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Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1806–1891  

Oluwatoyin Oduntan

The case for narrating the history of slavery and emancipation through the biography of enslaved Africans is strongly supported by the life and experiences of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Kidnapped into slavery in 1821, recaptured and settled in Sierra Leone in 1822, he became a missionary in 1845, founder of the Niger mission in 1857, and Bishop of the Niger Mission in 1864. His life and career covered the span of the 19th century during which revolutionary forces like jihadist revolutions, the abolition of the slave trade, the rise of a new Westernized elite, and European colonization created the roots of the modern state system in West Africa. He was intricately tied to the Christian Missionary Society (CMS), Britain’s antislavery evangelical movement, resulting in Ajayi becoming the poster face of slavery, its acclaimed product of abolitionism, the preeminent advocate of evangelical emancipation, and the organizer of practical emancipation in West Africa. The leader of a very small group of Africans who worked diligently against the slave trade and domestic slavery, Ajayi also became a victim of the use of that agenda by imperialists. Thus, the contrasts of his life (i.e., slavery/freedom, nationalist/hybrid, preacher/investor, leader/weakling, linguist/literalist, etc.) were celebrated by himself, his patrons, and his evangelical followers on one hand, and denounced by his critics on the other. They underline the disagreements over his legacy, and indeed over the understanding of the institution of slavery, abolition, and emancipation in West Africa.

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The Wisconsin School of African History  

Joseph C. Miller

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a prominent producer of doctorates in African history since 1963. As of 2017 the institution had granted more than 110 degrees. Philip D. Curtin and Jan Vansina, both pioneers in launching the field, led the program until 1975 and were joined in 1969 by Steven Feierman. Together, they supervised an initial cohort of graduates, several of whom became leaders of the then still-formative field, particularly in its methodological infrastructure, as well as in economic and demographic history, slavery in Africa and the Atlantic slave trade, and medical history. The distinguishing features qualifying a diverse array of individual intellectual trajectories as a coherent “school” include a focus on epistemologically historical approaches anchored in the intellectual perspectives of Africans as historical actors and often also as they engaged broader commercial Atlantic and Indian Ocean and world contexts; smaller numbers of more recent doctorates had subsequently sustained these orientations. Former graduates of the program, William W. Brown, David Henige, and Thomas T. Spear, returned after 1975 to update this framework by bringing social theory and cultural history to bear on the African historical actors at the program’s core. Since 2005, a third generation of faculty members, Neil Kodesh, James Sweet, and Emily Colacci (all students of Wisconsin PhDs teaching at other institutions), have added contemporary approaches to the Wisconsin school’s continuing commitment to Africans’ distinctive epistemologies as they engaged the flows of modern global history. Professionally, Madison graduates have, accordingly, led the ongoing effort to bring Africa in from its initial marginality—as the continent seen as uniquely without a history—into the historical discipline’s core. An aphoristic summary of the Wisconsin legacy might be “Africans’ worlds and Africans in the world.”