Eric Herschthal, OI Regional Editor reports the following—
Readers of The William and Mary Quarterly need no reminder of slavery’s centrality to colonial America. Yet a recent symposium of leading scholars on African slavery brought home just how much we still have to learn. Being a regional editor for the Omohundro Institute’s Map gave me the chance to spend the day at the conference—titled “New Perspectives on Slaveries in the African World,” and held at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York on March 6—which would have otherwise fallen off my mental map. Even as a graduate student, the crush of fellowship applications, dissertation deadlines, and teaching responsibilities too often makes attending conferences like these a rare luxury.
But I left the conference with a dawning sense that my current understanding of slavery is in need of some major revisions. The panelists pushed scholars of American slavery to look harder at how the specific practices of indigenous slavery in Africa affected slavery’s manifestations in the New World. They questioned whether “Atlantic” truly captures the reality of a slave trade that extended to parts of East Africa. And they asked for a genuine reckoning with the long-term effects of the slave trade that goes beyond present-day racism; it’s time, in other words, that we take seriously slavery’s lingering hold on Africa and Europe today.
One of the most provocative papers at the conference took an African-centered approach to the Haitian Revolution, so often viewed as an extension of the French Revolution. Scholars like John Thornton have already shown how African war tactics influenced Haitian fighting tactics. But at the conference, Professor James H. Sweet of the University of Wisconsin-Madison argued that slaves from the Kongo may have offered more than brawn; Kongolese slaves brought to French St. Domingue on the eve of the revolution may have made a real intellectual contribution as well.
By excavating French terms to their original meaning in Kongolese, Sweet showed how words like “slave” could mean something very different to Kongolese men and women. To the Kongolese, the slave-master relationship placed as many demands on the master as it did on the slave, not unlike Spanish slavery. Even after being taken to St. Domingue, Kongolese slaves expected similar treatment to how slavery was practiced in their native land. When slaveholders denied them these terms, slaves may have been primed to revolt. Sweet thus suggested, if only tentatively, that the Haitian Revolution may not only have been fought in the name of liberal Western values like liberté and égalité—if viewed as an African event, Kongolese slaves may have been fighting for a return to the more flexible system of slavery they had once known in the Kongo.
By asking scholars to rethink the Haitian Revolution as an African event, Sweet was considering the larger implications of studying the African influence on New World events. But other panelists had a more modest scale in mind. Professor Kwasi Konadu of CUNY painstakingly reconstructed the life a Senegambian slave captured and sold to the Caribbean. Studying a rare Ajami manuscript—a text that renders African spoken languages into Arabic script—Konadu pieced together the remarkable life of an enslaved West African who was brought to the Bahamas, then Cuba, and ultimately liberated years later. Resisting the urge to draw broad conclusions, Konadu argued convincingly that simple human decency justified his project. Simply put, reviving a life otherwise erased by slavery was justification enough.
Several scholars focused on the little-explored slave trade along the East African coast. Their work challenged the tendency to view the slave trade as a purely Atlantic phenomenon. Professor Piers Larson of Johns Hopkins University explained the importance of the indigenous slave trade to the rise of Antananarivo empire in Madagascar in the early nineteenth century. He showed the inner workings of an elaborate system of enslavement within Madagascar which, he argued, was critical to the empire’s rise and had little connection to the Atlantic slave trade. After his presentation, one scholar suggested that his work challenged our renewed interest in the role of capitalism in slavery’s rise; in Madagascar at least, an indigenous form of enslavement seemed to take shape with little direct connection to western capitalism.
Yet other slave trading missions along the East African coast directly linked to colonial slavery. Professor Patrick Harries of the University of Basel, Switzerland discussed how a small but robust slave trading operation developed along the southeastern coast of Africa. With the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution and the rise of the abolitionist movement, trading for slaves along the West African coast grew difficult. Thus, by the turn of the nineteenth century, European slave traders looked to southeastern coast of Africa in order to avoid detection from maritime police. Portuguese traders benefited the most from this East African trade, which helped feed its insatiable demand for slaves in South America.
The African slave trade is most often studied within the context of colonial America. But with so many Africanists at the conference, it was perhaps inevitable that some would plead for historians to take seriously the effects of the slave trade on African nations today. Not that American scholars—and Americans generally—are the only ones to shy away from the challenge. As many of the African scholars pointed out, African nations today are themselves reticent to discuss the slave trade’s legacies in their own countries. This willed amnesia stems not only from shame, some argued, but from a desire to avoid the stigma that affixes to descendants of slaves or slave traders, and therefore impinges on personal advancement.
But the historians at the conference illustrated just how real the legacies of the slave trade are. Professor Boubacar Barry of the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, traced today’s corruption, ethnic conflict and political irresponsibility in West Africa in part to the slave trade. Meanwhile, Professor Warren Whatley, an economist at the University of Michigan, provided hard data to back up these claims. West African nations with the most extensive involvement with the African slave trade, he showed, had the lowest GDP’s, a suggestive correlation even if it does not prove slavery to be the primary cause.
Yet not all historians were interested in the slave trade’s legacy in Africa. At least one scholar, Professor Catherine Hall of the University College London, challenged us to look at the legacy of slave-owning on British life today. She pointed out the irony that while Britain applauds itself for doing so much to end the slave trade, they virtually ignore the history of both British slave trading and slave owning. (Which brought to mind a joke I recently heard on the Bill Maher show. To paraphrase: It makes me proud that my country passed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act, but that doesn’t mean I’ll forgot what [expletives] we’ve been to African Americans in the first place.)
Hall and her colleagues have recently created an extensive online database, akin to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, documenting the names and plantations of roughly 47,000 British slaveholders between 1763 and 1833. They have also found the names of 3,000 British slaveholders whom the British government compensated with £20 million for agreeing to emancipation in 1834. Many of Britain’s most illustrative institutions—All Soul’s College at Oxford, dozens of dormitories at Cambridge, Westminster Abbey—have benefited enormously from gifts given by these slaveholders, yet the public knows virtually nothing about it.
No one doubts the intellectual gains we’ve made about slavery in the past few decades. But by the conference’s end, it was clear how much work still lies ahead.