Mohammed Bashir Salau
People of African descent who migrated from their “homelands” constituted, and still constitute, important forces in many African cultures outside of their “homelands” as well as in many other cultures outside of the African continent. Historically, the migration of people of African descent from their “homelands” is mainly linked to the pre-20th century Muslim or Asian trade and the Atlantic trade as well as to the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system. Even before the post 1980 globalization of the capitalist system deepened the crises in African states and resulted in the migration of skilled and unskilled Africans to places like the United States, Canada, Britain and the Middle East, some scholars had written on people of African descent in several parts of the world. Although the earliest among those who wrote on the subject before the 1980s did not employ the term “African diaspora” in their analysis, an increasing number of scholars who wrote after 1950 have used the term in question in their study of people of African descent in various parts of the world. The relevant literature written after 1950 features disagreement over the meaning of the concept “African diaspora” and point to diverse methodologies that are useful in working on the subject. This particular literature can be divided into three broad categories: works that deal with the Old African diaspora, works that deal with the New African diaspora and works that deal with both the Old and New African diasporas. The historiography shows that works situated in all of these three categories mainly offer competing view over three fundamental questions: why did Africans leave their “homelands” and settle elsewhere? What was the impact of this process on the societies they left? How did Africans who left their “homelands” integrate into their host societies or preserve their unique identities; or, more broadly, what was the impact of their arrival on the host society they entered? Despite the rapid strides that have been made since the 1960s in regard to addressing these questions or in regards to the scholarly study of the African diasporas in general, there is still no firm definition of the term “African diaspora.” Moreover, there are still other gaps in the scholarly knowledge of the subject.
Ndubueze L. Mbah
As a system of identity, African masculinity is much more than a cluster of norms, values, and behavioral patterns expressing explicit and implicit expectations of how men should act and represent themselves to others. It also refers to more than how African male bodies, subjectivities, and experiences are constituted in specific historical, cultural, and social contexts. African masculinities, as historical subjects embodying distinctive socially constructed gender and sexual identities, have been both male and female. By occupying a masculine sociopolitical position, embodying masculine social traits, and performing cultural deeds socially construed and symbolized as masculine, African men and women have constituted masculinity. Across various African societies and times, there have been multiple and conflicting notions of masculinities, promoted by local and foreign institutions, and there have been ceaseless contestations and synergies among the various forms of hegemonic, subordinate, and subversive African masculinities. Men and women have frequently brought their own agendas to bear on the political utility of particular notions of masculinity. Through such performances of masculinity, Africans have constantly negotiated the institutional power dynamics of gender relations. So, the question is not whether Africans worked with gender binaries, because they did. As anthropologist John Wood puts it, African indigenous logic of gender becomes evident in the juxtaposition, symbolic reversals, and interrelation of opposites. Rather, one should ask, why and how did African societies generate a fluid gender system in which biological sex did not always correspond to gender, such that anatomically male and female persons could normatively occupy socially constructed masculine and feminine roles and vice versa? And how did African mutually constitutive gender and sexuality constructions shape African societies?
Lydia Wilson Marshall
Despite its long history in the region, slavery in Eastern Africa has attracted little archaeological attention. This deficit is partly due to the reticence of many Eastern Africans to discuss slavery, a historically painful topic. In addition, some archaeologists have expressed skepticism about the material visibility of the practice. That is, they question whether slavery can be archaeologically identified. Given these concerns, those archaeologists who have pursued the study of slavery in Eastern Africa tend to focus on the 18th and 19th centuries, when historical documentation of the practice is well established. Archaeologists in the region have considered slavery in a variety of settings—including not only plantations but also contexts of slaving and emancipation. Research in Eastern Africa has helped to challenge and complicate definitions of slavery rooted in American historical experience. Yet, perspectives on slavery from outside of the region continue to shape public memory in Eastern Africa; increased outside interest and investment in the heritage of slavery has begun to influence both memorialization and the practice of memory itself. For example, heritage funding from UNESCO is tied to particular expectations for how slavery is defined and what counts as heritage. In this context, archaeologists studying slavery in Eastern Africa grapple with their responsibilities to many different stakeholders and audiences. In particular, they continue to work to make slavery research and memorialization more meaningful to Eastern Africans themselves. In addition, researchers have begun to develop methodological tools to push the study of slavery in Eastern Africa to deeper time periods less undergirded by historical documents.
Mohammed Bashir Salau
Unfree labor in Northern Nigeria is a subject of interest to an increasing number of scholars. The National Archives Kaduna (NAK) and other repositories in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere hold many records that are useful for the study of several forms of unfree labor that occurred within the present-day borders of Northern Nigeria. The history of these records is long, but most of the written records were produced in the period after 1800. The written materials are mainly in Arabic and English. Unlike the written records, the oral sources are mainly in the Hausa language and the collection of such oral information is related to the post-1960s efforts by scholars led primarily by Paul E. Lovejoy. Lovejoy also initiated the digitization of archival materials and oral sources related to unfree labor in Northern Nigeria in the early 2000s. The digitization effort is still ongoing. Scholars who have drawn on the available archival and digital material have focused on the theme of slavery in the precolonial era. Such scholars addressed several topics including plantation agriculture, military slavery, slave control, slave resistance, the ending of slavery, and the wages of slavery. Apart from the works on slavery that mainly focus on the 19th century, there are relatively few other works on the topic that have primarily dealt with the early colonial era or with the period between 1903 and 1936. While the history of slavery has attracted the most critical attention, the history of corvée and convict labor in Northern Nigeria has largely been neglected. Indeed, to date, only two works mainly deal with convict and corvée labor. Considering the little attention given to the themes of convict labor and corvée labor, there is clearly more room for additional historical works on these subjects than on the topic of slavery.
Daniel B. Domingues da Silva and Philip Misevich
Over the past six decades, the historiography of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade has shown remarkable growth and sophistication. Historians have marshalled a vast array of sources and offered rich and compelling explanations for these two great tragedies in human history. The survey of this vibrant scholarly tradition throws light on major theoretical and interpretive shifts over time and indicates potential new pathways for future research. While early scholarly efforts have assessed plantation slavery in particular on the antebellum United States South, new voices—those of Western women inspired by the feminist movement and non-Western men and women who began entering academia in larger numbers over the second half of the 20th century—revolutionized views of slavery across time and space. The introduction of new methodological approaches to the field, particularly through dialogue between scholars who engage in quantitative analysis and those who privilege social history sources that are more revealing of lived experiences, has conditioned the types of questions and arguments about slavery and the slave trade that the field has generated. Finally, digital approaches had a significant impact on the field, opening new possibilities to assess and share data from around the world and helping foster an increasingly global conversation about the causes, consequences, and integration of slave systems. No synthesis will ever cover all the details of these thriving subjects of study and, judging from the passionate debates that continue to unfold, interest in the history of slavery and the slave trade is unlikely to fade.
Central Africa became deeply intertwined in the Atlantic world with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1482, which opened up a new world of connections between African societies and European and American partners. As a region, central Africa stretches from Gabon to Mossamedes, near the border of the present nation of Namibia. Two distinct patterns of interaction marked the region’s integration into the wider Atlantic world. On the Loango coast, Atlantic trade by Dutch, British, and French merchants favored African kings in the short term but eventually paved the way for the rise of coastal rulers who seized upon wealth amassed through the slave trade to challenge kingship. After first playing out in the kingdom of Kongo, this dynamic unfolded in several other polities, such as the kingdom of Ngoyo and Ndongo.
South of the Congo River, Portugal’s ability to carve out coastal enclaves in Luanda and Benguela powerfully shaped the relationship with the Atlantic world. Both cities developed sprawling trading networks with their immediate hinterlands as well as several cities across the Atlantic, particularly in Brazil but later also in Cuba. Although the slave trade formed the cornerstone of trading networks, a continuum of social, cultural, and political ties bridged the ocean. Portuguese institutional and economic presence was deeply dependent on Angola’s ties with Brazil. The two Portuguese colonies interacted bilaterally, and Brazil was not only the source of commodities for the trade in human beings but also in crops, food supplies, and military hardware.
Distinct patterns of Afro-European interaction in Loango and Portuguese Angola should not hide the intense trade between these two regions. Since the 17th century, Luanda had depended on the Loango coast for palm-cloth currencies (libongos) that circulated widely in the capital city of Portuguese Angola. Cabinda men sailed to Luanda to purchase tobacco and sell slaves and other goods. As the French and then the British abandoned the slave trade, the direct slave trade with Brazil intensified and altered the structure of shipments of captives. In addition to the tightening Brazilian grip over central Africa’s slave trade, this development further integrated coastal trade between Loango and Portuguese Angola and set the stage for the continuation of shipments of captives until the 1860s.
The robust, sustained interest in the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been a defining feature of the intersection of African studies and digital scholarship since the advent of humanities computing in the 1960s. The pioneering work of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, first made widely available in CD-ROM in 1999, is one of several major projects to use digital tools in the research and analysis of the Atlantic trade from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth century. Over the past two decades, computing technologies have also been applied to the exploration of African bondage outside the maritime Atlantic frame. In the 2010s,
Egypt’s trade in the Ottoman period with the Sudanic kingdoms to its south waxed and waned according to political conditions at either end of its trade routes. During the 16th and 17th centuries, powerful kingdoms developed in the area of Sinnar (near modern-day Khartoum) and to the west in the area of Darfur. The trade route connecting western Sudan to Egypt, known as the Forty Days Road, was ancient, probably dating to the Pharaonic period, but it experienced a remarkable revival in the 17th century when the Keira sultans of Darfur consolidated their rule in western Sudan and engaged in trade with Egypt in order to obtain luxury goods. In the following two centuries, trade between Egypt, Sinnar, and Darfur flourished, the pattern being that Egyptian, Syrian, and European-made goods were exchanged primarily for Sudanic exports of slaves, ivory, ostrich feathers, and livestock. Sudanese merchants, known as jallaba, came to Egypt and Egyptians settled in the Sudan as a result of these developments. Asyut was the town in Upper Egypt chiefly benefiting from the revival of the caravan trade, but the primary trade destination was Cairo, whence most merchants went.
In 1820, the Egyptians invaded the Sudan and trade between the two countries fell under a different set of rules and regulations. Initially monopolized by the government, items in the trade began to be sold by individual traders, and after 1839, when the Muhammad Ali, ruler of Egypt, was forced to withdraw from lands his army had conquered in Arabia and the Levant, European free enterprise soon became a major economic force in the Nile Valley. For a brief period, between 1845 and 1860, Egyptian middlemen, working closely with jallaba, profited richly from the Sudan trade, the city of Asyut prospered, but eventually they fell victim to European economic domination.
Migration has been a central factor in African history. It is likely that the human species started spreading on the planet within and outside of Africa between 2 and 2.5 million years ago. Although the earliest stages of human migrations are the subject of intense debate, most hypotheses concentrate on movements that occurred in the African continent. In historical times, African migrations can be divided into two broad sub-fields looking at, respectively: people moving because they were forced to and people choosing to move on their own free will. Africa has been the source of the largest forced migrations in history. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the largest long-distance forced migration of people, even though it happened over a shorter period than the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades. Within Africa, trade across complementary ecological zones and the seasonality of production propelled free migrations of traders and workers involved in long distance trade. Following the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, free labor migrations rose in importance. European colonialism introduced the need for cash that was often only accessible in cities and areas of cash crop production. It was also responsible for the introduction of new forms of forced labor required for the building and maintenance of colonial infrastructure. The rise of development as a rationale for the government of African societies influenced migrations in multiple ways through national and international policies aimed at channeling people’s mobility. In the last two centuries, African migrants have been unfolding projects of self-development by traveling to places where they hoped to find better opportunities. Yet contemporary trafficking and displacements caused by wars, intolerance, and natural catastrophes attest to the continuing relevance of violence as a key aspect of the experience of African migrants.
The use of numerical data and statistical sources in African history has expanded in recent decades, facilitated by technological advances and the digitization of primary sources. This expansion has included new analysis of traditional measures (population, government, and trade) as well as new sources of individual-level data such as census returns, marriage registers, and military and police records. Overall, this work has allowed for a more comprehensive quantitative picture of Africa’s history, and in particular facilitated comparisons within Africa and between African countries and other parts of the world. However, there remain misunderstandings about the collection, use, and interpretation of these data. Increasingly sophisticated methods of quantitative analysis can alienate scholars who have an intimate knowledge of the data and how they are produced, but lack specialist methodological training. At the same time, limited understanding of the origins and reliability of quantitative data can lead to misinterpretation.
Between 1800 and 1900, West Africa’s coastal states struggled to maintain autonomy in the face of imperial overtures from European trade partners. Simultaneously, these states coped with an overwhelming buildup of domestic slaves, some of whom rose to unprecedented higher political and economic positions. One particular individual, King Jaja of Opobo, came to the fore as an extreme example of how slaves became more capable of taking advantage of the changing political, religious, and economic landscape of the Eastern Niger Delta during this period.
Born Mbanaso Ozurumba in the Igboland village of Umuduruoha in 1821, Jaja, as he would become known to his European trading partners, traversed the domestic slave systems of Southeastern Nigeria and arrived in the Delta trading state of Bonny in 1833. He obtained tremendous wealth and political influence through the burgeoning palm oil trade, ultimately becoming the head of one of Bonny’s most influential canoe-houses. Due to an internal dispute with a rival canoe-house in the late 1860s, Jaja removed his followers to a previously uninhabited island and cut off Bonny’s access to the lucrative interior oil markets. From 1871 on, Jaja monopolized the palm oil trade in the region to become the most influential trader from his new position as king of the island community, which he would name Opobo. However, by 1884, the relationship between Jaja and his British trade partners deteriorated, leading to Jaja’s exile in the West Indies. Political pressure forced the British to return Jaja to Opobo. Unfortunately, the once-powerful slave-turned-king died while trying to return home in 1891.
The topic of prisoners, ransoms, and slavery in the Maghrib (that is, the lands of the Islamic west—the area that today encompasses North Africa, and historically, also the regions of Iberia and Sicily that came under Muslim rule) is of considerable chronological and geographical scope extending from the earliest establishment of Islamic rule in the region during the second half of the 7th century, persisting to the final decades of the 20th century, and enslaving or otherwise taking prisoner peoples from areas as geographically diverse as West Africa, the southern coastal regions of Europe, and as far north as Ireland and Iceland. The practice of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib are thus of substantial historical significance. Yet, it is only in comparatively recent times that this complex topic has drawn the attention of scholars. Therefore, our understanding of slavery and the taking of prisoners in the Maghrib, especially during the medieval period, remains in its incipience.
There are many wild rice species, but only two are domesticated. The most widely known is Asian rice, Oryza sativa. Domesticated in China approximately 10,000 years ago, it has been a primary staple in Asia for millennia, becoming by the 20th century one of the world’s most consumed cereals. Less known is Oryza glaberrima, or African rice, which was not recognized as a unique species until the mid-20th century. Glaberrima’s history begins not in Asia, but in the inland delta of West Africa’s Niger River, where it was domesticated some 3,500 years ago. Africans adapted glaberrima to a variety of landscapes and developed specialized farming practices that advanced its diffusion elsewhere in the continent, notably to wetland swamps and the tropical coastal region between Senegal and Cameroon. Cultivated there for millennia, African rice became (and still is) a principal dietary staple of West Africa. Women play a major role in rice cultivation. They plant, harvested, mill, and cook this important food crop.
Since the so-called Age of Discovery, Oryza glaberrima has been entwined with the history of transatlantic slavery, which lasted from the mid-15th century to the last quarter of the 19th century. Over 400 years, nearly 13 million Africans were kidnapped and imprisoned on European slave ships bound for the Americas. Once landed, the survivors were sold as chattel labor to work colonial mines and plantations. Many had experience growing rice.
African rice often accompanied slave voyages. As slave ships plied the West African coast, their captains purchased it in bulk to feed their captives during the weeks-long Middle Passage. Eventually, unmilled seed rice found its way from ships’ larders into the hands of New World Africans, who planted it in their provision gardens or maroon hideaways. By the end of the 17th century, plantation owners in Carolina (and later Brazil) were beginning to cultivate rice in response to rising demand from Europe. They very likely grew glaberrima at first—acquired as leftover slave ship provisions—and were almost certainly tutored by slaves already proficient at growing it. The development of rice as a lucrative export crop, cultivated on a massive scale in the tropical and semi-tropical swamps and tidewater estuaries of the Americas, is also a story of African agency and know-how. Nearly all the technologies employed on New World rice plantations bear African antecedents, from the irrigation systems that made fields productive, to the milling and winnowing of grain by African female labor wielding traditional African tools.
The recovery of African rice history dispels long-held beliefs that Africans contributed little to the global table and added nothing more than muscle to the agricultural history of the Americas. It upends the myth that they only provided labor, existing as less-than-human “hands” that uncomprehendingly carried out slaveholder directives. Rice history has directed scholars to new geographical spaces, such as the provision gardens of the enslaved, while integrating contributions from archaeology, botany, geography, linguistics, and genomics. Not least, it gives to slavery’s victims a voice rarely heard in traditional sources.
E. Ann McDougall
The Sahara: bridge or barrier? Today, most would answer that the desert was more a historical facilitator than hindrance in moving commodities, ideas, and people between North and sub-Saharan Africa. A recent publication even coined a new name for the region: “trans-Saharan Africa.”
However, the Sahara is also a place where people live. Complex societies, sophisticated polities, extensive economies—all flourished at various times, waxing and waning in response to much the same factors as societies elsewhere. It is just that in the Sahara the vagaries of climate and the availability of water always established the parameters of development. A long-term drying era led to the dispersal of the Late Stone Age Dhar-Tichitt agro-pastoral settlements in eastern Mauritania, but in the east, Lake “Mega-Chad” shrank, leaving rich, sandy soils that attracted new cultivators. The Garamantes people of the Libyan Fezzan overcame their lack of water by developing a sophisticated underground irrigation system that supported an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization that outlasted the Roman Empire.
The introduction of the camel in the 4th century and the gradual growth of Islam from at least the 9th century added new possibilities for economic, cultural, and religious life. The Sahara benefited from the sequence of medieval empires emerging across its southern desert edge. Camel pastoralism, salt mining, oasis agriculture, and expansive trade networks shaped the region’s economy; those same networks facilitated cultural and scholarly exchanges. As Islam took root, growing its own understandings of North African and Middle Eastern schools of thought, a prodigious body of Saharan scholarship was created. It underpinned much of the jihad-led political upheaval and state-building in the 18th and 19th Sahel.
Saharan clerics also directed their religious fervor against the invasion of French imperialists; “pacification” took the colonialists decades to achieve. But the impact of this violence exacerbated traditional clan conflict and disrupted economic life. So too did policies aimed at sedentarizing pastoralists and reshaping their social relations in the interests of the colonial economy. Much talked-about but largely ineffective efforts to abolish slavery had far less real impact than taxation policies; these both suppressed traditional exactions such as those levied by “warriors” and introduced new ones, including those to be paid in forced labor. Life in the Sahara became increasingly untenable. The arrival of Independence did nothing to address colonial legacies; the years of drought that devastated herds and crops in the desert and along its edge less than a decade later further fueled both political instability and economic crisis. That today the region nurtures radicalized Islamic movements promising to return “true meaning” (not to mention material benefits) to that life is not surprising.
The Sahel or Sahil is in a sense the “coast” of the Sahara and its cities major “ports” in trade circuits linking long-standing regional exchange in the products of different ecozones to the markets of the Mediterranean through the trans-Saharan trade. Despite botanical diversity and the capacity to support high concentrations of humans and livestock, the productivity of this region depends upon a single unpredictable annual rainy season. Long- and short-term fluctuations in aridity have required populations specializing in hunting, farming, fishing, pastoralism, gold mining, and trade to be mobile and to depend upon one another for their survival. While that interdependence has often been peaceful and increasingly facilitated through the shared idiom of Islam, it has also taken more coercive forms, particularly with the introduction of horses, guns, and a dynamic market in slaves.
Although as an ecozone the region stretches all the way to the Red Sea, the political Sahel today comprises Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad—all former French colonies. France’s empire was superimposed upon the existing dynamics in the agropastoral meeting ground of the desert edge. Colonial requirements and transportation routes weakened the links between the ecozones so crucial to the success of states and markets in the region. Despite the abolition of slavery in 1905, France tacitly condoned the persistence of servile relations to secure requisitions of labor, food, and livestock. Abolition set off a very gradual shift from slavery to other kinds of labor patterns which nonetheless drew upon preexisting social hierarchies based upon religion, caste, race, and ethnicity. At the same time, gender and age gained in significance in struggles to secure labor and status. “Black Islam” (Islam noir), both invented and cultivated under French rule, was further reinforced by the bureaucratic logic of the French empire segregating “white” North Africa and “black” sub-Saharan Africa from one another.
Periodic drought and famine in the region has prompted a perception of the Sahel as a vulnerable ecological zone undergoing desertification and requiring intervention from outside experts. Developmentalist discourse from the late colonial period on has facilitated the devolution of responsibilities and prerogatives that typically belong to the state to nongovernmental bodies. At the same time, competition over political authority in the fragmented postcolonial states of the Sahel has often reinscribed and amplified status and ethnic differences, pitting Saharan populations against the governments of desert edge states. External and internal radical Islamic movements entangled with black market opportunists muddy the clarity of the ideological and political stakes in ways that even currently (2018) further destabilize the region.
Slavery was a mainstay of the labor force of the Cape Colony between its foundation by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1652 and abolition in 1834, by which date the Cape was under British rule. Slaves were transported to the Cape from a wide range of areas in the Indian Ocean world, including South and Southeast Asia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Some were owned by the VOC and labored on the Company farms, outposts, and docks. The majority were sold to settlers and worked as domestic servants in Cape Town or as laborers on the grain, wine, and pastoral farms of the Cape interior.
Throughout the 18th century slaves outnumbered settlers. Although there were few major revolts, individual resistance was widespread and desertion common. Some runaways joined indigenous groups in the Cape interior, while others formed more isolated maroon communities. Toward the end of the 18th century some slaves claimed individual rights, reflecting the influence of wider revolutionary movements in the Atlantic world. A revolutionary uprising took place in 1808, shortly after the abolition of the slave trade and the takeover of the colony by the British.
In the early 19th century slave resentment continued to grow, especially as a boom in wine production increased labor demands. In the 1820s and early 1830s abolitionist voices were heard in the colony, and slavery was ended at the same time as that in the British Caribbean and Mauritius. Unlike these other British colonies, Cape slaves largely continued to work as farm laborers, and their living and working conditions produced the continued impoverishment of farmworkers in the western Cape region.
Slaves played an important part in the creation of a distinctive creolized Cape culture, notably in the development of the Afrikaans language and Cape musical and culinary traditions. They were also responsible for the growth of Islam in Cape Town and its hinterland, which took a distinctive form influenced by its Southeast Asian origins.
The South African interior, roughly equivalent to the Highveld on the southern continental plateau, was in the 19th century a stage of numerous players and groups, acting in concert and in conflict with one another, as often dissolving as taking on board new members. The fortunes of Highveld inhabitants, occupiers, and passers-by fluctuated without periods of calm, and turned advantages to few. It was therefore not uncommon for the human flotsam and jetsam created by raiding, battles, and migrations, aggravated by drought and famine, to be subordinated by the survivors and forced to serve those with whom they had no prior allegiance or knowledge. Slavery in the interior was largely a by-product of staking out territory. Rather than generate slaves for sale in an external market, slavery on the Highveld was fed by the political impulse to aggregate followers and servants. An internal exchange emerged in some areas, and traders made a few transactions with coastal exporters, but the general pattern of enslavement was acquisition by raiding and distribution among raiders. The majority taken were youngsters and, to a lesser degree, women. As a rule, the menfolk were killed.
Joseph C. Miller
Small communities of Bantu-language-speaking cultivators, and eventually also cattle herders, settled and thrived during the last three millennia throughout nearly the entire African continent east and south of Cameroon. They mobilized the people who did so in many ways, transferring many of them among the groups they formed. Mobility was assumed to be normative. Most they repositioned by mutual agreements protecting the daughters or others they moved as wives, some sought new places voluntarily as clients, and others found themselves involuntarily abandoned, captured, or otherwise isolated and vulnerable to the strangers who took them in. The last group most resembled the people who, in modern societies, we recognize as “enslaved.”
However, those who acquired these vulnerable people used them for purposes very different from the plantations and backbreaking labor associated with African “slavery” in the Americas. And they faced futures more varied than the permanently and inheritably enslaved Africans in the New World. This essay sketches these varied purposes and outcomes of enslavement in the context of Bantu speakers’ worlds built around premises that often contrasted with the modern world we take for granted. It adds a historical argument that Bantu-speaking communities met the major challenges in their three-thousand-year history by mobilizing personnel through slaving.
This essay follows three broadly defined eras in which Bantu speakers over more than a hundred generations used strategies of slaving to create historical changes. The earliest slaving moved people who were unwanted in their home communities, or destitute survivors of communities that had failed and dispersed, into vulnerable places among the communities of others. As early Bantu speakers gradually grew in number, they intensified collective local strategies to create diverse communities in which they ultimately valued obligating relationships with one another more than they accumulated personal material wealth. Prizing people more than property, they saw themselves as perpetually short of personnel, particularly of women as wives to bear succeeding generations. Politics more than production motivated their quests for males, often clients but also opportunistically supplemented with the destitute and their neighbors’ cast-offs.
Dependency was the norm and not a violation of individual freedom, since everyone was beholden to others. Since residential groups and neighborhoods routinely circulated their members in several ways, the distinctions between those moved involuntarily as slaves and others who moved in protected conditions as wives or clients were much subtler than our familiar (though unrealistic) dichotomy of mutually exclusive “slavery” and “freedom.” Despite modern searches for Bantu speakers’ terms cognate with “slavery,” they created no discrete, permanent social condition similar to the institutionalized commercial slavery of the Atlantic. The acquiring groups treated slaves better than the abandoned, isolated, displaced outsiders whom we treated as little more than inanimate “property,” always vulnerable to further removals by sale. To the contrary, the early Bantu-speaking groups tended to find places for the people they acquired and treated them as human resources of significant value in the complex politics of their neighborhoods and communities.
In the second phase, from roughly 500 to 1500
Some of these central political authorities eventually obtained commercial resources from Indian and later also Atlantic Ocean merchant networks. They used these imported goods, bought or borrowed on terms of commercial credit, as working capital to consolidate their positions locally. At first, they paid for what they had borrowed with low-investment exports of extracted commodities (ivory, gold, and other natural resources). Increasing extraction depleted resources and provoked greater borrowing to seek resources farther afield. Growing commercial credit soon inflated local competition and accelerated the needs for additional personnel to protect the initial windfall gains they had made. By the end of the 17th century, Atlantic merchants attempting to serve vast markets for captive Africans in American mines and plantations introduced goods in quantities that exceeded the capacities of African domestic economies to pay for them without resorting to raiding for captives to sell abroad to pay their debts.
So long as populations farther from the sea remained undisturbed and vulnerable to violent seizure and sale, Africans financed by growing Atlantic credit tended to retain more people than they had to sell off into the maritime trade. They were the profits from people kept in Africa and who increasingly populated expanding trading networks. As European investment grew, so did African indebtedness. For more than three centuries from the late 1500s until the second half of the 19th century, the resulting Atlantic “frontier of slaving violence” moved haltingly inland. The circumstances of the captives kept in regions closer to the coast grew correspondingly more contingent and abusive, vulnerable to being sold abroad, and the means of acquiring them became more violent. An Indian Ocean counterpart took shape in the later 1700s, and eastern and south-central Africa sank into violent displacements of whole populations. Commercial credit and slaving had enabled Bantu-speaking Africans to transform their world from communities dedicated to reproducing their members to warlords and bands of enslaved mercenaries that thrived by capturing people whom others had reproduced.
Commercialized slaving in Bantu-speaking Africa produced more captives for the export trades of both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans than from any other region of the continent, but slaving within the continent was also the principal strategy that people used there, over more than two thousand years, to create the major historical changes in their lives. Each succeeding historical context on growing geographical scales—increasingly politicized, and eventually commercialized—had been an outcome accomplished by the slaving developed in its predecessor.
The Soninke are an ancient West African ethnicity that probably gave rise to the much larger group that is called the Mande of which the Soninke are part. The Soninke language belongs to the northwestern Mande group but through the dynamism of its speakers has loaned many words and concepts to distant ethnic groups throughout the West African ecological zones. Mande groups such as the Malinke and Bambara may be descendants of the Soninke or a Proto-Soninke group. The Soninke are the founder of the first West African empire, Ghana, which they themselves call Wagadu, from the 6th to the 12th centuries
The study of the long-term history of what has been known since 1960 as the Islamic Republic of Mauritania is possible largely because of inhabitants’ early embrace of Islam in the 8th century. While research on the early pre-Islamic history of the region is limited by the availability of sources to primarily the archaeological, the arrival of Islam through trade networks crossing the Sahara from North Africa meant that Arab merchants and explorers supplied and produced knowledge about the region’s inhabitants, polities, and natural resources that was then written down in Arabic by Muslim chroniclers and historians. Early Muslims were largely Kharijite and Ibadi but the 11th-century Almoravid reformist and educational movement ensured that the region’s Muslims would predominantly follow Sunni Islam as defined by the Maliki school of law and ʿAshari theology. By the time the Almohad empire succeeded the Almoravid in the 12th century, important centers of Islamic scholarship were emerging in major trading towns in the Sahara and along the Senegal River. The expansion of Sufi thought and practice, the arrival of the Arabic-speaking Banu Hassan, and the subsequent development of political entities known as emirates occurred in ensuing centuries and played a part in the genesis of a social structure that valorized the Arabic language, the study of Islam, and claims of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The arrival of European merchants in the 15th century and the subsequent colonization of the region by the French led to rapid changes in the economic and cultural bases of political authority and social hierarchy, with colonial policy largely valorizing Sufi leaders as political interlocutors and community representatives. Independence from France in 1960 meant the establishment of an Islamic Republic whose laws are based on a mixed legal system of Maliki Islamic and French civil law. The basis of presidential rule is not religious in nature, though presidents have increasingly used a discourse of religion to legitimize their rule in the face of internal political opposition and external threats from extremist groups such as al-Qaʿeda.