Between slavery and emancipation in West Africa

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Jean-François Bayart says that African states, traditional and modern, have always practiced ‘the politics of the belly’; by which he means that they are distinguished by the ways their ruling classes routinely extract revenue from their long-suffering peoples. Catherine Coquéry-Vidrovitch earlier coined the expression ‘African mode of production’ to describe the most prominent of these methods — dependence on levies from trade monopolies. What both writers are seeking to express in these generalizations is in fact common to all pre-industrial states, namely that the politics of distribution (which usually adds up to what Goody in Technology, Tradition and the State calls control of the means of destruction) far outweighs the organization 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 millennium BC. In a world of high transport costs, any commodity that 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 neighbors; 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). Some states were able to extract tribute in slaves from subordinate groups on their periphery, making actual slave-raiding unnecessary. 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, as well as from the Amerindians. The reasons for Africans being selected for the Atlantic slave trade included the growing resistance to enslaving Christians in Europe, the collapse of the Amerindian population, various epidemiological factors favoring Africans (Curtin) and the ready supply produced by the slave-raiding aristocracies then 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. at Ségou 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 neighbors. 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 (Polly Hill). Pawning was also a common practice in rural areas. Again, as was pointed out in the previous section, the ways that 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 organization 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 labor, ensuring that the rich got richer by means 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 (Meillassoux Femmes, Greniers et Capitaux)..

In Asante, perhaps the largest and best-known West African kingdom, the central bureaucracy and army were organized 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 over 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 patrilineal societies. One way some men could increase their power was linked to slavery. Thus local headmen and chiefs might become polygamists, tacitly encouraging their wives (who might sell beer or palm wine) to have affairs with commoners. The latter could then be summoned to court for adultery, given fines they could not afford to 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 that organized 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 that are largely ignorant of that work.

The long road to emancipation in West Africa

The Santo Domingo revolution put a severe dent in the Atlantic slave trade in the 1790s (James The Black Jacobins, History of Negro Revolt).. 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 up to the 1870s, Brazil until the 1880s. This protracted process was accompanied by a shift in West Africa to what is often called Legitimate Trade (Hopkins Economic History of West Africa). By the end of 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 same rate as 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 civilizing mission.

The means of establishing territorial control beyond a few coastal enclaves was, of course, the mechanization 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 that became endemic to West Africa in the 19th century, largely as a result of the destabilizing effects of abolition. This took the form of intensified warfare, increased migration and religious upheaval.

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 civilization. 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 inter-war 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 organizing an international traffic in slaves (Sundiata) served as a reminder that the issue was still a live one in the region. And the Mauretanian government 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 favor. 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 about 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 labor 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 clear-cut 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 polarizing logic of English law transplanted to the New World. It is possible to stress either 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 that modern civilization is supposed to banish (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. (See Chapter 4 of my book, Money in an Unequal World, 2001). The ruling elites of West Africa today 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 that began with the English revolution and the French and American revolutions of the late 18th century. If life has been ameliorated for many since then, it is because of the uneven progress of mechanization. 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 realize that we have barely set out on the road to human freedom. Not only is Africa’s poverty still an acute symbol of global inequality; but people of African descent often symbolize the massive disparities which persist in the societies enriched by mechanization.

In this paper I have argued that West Africa, like all other pre-industrial 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 legalized 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 the colonization of Africa. 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 emphasizing 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 suitable model for the drive to political and economic development today, without which 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 did not deliver the bulk of humanity to freedom in any meaningful sense, even less the New World slaves and their descendants or the peoples of their region of origin. If that means that our attention shifts from the polarized extremes suggested by a single moment of emancipation from chattel slavery to a more analytical and strategic approach to the conditions of social inequality, so much the better.

Postscript on the passing of another old regime

In his essay “The social causes of the decline of ancient civilization”, Weber (The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations, 1904) shows how the Roman empire flourished on the basis of a strong legal contrast between slave and free peasant labor. The Italian peasants (coloni) were recruited into the army and their conquests made land available 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 150 AD the limits of empire were reached, the supply of new slaves slowed down. Owners had to restore to them 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 labor began to converge into one generalized category of relative unfreedom, forerunner of feudal serfdom..

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 which opposed free and unfree labor. 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 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 leads not to freedom, but to varieties of unfreedom. It might also lead us to ask where we would place world society today (compared say with the 1860s) in the transition from the old regime to a new one. Certainly West Africans would be forgiven for thinking that they have not yet benefited directly from the promise of universal emancipation unleashed 200 years ago.


Talk given to a conference at Tulane University, New Orleans in November 1996.

Two earlier sections are missing: a discussion of the history of the Atlantic slave trade and of abolition culminating in the 1860s; and an analysis of the relationship between slavery and kinship in West Africa. The first emphasizes the relative parity of power between Africans and Europeans in the slave trade until the industrial revolution; and the inconclusive nature of New World emancipation which left the descendants of African slaves in the Americas suspended between slavery and a true emancipation. The second argues that there was indeed a close relationship between slavery and kinship in traditional West African societies; but we must not take this to mean that domestic slavery there was invariably benign. Kinship is a model for both kindness and coercion. Even so, the brutality of New World slave systems was broadly absent from West Africa and slaves there often occupied social positions unimaginable across the Atlantic.

A fuller account of these arguments may be found in Chapter 2 of my book The Political Economy of West African Agriculture (Cambridge U.P., 1982, pp. 39-42).

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