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  • Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa
  • Suzanne Miers
Henri Médard & Shane Doyle, eds. Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. Eastern African Studies series. Athens: Ohio University Press; Oxford: James Currey; Kampala: Fountain Publishers; Nairobi: Eastern African Education Publishers, 2007. xiv + 273 pp. Maps. Tables. Notes. References. Index. $59.95. Cloth. $26.95. Paper.

This book on slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa opens a new field of research. Written by historians and one anthropologist from universities in France, England, and the United States, it consists of an introduction and ten chapters on slavery in different parts of the area. The book arose from a conference held in Paris in 2002 on the impact of slavery and the slave trade in this large region—a hitherto neglected subject since most scholars working in the region had incorrectly believed that slavery had arisen only in the nineteenth century and had been of merely marginal importance. In colonial times the region was divided between Britain, Belgium, and (until 1918) Germany; today it includes parts of Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Such divisions hamper the historian, since the colonial archives are scattered and in different languages. On the ground, however, the region has what Henri Médard describes as a "distinctive" unity, socially, culturally and politically; furthermore, many of its institutions, it now appears, have been "structured around slavery."

In his introduction Médard makes the interesting point that slavery here was very much like that elsewhere—except that surprisingly it did not leave a lasting social stigma on its victims and their descendants. The chapters begin with an interesting discussion of how linguistic evidence shows that slavery existed before the eighteenth century, with a useful explanation [End Page 175] of the "historical linguistic method" by which specialized vocabulary can be reconstructed. The chapters that follow discuss the varied impact of the East Coast–based slave and arms traffic and the consequent growth of slavery in the region over the nineteenth century.

As elsewhere, most slaves were women; one chapter is devoted to the particular experiences of women slaves but many others refer to the demographic and economic impact of large imports of unfree women captured in war, kidnapped, or sold by their own kinsmen. Some became wives of their captors and the most fortunate bore them children and were henceforth treated like other wives. Others remained in slavery. Their work differed little from that of free women, and the evidence suggests that their presence contributed to depress the status of women as a whole.

The slave and arms trade that spread up the trade routes from the East Coast in the nineteenth century turned people into commodities—depersonalized objects who could be bought, sold, exchanged for ivory, arms, and other goods, and used as agricultural labor, porters, soldiers, and wives. The acquisition of slaves boosted the power and wealth of chiefs and kings, and in some cases (e.g., Buganda) enabled them to acquire skills from neighboring peoples. The result was that relations between rulers and ruled, formerly based on reciprocity and mutual respect, gave way to relations based on force as the strong acquired arms and slave retinues and used them to exploit their own people and raid their neighbors—not just to acquire more people for diverse uses but also (at least in the Ganda case) to acquire new skills. Moreover, the demand for slaves grew as new diseases spread along the trade routes, leading to population decline.

The impact of the slave and arms trades was less pronounced in the remoter regions where, as in Burundi and Rwanda, the main division was between pastoralists and agriculturists, whom the former came to dominate. However, even here the acquisition of increasing numbers of slaves accentuated the difference between them and the free. In the pastoral kingdom of Ankole this took an extreme course: slaves were all drawn from the agriculturalists, and by the early colonial period all farmers came to be regarded as slaves and only the pastoralists were considered real citizens of Ankole.

A number of chapters cover the early colonial period and...


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