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Ritual Enslavement in West Africa  

Michael Odijie

Ritual slavery occurs when humans become properties of deities. Ritual slaves fulfill religious purposes for their deity owners, although they may also serve as slaves to a deity’s representative, such as a shrine priest. The transatlantic slave trade altered the ritual slavery practices of communities that were influenced by the slave trade. The abolition of the slave trade also affected the trajectory of ritual slavery. Ritual slavery generally escaped colonial emancipation and the abolition of domestic slavery. As a result, ritual enslavement presents an opportunity to study African indigenous movements for abolition and emancipation, as the colonial administration was typically unconcerned with it and local abolition groups emerged to combat it. The study of ritual enslavement in West Africa mostly focuses on two cases where a domestic campaign evolved. The first is trokosi, which is practiced by the Ga-Adangbe, Fon, and Ewe ethnic groups on Africa’s west coast. Trokosi is the practice of sacrificing young girls to local deities as a means of atonement for misdeeds done by family members. Once dedicated, the girls become slaves of the deity and are typically placed in the custody of the shrine priest, who represents the deity on earth. The second instance is Osu, which is practiced by the Igbo ethnic group in contemporary Nigeria. Osu are people dedicated to becoming properties of the deities. While the majority of the literature has concentrated on trokosi and Osu, owing to the campaign against them, there are other cases for scholars to examine.

Article

British Antislavery and West Africa  

Padraic Scanlan

Resistance to slavery within African societies was as complex and heterogeneous as slavery itself. For enslaved Africans and their descendants taken by force to Europe’s colonies in the Americas, antislavery was an existential struggle. Among European states, Britain was among the first imperial powers to pass laws abolishing its slave trade (in 1807) and slavery in its colonies (in 1833). Antislavery was a transnational phenomenon, but Britain made suppressing the Atlantic slave trade an element of its foreign policy, employing a Royal Navy squadron to search for slave ships, pressing African leaders to sign anti-slave-trade treaties as a condition of trade and coordinating an international network of anti-slave-trade courts. And yet, for many leading British abolitionists, “Africa” was an ideological sandbox—an imagined blank space for speculation and experiment on the development of human societies and the progress of “civilization.” In the 18th century, early British critics of the transatlantic slave trade argued that “Africa” presented an unparalleled commercial and imperial opportunity. Although the slave trade—and the plantations in the Americas that slave ships supplied with labor—were profitable, some argued that slave-trading regions could, with enough investment, produce goods and commodities that would be many times more lucrative. Moreover, if Britain were the first European power to abolish the slave trade, it might also be among the first to gain a territorial foothold on African soil. Over time, these arguments coalesced into the concept of “legitimate commerce.” A combination of Christian teaching, slave-trade suppression, and commercial incentives would persuade slave-trading polities to give up the practice and instead produce other goods. Legitimate commerce intertwined with a theory of civilization that held that any society that enslaved people was so degenerate in its social development that nearly any reform or intervention was justifiable. By the end of the 19th century, antislavery became a justification for European conquest. There were at least three broad reform projects launched by British officials and merchants in Africa in the name of antislavery. First, drawing on critiques of the slave trade from the 18th century that emphasized the commercial potential of legitimate commerce, antislavery activists and politicians argued for replacing the slave trade with new kinds of export-oriented commerce. Second, in two colonies, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Britain and the United States experimented with the possibility of using Black people from the African diaspora as settlers and missionaries. In Sierra Leone, more than seventy thousand people, usually known as “Liberated Africans,” were repatriated from slave ships into the small colony. Third, in the mid-19th century, as the transatlantic slave trade declined, Britain and other European powers invested heavily in African plantation agriculture, particularly in cotton and palm oil monocrops.

Article

Women in West African History  

Barbara Cooper

Across West Africa up to the 19th century, titled positions for women ensured that women’s interests could be voiced and their disputes regulated. Women often had major roles as brokers and intermediaries in trade centers along the Saharan and Atlantic littorals, contributing to the emergence of powerful Euro-African families. Nevertheless, women were particularly vulnerable to the depredations of the trans-Saharan and Atlantic slave trades. Because female labor was so highly valued, female slaves were more expensive than male slaves. The history of women in West Africa has been characterized by marked differences by ecological zone. Those differences have been deepened by Islamic influences in the North and by different experiences under French, British, and Portuguese rule. With the decline in the Atlantic trade and the growing emphasis upon commodity production, the demand for female labor in agriculture and in processing rose. Under colonial rule, the loss of slave labor was partially offset by increasing demands upon the labor of wives. Women mediated demands upon their labor through colonial courts, with some success in the early decades of the 20th century. Later courts and administrators supported patriarchal controls upon women in the interests of order and a smoothly running economy. Women’s control over their traditional means of accumulating wealth through farming, cloth production, and specialized crafts was typically undermined as economies shifted to emphasize cash crop production and tree crops in particular. Women nevertheless could flourish in market trade and could sometimes gain control over new niches in the economy. The growth of colonial infrastructure had contradictory implications. Women’s traditionally important roles as queens, priestesses, and ritual specialists declined in importance. At the same time, schooling gave some women access to new means of gaining income and prestige as teachers and medical practitioners.

Article

Liberated Africans  

Richard Anderson

“Liberated Africans” refers to a group of African-born men, women, and children intercepted by naval forces from slave ships and slave trading factories in the Atlantic and Indian oceans as part of the 19th-century campaign to abolish the transoceanic slave trade from Africa. Following the passage of Britain’s 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the British Royal Navy patrolled both the Atlantic and Indian oceans in order to suppress the external trade from Africa. Captured vessels were taken to a series of Vice-Admiralty courts, and later Mixed Commission courts, located in Freetown, Sierra Leone; Havana, Cuba; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Tortola; Cape Town, South Africa; James Town, St. Helena; Luanda, Angola; and Port Luis, Mauritius. Naval interdiction by Brazil, Portugal, the United States, and other powers resulted in a smaller number of cases brought before unilateral anti-slave-trade tribunals. Between 1808 and 1896, this complex tribunal network “liberated” approximately 214,000 Africans who survived the Middle Passage. Perhaps 75,000 of these individuals were settled in Sierra Leone; the remainder were settled in the British Caribbean, Brazil, Cuba, Liberia, and British colonies and outposts from the Gambia, Cape Colony, and Mauritius, to Mombasa, Zanzibar, and Bombay. The arrival of an estimated 192,000 Liberated Africans into Atlantic ports continued through the demise of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1860s. In the Indian Ocean, approximately 22,000 Liberated Africans disembarked in East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India as a result of a highly uneven British naval campaign from 1808 into the 1890s. Many Liberated Africans experienced very liminal freedom. Adults and children were apprenticed to colonial inhabitants for periods of up to fourteen years. Men were conscripted into the British West India Regiments and Royal African Corps. Many women were forcibly married to strangers soon after arrival. Approximately one out of every four Liberated Africans underwent a second oceanic passage, most of them forcibly relocated to the British West Indies. The settlement of Liberated Africans—referred to by British officials as their “disposal”—represented a sizable involuntary African migration into and across the British Empire in the decades after the abolition of the British slave trade. Their arrival brought with it a lasting linguistic and cultural impact in many colonial societies. The descendants of Liberated Africans remain identifiable communities in many postcolonial societies from Africa to the Caribbean.