The History of a Slave

In 1889, the British colonial official Sir Harry Johnston published The History of a Slave, a story of an archetypal slave based on Johnston’s extensive knowledge of North and West Africa from his travels there. The tale follows the fictitious slave from the grasslands of Cameroon northward through the commercial centers of the Sudan, at the time part of the Sokoto empire in what is now Nigeria. Eventually, the slave is taken across the Sahara to North Africa, where he recounts his experiences to his Muslim master. The details of life as an African slave come from accounts given personally to Johnston by slaves in the Barbary States and in West Equatorial Africa, particularly by Mbudikum people — slaves who witnessed cannibalism, brutal public executions, rape and torturous forced migrations, but also the inner workings of the Sultan’s court and the Sultan’s army. The original book was published together with some 47 illustrations of scenes in Africa that were drawn by Johnston, and are reproduced in this edition with a new introduction and annotations by Paul Lovejoy.


Sir Harry Johnston, author, was a British colonial official and one of the key players in the “scramble for Africa” that took place on the continent and in Europe in the late nineteenth century.

Paul E. Lovejoy (York University), editor, is the author of Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, co-editor of The Biography of Baquaqua, and editor of Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam.