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Slave? What Slave?

A Study of the Traditional Systems of African Servitude

November 02, 2003
By Ayanna

The argument that slavery was a system endemic in Africa, to which the Atlantic Slave Trade was simply incidental, was one that was used by anti- abolitionists, slave traders and later Eurocentric historians in an attempt to justify chattel slavery in the Americas and downplay the damage done to the African continent and its indigenous societies by European capitalist intervention. Similar sentiments expressed by these interest groups also stated that not only was slavery widespread and an entrenched element of African societies before and during European intervention, but that the European trade simply shifted the location and not the character of slavery, giving the impression that slaves were abundant and simply awaiting purchase by Europeans from their African masters. It was even stated that greater good was done by exporting Africans to the Americas where they would be under the " civilizing" influence of Europeans (Inikori, 156) . As we examine the question of the existence of slavery in African society before the 1400's and attempt to determine the nature and extent of such a system, the supporting views stated above must be taken as extensions of the 'conventional view' of African slavery in order for us to put it in its proper context. The creators of this view, in dictating that their slave trade was legitimate because it already existed among the people they intended to enslave, assumed a uniform definition of slavery and attempted to equate a uniquely European term and system with a very different system in Africa. Upon closer examination of the nature of the indigenous African systems of servitude in comparison with European and Arab chattel slavery, we will see that the word " slavery" in this context is not at all applicable and creates a distorted view of the complex systems of dependency that existed on the African continent for centuries. While it will be shown that varying states of 'unfreedom' did exist as part of complex, kinship-based traditional African societies, not only were the systems incomparable to European and Arab chattel slavery, but they existed on a relatively small domestic scale until the intervention of European interests. It was only when European interests became more deeply entrenched in the societies by the 17th and 18th century, that we see the increased external demand for labour and the resulting exploitation of African power structures, significantly altering the nature of the systems and causing them to resemble the chattel slavery of the Europeans.

A critical examination of the complex nature of African systems of servitude raises several questions. What have we defined as slavery? Is this definition uniform in time and space? And indeed if such slavery was endemic in Africa before the Atlantic Slave Trade, what were its defining characteristics? If these characteristics were found to be more dynamic then static, what were the influences that altered its character? The word "slave" is said to have originated in Europe when Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe were seized and exploited for their labour in conditions that resembled that of European chattel slavery in the Americas. It can be said that this was not just linguistic commonality but that the term 'slavery' was then synonymous with that particular system of chattel slavery. If one examines the nature of systems of so-called slavery throughout history, we will observe well-ordered, complex systems of servitude that did not involve the severe dislocation, inhumanity, and the creation of a continued underclass, as did that of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

It is critical that a working definition of slavery be sought. J.D Fage asserted that, "a slave was a man or woman who was owned by another person, whose labour was regarded as having economic value, and whose person had a commercial value" (Fage, 156). Others see the term slavery as applying strictly to chattel slavery, where the rights of the individual are completely absent. While the common link between almost all the definitions of slavery has been the ownership of the individual by another and this may seem to be a perfectly logical definition, the complexities and differences in the states of such people, the conditions of such ownership and the preservation of inalienable human rights varied so widely from country to country that it is difficult to develop a static idea of what constitutes slavery. In African societies, servitude was akin to an arranged marriage, whereas Chattel slavery was a state organized Economic institution. While there were persons who did exist in various states of bondage and sometimes purely as commodities, many of them possessed and effectively retained the inalienable human rights of free men and women. In traditional African systems of kinship, the members of lineage groups " owned" their members who then constituted lineage wealth. Everyone in the community is dependent upon or bound to another to some extent, whether slave or free. To say that a slave is simply the property or another does not adequately describe the condition of bonded dependents in an African context.

It is clear that European explorers, merchants and slavers who observed systems of what they termed 'slavery' operating in African societies had a poor understanding of the communal nature of the African ethos and the nature of family and kinship ties. Mbaye Gueye makes an astute observation: "The African ideal is that of a community existence based on powerful family ties with a view to a well ordered secure life. People only count as far as they are part of a harmonious, homogenous entity" (Gueye) What we see is a focus on community over individuality; persons' individual rights only exist as far as it benefits the community. As observed among the Fulani and the Bu Kerebe tribes, children who were abandoned by their own people were taken under servitude, in which case the child would then owe his saviors lifelong service. Also, adults and children could be bartered for grain in times of famine to save the rest of the group. To complicate the issue even further, the nature of these dependencies varied decidedly from state to state, in terms of acquisition, the factors that would allow someone to legally become 'enslaved', and the condition of these bonded individuals. Unredeemed hostages taken in times of war could end up in servitude, and in compensation for homicide a child of the offending clan could be taken into servitude by the clan of the victim. This particular circumstance was immortalized in the novel based on Igbo culture, Things Fall Apart (Achebe), where a child of the offending clan was sent to serve the family of one of the leading clansmen of the wronged clan. This was a sort of peace offering to prevent the clans going to war. What is to be noted in this example is that, for the most part, the child was incorporated into the family and was seen as a son. The servants/dependents did not form a separate class of labourers for the clan. The dependent could play as minor or as major a role in the clan as the elders saw fit. Some provided extra wives and children to expand a kin group, were labour to till the fields, soldiers for warfare, or they served as trading agents and officials at court.

In what was probably the most comprehensive of all the studies on the nature of African systems of servitude and dependence, authors Igor Kopytoff and Suzanne Miers in their seminal work, African Slavery as an Institution of Marginality, explore this unique systemin contrast to the European concept of enslavement. It is important to note that the African slave in the West was first and foremost a commodity. His rights as a human being were completely denied and he was granted no disability privileges, His reason for being was the extraction of his physical labour in the service of his master. His enslavement was a divinely-sanctioned condition, the result of his inferior race, culture and undeniable spiritual paucity. While his labour began as simply the meeting of a demand for much needed human resources, the racism and inhumanity that swept the western world as a result of the European slave trade and slave systems were unique to that system. The African slave in the Americas was a class apart. His progeny inherited his status, without exception. He had no means of becoming free, and no control over his destiny. His enslavement was life-long, and he could be killed and mistreated with impunity.

In the hierarchical and complex social organization of African states, the concepts of freedom and slavery were often difficult to disentangle. The Kopytoff– Miers' work borrows an anthropological term, 'rights-in-persons' which describes the strictly organized right of each person within the context of his or her social environment (Kopytoff-Miers) An excellent example of this is the tradition of the 'bride price' in patriarchal societies and the complete right of husband over the bodies of his wives and children and other members of his household. In matrilineal societies, the right to claim the children of the offspring is in the hands of the mother's line and is not transferred to the father. This shows the intrinsic dependency of each person in the society on another. While the wife is bound to her husband who can demand her labour, loyalty and sexual fidelity in exchange for protection and shelter, she cannot be called a 'slave' in the European sense of the word. Thus we see that persons are bound along a continuum of disabilities and are bound or restricted to a greater or lesser degree. (Uchendu). It is this basic premise that forms the foundation of the social organization of most African societies and what Europeans observed and erroneously termed African slavery.

What marks the dependent's condition in African contexts is the versatility and multiplicity of his status. Slaves were used to support, build and assist at all levels of the society, and thus in many societies that were still pre-currency, the human resource was the most powerful determinant of wealth, and ensured the effective survival of the clan. This is a world apart from the circumstances and conditions of African slavery in the Americas. There, slaves served the sole purpose of provision of labour, and would forever remain in an exploited underclass. There was no mobility or prospect of freedom and the reasons for acquisition were uniform. Slaves in the Americas were not human beings; they were merchandise. Thus when European slavers, anti-abolitionists and historians stated that the slave condition was already present in African societies and all they did was shift the location of the labour, they were not only wrong, but engaging in a mischievous distortion of the facts. While many Africans did exist in various states of bondage, it is there that the comparison with European-American slavery ends. African servitude cannot be fully understood simply within the triad of land, labour demands and capital (Miers & Kopytoff) While in the Americas slaves were an exploited underclass that propped up the economic and social fabric of the society, African dependents were part and parcel of the fabric of society.

While we have explored the nature of the indigenous African systems of servitude and distinguished them clearly from the slavery that existed in the Americas, attention must be paid to the prevalence of this type of servitude. Just how widespread and deeply entrenched were these systems of servitude in African societies before the 15th and 16th centuries? The answer is not so easy to determine and scholars vary in their conclusions. Walter Rodney is one of the historians most strident in his claim that there is little to no evidence that supports the existence of large groups of slaves or indentured servitude systems before European intervention. Early European slave traders who provided the fodder for the so-called 'conventional' view in question would have us believe that African rulers already had large stocks of slaves that were peripheral to their societies and available for 'fair trade' with Europeans, that "many Negroes transported to the Americas had been slaves in Africa before captivity" (Rodney 62) Rodney however was struck by the absence of literature from the period of European first contact that speaks of this widespread slaving phenomenon on the Upper Guinea Coast. Wherever the few references to 'slaves' did exist, upon investigation we find that they refer to small groups of "potential clients in the households of chiefs or refer to the subjects of absolute chiefs" (Rodney 63) and other domestic servants bound to the households.

Portuguese chroniclers were some of the earliest Europeans to explore the African coast and were notably scrupulous record-takers with respect to matters of trade. Yet in detailing all the products and commodities traded up and down the Guinea Coast, no mention is made of large numbers of slaves involved in this commerce. While Rodney asserts that non-mention in such circumstances us presumptive of non existence," others like William Phillips counter this view by stating that Muslim traders for whom these systems of slavery were a normal part of life did not record them because the slavery systems were so commonplace (Williams 114) The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes. What these differing views do indicate however is that while small groups of domestics did exist in various complex systems of 'unfreedom', they certainly did not exist in large quantities and certainly did not form an instrumental, widespread part of African commerce with Europeans before the 15th century. While the broad continuum between slavery and freedom had probably existed in Africa from earliest times, the widespread exploitative trade in black bodies was of 'recent' invention and directly tied to external economic forces.

The role of Islamic traders on the African continent is one that is crucial in bridging the gap between indigenous servitude systems and the genocidal European-generate slave trade. According to Kwaku Parson Lynn, when Arabs arrived in Africa in earnest in the name of spreading Islam, this brought a whole new dimension to the African systems of servitude. To understand the profound effect Islam had on the nature of slavery in Africa, one must understand the Islamic ideology of slavery. All who were non-Muslim were seen as kufr, or infidels. While a Muslim could not enslave a fellow Muslim, all others were acceptable. While in traditional African servitude systems the dependents retained certain rights and privileges and were not seen as outsiders in the clan, in the Islamic world-view all slaves by virtue of their non-belief were outside of the strict lines of lineage and genealogy and were "without honour and praise and identity – moved by savage and irrational instincts; swayed by animal propensities; indeed... outside civilized life if not outside humanity itself" (Willis 4) Probably one of the best indicators of the conditions of slaves under this Islamic code was that of the Zanj. Runoko Rashidi tells of Zanj slave revolts in Baghdad:
"Here were gathered tens of thousands of East African slave laborers called Zanj. These Blacks worked in the humid salt marshes in conditions of extreme misery. Conscious of their large numbers and oppressive working conditions the Zanj rebelled on at least three occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries... The rebels themselves, hardened by years of brutal treatment, repaid their former masters in kind, and are said to have been responsible for great slaughters in the areas that came under their sway". (Rashidi)
"Here were gathered tens of thousands of East African slave laborers called Zanj. These Blacks worked in the humid salt marshes in conditions of extreme misery. Conscious of their large numbers and oppressive working conditions the Zanj rebelled on at least three occasions between the seventh and ninth centuries... The rebels themselves, hardened by years of brutal treatment, repaid their former masters in kind, and are said to have been responsible for great slaughters in the areas that came under their sway". (Rashidi)
The conditions described in this extract seem to resemble the chattel slavery of Europeans that Africans would be subject to in the Americas. It is important to mention as well the prevalent view that many Arab traders had of African people. While several scholars and humanitarians wrote tracts and treatises defending Africans, they could not stem the tide of the negative attitudes that many Muslim elites had towards Africans and other minorities. The strong influence of Jewish tradition on Islamic society can be partially blamed for this, given the exegetical works of the Jewish/ Babylonian Talmud that concur that black people were cursed with blackness by God as punishment for their ancestor Ham, son of Noah. (Willis 66) While extensive scholarship has not been able to fully determine the extent of this negative attitude, one can surmise that the combination of non-belief in Islam and the blackness of Africans did not auger well for future relations.

While in the 15th century the prized commodity traded between Arab and African traders was gold, by the jihads of the 18th century, slaves soon eclipsed gold as the primary commodity. Nehemia Levtzion details the swift change in the mode of the slave trade as well as the social and political relationship between states. Islam not only created divisions between the converted and the kufr, but it also introduced a different element, that of the superiority of some tribes over others." The Islamization of the people of Bagirmi southeast of the Lake Chad made them consider themselves superior to their neighbors; proud of their supposed preeminence and eager for the profits of the slave trade they raided their own neighbors" (Levtzion 183) Islam, as a military and political force to be reckoned with by this time, forced many tribes to appear Islamic or to convert to Islam to benefit from the protection of their forces against other tribes who also were eager to share in the spoils of the slave trade. What we observe here is a dramatic shift in the indigenous African systems of servitude, which operated on a much smaller scale, to a widespread raiding and trading spree. Large portions of the population, instead of being circulated to build and serve in African tribes, were shipped off the continent to labour on plantations in the West and the Far East. This period of Islamization altered the shape of African society, and paved the way for the European entrance.

By the time of increased western European intervention in Africa, the way had already been cleared for a major shakeup in the nature of indigenous African servitude systems. " It was the steadily increasing demand for slaves as a result of foreign intervention in the affairs of the continent which brought about a fairly substantial increase in the volume of the trade, hitherto restricted to transactions on a narrow local scale. The material advantages to be gained by trading in slaves were an incentive to some of the clans to intensify their raids on neighbouring tribes..." (Gueye 150) Contrary to the assertions of early European slavers, the domestic servitude systems did not fuel the Atlantic Slave Trade. To meet the increasing demand for labour by external forces, raiding between tribes increased tremendously during this period. The collapse of Songhai and the breaking up of the land into smaller principalities favoured bitter (often European-fueled) tribal wars in which the capture of slaves became the chief push factor. Traditional laws that governed who could be enslaved, the period of time, and for what offences, were significantly altered to meet the growing demand for slave labour. Petty offenses that would have resulted in fines could now be punishable by life enslavement and debtors, who enslaved themselves and would have been freed upon the settlement of their debt, could find themselves auctioned away from their societies and shipped to the Americas. A society that once treated its dependents with respect, sometimes with even more respect than freed men, now treated them as slaves, mere commodities, and shipped them in large numbers to European-run slave ports. The traditional trade routes were now path

ways for gruesome slave trains made up of long lines of " haggard, emaciated men, worn out by lack of food, dazed by the blows they were dealt, doubled over with the weight of their loads; crippled spindled-legged women covered in hideous wounds..." (Gueye 154)

The term 'slavery' cannot be uniformly applied to the systems of servitude that existed in indigenous African societies before the increased intervention of Arab and European economic interests. While people did exist in varying states of 'unfreedom' and were often bound to households, clans, kinship groups or compounds at one time or another, the distinction between a bonded servant and a free man was often so precarious that one could not be told from the other. The level of humanity, rights and privileges, and the possibility of manumission that existed in the African servitude systems were completely absent in the chattel slavery systems of the Americas. Any attempt to equate this distinctly European slave system with the African systems of servitude is not only erroneous, but when taken in the context of the various elements of this 'conventional view,' seems an attempt at willful distortion. It has been shown that the increased involvement of foreign powers significantly altered the nature of these systems and it is then that they began to take on the character of what the West understood as 'slavery'. The Atlantic Slave Trade and its outgrowths defied and altered all other traditional concepts of servitude within a community setting. What existed before in Africa was not comparable. The widespread effects of European chattel slavery ushered in a new and monstrous period of African history.

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