The Concept of Slavery in African History

Research Group Leader: Dr. Jutta Wimmler

PhD Researchers: Mary Aderonke Afolabi-Adeolu, Boluwatife Akinro, Ricardo Márquez García, Lukas Wissel

Associated Members: Malik Ade

Student Assistant: Pia Holste

This Research Group explores the ideological underpinnings of the African continent’s association with slavery and slave trading and its relevance for Africa’s positioning in the global imaginary – and adds an African perspective to this. While both the intervention of African literatures and the inclusion of non-written sources (material culture, language, oral traditions, art, etc.) have advanced the study of African history, readings and representations of Africa remain dominated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the history of colonialism. Historians of Africa have done much to complicate our understanding of what characterized “slavery” in historical African societies and have repeatedly pointed out the challenges of applying Western terminologies to these contexts. Nevertheless, the concept “slavery” has prevailed in scholarship (and the public imagination). In practice, “slavery” is often presented as an objective analytical category whose meaning is implicitly assumed to be timeless and clearly distinguishable from other forms of social dependencies. Our primary aim is a shift in perspective: rather than asking what slavery is and whether or not certain practices can or cannot be described as slavery, we focus on a conceptual understanding of slavery. We ask what meaning different actors did and do attach to the term and how this meaning connects to social practices and ideological frameworks. The Research Group investigates why historical actors and contemporary scholars have termed certain types of asymmetrical dependencies in historical African societies “slavery” and others not; how contact between Africans and Europeans impacted (and still impacts) various actors’ understanding of “slavery”; and how conceptualizations of historical “slavery” influence social relations today. We propose that using – or not using – the term “slavery” for particular practices and relationships makes certain thoughts and actions possible and in turn influences social practices. Our individual research projects focus primarily on Africa’s Atlantic coast and its hinterland, ranging from the fifteenth to the twenty-first centuries.

We offer the following case studies: 

  • The Imagination of African Slavery: European Concepts and Discourses 1450–1900 (Jutta Wimmler)
  • Panyarring, Pawnship, Company Slaves: Asymmetrical Dependencies on the Lower Guinea Coast, c. 1680–1750 (Lukas Wissel)
  • Dealings of Providence? Slavery and Asymmetrical Dependency in Selected Nineteenth Century Narratives of Recaptured West Africans (Mary Aderonke Afolabi-Adeolu)
  • Asymmetrical dependencies in life stories from the Cameroon Grassfields, 1850–1950 (Ricardo Márquez García)
  • The Memorialization of Domestic Slavery in Southwest Nigeria (Boluwatife Akinro)


    The members of the Research Group meet regularly to discuss current trends in African history and African studies, exchange ideas, and report on their findings and research progress. BCDSS fellows with a focus on Africa are welcome to join the meetings, as are other BCDSS members interested in learning about our work and about scholarship on Africa’s past in general. If you would like to know more about our current activities, please contact one of the members.


    Avatar Wimmler

    Dr. Jutta Wimmler


    Niebuhrstraße 5

    53113 Bonn

    +49 228 73 62563

    Avatar Holste

    Pia Holste

    Student Assistant


    Niebuhrstr. 5

    53113 Bonn

    +49 152 55964192

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