Academic journal article African Economic History

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Local Ethics of Slavery in Yorubaland

Academic journal article African Economic History

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Local Ethics of Slavery in Yorubaland

Article excerpt

Around 1838 at the battle of Osogbo Oyo forces led by the Ibadan army fought and defeated Ilorin in what was one of the most decisive wars in nineteenth century Yorubaland. The war ended Ilorin's direct assault on the Oyo heartland and redirected its slaving operations against Igbomina and Ekiti in the northeast. Among the captives taken by the victorious Ibadan soldiers were two members of Ilorin nobility who were released almost immediately in deference to the military and slavery ethics allowing for the exchange of captives and in some cases free release of certain captives without the payment of ransom. Their release could also be a peace move on Ibadan's part to abort future retaliations and to secure their own soldiers detain by the enemies.

In contrast to the treatment of these two soldiers, Ibadan soldiers also seized two other men, Ajikobi and Lateju, both of Oyo origin, but fighting in the Ilorin army. Ibadan authorities ordered their death, having accused them of committing treason against their fatherland. Another tradition suggests that the men were murdered because they had in the past failed to honor this ancient law by releasing some followers of Yoruba chiefs who fell into their hands in an earlier war fought around 1833.1

With reference to the subject of slavery this story captures how societies rationalized slavery and enslavement and decided whether to enslave someone, when, and how? It depicts how the Yoruba, like other societies across the globe justified and culturally permitted slavery as long as the slave was a foreigner. That is, a slave and his/her captor had no kinship tie through geography, blood/ancestry, language, faith, ethnicity, political alliance, color/race, and residence among other considerations.2 The cultural basis of slavery categorized societies and individuals as 'insiders' deserving protection from enslavement and "outsiders" who could be enslaved. The only way one could enslave an "insider" legally was through the loss of citizenship, such as committing a grievous crime making enslavement a punishment analogous to banishment or exile. The idea of "legal" and "illegal" enslavement was a global phenomenon.

In Muslim societies, enslavement was the sin of unbelief so jihad was legitimate for punishing non-Muslims and freeing enslaved Muslims. By the tenth century, Arabs and Berbers perceived other cultures especially Blacks, as inferior and equated brown and black skins with sinfulness and ethno-regional terminologies like Sudan, Zanj, and Habashi became largely inseparable from blacks and 'abd (serf).3 Similar ideology of slavery emerged in Europe and later the Americas with differences based on skin color (race), religion, and geography becoming tools in Euro-American notion of the 'other' where previously ethnic descriptors like Moors or Turks for Muslims and North Africans and Slav for eastern Europeans had sufficed. On the rise of the African Slave Trade in the Americas David Eltis postulates that if solely for economic considerations Europeans should have recruited slaves at home and not in Africa. The main reason this did not occur was because European culture obviated it. Characterized by Christianity, seafaring culture, and common language (Latin) among others Europeans were quick to develop a sense of continental cultural identity that distinguished them from others. Whereas non-European societies allowed enslavement in their societies, European culture made the dispossession of an individual European liberty impossible. Therefore, enslavement was reserved for non-Europeans like indigenous Americans and Africans, who as outsiders became the expendable other.4 Thus, like Islam, Christianity, as a cultural tool, had racial undertones. It protected Europeans and not African Christians from enslavement. Prior to the tenth century, ransoming involving cash payment or prisoner swap to secure release of Europeans held by Muslims had become an article of faith and European patriotism. …

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