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Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 571-575

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The Agony of Asar: A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave, Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, 1717-1747. By Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein. Translated with comments by Grant Parker. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2001. x + 182 pp. $16.95 (paper).

The Biography of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua: His Passage from Slavery to Freedom in Africa and America. Edited by Robin Law and Paul Lovejoy. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2001. xvi + 272 pp. $19.95 (paper).

As historians focus growing attention on the historical processes that gave rise to the current highly integrated and hierarchically structured global system—fashionably referred to as globalization—the study of slavery as a global phenomenon has become one of the major subjects of historical research. The role of enslaved Africans in the Americas in the development of world trade and the current world economic order from the sixteenth century; the reasons why New World demand for slave labor focused exclusively on Africa and the subsequent racialization of slavery; conditions in Africa that sustained forced migration for several centuries; the magnitude and characteristics of the forced migration—these are among the many issues, new and old, that have featured in recent studies of slavery. Publications by the enslaved have been among the important sources for several of the issues debated in the literature, and the two being examined, together with the long introductions (78 pages for Asar and 84 for Biography) and supplementary material by the editors, are particularly important for some of the issues. Because of space constraints, the critical comments that follow the content summary focus on just two issues touched on by the publications and the editors' introduction: the evolution of racialized slavery and the problem of terminological looseness in the more recent studies.

The two publications differ considerably on several counts. The Agony of Asar, whose original title isPolitical-Theological Dissertation Examining the Question: Is Slavery Compatible with Christian Freedom or Not?, is a rigorous work of scholarship, written originally in the language of scholars at the time, Latin, by one of the most learned Africans of the eighteenth century, Jacobus Capitein of Ghana, and published in Leiden in 1742. In contrast, The Biography of Mahommah Baquaqua is an oral narrative by an African of limited formal education that was compiled and formally written up by a paid writer, who, as an abolition activist, had a vested interest in the propaganda value of the [End Page 571] narrative, and was published in Detroit in 1854. Capitein and Baquaqua also had widely differing experiences of slavery. The former was held in slavery on the African coast by the DutchWest India Company in the 1720s, and was subsequently educated at Leiden University in Holland, while the latter was shipped to the Americas and enslaved in Brazil in the 1840s—a temporal difference of over a hundred years. Their differing circumstances deeply influenced the content of their work. Capitein, the scholar, examined the Bible with a scholarly rigor to show, essentially in the abstract, that there are no injunctions in the scriptures against slavery: Theologically speaking, Christian freedom is compatible with slavery. There is no discussion of slavery on philosophical and moral grounds. Baquaqua's narrative, on the other hand, deals with socioeconomic and political conditions in his region of origin (the northeast of the modern Republic of Benin in West Africa) during the Atlantic slave trade era, as well as the conditions of enslaved Africans in the Americas and the role of Christian missions in the process of abolition.

Baquaqua's narrative thus provides some valuable evidence concerning economic and political conditions in one Atlantic coast slaving hinterland of West Africa, and also slavery conditions in mid-nineteenth-century Brazil. Probably more important, Capitein's scholarly work offers an invaluable window into the slowly evolving attitude to slavery by the intellectuals and the general...


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