African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame

By Robertson, James | African Studies Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame


Robertson, James, African Studies Review


Anne C. Bailey. African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. viii + 289 pp. Map. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $27.59. Cloth.

Anne Bailey, a Jamaican-born scholar who now teaches African history at Spelman College, wanted to know how Africans remember the slave trade. She started by asking people in Atorker, a former slaving port in modern Ghana, what they recall. The chapters in her book present successive approaches to what proved a difficult question Her quest always remains grounded in oral history, but she has sought to link the stories, songs, and proverbs she heard not only with a generation of Ghanaian scholarship on Ghana's past but also with her own research in archives and libraries on both sides of the Atlantic.

She starts from silence. How can this not be remembered? The question prompts evocative descriptions of Atorker and its vicinity today, as well as broader comments on the town's place at the end of trading routes running into the interior and on the cultural distance between coast-dwelling townspeople and their inland kin. Bailey then interweaves observations on what it means to ask questions about the slave trade in a society where the subject is still so painful and shameful that interviewees are reluctant to discuss either family stories about enslavement or their forebears' participation in the slave trade. However, one instance from the 1850s is remembered in the town: A group of local drummers, engaged to play as the enslaved boarded the ship, were lured aboard and shackled with the rest, even though the drummers included relatives of the local chief. A monument to the incident now serves as the centerpiece of the Atorker Slave Memorial Site. Bailey tries to unravel how this has been recalled in story and songs, also pursuing stray echoes in texts compiled aboard a patrolling offshore U.S. warship and in later colonial-era histories. The result is illuminating, even if some details remain vague. The ship seems to have sailed for Cuba, but Bailey was unable to locate its landing or therefore to follow any of the unfortunate musicians ashore. …

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