The Bitter Legacy: African Slavery Past and Present is an edited volume on the subject of slavery in western Africa during the nineteenth century as well as [End Page 255] its legacy in the present day. Histories of slavery have often focused on the western Atlantic world and less often on slavery within Africa. The long-term impact of the slave trade on people’s identities and memories within Africa is also hardly examined in the scholarship, although, as these essays deftly illustrate, it continues to be critically important in day-to-day life even in the twenty-first century. This book, therefore, written by three well-published historians with deep knowledge of and research experience on slavery in western Africa, is an important resource for students in any course focused on the history of slavery in general.
Within Africa, slavery had serious economic, social, and political outcomes for both the enslaved and the enslavers. Collectively, the nine essays in this volume demonstrate that slavery is an enduring institution, both literally and figuratively. As the editors state in the introduction, “In spite of legal abolition, in many parts of contemporary Africa, there are people who are still called slaves in the local languages. In some cases, particularly in desert areas, this slavery is not metaphoric or historical, but quite real. People are owned and can be sold…” (2). Even where slavery does not exist, people still struggle with the enduring social stigma and de facto slave status accorded to former slaves. Zillah Eisenstein’s term “afterlife of slavery” (“Toward an Abolitionist Feminism,” The Feminist Wire, www.thefeministwire.com, May 15, 2015) applies aptly to these examples from western Africa, where slavery left a bitter legacy that binds present-day generations to enslaved ancestors. Although many people on the African continent and elsewhere prefer to ignore the existence of slavery in Africa after the practice was abolished in the rest of the Atlantic world, narratives and memories of slavery continue to have a powerful influence.
The authors in this volume turned to a variety of sources, mostly from British and French archives, to access the testimony of the marginal and stigmatized social classes living in the “afterlife of slavery”: songs, dances, proverbs, Islamic manumission documents, shrines, folktales, witchcraft narratives, memories passed down through generations, and even silences on the part of slave descendants who wish to avoid the subject of their genealogy. The editors recognize the challenges presented by these types of sources; for example, the fact that memory is selective means that recollections are filtered through individual subjectivity and also through social and cultural constructs. Written sources from the colonial period are sparse because the colonial powers kept little documentation about the practice and enforced antislavery laws only weakly. Instead, they colluded with the African political elites who controlled and perpetuated slavery as an important labor institution.
The regions and ethnicities covered include Borgu of northern Benin, northern Igbo, Central Malian Fulbe, Aro in the Bight of Biafra, Bamilike of Cameroon, the Bulsa of Ghana, the Mami Tchamba shrines along the Slave Coast Togo, The Gambia, and Futa Toro in northern Senegal. Two of the most intriguing case studies are presented in chapter 6, which provides the first-person accounts of two men captured at a very young age in the [End Page 256] early twentieth century and transported from Cameroon to Spanish Guinea (Fernando Po). These two cases are particularly compelling for the insights they provide into both the isolating and dehumanizing condition of slavery and the resiliency of those who managed to build lives for themselves after emancipation. Chapter 8 discusses the subject of African vodun, a liberating belief system constructed by slaves, while chapter 9 delves into the contradictions and complexities of Islamic belief in regard to slavery. All of the chapters reveal the extent to which African societies, even in the postindependence era of constitutional democracy, are...