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The Concept of Slavery in African History

Research Group Leader: Dr. Jutta Wimmler

"Slavery" has certainly been one of the dominant concepts in the historiography of Sub-Saharan Africa. In the early decades of the discipline proper, meaning especially the 1960s and 1970s, slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were omnipresent themes. The discipline has since increasingly moved in other directions, but Sub Saharan Africa's experience with slavery and slave trading still forms much of the narrative background against which its precolonial history is written. In addition, African history is often associated with slavery and the slave trade by laypersons and scholars outside of the field of African history. This research group tries to understand what this connection between "Africa" and "slavery" means for the writing of African history, for the construction of the African past, and for our understanding of the African continent and its people today.

Our approach stems largely from conceptual history and discourse theory, but also includes theories and methods from other fields of research. We are overall more interested in the discursive/conceptual construction of slavery (especially the link between "slavery" and "Africa") than we are in practices of slavery and slave trading per se. However, in keeping with theories of conceptual and discursive change, we maintain that there is a link between the description and the reality described. A change in concepts or discourse does not come out of nowhere. Explaining how and why these changes occurred is one of the aims of the project – and we intend to put Europe’s experience with Sub Saharan Africa at the center of this story.

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