The Concept of Slavery in African History

Research Group Leader: Dr. Jutta Wimmler2

PhD Researcher: Mary Aderonke Afolabi-Adeolu, Boluwatife Akinro, Ricardo Márquez GarcíaLukas Wissel

Associated Members: Malik Ade, Prof. Dr. Andrew H. Apter

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 
Conceptions of asymmetrical dependencies in the contact zone of West Africa’s Lower Guinea Coast, 1680 – 1740 
“Slavery” in the narratives of “liberated” West Africans in the first decades of the nineteenth century (Sierra Leone and Gambia) 
Asymmetrical dependencies in life stories from the Cameroon Grassfields, 1850 – 1950
Conceptions of historical servitude and strong asymmetrical dependencies today: Lagos, Calabar and the old Oyo empire.


    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.


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