Slavery and Reform in West Africa: Towards Emancipation in Nineteenth Century Senegal and the Gold Coast

By Dumett, Raymond | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Slavery and Reform in West Africa: Towards Emancipation in Nineteenth Century Senegal and the Gold Coast


Dumett, Raymond, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Slavery and Reform in West Africa: Towards Emancipation in Nineteenth Century Senegal and the Gold Coast. By Trevor R. Getz. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, and Oxford: James Currey Publishers, 2004. Pp. v, 257; 6 maps. $65.00 cloth, $26.95 paper.

This monograph fills important gaps in our knowledge about slavery and abolition in both the Wolof and Serer regions of Senegal and the Akan and Ga-Adangbe regions of the Gold Coast. Trevor Getz, author of Slavery and Reform in West Africa (Athens, Ohio, 2004) is an assistant professor in African studies at the University of San Francisco. His excellent book grew out of a doctoral dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies directed by Richard Rathbone. Its moderate length is deceptive, since the research and documentation is both exhaustive and meticulous, ranging from the national archives in Dakar and Accra to the colonial holdings in Kew, Britain, and Aix-en Provence, France, and to private collections, such as those of the Basel Mission. He has made particularly good use of hitherto unused Ghanaian district court records for the investigation of traditional slavery and less familiar aspects of the implementation of emancipation laws at the local level. And the analysis is cogent. What makes the book doubly useful and informative are the significant historiographical debates dealt with throughout the body of the text, as the author challenges the conclusions of other writers and grapples with every conceivable relevant topic, ranging from disputes over the quantification and causal forces behind the Atlantic slave trade; the continued use of indigenous slaves in the production of gum Arabic, peanuts, and palm oil during the period of so-called "legitimate trade"; the famous "slave mode of production question" as applied to the two regions; and most important, to the complex problems surrounding the numbers of slaves who left their masters in key districts and the speed and methods by which French and British colonial regimes responded to opportunities for liberation following the promulgation of emancipation ordinances (pp. 149-53).

Getz's central objective in this book was to analyze the circumstances under which the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery could occur and the numerous constraints against the effective implementation of such laws. Although he pays generous credit to other historians who have laid down the groundwork in this field, he points out that the discussion of pressure group and the ideological and policy origins of emancipation laws in Paris and London that had characterized some of those earlier studies provides only the bare bones, and that the complex interactions of individuals and forces in West Africa itself-the attitudes of African chiefs, coastal merchants, inland traders, and other slave holders; the actions of colonial administrators; and, most important, the actions of the slaves themselves were of greater consequence in the long run. Getz's analytical style allows for explanations on the intricacies of indigenous slavery and the nuanced responses of Africans to colonial emancipation policies with a high degree of precision and sophistication. Wherever possible, he provides statistics on slave court cases and liberations (e.g., pp. 149-51). And while there is no important substantive or methodological question beyond the scope of this work, it is refreshing to find an author who modestly refuses to speculate on absolute answers to certain questions (for example, the total numbers of slaves in a given society) when the evidence is sparse or ambiguous.1

It is rare to find a historical book that uses the comparative method effectively. But Slavery and Reform in West Africa manages to achieve this at nearly every level, including analysis of traditional leadership hierarchies and the customary laws governing land, labor, family, and slaves in both the Wolof/Serer region and the Akan and Ga/Adangbe states, plus colonial ideologies, antislavery policies, and administrative techniques. …

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