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Reviews of The Bitter Legacy: African Slavery Past and Present

“Historians Alice Bellagamba, Sandra E. Greene and Martin Klein’s edited volume makes a unique contribution to the study of the African slave trade in its highlighting of the voices of men and women of slave ancestry and ownership within the continent of Africa. Their approach is a divergence from the prevailing emphasis on exploring the legacy of the slave trade and slavery in a trans-Atlantic context.

“The editors’ introduction not only contextualizes each individual contributor’s chapters as part of the larger project, but it also offers revelations about the system of African slavery in pre-colonial Africa and post-trans-Atlantic slave trade abolition when, as the editors remark, ‘Slave-raiding and slave-trading within Africa remained not only an important form of economic activity… it accelerated’ (p. 94). As such, they elucidate a history that would most likely be outside the purview of the majority of scholars, most of whom focus on the trans-Atlantic trade.

“There are several themes that run through the chapters. For example, as the editors make clear, the history of the slave trade and slavery is inextricably tied to memories of it. This dialectical relationship can be seen, for example, in Emmanuel Saboro’s chapter on songs sung during harvest festivals amongst the Bulsa of the terror that a particular slave raider spread in the community and the people’s triumph over him, and in Damian Opata’s exploration of several Igbo proverbs that ‘both narrate and memorize slavery’ (p. 54). It can also be found in Makjnroufi Qusmane Traoré’s interviews with descendants of slaves and descendants of nobles. As Traoré concludes, the sources show the different ways in which the two groups narrate their common past (p. 203). Other reoccurring themes are the tensions that exist between the metaphorical vestiges of slavery and physical manifestations of it. While there are references to slavery in the language of all of these communities that engaged in historical slavery, and people still operate within the framework of the concomitant power dynamics, the physical evidence of past master-slave relationships are still being resolved. This can be found, for example, in Lotte Pelckmans’s discussion about the fact that manumission documents were still being considered necessary by descendants of slaves in Mali as late as 1992, or in the resistance to his questions about slavery G. Ugo Nwokeji faced when he conducted ethnographic research amongst the Aro in the Bight of Biafra.

“All of the chapters explore the stigma attached to the descendants of slaves and the different ways that people try to negotiate this history that also shapes their contemporary realities. For example, Eric Komlavi Hahonou’s article addresses the various state-sanctioned methods he deployed to overcome the stigma of slavery, as does Pelckmans’s. Alessandra Brivio’s chapter on the Mami Tchamba Shrine in Togo explores how both the descendants of slaves and enslavers work through the history through ritual and ceremony.

“Religion features heavily in the majority of the chapters, with Islam being both a site of endorsement and a site of resistance to one’s status as slave. Alice Bellagamba and Martin Klein state explicitly in their chapter that one of the documents they used in their research ‘clearly reasserts the role of Islam as a force for liberation’ (p. 164), while Pelckman’s chapter demonstrates how intertwined Islam and nobility were. As she states, ‘Islam and nobility in the Haatre region became entangled over time and [were] expressed in honor codes’ (p. 67). Her discussion of manumission elucidates how ‘moral boundaries based on inequality’ (p. 66) are reinforced in the Muslim-supported self-manumission system.

“Several authors also address issues of methodology. For example, Hahonou alerts the reader to the redundancies and tangents in the interview that is central to his chapter, remarking that Jie left them in so that the reader could get a feel for what ethnographic material looks like (p. 30). Again, Nwokeji goes into great detail about the challenges he faced when he tried to interview ‘respondents’ about the slave trade. One chapter that seems to defy classification is Zacharie Sana’s retelling of two twentieth-century slave narratives from Cameroon. One of the narratives is a gem because it is evidence not only of slavery’s legacy, but of its persistence, as it tells the story of a man who was enslaved until 1968.

“All of the authors rely primarily on the voices of the descendants of slaves and some also on those of the enslavers for their arguments. Their methodology is in line with the stated goal of the text: to present a ‘first-hand account of sources, which gives voice, as far as possible, either to former slaves or to men and women of slave ancestry’ (p. 3). As such, each chapter offers a glimpse into very complex negotiations within communities that are haunted — by the slave trade, by slavery and its legacy.

“One of the text’s unique contributions is its giving names and histories to both slaves and enslavers, not just numbers and statistics. In doing so, it adds a human dimension to a vast system that has extended across centuries and geographical boundaries to determine the presents and futures of Africa’s population. Its strength is also linked to a weakness in that the text’s confinement to West Africa leaves out other parts of the continent that were also affected by slavery and are also dealing with its legacy. While it is understandable that the editors could not address the legacy of slavery in every region of Africa, it is problematic that they allow West Africa to stand in for the entire continent, as indicated by the book’s title.

“The text would be useful in an upper-level undergraduate course as well as to scholars who are interested in learning more about the slave trade, slavery, and its legacy in West Africa.”
— Toni Pressley-Sanon, University at Buffalo African Studies Quarterly