Africa Today 48.3 (2001) 166-167
[Access article in PDF]
One of the most important and contentious themes in African historiography is the nature of slavery in Africa. Although the subject has generated an impressive list of publications over the past three decades, we are still a long way to a full understanding of the complex institution of slavery on the continent. Much of the scholarship tends to rely on generalizations and theoretical constructs. More studies combining written source material and oral traditions are needed to sharpen our understanding of servile institutions in Africa. This will help advance comparative studies focusing on the similarities and differences between African slavery and plantation slavery in the Americas. The comparative approach is one of the most intriguing aspects of the study of black slavery in a global context.
Peter Haenger's book, Slaves and Slaveholders on the Gold Coast is a welcome addition to the growing academic literature on servile institutions in Africa. The editors, translator, and publisher must be congratulated for making the German text available to the larger academic community of Anglophone scholars. [End Page 166]
Following a brief introduction by Paul E. Lovejoy, a noted historian of slavery in Africa, the study is divided into four chapters dealing with (1) definitions of slavery in a global context; (2) the structures of slavery on the Gold Coast and the policy of the Basel Mission toward slavery; (3) Christian slaveholders and the emancipation of slaves by the Basel Mission; (4) British colonial slave emancipation and its consequences.
Drawing primarily on the rich primary sources contained in the Basel Mission Archives, Haenger reconstructs the ways in which African slavery and debt bondage were integrated into the fabric of Gold Coast (modern Ghana) society, particularly the coastal region around Accra (the capital city of present-day Ghana) in the nineteenth century. Also, he shows how Africans tried to shape social interaction on the Gold Coast. The study is situated in the context of British colonial expansion not only on the Gold Coast but also in the West African subregion. A major consequence of British colonialism was the institution of a series of ordinances aimed at abolishing the legal status of slavery, whereby slavery would not be recognized in courts of law, but not actually emancipating slaves or ending slavery.
Haenger's methodological approach centers on the life histories of a diverse group of individuals, both male and female, that included missionaries, converts, slaves, pawns, and slave owners. The colonial environment, alongside the activities of the Basel Mission, provides the context for the life histories. Collectively, the case studies present a nuanced and detailed picture of slavery and debt bondage, and how they were connected to transformations in economic and social institutions on the Gold Coast. Not only do the life histories provide valuable empirical data that challenge and refine some of the standard interpretations of slavery in Africa, they also demonstrate the analytical value of a biographical approach.
One of the strengths of Haenger's study is his detailed treatment of the evolution of Basel Mission policy toward slavery on the Gold Coast. In doing so, he brings out contradictory and sometimes confusing policies and practices toward slavery. Also, he questions the effectiveness of the Mission in dealing with the complexities of slavery and pawnship encountered on the Gold Coast. Attitudes toward slavery were complex, as evidenced by the life histories. Haenger further documents that the Mission developed a flexible policy toward slavery. He concludes that in the end the Mission was unsuccessful in bringing about social change relating to slavery on the Gold Coast.
Slaves and Slaveholders on the Gold Coast is a well researched and rigorously argued volume. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the different degrees of social bondage on the Gold...