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Stewart Davenport and Wiebe Boer


Abolitionists in Africa

Antislavery, evangelicalism, and the "American factor" in West Africa.

In his most recent work, Lamin Sanneh offers a novel perspective on nineteenth-century antislavery movements. Instead of the usual narratives of William Wilberforce in England or William Lloyd Garrison in America, Sanneh tells of the vital role Africans—albeit often Americanized or Anglicized Africans—played in the abolition of slavery both on their own continent and around the globe. Much of the existing scholarship on antislavery has focused on the arduous campaigns in England and the United States to destroy the political and economic structures that supported the peculiar institution. While these histories focus on the countries whose plantation systems and involvement in the transatlantic market created the demand for chattel slavery, Sanneh wants to draw our attention to the continent that supplied the slaves. The campaign to end slavery in the New World, he argues, "was only half the story."

Slavery in Africa was older than and in many ways more intractable than slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. From time immemorial, Africans had been enslaving one another. Selling captives to European and American slave traders—beginning around 1500—was a comparatively recent and much more lucrative variation on the common practice of capturing, trading, and selling slaves within the continent. In general, as Sanneh explains it, political existence in precolonial West Africa was exceedingly harsh. A leader's esteem, and therefore power, rested on the number of people he controlled—thus the incentive to enslave others and keep them enslaved. Distancing himself from those scholars who attempt to gloss over precolonial African slavery as a comparatively innocuous institution, Sanneh writes that the law of the land was "the law of the survival of the fittest, with no second chance for losers." Convincing a chief whose powers derived from this system to surrender his slaves, then, was tantamount to asking him to forfeit much of his political ...

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