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.

    "Journal of Global Slavery" Special Issue: Beyond Slavery and Freedom

    The newest issue of the Journal of Global Slavery includes the Special Issue “Beyond Slavery and Freedom?”, edited by BCDSS members Pia Wiegmink and Jutta Wimmler. The Special Issue demonstrates the variety of research done at the cluster. The Introduction is available as open access.

    Guest Lecture: Angola, Hamburg und Napoleon. Das (gegen)revolutionäre Leben des Louis de Grandpré

    Dr. Jutta Wimmler will join the Early Modern History Research Colloquium at the University of Tübingen for a lecture on May 27th, 2024. 

    Guest Lecture: Exploitation or Welfare? Working for the Königliches Lagerhaus Berlin in the mid-18th century

    Dr. Jutta Wimmler will be travelling to the University of Geneva on April 25th, 2024, to give a guest lecture in Prof. Dr. Mary O’Sullivan’s "Séminaire avancé de recherche". 

    The Legacy of Internal Slavery in Contemporary Nigeria

    Mary Afolabi and Boluwatife Akinro will be organising the panel "The Legacy of Internal Slavery in Contemporary Nigeria" at the 8th Annual Lagos Studies Association Conference, taking place from June 25th to 29th, 2024.

    Co-Authored Article: Exploring Data Provenance in Handwritten Text Recognition Infrastructure

    Mary Afolabi co-authors on this article, published March 18, 2024 in the Journal of Data Mining & Digital Humanities. 

    Migration – Innovation: Human Mobility and Technological Innovation in History

    Jutta Wimmler and Lukas Wissel will be participating in the conference "Migration – Innovation: Human Mobility and Technological Innovation in History". The event represents the culmination of the UKRl-funded FLF project, "Migration, Adaptation, Innovation 1500-1800". 

    4th & 5th April, 2024

    German Museum of Technology, Berlin

    Conference Paper: From History to Fiction: Adapting Stories of Trans-Atlantic Slavery to Novel

    Mary Afolabi presented a paper on historical fiction about the Atlantic slave trade at the Historical Fictions Research Network Conference in Malmö (Sweden) on February 23, 2024.

    The Gift: How Objects of Prestige Shaped the Atlantic Slave Trade and Colonialism

    Professor Ana L. Araujo joins us to present her new book on the contribution of objects of prestige to cross-cultural exchanges between Africans and Europeans during the Atlantic slave trade.

    8th December, 2023, 10:00 – 12:00 CET

    Meeting Room 1.100, Heussallee 18-24


    Avatar Wimmler

    Dr. Jutta Wimmler


    Niebuhrstraße 5

    53113 Bonn

    Avatar Holste

    Pia Holste

    Student Assistant


    Niebuhrstr. 5

    53113 Bonn

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