When we think of slavery, most of us think of the racially based slavery that existed in the United States and ultimately sparked a civil war. Very few Americans know that slavery was common throughout the world as well as in Africa, says Sandra E. Greene, History.
Greene’s research focuses on the history of slavery in West Africa, especially Ghana, where warring political communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries enslaved their enemies, and the impact can still be felt today. “Slavery in the United States ended in 1865,” says Greene, “but in West Africa it was not legally ended until 1875, and then it stretched on unofficially until almost World War I. Slavery continued because many people weren’t aware that it had ended, similar to what happened in Texas after the United States Civil War.”
While 11 to 12 million people are estimated to have been exported as slaves from West Africa during the years of the slave trade, millions more were retained in Africa. “It’s not something that many West African countries talk about,” says Greene. “It’s not exactly a proud moment because everyone now realizes that slavery is not acceptable.”
Cases of Three Slave Owners
Greene has written a series of books, examining the nature of slavery in West Africa—how it operated and what forms it took. Her latest book, Slave Owners of West Africa: Decision-Making in the Age of Abolition (Indiana University Press, 2017), looks at three slave owners and their responses to the abolition of slavery in the late eighteen hundreds. “Each responded in a different way,” says Greene, “but their responses were not unique to them. I wanted to look at their reasons for what they did and the long-term consequences of their decisions.”
One of the three slave owners Green studied vigorously resisted abolition. “He moved his slaves outside British territory where slavery was still legal, so he could continue to have them,” says Greene. “Some of them escaped, but the rest continued to be slaves and eventually their descendants became part of the family but at a lower status than those members of the family descended from nonslaves.”
On the other hand, another slave owner saw a better way to keep the prestige and power he enjoyed as a slave owner with many people under his rule. He chose to incorporate his slaves into his family. “He sent the best and brightest to England for schooling,” says Greene. “They became doctors and lawyers, and some staffed his business as accountants. His family became extremely prosperous. He offered them opportunities so that they decided to stay with him of their own free will. To this day, that family is very prominent, highly educated, and cohesive. They don’t distinguish between the origins of family members but instead support all members of the family equally.”
The third slave owner, also a prominent man in the community, had suffered setbacks and lost faith in the traditional African religious organization. “He converted to Christianity and took it very seriously,” says Greene. “As a result, he freed his slaves but did not incorporate them into the family. Some probably left and some stayed, but we don’t know what happened to them.”
Slavery by Kinship
The histories of these three slave owners and their slaves show the importance of origin in West Africa. “They didn’t have racial slavery,” explains Greene. “The distinction was, and is, by kinship. People there are very clear about an individual’s background, and they retain oral records of who is who within a family. In some families slave origins still matter, even today.”
“They didn’t have racial slavery,” explains Greene. “The distinction was, and is, by kinship.”
Greene mentions a recent court case in Ghana that highlights the legacy of slavery in that country. A prominent chieftaincy was disputed within a very large family. Two branches of the family offered up possible candidates for the position. Then the branch descended from freeborn ancestors asserted that the other branch—descended from slaves—did not have the right to such an important position. The issue went all the way to the Ghana Supreme Court. “The court said, ‘This is a family concern, so whatever the family thinks, is right,’” says Greene. In essence, the court denied the right of the slave descendants to hold a position of power.
Varying Experiences of the Enslaved
In her previous book, West African Narratives of Slavery: Texts from Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Ghana (Indiana University, 2011), Greene wanted to come as close as possible to understanding the personal experiences of enslaved individuals. To do that, she explored the personal histories of men and women who were enslaved, as well as stories told by communities who saw their friends and relatives taken as slaves.
In one of these narratives, a former slave who was captured in a conflict spoke about his masters in a positive manner, emphasizing their love for him. This same man had endured a bitter experience as a child when his own extended family gave him to another family to work off his family’s debt. “He felt betrayed by his own family,” says Greene. “I argue that this colored how he remembered his slave experience. He filtered everything through that earlier abandonment and betrayal. I don’t believe his slave experience was as loving as he claimed. To understand people’s experience of slavery and how they talked about it, you have to understand their entire life experience.”
In another narrative, a woman was kidnapped and enslaved just five miles from her hometown, but she was cut off from everyone she had known. She became the slave wife of a man who already had two free wives. Eventually her master-husband converted to Christianity and proposed to keep only one wife and divorce the other two. The wife he kept would have to convert to Christianity. “The free wives didn’t want to convert,” says Greene. “The slave wife didn’t want to either, but she didn’t feel she had a choice. She had nowhere to go. So she converted and became technically free, but she had no family to support her and was still completely under her husband’s control.”
Narratives like these give a context and a human face to the experience of slavery, and that is Greene’s aim. “For many people Africa is a map full of stereotypes,” she says. “You hear about war, famine, atrocities, corruption, but all of this is affecting individual people, and they’re reacting the same way anyone would react. I’m trying to make a connection between readers here who know nothing about Africa and individual Africans. These are people with feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams, who experience joys as much as they also experience tragedy and disappointment. They are not just statistics.”