with two individuals, Gyamana Nana of Takyiman and Kramo Tia of Gonja, captured by a conquering Asante state in the eighteenth century. It explains why Gyamana Nana and Kramo Tia were remembered differently in different locations, the oral traditions themselves raise a number of other questions about slavery and the public discussion of this institution in West Africa. Reasons for remembering in one place can constitute the very rationale for forgetting in another locale. Such is the case with the polity of Gonja.
  • 10 - Singing Songs and Performing Dances with Embedded Historical Meanings in Somalia
    pp 121-128
  • View abstract


    Bakoyo Suso belongs to one of three main social categories that Mandinka culture recognizes as part of its historical legacy: freeborn, professional endogamous groups and descendants of slaves. This chapter presents an extract from the narrative of Al Haji Bakoyo Suso. Bakoyo's family engaged in farming and trade while also offering their services as bards to the rural elite. Chiefs, traders, and cattle-owners retained the resources to promote the jali as artists and oral historians. Listening to a jaloo was a common and greatly appreciated form of entertainment. Bamba's historical repertory included the epic of Sunjata Keita and the oral traditions of the major pre-colonial polities along the River Gambia. Bakoyo explains where most of the River Gambia slaves hailed from, and describes both the ruthlessness of the rulers toward their subjects and the trading families' pride in having large slave entourages.
  • 11 - Song Lyrics as Pathways to Historical Interpretation in Northwestern Côte d’IvoireThe Case of Kabasarana
    pp 129-136
  • View abstract


    The trade in shell money cowries started in the fourteenth century and ended by the 1880s. The shells arrived from the Indian and Pacific oceans and were traded all over the world. This chapter presents three versions of the widely distributed myths about cowries. The first was collected by Gregor Elwert in Ayizo region in Benin. It represents the voices of the Ayizo, a people who fought to escape enslavement. The second tale was collected by Louis Adotevi in southern Togo. It expresses the traders' point of view. The Guin-Mina people were able to enrich themselves from slave trade by both selling humans beings and profiting of the natural growing of cowries on the bodies of drowned slaves. The Tchamba Tale is the third version of cowrie's tale in Lomè from Kokou Atchinou. The tale expresses the voices of the masters' descendants who remember their grandfathers' past.
  • 12 - Slave Voices from the Cameroon Grassfields
    pp 137-148
  • Prayers, Dirges, and a Nuptial Chant
  • View abstract


    The Cameroon coast occupies a big portion of the Bight of Biafra. Between the fifteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries, this was one of the major regions of Atlantic slave exports. This chapter shows that oral accounts can provide useful details on slave-master relationships and life in slavery in both the non-centralized and centralized polities. The first part of the chapter is a narrative, which is recorded from Ebeagwa village, in Upper Banyang, in 1981 and again in 1997. It is the story of the conflict between a slave master known as Ashunken and his slaves. The second part focuses on Essoh-Attah, which is one of the centralized polities situated in the Cameroon Grassfields, an area in the hinterland of the country. Banyang slaves could own property and had rights that they fiercely defended against the attacks of unscrupulous masters.
  • 13 - Silent Testimonies, Public Memory
    pp 149-163
  • Slavery in Yoruba Proverbs
  • View abstract


    This chapter presents a case, which involves a relationship between two men, one a former slave, the other a former master. It includes sections of the interviews with Al Haj Biraan Ture, the man of slave descent, and with a descendant of his masters, Al Haj Abdu Siise. Of the people of slave descent the author interviewed, BiraanTure was the only one to openly speak of himself as a slave. There were a number of institutional practices that maintained social boundaries, the most important of which were probably the code of honor and the control exercised by the descendants of the freeborn over Muslim institutions. Both Ture and Siise were prosperous, but in other cases, both slave and master were poor, or the slave had, through hard work, become more prosperous than his former master.
  • 14 - In Remembrance of Slavery
    pp 164-178
  • Tchamba Vodun (Bénin and Togo)
  • View abstract


    A hundred years ago, Mingoyo was the site of a major slave plantation owned by the al-Barwani, a family of Zanzibari-Omani slave traders, and their grandson still owns a large coconut grove in the village. This chapter presents a list of six extracts from interviews, which offers different memories of this plantation and of its significance after the end of slavery. The six interviewees described in the chapter are Bibi Esha Issa Baharia, Mohamed Halfan Nassor bin Hamisi Barwani, Sefu Selemani Makoreka, Rajabu Feruzi Ismaili, Sharifu Shehan Zaina, and Mzee Juma Sudi bin Juma. The interview shows that the present-day coexistence of the descendants of both slaves and owners in the villages results from a series of renegotiations of the hierarchical relationships of the slave-trading era. The interviews display a way of speaking about the past that is different from both professional historians and written sources of the period.
  • 16 - Some Facets of Slavery in the Lamidats of Adamawa in North Cameroon in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
    pp 182-190
  • View abstract


    Songs, prayers, proverbs, and the material cultures of Africa constitute an often overlooked source of information about slavery and the slave trade in Africa. Songs about slavery and the slave trade are sung today in communities throughout Africa, even though both slavery and the slave trade were officially abolished more than a century ago. Their ongoing performance can be attributed to a number of factors, among them the power of the lyrics and the mesmerizing music that accompanies them, as well as their usefulness in recalling historical events and educating the youth about the past. They also serve to reinforce social identities and religious beliefs in ways that continue to be relevant for the present. If the study of proverbs, prayers, and songs is uncommon for understanding the history of slavery and the slave trade in Africa, an analysis of material culture is even more unusual.
  • 17 - Etchu Richard Ayuk’s Manuscript on the Slave Trade and Social Segregation in the Ejaghamland
    pp 191-203
  • View abstract


    In Gosha villages, the performance of ritual dances is a very important marker of identity. Through initiation, dancers are also introduced to the higher and/or hidden meanings of the dances, which often relate to the history of flight from slavery. This chapter describes two of the dances: massewé, a dance performed by the descendants of the Yao of Malawi and northern Mozambique; and mseve, performed in villages of the Zigula speakers of Tanzania. Embedded in the songs of the descendants of slaves are memories of historical events and information about the socioeconomic conditions and status of the slaves. Mseve is a dance used by the Zigula to aid their flight from slavery. Massewé, by contrast, is a war dance and also an initiation ceremony. In Somalia, massewé songs with embedded historical meanings are played together with other chants that are designed to teach the young.
  • 18 - Writing about the Slave Trade
    pp 204-210
  • Early-Twentieth-Century Colonial Textbooks and Their Authors
  • View abstract


    This chapter examines the use of song lyrics as a supplement to oral traditions often used in the reconstruction of African history. The oral traditions and song lyrics that the author collected among the Malinke peoples in several districts of northwestern Côte d'Ivoire in the 1980s and 1990s shed light on relations between masters and subordinate classes in Kabasarana from its formation, circa 1848 to the liberation of captives during the first decade of the twentieth century. The lyrics were rich with revelations about the negotiated terrain of power and authority between rulers and the vanquished. Passed along from generation to generation, the lyrics provided a pathway to understanding the Malinke worldview of social stratification, power, and subordination. The songs of Kabasarana reveal aspects of the tensions between the freeborn, the enslaved, and the caste members of society.

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