- Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone
During the past fifteen years many anthropologists have moved away from the synchronism of previous generations to embrace a more historically informed ethnography. This move has produced an ever-expanding set of ethnographic works that have thoroughly probed the historical development of non-western peoples. Given the paucity of deep historical documentation in most non-western societies, many of these studies have analyzed the ethnographic realities of colonialism. Other anthropologists have worked ethnographies of memory—and forgetting—in non-western societies. Among the most notable works are those, like Jennifer Cole’s fine book, Forget Colonialism?, that use historical documentation to analyze processes of memory in the ethnographic present. Many of these studies also demonstrate the relevance of history to everyday life.
Rosalind Shaw’s historical analysis of memory in Sierra Leone, Memories of the Slave Trade, is among the best ethnographies I have read in recent years. Shaw’s book is a wonderfully detailed ethnography that is laced with a treasure trove of detail about the ethnographic past and present. This wealth of material and the sensitivity with which it is analyzed devolves directly from Shaw’s commitment to long-term field study among Temne in Sierra Leone. Like the best ethnographers, Shaw is able to demonstrate how seemingly disparate elements of the social—individual and collective memory, ritual practices, and kinship relations—cohere into the seamless flow of everyday life.
Memories of the Slave Trade, which is written in a remarkably graceful prose, consists of a detailed introduction, nine chapters, and a concise conclusion. At the outset, Shaw effectively and forcefully confronts the fundamental issue of the book: how do Africans, in this case, the Temne of Sierra Leone, remember the past? More specifically she asks how the Temne remember the slave trade, for it is well known that European slavers needed the cooperation of Africans, including, of course the Temne, to capture and send slaves from Africa to the New World. When confronted by the likes of Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, a book that tells the story of how Ball traced the origin of his family’s slaves to Sierra Leone, the African descendants of slave traders appeared to be uncomfortable. They didn’t want to talk to Ball about the past. “The claim is sometimes made,” Shaw writes, “that Africans deny their own responsibility for the slave trade, and on the whole Ball’s interviews appear to support this.” (1) Shaw, however, suggests that there are other ways other than talk to remember the past.
But if we are attentive to forms of remembering different from those of verbally discursive admissions and projects of public memory, we find that beyond “the awkward silence of Ball’s interviewees, the slave trade is not forgotten in Sierra Leone. If, as Ball was told, ‘the slave business...should not be spoken about’ (1998:439), there are others ways of remembering the past than by speaking of it.” (2) The book describes these non-verbal processes of remembering as they have unfolded among the Temne people of Sierra Leone.
As in most academic books, the introduction sets the theoretical context of the work. Shaw demonstrates how works on social memory, modernity, praxis theory, social agency and divination have directed her onto a specific analytical path. “By examining Temne divination through the lens of ritual memory, I seek to explore forms of coherence through which diviners, clients, and others both remember the terror of the slave trade and turn that terror into creative ritual forms. I therefore seek to trace an alternative history of the slave trade—a history of moral imagination…told primarily in the language of practical memory through places and practices, images and visions, rituals and rumors.” (22). Chapter one, “The Atlanticizing of Sierra Leone” describes how the slave trade triggered significant sociocultural change among the Temne. In Chapter two, “Spirit Memoryscape,” Shaw argues that the slave trade precipitated transformations in ritual life. Spirits that...