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This essay
will seek to assess the ways in which historians have coped with the challenges
of evidence in writing on precolonial slavery in Africa. Historians have long
been aware of the issues surrounding the kinds of sources they use in
reconstructing the past, particularly regarding precolonial societies in
Africa. Historians have found that the challenges they face in the attempt to study
precolonial slavery in Africa has been hindered by (1) the anxiousness to
dissociate slavery in Africa from its bad image posed by Western culture; and (2)
the sway held by colonial historiography. This will be further explored in the
first main paragraph. The remainder of the essay will focus on the historical
approaches fashioned to cope with the challenged mentioned above. For instance,
(1) the redefining of the term ‘slavery’; (2) the historical use of oral
tradition and; (3) the use of statistics to prove the existence and economic
importance of slavery. The essay will also seek to determine the usefulness of
these approaches, argue how these approaches attest to the existence of slavery
prior to colonialism and how slavery was incorporated into these precolonial

Many historians have been anxious to dissociate slavery in Africa
from its bad image with the hesitation to use this term ‘slavery’. According to
Davis, in Western cultures ‘slavery has
always posed a moral problem, a set of contradictions stemming from the duality
as a slave as property and yet a person’.1 Slavery
was common in precolonial African
societies, yet it differed from the Western system of ‘chattel slaves’-
where individuals are treated as complete property. However,
the fear of conjuring up negative connotations has led to the reluctance of historians
to produces works on slavery that focuses on slavery prior to colonialism. Moreover,
Ogot argues that ‘African history was for
the most part seen as the history of Europeans in Africa’.2
According to this historiography, Africa had no history. At the time, the
indigenous languages of African societies had no written form and it was argued
that history began with writing and thus with the arrival of the Europeans. Until
the end of the Second World War, most of Africa was under the yoke of colonialism,
therefore, African historiography was closely linked with the colonial period.
Consequently, any historical process was explained as the work of outsiders which
has failed to encompass the full extent of the institution of slavery in precolonial
African societies.

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have sort to cope with the challenges of evidence when writing on slavery in
precolonial Africa by redefining the term ‘slavery’. Kopytoff and Miers define
a slave as an ‘involuntarily acquired
outsider who are stripped of their natal kin affiliations and brought into a
new kin group’.3
Stilwell also reinterprets slavery as fully fledged individuals, not generic
The reinterpretation of slavery allows for the reassessment of some of the
main debates in the historiography of African slavery, which starts and ends
with ‘freedom’. The change in definition of what can be classified as a
‘slave’ neither focus on the harsher side of slavery nor romanticises it.
However, it allows new innovative arguments to develop. Such as the argument
presented by Kopytoff and Miers. They explore how indigenous African slavery
has been widely misunderstood by Westerners, basing their idea of African
slavery on that in the Americas. The essay draws attention to the sense of belonging
to a kin group, and stresses how this was more important to most African
societies than the dangerous marginal condition of freedom. Moreover, historians
are able to avoid false dichotomies between ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’, and to
talk, instead about relative degrees of kinship in these societies.


The incorporation of a marginalised outsider into the lineage
and the wider society is the central process has initiated the production of
scholarly work that has grasped this approach. By focusing on kinship,
historians are able to examine the conditions under which different aspects of
slavery emerge, the manner of acquiring slaves, the uses for them, their social
status and treatment. For instance, Robertson and Klein hone in on the positon
of men and women slaves in precolonial African societies. They stress that
these communities were more inclined to have more female and children slaves
than male slaves. Primarily, due to the belief that women and children were
easy to assimilate into new kinship families and societies.5 The
re-examination of the term ‘slavery’ has been useful in the study of
precolonial African history as it illustrates how slavery was an integral part
of individual African societies. However, it should be taken into consideration
that the emergence of this new school of written works on slavery in
precolonial societies conversely seem to be absent of assessments on important
centres of slave owning and slave dealing societies; for example, the Asante
tribe in Ghana and the Igbo tribe in Nigeria. However, it could be argued that,
despite the obvious limitations, these works, such as Robertson and Klein, do
not wholly retract from the usefulness of redefining the term ‘slavery’.

The use of
oral tradition has proved valuable and reliable when constructing the history
of slavery in precolonial Africa. Oral history will be defined as followed:
verbal messages which are statements from the past beyond the present
generations6. This historiographical revolution gave the study of
precolonial African history both scholarly justification and the
self-confidence that it had been lacking. King argues in her paper, ‘The Role of Oral Traditions in African
History’, that the functions of oral traditions ‘shed light on the ways of life of the societies concerned, thus making
it possible for the historian to reconstruct the society’s history.’7
Echoing King’s argument, Hawthorne picks up on the significance of oral
tradition in his book on stateless societies on the upper Guinea coast. Hawthorne
claims that history has to be made through cracking ‘culturally encoded clues’8
which is buried in informal conversations and oral traditions. Oral memoirs
documented the past and the ‘historical
poems and songs are intended to pass onto the next generation an account of
important events’.9
Hawthorne cites, that Africanist historians use the source of oral tradition
and unwritten accounts as there is a dearth of written insider sources. This is
due to the fact, that most indigenous languages historically have no written
form. Unlike most Western civilisations, African societies favoured oral
tradition and few possessed written languages.

The oral-based past of Africa remains promising as it ‘stems away from using outsider sources which
only focus on these societies following the introduction of the slave trade’10.
For instance, oral history enhances the notion that slaves acquired certain
rights and privileges. Slaves had the right to be fed, clothed, housed and
granted the privileges of children while staying with their owners. They had
the right to marry. They could marry among themselves or marry free people.
Among the Sena of Mozambique, when a female slave married into another lineage,
the Patron received the bride wealth. Additionally, among the Wolof and the
Serer of Senegambia, the head of the lineage was obliged not only to feed and
clothe his slaves but also to find spouses for his slaves.11
However, it is noteworthy to stress that a case study, by Bezemer, Bolt and
Lensink, reference that precolonial slavery included ‘large scale violence, social identity loss and disenfranchisement that
indigenous slaves experienced’12.
Notably, not all slaves and free persons were equals in some precolonial African
societies. In the Asante tribe of Ghana, people entered into slavery by an
act of violence which stripped them of their social identity in their own
kinship system; to be only marginally integrated into a foreign kinship system.
(Bezemer)Furthermore, slaves in precolonial African societies were obtained
by means of raiding and kidnapping, warfare or as tribute paid by conquered

Yet, these
sources should be met with caution, as many of these oral histories have either
been forgotten or distorted. Likewise, without the luxury of written
sources, many oral historians have had to be creative in discovering new
sources to document the continent’s past. Henige discusses many of the
problems of collecting traditions, including the use of individual or group
interviews, the decision to learn local languages or use interpreters, the
ethics of interviewing. In doing so, Henige reminds us of the degree to
which interviews varying according to the historical interests and questions of
the interviewer; the knowledge, willingness and performance of the interviewee.13 However,
the suggestion made from King, that a historian can overcome the limitations by
becoming ‘familiar with the culture in
which the oral traditions flourish…then the historian can produce an
authentic history of the society whose oral traditions he/she has collected’14 aids
the notion that oral traditions could be argued as useful to cope with the
challenges noted in the introduction. Therefore, one should not presume that
oral tradition lacks credibility, but should view this historical approach as a
means to give historians an insight of precolonial African civilisations; to
see how slaves where assimilated into these communities and the right and
privileges they attained.

Furthermore, the use of statistics to prove the
existence and economic importance of slavery can been regarded as valuable. The use of statistically
analysis strengthen the reliability of conclusions made by historians and, to a
certain extent, aids in the evasion of the challenges stated in the essay. This
approach, studies the links made between current economic issues apparent in
countries in Africa – known for their participation in the slave trade – to precolonial
African societies, which had partaken in and housed extensive indigenous slaving
systems. Moreover, these in-depth studies fashioned the generalised conclusion,
that slaves were treated as a commodity in these precolonial societies. It
should be remembered that, as stated in the introduction, most observations
made on slavery in precolonial Africa were made in the period of colonial rule.
Klein stresses that this has, ‘deprived
ruling native elites of their capacity to coerce’15,
therefore, historically, observations made have been the portrayed in a milder
form. Nevertheless, that is not to say that approach lack significance is
determining the economic importance of slaves in precolonial Africa.

This particular historical approach has successfully been
used by Bezemer, Bolt and Lensink in their case study ‘Indigenous Slavery in Africa’s History: Conditions and Consequences’.
Their primal aim was to document how the existence of slavery in precolonial
Africa shaped its prevalence and its impact on Africa’s long-term development. Inadvertently,
the case study highlights how precolonial slavery was an institution by which
laid claim to 63% of countries in Africa and was the centre of most economies. They
attempt to link how the correlation between countries with a high indigenous
slave population to a high-level slave export during the Trans- Atlantic Slave
Trade justifies the notion that an extensive system of slavery was apparent in
these societies. For example, almost all the states conquered by the Asante
tribe, who were heavily involved in the slave trade, from 1700 to the latter
half of the 1800 paid annual tributes in slaves to the Asante tribe, which
accounted for the continual increasing exports of Slave to the Europeans during
this time. Slavery was placed at the core of Ghana’s precolonial states,
whose economy was almost totally dependent on slave labour.16
Therefore, it can be seen that, historians have used this historical approach
as not only does the use of statistically analysis strengthen the reliability
of conclusions made by historians, but it allows one to grasp the subtle implications
that slavery in precolonial Africa was pivotal for the economy.

To conclude, it can be seen to a large extent, that
historians have been able to cope with the challenges of evidence in
writing on precolonial slavery in Africa. Regardless of the clear limitations,
the usefulness of these approaches are deemed significant as they lay emphasis
on the pre-existing institution of slavery in precolonial African societies. Additionally,
the rise of new scholarly works has been able to draw attention on the
definition of ‘slavery’, the importance of kinship ties and, how it was a vital
system providing economic stability, though this is argued to a lesser extent.

1 The Problem of Slavery
in African Studies Author(s): Frederick Cooper pg. 103

2 Ogot, General History of
Africa pg. 71

3 Bledsoe, Slavery in Africa:
Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, pg. 298

4 Stilwell, Defining slavery, defining freedom, pg. 5

5 Klein and Robertson, Women
and Slavery in Africa

6 King, The
Role of Oral Traditions in African History, pg. 42

7 Ibid, pg. 42

8 Hawthorne, Planting Rice and
Harvesting Slaves. Transformations Along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400-1900, pg.

9 King, The
Role of Oral Traditions in African History, pg. 43

10 Hawthorne, Planting Rice and
Harvesting Slaves. Transformations Along the Guinea-Bissau Coast, 1400-1900, pg.

11 Perbi, Slavery and the Slavery and the Slave Trade in Pre-Colonial Africa, pg. 9

12 Bezemer,
Bolt and Lensink, Indigenous Slavery in Africa’s History: Conditions
and Consequences,
pg. 28

13 Spear, Methods and
Sources for African History Revisited: Writing African History, pg. 311

14 King, The
Role of Oral Traditions in African History, pg. 43

15 Klein, ‘The Study of Slavery in Africa’ pg.

16 Bezemer,
Bolt and Lensink, Indigenous Slavery in Africa’s History: Conditions
and Consequences,
pg. 7

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