Academic journal article African Economic History

Introduction: Ransoming Practices in Africa: Past and Present

Academic journal article African Economic History

Introduction: Ransoming Practices in Africa: Past and Present

Article excerpt

The expectation of ransom, and therefore the study of ransoming, highlights the relationship between captivity, enslavement, and slavery. All societies had norms regarding who could be legally, and therefore who was illegally, taken captive and enslaved. They also had a desire to protect from captivity and enslavement individuals they considered to be "insiders;" whether that status was based on citizenship, ethnicity, religion, or racial identity. To avoid captivity, which often led to enslavement, Africans and Europeans utilized a myriad of defensive, protective, and offensive strategies including, if they had the means to do so, ransoming captives prior to their enslavement or execution. The holding of individuals for ransom was and continues to be a political and economic act that occurs in a variety of contexts. In the Mediterranean basin until the early nineteenth century, it was a facet of the economic competition and exchange between Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa where religious identity was entwined with conceptions of political belonging. Prisoners taken from ships in the Mediterranean and even during raids on shore were held for ransom, with the threat of enslavement and continued servitude if not liberated. The Maghrib is the most commonly known African region for ransoming activities, yet, ransoming also took place between African states and between Africans and Europeans south of the Sahara. As with their European counterparts, African states sought to regulate captivity and the resultant ransoming, enslavement, free-release or execution of captives and to prevent the negative repercussions of what they considered to be illegal captivity while facilitating legal captivity and its aftermath. In general, Africans accepted the legitimacy of captivity and resultant ransoming or enslavement through legal, state-sponsored warfare but viewed captivity through kidnapping and banditry as illegal, especially when targeted against members of the same community or their allies. Worldwide, in more recent times, children have been kidnapped and held for ransom, and sometimes wealthy individuals are targeted for financial gain. Still in other cases, individuals are held for political reasons such as western captives held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) or al-Qaeda in the Maghrib (AQIM), or for financial gain, as in the case of pirates operating in the Red Sea and western Indian Ocean. Historically, captives who failed to be ransomed were usually enslaved, however, the more likely outcome for contemporary failed ransom negotiations is the execution of the captive.

The study of ransoming offers glimpses into debates about the rationalization and morality of captivity and slavery. People had a vested interested in preventing what they viewed as illegal captivity and enslavement. Enslavement involved the rupturing of ties between captives and their homelands and their insertion into new societies as slaves or in most recent times to be held prisoner indefinitely until they escape or are ransomed, rescued, or killed. In contrast, the ransoming of prisoners involves relying on and cementing the bonds between captives and their families, friends and allies and the re-integration of the captive into their home society. Membership in a "community" whether that be based on notions of citizenship, religious or ethnic identity conferred certain benefits such as access to ransoming when taken captive.

This special issue is focused on the practices of ransoming in Africa in both the historical and contemporary periods; the formation, exploitation and alteration of social, ethnic, and religious identity in ransoming and the interactions of individuals across physical, social, ethnic, and religious boundaries between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. The subjects of the articles range from seventeenth century ransom and prisoner exchanges between Muslims and Christians in the Mediterranean Basin; the treatment of Muslim captives in seventeenth century France; the ransoming of British sailors held captive in eighteenth century southern Morocco; the scholarly Muslim West African discourse on ransoming from the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries; specific case studies on the ransoming of European missionaries in 1870s Asante and of European oil workers during the Nigerian civil war; and contemporary ransoming practices in Nigeria, the Sahara/Sahel, and Somalia. …

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