Waiting for Emancipation


Tulane-Cambridge Atlantic World Studies Group

Inaugural Conference, New Orleans, 21-23 November 1996

Waiting for Emancipation: Indigenous Slavery in West Africa

by Keith Hart

Some general and personal considerations

Just as the institution of slavery sharpens the political concept of the free citizen by means of contrast (Finley “Between slavery and freedom”), the idea of emancipation suggests a moment of transition to freedom from its antithesis. The abolition movement in the 19th century was a dramatic expression of the universal desire to end an old regime founded on varieties of unfreedom, of which chattel slavery was the most extreme. Contemplation of the region which supplied most of the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, West Africa, is salutary for a number of reasons. First, the most articulate voices on the subject have usually come from elsewhere. Second, slavery within West Africa itself does not afford the perspective of a clearcut contrast between free and unfree labour. Third, the experience of emancipation there was contradictory and delayed. Finally, the subsequent history of the region – colonial rule and postcolonial failure – leaves West Africans with little reason to celebrate the abolition of slavery as a gateway to the political freedoms of the modern world.

The concepts of slavery and freedom employed in this paper slide between a fairly narrow, realist definition and broader metaphorical extensions. Thus to be sold in auction with a rope round ones neck is an experience which was once commonplace and is no longer. In that sense, slavery has been abolished and a good thing too. Freedom does not permit as unambiguous a definition, but we all know the difference between being able to express ourselves as we would wish and being prevented from doing so. The rhetoric of freedom is widespread today. We are told that the ‘free’ world lives by ‘free’ enterprise and ‘freedom’ of choice in a ‘free’ market employing ‘free’ citizens as ‘free’ wage labour. These are all metaphorical extensions of the concept of freedom which have been and deserve to be questioned in the light of endemic inequality, mass poverty , racial discrimination and arbitrary government. Critics of the new world order may talk of wage ‘slavery’ in that many people are compelled to work for big money or starve (Marx). Or the condition of citizens under military rule might be likened to ‘slavery”. The West African case requires us to keep both the absolute and the relative definitions in mind, if we hope to understand that region’s distinctive part in Atlantic history.

In this paper I will argue that the question of slavery in West Africa offers a touchstone for our sentiments concerning the relative merits of traditional rural life and social conditions in the modern world. There are many, not just Africans or people of African descent (notably, for example, Basil Davidson), who subscribe to a view of the past as “Merrie Africa” (Hopkins) and consequently as a source for imagining viable alternatives to contemporary societies. These sentiments in turn are heavily influenced by race, given its centrality to the Atlantic system formed by slavery. On the whole I take the view that our hopes of improving the present situation are better served by historical realism than by these versions of a mythologised past. There are many excellent surveys and case studies of West African slavery, but the rights and wrongs of the matter can never be settled unambiguously. I have therefore chosen to present my own reflections on the issue rather than attempt a comprehensive review which would in any case be beyond the scope of a brief essay.

In the remainder of this introduction I present my own perspective in the context of some general observations. Next I consider the relationship between slavery and kinship in West Africa. This leads to a brief discussion of the forms of slavery in the region. The drive to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the Atlantic world had mixed consequences for West Africa and was followed in short order by colonial conquest. Moreover, emancipation was a long time coming there, being left in many places until the 1930s and in some cases even later. This leads me to ask, if slavery is opposed categorically to freedom, what light do the varieties of unfreedom which West Africans have known in the past and present throw on the search for freedom today? I end with an ancient parable indicating that society has normally consisted of varieties of unfreedom.

If the French revolution was the moment when the old regime of agrarian civilisation seemed to give way to an era of modern politics, the abolition of slavery, a process begun at the same time and completed (at least for the western world) a century later, was the most powerful symbol of the drive to achieve freedom in society as the norm of human existence. All agricultural societies extend control over land, plants and animals to control over people. The attempt to exert mastery over others by fixing them into the ground, denying them freedom of movement, is what separates these societies from those predicated on a more nomadic existence. The crisis of our civilisation rests in the continued efforts of archaic institutions (notably the state), now reinforced by the power of machines, to contain a burgeoning world population which has recently discovered the means of universal connection and movement.

There can be no doubt that the system of slavery devised for purposes of extraction of wealth from the New World was as debased an extreme of human exploitation as any in history. It is not just that the legal form of chattel slavery reduced slaves to the condition of things. Objects are usually preserved, not maltreated. It was the necessity of reproducing an absolute domination in the face of the slaves’ actual humanity, fear of resistance in other words, which led the owners to institute a terror of the sort which has resurfaced in our century through the agency of the likes of Hitler and Stalin. Moreover, since the most obvious distinction between African slaves and their masters was colour, racial discrimination became the cultural essence of the system. Again we have seen the likes of such a system in South African apartheid. But it is hard to imagine how far the New World whites went in their abuse of blacks. I can only refer the reader to the opening chapters of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins (“The property” and “The owners”) for a vivid description of prerevolutionary San Domingo which evokes nothing so much as the worst scenes from the Holocaust.

Abolition was the most visible face of a general movement to establish free wage labour as the norm. This went along with evangelical Christianity, an ideology of economic individualism prefigured by Adam Smith, and widespread popular commitment to universals such as freedom, democracy and human rights. James was the first, but not the only commentator on abolition to see a nascent industrial capitalism as the impacable force behind this momentous shift from old to new society. And, like his mentor Marx, he dismissed as so much window dressing the humane sentiments of the abolitionists, preferring instead to see the impersonal logic of a capitalist class bent on instituting a different form of domination (wage slavery) in the rhetorical guise of freedom for all, including the former black slaves. This is not to say that capitalism is reactionary, just that the time for cheering has not yet arrived, a judgement which seems quite reasonable in our own sour times.

To pose the question of indigenous slavery in West Africa could hardly be innocent in these circumstances. There are those, especially the New World descendants of African slaves, including James himself, who would attribute any devastation caused by slavery within Africa to western predators imposing their barbarous system on peoples for whom the excesses of the slave ships and plantations were simply unthinkable. And they have a point when we juxtapose their outlook to the centuries of western propaganda claiming that slavery was a civilising influence on primitive Africans. This ideological minefield can explode under our feet at any time. Two encounters with members of the African diaspora stick out in my own memory.

On one occasion I was part of a panel teaching West African history to a general audience at Wayne State University, Detroit. In my speech I soon turned to the relationship between the traders on the coast and the slaving aristocracies of the interior whose activities supplied so many of the slaves. A large African-American on the front row, shaven-headed and built like a line-backer, stood up and interrupted me: “Are you saying we slaved our own people, motherfucker?” “Yes”. “How do you know?” “Oh, Portuguese records, Dutch records…” “Any Africans write them records?” “Ah, yes, a good point, an important point of method.” Years later I was discussing Africa with a Jamaican middle-class woman who was down on Nigerians, in particular. She said, “I shouldn’t really be saying this to you, dear; but T.G.F.S.” “What’s that?” “Thank God For Slavery. Got us out of the jungle, didn’t it?”

It is because the issues raised by slavery and emancipation are still with us that any attempt to summarise the condition of indigenous slaves in West Africa is bound to be ideologically loaded. My own position is roughly as follows. Like C.L.R. James (Beyond a Boundary), I received my early political education from reading about the ancient Greek democracy in school. Only much later did I realise that this was tied to the theory and practice of British imperialism. In any case I heard the authentic voice of democracy in the leaders of Africa’s anti-colonial revolution, Nkrumah and Nyerere especially; and, like many others in the 1960s, I hoped that their message would change the world in general.

Eventually I came to understand the deep historical roots of a system which has denied black people in Africa and elsewhere the political forms capable of delivering that freedom and prosperity which ought to be a human right. Race still occupies the centre ground in a world system of economic inequality which inflicts appalling indignities on the bulk of humanity. The institutions which perpetuate this unfreedom restrict me and people like me, if not as harshly as they do most Africans and people of African descent everywhere. I am still looking for a way forward to genuine democracy through an engagement with Africa. I have learned from spending time in Britain, Ghana, the United States and the Caribbean that the multiple perspectives afforded by the “Black Atlantic” (Gilroy) are available to me too; and I have attempted to represent a view from West Africa in this essay. I am broadly hostile to racism and nationalism in all their guises, and would seek to replace nostalgia for a mythical past with historical realism as the foundation for any progressive politics. In this I take my inspiration from the nonracial politics of Mandela and, before him, Gandhi.

Slavery and kinship

The dominant forms of labour in traditional West African economies were based on kinship and slavery. The one is a model of community and consensus in our lexicon, the other the epitome of domination and coercion. In practice they had much in common. Some would say that African slavery (particularly domestic slavery) was a benevolent institution, in that slaves were often treated like kinsmen. But it could equally be said that kinsmen, especially women and young men, were often treated like slaves. People were in shorter supply than land and the logic of social organisation placed greater emphasis on control over human beings than on real property (see Jack Goody passim).

The point is that societies founded on kinship do not conform to the ideal of warm family love that many Americans, for example, hold dear. They can be relatively consensual, if weaker members of the domestic group can walk away and find a home elsewhere; and they can be tyrannical, in varying degrees. Nor is slavery the antithesis of kinship, but a natural outgrowth of its development, as Morgan, Engels and many others have insisted.

Ones attitude to rural family life and to the breakdown of traditional social forms depends on whether one sees them as free voluntary associations of equals bound together by ties of blood and affinity, or as unequal structures of domination in which overlord, chief and slave master are merely extensions of the role of patriarchal household head. Just as any concrete kinship relation may modulate between love and abuse, so too whole social structures may vary, according to circumstance, between being consensual or coercive.

Of particular interest here is the effect of an expanded use of slaves on relations between kinsmen, especially on the difficult father-son relationship or more generally on relations between elders and their juniors. In one case (Pollet and Winter), it has been suggested that slavery bound kinsmen together, so that its abolition contributed greatly to the breakdown of family ties. In another, the Congo at the height of the Atlantic slave trade trade, Rey argues that sons were almost sustitutable for slaves and vice versa leading to a system verging on class exploitation between the generations. The matter is complex, for recruitment of kinsmen and slaves were based on diametrically opposed principles — birth and capture. But their combination in practice invariably blurred the categories.

The main task of kinship in West Africa was to organise reproduction and to co-ordinate production. Reproduction is a sequential link between generations; and no society on earth represents the parent-child bond as equal. Indeed inequality is the cardinal feature of West African kinship. Even brothers – perhaps especially brothers – are differentiated in rank by age. Descent divides as well as uniting people. Relations between men and women are also highly unequal. When social life is organised through kinship, therefore, it is fundamentally disunited; and this makes an ideological emphasis on the opposite qualities, of community and solidarity, even more necessary. Read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and ask yourself why Igbo society was such a pushover for the imperialists.

We, who retain in our language and sentiments the ideology without the substance of a society organised through kinship, project our own nostalgia onto the faction-ridden and anxiety-prone family life of African villages. Then, in the name of this fictitious utopia, we declaim against developments which shift the focus of social life away from that narrow-minded sphere or invent forces of external oppression to explain why West Africans, like countless millions elsewhere, yearly vote with their feet on the relative attractions of town and country life. The question of the relationship between slavery and kinship in West Africa is thus not just a historical conundrum. It leads us directly to the contested character of the institutions we would have underpin human existence today.

The forms of West African slavery

Jean-Francois Bayart characterises African states, traditional and modern, as practising “the politics of the belly”; by which he means that their distinguishing feature consists of the routine ways ruling classes extract revenue from their long-suffering peoples. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch earlier coined the expression “African mode of production” to describe dependence on levies from trade monopolies as the most prominent of these methods. What both writers are seeking to generalise is common to all preindustrial states, namely that the politics of distribution (which usually adds up to what Goody calls control of the means of destruction) far outweighs the organisation of production as the economic basis of power. In the case of West Africa, the abundance of land and low population density meant that nothing approaching feudal property ever developed there; and rulers had to look for their staple income to capturing people and goods on the move.

Africa was an exporter of slaves to the Mediterranean, Arabia and the Gulf from at least the first millenium BC. In a world of high transport costs, any commodity which could walk by itself was at a premium. The African slave trade is therefore very ancient. Ruling elites took to capturing slaves by raiding their neighbours; and in many cases this was the main source of revenue enabling them to maintain an aristocratic life style. (See, for example, S.F. Nadel’s A Black Byzantium 1942). If slave raiding was unnecessary, some states were able to extract tribute in slaves from subordinate groups on their periphery. Their own citizens could be enslaved principally through the enforcement of debts or as punishment for crimes.

It is worth recalling that, when New World plantations and mines were established by Europeans, slaves were recruited at first from places like Ireland. The reasons for Africans being selected for the Atlantic slave trade included the growing resistance to enslaving Christians in Europe, various epidemiological factors (Curtin) and the ready supply produced by the slave-raiding aristocracies prevalent in a politically fragmented West Africa.

Within the region, slaves were put to work as soldiers, servants and in a variety of occupations. At times they even controlled the state in the manner of the Mamelukes (e.g. Segou in Mali). They were bought and sold after being captured by a marauding army, held for being in debt or even given up by their kinsmen and neighbours. The relationship of slavery to agriculture is complex and much debated in the literature over a time period which extends from the 18th century to the 20th. Farm slavery was still common in Hausaland after the second world war (Hill). Pawning was also a common practice in rural areas. Again, as was suggested in the previous section, the ways in which slaves were absorbed into kin groups were legion and often hard to discern in practice, given the slur commonly attached to unfree descent. Martin Klein’s work of several decades in the Senegal river basin gives one point of entry into the historical complexity of this question.

The predominant pattern of kinship organisation in West Africa was patrilineal. Such systems concentrated power in the male line with women being transacted in marriage between kin groups, usually by means of bridewealth payments. Women provided the bulk of agricultural labour, ensuring that the rich got richer by dint of accumulating more wives (polygamy). The more that women ended up in the hands of a few older men, the less promising were the marriage prospects of young men who remained, often into their mid-thirties, dependent on their fathers.

In Asante, perhaps the largest and best-known West African kingdom, the central bureaucracy and army were organised on the principle of patrifilial succession. But the countryside at large was a matrilineal society. This means that people are recruited to kin groups through their mothers and men have more influence over their sisters and their children than over their wives, and hence their own sons who belong to other lineages. Under such a system, men still run things, but power is more fragmented and diffuse than in patrilineages. One way some men could increase their power was linked to slavery. Thus local headmen and chiefs might become polygamists, tacitly encouraging their wives to have affairs with commoners. The latter could then be summoned to court for adultery, given fines they could not pay and subsequently enslaved for debt, thereby making good the chiefs’ need for subservient dependent males. (A.N. Klein; see also Wilks, McCaskie).

This example shows how internal slavery cannot be understood outside the kinship structures which organised so much of West African societies. Unfortunately the social anthropologists who made these structures comprehensible preferred to downplay their more coercive aspects (in the interest of shoring up local authority systems – see below) and subsequent historians and social scientists have usually operated with notions of race, class and gender which are largely ignorant of that work.

The long road to emancipation in West Africa

The San Domingo revolution put a severe dent in the Atlantic slave trade in the 1790s. Britain officially abolished that trade in 1807 and soon began seeking to deter the West African traffic from a base in Freetown. Emancipation came to the Caribbean in the 1830s; the American civil war ended in 1865; Cuba was still importing slaves upto the 1870s, Brazil until the 1880s. This protracted process was accompanied by a shift to what is often called Legitimate Trade in West Africa (Hopkins Economic History of West Africa). By the end on the 19th century, forest products like rubber, oil palm and cocoa were driving the region’s export economy; and, of course, formal colonial empires were well on the way to completing the scramble for Africa. In some cases, such as Dahomey, slaves were put to work on plantations producing these crops. But what happened to West African slavery in general when emancipation was declared in the New World and Europe?

The engine of West Africa’s slave-producing supply did not slow up at the rate of the overseas demand for slaves. This meant that slaves became more abundant within the region and their price fell (Law, Wilks). In a sense, life was cheapened. Whereas before the odd slave may have been sent to accompany a great king when he died, human sacrifice now seems to have become more widespread, becoming commonplace at the funerals of quite minor figures. Certainly Europeans made a great deal of such phenomena in justifying their claim to a civilising mission.

The means of establishing territorial control beyond a few coastal enclaves was, of course, the industrialisation of killing (the machine gun). West Africans had been more or less equal partners in the Atlantic slave trade at first; but the same industrial revolution which underpinned the abolition of slavery now generated in the 19th century a massive and growing gap in the material means at the disposal of the two sides. The Europeans were aided, however, by the turmoil which became endemic to West Africa in the 19th century, largely as a result of the destabilising effects of abolition.

The new colonial powers (mainly Britain and France) were committed to abolition within West Africa itself. They could hardly admit to tolerating the continuance of slavery in areas to which they had brought the alleged benefits of European civilisation. So emancipation was declared a legal fact throughout the colonies. The reality was more complex, however. The colonial regimes were few in numbers and they lacked in West Africa the coercive support of a settler class. Accordingly they made a virtue of necessity and instituted systems of what Lugard called “indirect rule”. This meant that indigenous authorities had to be relied upon for a good part of administration and alliances were made with local elites. In many areas these were the principal remaining slaveholders. So that West Africa’s uneven progress towards emancipation was usually ignored or denied.

Colonial empire lasted for only sixty years in much of the region. The first part of that was taken up with establishing rule and the latter part with anticipating its demise. The interwar period, especially the 1930s, saw decisive moves to end slavery when perhaps the colonial regimes were at their most secure. Even so, the scandal of the Liberian government being arraigned before the League of Nations for organising an international traffic in slaves (Sundiata) served as a reminder that the issue was still a live one in the region. And Mauretania has been at pains in the 1990s to persuade the western world that slavery is no longer an established feature of their highly stratified society.

The meaning of slavery in the West African context

In many parts of West Africa today, people can be heard referring to others as ‘slaves’, meaning that their families are descended from slave lines. In one anecdote referring to an East Nigerian university, a bitter conflict between the Vice Chancellor and a professor was eventually resolved in the latter’s favour. The grapevine held that this was inevitable since the university’s head was a ‘slave’ to the professor’s family. Achebe’s novel No Longer At Ease, written of the period around independence, hinges on the taboo-breaking marriage of the hero to an osu, a woman of servile descent whose forebears were dedicated to a religious shrine. It is a matter of some cultural complexity to figure out the social content of these and similar attributions today. Try talking to the Mauretanians about it.

At the same time, it is not hard, in West Africa or most other parts of the world, to find domestic servants who enjoy the status of full kinsmen and yet endure lives of extreme drudgery. These are often young country cousins of the urban elite, teenagers who lack education, money or social skills and who perform unpaid labour under conditions which seem harsh and coercive to outsiders, perhaps also to the victims themselves. Such examples ought to remind us that degrees of freedom and unfreedom in social life are more varied than a simple contrast between slavery and emancipation might suggest.

We started with the debased systems of chattel slavery which were overthrown in the New World between the 1790s and the second half of the 19th century. No-one today would dissent from Clarkson’s claim that the Atlantic slave trade left “the blood of Africans” on the hands of all who failed to oppose it. So far so good for abolition and emancipation. The example of slavery within West Africa itself, however, does not permit us to hold such a clearcut position. First, there is some dispute over who did what to whom, leaving doubt about how much West Africans contributed to the enslavement of their own people. Then the forms of indigenous slavery are complex and varied, lacking as they did the brutal polarising logic of English law transplanted to the New World. It is possible to stress a political culture of slave-hunting or the domesticity of a slavery contained by kinship norms. Evidence is scattered piecemeal over a wide range of times and places. The when and where of the transition from slavery to emancipation is impossible to pin down. Latterday manifestations of servitude in the region are just as ambiguous.

If emancipation was of uncertain value to the former slaves of the American South or to their descendants in the inner cities of the North, contemplating these issues in the West African context forces us to ask whether a focus on slavery and its antithesis serves mainly to obscure the question of freedom in the world today. It is hardly novel to point out that independence from colonial rule has not yet delivered to most Africans political freedom or freedom from poverty, illness, violence and other scourges which modern civilisation is committed to banishing (Odinga: Not Yet Uhuru). The Atlantic slave trade was quickly succeeded by colonial empire and now by an international system of trade and finance which, far from alleviating inequality, actually impoverishes Africans. The ruling elites of West Africa today, headed by the egregious military dictatorship of Abacha in Nigeria, are just as much complicit in this as their predecessors were in the Atlantic slave trade.

The issue of slavery is a touchstone for what we think is wrong with the world and how to put it right. It is a symbol of the drive for human emancipation which began with the revolutions of the late 18th century. If life has been ameliorated for many since then, it is because of the uneven progress of industrialisation. The Victorians believed that universal freedom was just round the corner. The economic forms of industrial capitalism were equated with emancipation. At the end of our violent century, you do not have to be a Marxist to realise that, even if the overt forms of chattel slavery have been abolished, formany the goal of freedom is still a distant one. Not only is Africa’s poverty still an acute symbol of global inequality; but people of African descent also often symbolise the massive disparities which persist in the societies enriched by industrialisation.

In this paper I have argued that West Africa, like all other preindustrial societies, supported levels of economic backwardness and social inequality which are intolerable. Having been drawn into the Atlantic slave trade from an existing practice of capturing, selling and using slaves, the region’s elites did not support a system of legalised racial terror such as that which developed in the New World. What they did practice was a complex mixture of slavery and kinship along a continuum from relative consensus to a high level of coercion. Conditions deteriorated for many slaves in the brief interlude between New World abolition and African colonisation. Emancipation was slow coming and the vestiges of slavery retain some social force in parts of the region today. Progress towards political freedom and economic development has also been retarded.

There seems little point (to me) in emphasising European responsibility for this state of affairs, given the collusion of generations of indigenous elites in the exploitation of West Africans. Nor does it seem plausible to argue that traditional rural societies offer a model of the drive for political and economic development today; and without such a drive Africans will continue to be pawns of greater powers. Rather we should start with the recognition that the high noon of abolition in the mid-nineteenth century was only a stage on the way to a democracy which is still distressingly elusive, especially for the descendants of the New World slaves and the peoples of their region of origin. If that means that our attention shifts from the polarised extremes suggested by a single moment of emancipation to a more nuanced and strategic approach to the conditions of social inequality, so much the better.

Conclusion: ancient and modern

In his essay “The social causes of the decline of ancient civilisation”, Weber shows how the Roman empire throve on a polarisation of slave and free labour. The free Italian peasants (coloni) were recruited into the army whose conquests made land available to them for settlement. This left Italy to be converted to plantations worked by slaves captured in the wars of conquest. The peasants had family life, the slaves were denied it. Then around AD 150 the limits of empire were reached, the supply of new slaves slowed down. Owners had to restore to their property the means of reproducing themselves, which made them more like peasants. In the meantime the Italians found themselves subject to ever more coercive taxation and lost many of their freedoms. The two types of labour began to converge into one zone of relative unfreedom.

In this way, Weber argues that the fall of the Roman empire was not the result of invading Germans (most of whom wanted to prop up the old regime), but the internal erosion of the political and economic mechanism based on the contrast between free and unfree labour. As the wealthy fled from the cities into armed camps in the countryside (villas) and a top heavy administration was starved of funds, feudal society (serfdom) grew up in the interstices of empire. Christianity promoted an ethos of family life for all and, in a world of rural illiterates, the king’s mobile court was permeated with “the smell of dung”.

This parable is of value to us since it points out that the abolition of a strong contrast between slavery and freedom led not to emancipation, but to varieties of unfreedom. Our recent history has been one of digital switches, moments dividing historical periods, revolutions if you like (French and Russian, the American civil war, independence from colonial rule) which later seem not to have changed as much as we thought. The legacy of agriculture holds our world in a stronger grip than most theories of modernity admit. Certainly West Africans would be forgiven for thinking that they have not yet benefited substantially from the promise of universal emancipation unleashed 200 years ago.

There is a welter of lies obscuring the real options facing humanity at this time. Nationalists invent a mythical past of shared blood and soil. Apologists for industrial capitalism see ‘freedom’ in wage ‘slavery’. Racists on both sides explain inequality by fictitious cultural divisions. It is possible for us to reclaim the universalism of the 1790s , when the French and Haitian revolutions threatened to abolish that political and economic unfreedom which has for so long held back human progress. But first we need to rid ourselves of the cant which obscures subsequent historical reality from view. Reflections on the course of emancipation in the 19th century may be an aid to such a project. Abolition was a real enough moment of progress, but the underlying causes of human inequality are still rampant and, on some counts, are worsening. In any case, it is salutary to consider the global process from the perspective of the region which was home to so many victims of the Atlantic slave trade. For too long the intellectual traffic has been overwhelmingly the other way.

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