Journal of World History 7.1 (1996) 149-152
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The abolition of slavery in west Africa was a largely neglected topic until these authors, well known for previous studies of slavery and the slave trade in Africa, began studying it in the 1970s. This thorough and scholarly work presents their findings, which are of interest not only for historians of Africa, but also for those concerned with comparative and world history.
The significance of the subject should be evident from the fact that the Sokoto caliphate in northern Nigeria was one of the largest slave societies in the world throughout the nineteenth century. When British rule was first imposed on the caliphate and the surrounding areas at [End Page 149] the turn of the twentieth century, approximately 2 million to 2.5 million people there were slaves, a figure 50% higher than the total number of Brazilian slaves at abolition in 1888, and the equivalent of approximately 60% of all slaves in the South of the United States at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. The ending of slavery in Nigeria constituted the last great episode of slave emancipation worldwide, though completing the process there lasted several decades, down to the eve of World War II. According to the authors, Nigeria was probably the most important example in which slavery was to a significant extent ended institutionally by means of the slaves' buying their own freedom.
British objections to slavery, slave raiding, and the slave trade provided initial justification for imperial expansion into and then conquest of northern Nigeria, first by the Royal Niger Company and then from 1900 by British government forces. The crucial figure in establishing the British presence in Nigeria was of course Frederick (later Lord) Lugard, well known for his role in forging the system of indirect rule in Africa. One of the points established in this study that has not been clearly recognized before is that Lugard's indirect rule approach was closely tied to the issue of slavery and the problems of dealing satisfactorily with it from the British point of view. During the conquest (1897-1903) and soon thereafter, Lugard effectively stopped slave raid-ing, which caused social and political instability throughout the re- gion. He was also firm in taking steps to curb the slave trade, for similar reasons. However, on the question of slavery itself, his attitude was much more qualified and complex, based as it was on a desire to maintain order and stability in the newly acquired territories. Despite opposition from various quarters, including the abolitionists, Lugard even- tually managed to have his own approach accepted as official policy. That approach involved several components. His administration quickly took steps to stop the widespread flight of slaves from their masters, which had been the early spontaneous response to British antislavery rhetoric during the period of conquest. At the same time, although British law granted no legal status to slavery, Islamic law (which did recognize slavery) was recognized by the British and re- mained in force in the northern Nigerian emirates. In addition, al- though women slaves were not classified in British law as slaves, they were identified as dependent family members of households headed by the males who had owned them, and hence still as legally subordinated to those males.
Lugard's approach was nevertheless not just a legal subterfuge for accepting the status quo. Instead he put into force mechanisms that [End Page 150] would weaken the institutions of slavery, but would do so gradually. Most notably, he ended the heritability of slavery by enacting legislation according to which any child born to slaves after 1901 was deemed to be born free. In addition, his administration affirmed the option of slaves being able to redeem themselves. Lugard's strategy, adapted from British experiences in India and east Africa...