Abolition in Africa brought longed-for freedoms, but also political turmoil, economic collapse and rising enslavement
Toby Green is professor of precolonial and lusophone African history and culture at King’s College, London. He is the author of A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (2019) and The Covid Consensus:
Edited by Sam Haselby
On one of my first visits to West Africa, more than 20 years ago, I went to the Fuuta Djalon (also known as Fouta Djallon) mountains of Guinea-Conakry. These beautiful mountains range across high waterfalls, cliffs and lonely paths leading from one village to another over high plateaux. Many settlements can be reached only by foot. In the colonial era, being sited a long way off the roads was a good means of protecting a community from being corralled into forced labour groups by the French colonial police. But in the preceding century, during the era of the abolition of the slave trade, keeping a low profile was also a wise approach.
In that 19th century, the Fuuta Djalon was home to one of the most powerful states in West Africa, a theocratic Islamic state founded in c1726. Fuuta Djalon’s capital at Timbo was ruled by Almamis (or commanders) with a political reach stretching to modern Guinea-Bissau and Senegal in the north, Sierra Leone in the south, and modern Mali to the east. The wealth of Fuuta derived initially from slave-raiding the neighbouring animist peoples – Jalonké to the north, Baga and Susu to the west, towards the Atlantic coast. However, from the beginning of the 19th century, the potential of slave-raiding diminished as the British campaign against the slave trade began after 1807. Freetown in neighbouring Sierra Leone became the centre of Britain’s Royal Naval West Africa Squadron, which patrolled the Atlantic looking for slaving vessels whose cargo would be taken to Freetown and ‘liberated’, forming the nucleus of Sierra Leone’s Krio communities. But this didn’t mean that slavery disappeared in West Africa with abolition: in fact, the prevalence of coerced labour increased, as the locus of production for the global commodities trade expanded to include West African plantations of groundnuts and palm oil.
One of the major sites for this kind of transformation was the Fuuta Djalon. And one morning, as I walked with my guide Abdoulai, and we left his village along a single-file track and climbed a hill to a neighbouring settlement, he turned and whispered to me: These people are the slaves of my village. What did he mean by this, I asked? The ancestors of these villagers had worked for his ancestors: his ancestors had accrued the wealth, and perhaps that was how, a century or more later, it was Abdoulai who had been able to raise money and leave to try his luck at working in distant Dakar, in Senegal. It turned out that, in the Fuuta Djalon, relations of dependence and power hadn’t been erased by French colonial rule in remote reaches of the mountains. Historical memories died hard: two centuries on, the impact of the abolition of slavery on reshaping local economies and relationships endured.
It’s one of the many privileges of being a historian of West Africa to be able to expand the frame of what counts as ‘research’ in ways such as this. With very few state archives on the continent stretching back for centuries, human experience and interaction is a vital part of understanding history, as stories, music, folklore and cuisine are all an important part of the historical record. With COVID-19 unravelling so many aspects of communities, grasping how human interactions beyond the screen are vital to shaping our understanding of ourselves and our societies has never been more important; I have found myself revisiting moments such as this in my own historical training, trying to understand how the process of globalisation facilitated a historical consciousness that might already be a relic of the past.
In the case of West Africa, the abolition era was central to the formation of historical consciousness. It was an era of the rewriting of history in the region, as revolutionary change saw old texts appropriated for new ends with interconnected revolutions overthrowing complacent aristocracies. Most of these movements were grounded in a theology of Islamic reform that swept across West Africa from northern Nigeria to Mali and southern Senegal in the first half of the 19th century. These currents arose to challenge the power of decaying aristocracies, many of which had grown rich from the slave trade. In northern Nigeria, the Hausa city states collapsed and were replaced by the Sokoto Caliphate founded by Shaihu Usman dan Fodio…