Academic journal article African Studies Review

Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone

Article excerpt

Rosalind Shaw. Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. xv + 299 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $21.00. Paper.

The central message of this very insightful work is that much "traditional" practice in Sierra Leone culture derives from Sierra Leone's violent integration into the Atlantic economy. Temne communities in northern Sierra Leone and in its capital, Freetown, provide the ethnographic focus of this book. Shaw analyzes divination, sorcery, and the ways that people react to rumors to show the extent to which memories of sudden violence, predation, and betrayal left Temne people to reshape popular culture in order to devise ways of getting by and managing these dangers. Unlike many scholars who mark the end of the slave trade in the nineteenth century as a watershed, Shaw shows how social practice suggests the continuity of uncertainty and vulnerability, first through the violent period of "legitimate trade" up to the 1896 establishment of the British Protectorate, and most recently in Sierra Leone's tragic rebel war.

The analysis of Temne perceptions of the occult is particularly welcome. Shaw consults early documents describing Temne society at the very start of the slave trade. She traces transformations in their perceptions of the spirit world, from powers that heal and with which people negotiate to destructive assailants and thieves who steal children, fertility, and sanity. She points out additional cultural similarities in other realms, from the historical violence of predatory warfare and commerce to contemporary domestic arrangements. For example, one of the best chapters highlights the ambiguous roles of diviners arid those who consult them, especially married women. Real historical memories and cultural practice recall situations in which women who married into communities revealed secrets that compromised their husbands or threatened towns' defenses. This shapes the social context in which contemporary wives are potential conduits for outside forces, spiritual or temporal, that could threaten the patrilineal space of towns or households.

Shaw offers two crucial observations. First, she shows how shaping cultural practice is a reciprocal process. The cultural models discussed in the book are applied as coping mechanisms in contexts of violence and danger. …

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