Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies

Article excerpt

Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies. Edited by Sylviane Diouf Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003. Pp. xxxvii, 242. $65.95 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Sylviane Diouf, accomplished Atlantic and African historian, has undertaken a labor both of passion and of erudition in editing Fighting the Slave Trade: West African Strategies. In her introduction to this edited collection, she struggles to bring together an uneven set of conference papers with some success. In providing overarching themes for the strategies used by West Africans against the Atlantic slave trade, she reaches beyond "resistance" (p. x) in an attempt to understand how Africans acted to preserve self, family, and society. She challenges prevailing opinion that seeks to portray Africans as the "other" in the slave trade, pointing out that Europeans, after all, had deported their own as well, and making reasonable comparisons between the Atlantic slave trade and the Holocaust (pp. x-xi). Yet she does not seek to be an apologist for Africans, does not shy away from either the difficult question of "betrayal" of Africans by Africans (pp. xiii-xiv) or the African/African-American divide evident to those who have studied roots tourism in Ghana and elsewhere (p. xvi).

In twelve chapters and an epilogue, Diouf has collected a far wider and sometimes more incisive set of analyses of West Africans' resistance to the depredations of the Atlantic slave trade than published previously. Despite the title, most of the papers do not describe armed struggle at all, but instead adopt approaches taken by James Scott and others in understanding resistance to colonialism in terms of less obvious strategies avoidance, self-interest, foot-dragging, and even exodus. The Africans in Fighting the Slave Trade flee to defensible or less penetrable environments such as forests and caves, they trade their own slaves and newly won captives to Europeans in exchange for their relatives, they change their cultivation habits, undertake informal boycotts, and give misinformation to raiders. They also engage in both planned and organic social transformations as a defensive measure. West Africans exposed to slave raiding alter their housing construction, village architecture, field arrangement, cultivation methods, settlement size, religion and rituals, central political institutions, and diplomatic arrangements. Many do fight the trade actively: several contributors point to evidence of the growth and increasing sophistication of armies, revolts by slaves within West African states, and revolts on board ships as evidence of a previously understated level, as well as range, of struggle against the transatlantic slave trade within and on the coast of West Africa.

Equally gripping although less celebrated is evidence that West Africans chose to become slavers in an attempt to avoid becoming slaves. This is put forward most compellingly by Walter Hawthorne, who elaborates the controversial gun-slave cycle proposed by Joe Inikori and Paul Lovejoy in the early 1980s by suggesting that acephalous societies in Guinea-Bissau traded slaves for iron used in making melee weapons. Similar evidence of escapees and refugees becoming slavers is presented by Elisée Soumonni for Benin and in the oft-noted case of Masina, here simply but authoritatively set out by Martin Klein. Diouf herself notes counter-examples in which slave traders journeying to the coast were seized and themselves enslaved. This evidence, collected in a single volume, highlights the confusing and complex situation in West Africa during the slave trade, and hints at the need for further research.

In developing this collection, Diouf has recreated the discourse on the strategies of West Africans in the uncertain times of the Atlantic slave trade in a new, more nuanced and expansive shape. Alas, the chapters themselves are somewhat uneven, as is often the case with such collections developed from conference papers. …