Carroll Pursell, ed. A Hammer in Their Hands: A Documentary History of Technology and the African-American Experience. Cambridge: The
MIT Press, 2005
Unit 5: African Slavery and African Identities in the Atlantic World
This unit on slavery is usually the most difficult for students in this class. Thatâ€™s the case not
because the material is difficult, but because a very particular history of slavery â€“ including what
it is and is not â€“ has perhaps been the most misrepresented aspect of U.S. history. Slavery marks
the beginning of a national narrative of sin: Descendants of Africa were not only denied rights
for the first century of our national history, but then had to continually fight for equality through
much of the twentieth-century. As descendants of Africa, slaves counted as 3/5 of a full human
not because they were considered almost human, but so that states with huge slave populations
gained more representation in Washington D.C.
There is no question that is a huge part of our past and that its afterlives touch our current
political debates. Some high school textbooks in use today describe slavery as â€œmigration,â€ not
as forced migration that ends with forced labor, dehumanization, and possible death. Consider
this: it is only this summer (I originally wrote this in 2019) that plaques on Columbiaâ€™s USC
campus will officially recognize the universityâ€™s role in slavery. Interestingly, the plaques talk
about the â€œcontributionâ€ of the enslaved to our university, not of the universityâ€™s complicity in
More than any other topic, histories of slavery requiring a back-and-forth that weâ€™ll carry out
through discussions and through my blog and GroupMe, if needed.
Approach this as a process: itâ€™s okay to be confused, angry â€¦ whatever. Itâ€™s also ok if you need
to step back. Just let me know. Conversely, if you want more material. Please let me know.
To provide a tad bit of structure, let me give a couple takeaways:
The story of the Atlantic Slave Trade must start with the recognition of African
power. Lindsay drives this point home. This is also Howard Frenchâ€™s point in Born in
Blackness â€“ and thus the reason we start there.
The free/enslaved dichotomy is not all that helpful for understanding African slavery
in a historical context, as Konadu points out
There were forms of social mobility within African slavery, though it was definitely a
state of vulnerability, as we see in Bakariâ€™s â€œOf Slaveryâ€
The idea that the enslaved/enslaver or patron/client relationship is based upon
reciprocity never goes away. The enslaved never gave in to the idea that they
deserved nothing; many enslavers in Africa did not want to risk rebellion. Thatâ€™s the
reason you do not see me talk about slaves and masters. Instead I use the terms,
enslaved and enslaver to drive both of these points home.
Africans did not enslave their brothers and sisters or â€œtheir own.â€ If you put this in
your papers or final projects, expect to lose lots of points. Saying so requires we
adopt an idea of Africa as monolithic and that we ignore the particular identities we
have worked against to this point in the course.
African identities were not lost in the middle passage, but rather provided tools for
rebuilding relationships and dignity. More than any other element of this unit, this
basic fact provides important evidence for writing against the white supremacist ideas
about blackness that came out of the slave trade.
Over about 350 years, at least 12.5 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic.
Scholars estimate about the same died en route to the Atlantic for a total of 25 million
affected. The intra-African slave trade across the Sahara and into the Indian Ocean is
estimated around 10-12 million.
As Rebecca Hall shows in Wake, such numbers come to use through a system that
thoroughly commodified humans. The main reason I assign Hall is because Wake so
brilliantly takes the archival records those numbers come from and turns them into a
The opposite of enslavement â€“ whether freedom or security â€“ is not monopolized by
Europe or white settlers in European colonies. This is the reason we read the short
section from Rudolph Ware. It shows that ideas of abolition were already in West
Africa â€“ a place heavily impacted by the slave trade â€“ at least at the time such ideas
started to circulate in Europe, if not much earlier.
Dichotomies and Historical Definitions
In an American context, it is perfectly acceptable to approach slavery as the opposite of freedom.
Indeed, architects of the American legal system put laws in place to ensure that was the case.
However, this divide between slavery and freedom does not work for much of African history.
Instead of the binary, enslaved/free, it is perhaps better to think about the difference between
autonomy and dependence.
What is autonomy? As we use it today, itâ€™s a really misleading term. It suggests we can have full
citizenship and social protection on our own or at least away from a lot of institutional
apparatuses. But as many of you know, full citizens in our country can call themselves that
because of institutions that, in time of trouble, will back them up through legal codes produced
by institutions and enshrined in national documents. In other words, the idea of the free,
autonomous subject rests upon various institutions and things that allow this to happen. (And in
much of our national history, keep full citizenship away from minorities, whether women, people
of color, or migrants.) Which is to say: autonomy (or freedom if you like) requires attachments.
Which brings us to dependence: This has become a politically sensitive term recentlyâ€”used
most often to vilify people who need assistanceâ€”but as it is used historically, it simply means
that people tend to create relational webs in case bad stuff happens, including: famine, war,
economic downturn, political instability, etc. Such relationships are especially important for
lower classes for whom instability may occur more often. In this sense, dependence is a means of
social security and planning that anticipates unknown events.
Weâ€™ve gone through those terms because dependence is key to understanding African histories
of slavery on their own terms. For most of Africaâ€™s history, slavery was present, but it was a
different form of subservience than the chattel (or ownership system in which the enslaved were
property) form found in the Americas by the 17th and 18th centuries. Donâ€™t misread this: slavery
was most often a low status born of insecurity or crisis, but â€“ and this is a big but â€“ the enslaved
could also be socially mobile, and in some cases, they had status.
How and why? Letâ€™s start at the bottom. If a famine occurs, a homestead can migrate to a nearby
society and pledge their labor in return for food and political security (remember the opening
paragraph of â€œOf Slaveryâ€ from our previous section). They obviously donâ€™t do this freely, but
the ability to become the dependent of a patron was nevertheless an important option during
times of insecurity. It could be the difference between life and death. Now, this homestead has a
lower status and works for the community theyâ€™ve pledged themselves to, but not all the time.
They may have to give a certain amount of their harvest – or work on elitesâ€™ farms during
planting and harvest â€“ but theyâ€™d also likely have opportunities to sell their own produce and
keep much of their earnings. In many cases, they could also intermarry without the type of
stigma found in the Atlantic world.
Now letâ€™s assume a famine has hit a group that has iron working knowledge and that is known
for their skills as warriors. Because they have desirable skills, this group may be able to attain a
degree of status and power within their receiving society. Why, you ask, does the receiving
society want them?
Because land was plentiful in most African societies, the ability to produce came down to what
scholars call, â€œwealth in people.â€ If you have a lot of hands that can labor and minds that can
thing – and hands that can make iron â€“ then your society becomes more secure regardless of the
origins of this skill and labor. This doesnâ€™t mean rulers would accept anyone, but there was a
general incentive to create relationships of reciprocity and to collect wealth in people and thus in
Again, slavery is still most often denigrated status, but not one that is completely denigrated as in
chattel slavery in the U.S. To put this combination of mobility and dependence in perspective,
think back to â€œOf Slaveryâ€ from our last unit:
An enslaved individual on the Swahili coast will, in most cases, die as an enslaved
individual. But seven generations later her or his offspring could become free
Or a case that probably struck you as strange: A sorcerer from another community is
accused of murder. That sorcerer is given a choice of death or enslavement. This
sorcerer might choose enslavement not just to escape death, but also because
sorcerers possess expert knowledge that a community may need in the future. The
aggrieved community thinks the same way: maybe weâ€™ll need this individual in the
You probably read suria as a form of enslavement intimately tied to the loss of oneâ€™s
bodily autonomy. In most cases, that is true, but with important caveats: 1. She has
standing and status in the household. When she travels in a caravan, other enslaved
individuals hold umbrellas to shade her from the sun; 2. Her children are not only
free, but likely elite (being that theyâ€™re born into an enslaving family).
Enslaved individuals who go on caravans, albeit with permission of those who
enslaved them (who receive a portion of their earnings), get to keep much of their
Finally, Islam linked manumission to piety for enslavers who were also Muslim.
To reiterate, this doesnâ€™t make slavery any more desirable. But the details do matter here. How,
you ask: Well, if youâ€™re a first generation enslaved individual in a Swahili town, you may remain
enslaved. But six generations later, your family will be freeborn. We have to be careful to not
romanticize a suriaâ€™s agency, but having freeborn children families of status is important. And
converting to Islam, though no guarantee of manumission, was a way to make claims upon your
humanity and dignity.
The Transformation of Slavery
The above form of slavery was common throughout Africa until the end of the 1600s. At that
point, increased demand for slavery, particularly on the West and West-Central Coasts of Africa,
extended enslaving frontiers to new places. I need to say two things here:
1. This increased demand came from colonies in the new world and stemmed from at least three
A. The death (some label, genocide) of indigenous communities who performed manual
B. The belief that African bodies were uniquely suited to laboring in tropical climates (as
well as the notion that European bodies were not). Slavery was even justified spiritually
by claiming that conversion to Christianity at least saved the souls of Africans even if it
destroyed their bodies (weâ€™ll take scientific racism on directly in the next unit);
C. The recognition, as â€œThe Language You Cry Inâ€ shows, that Africans had skill that
could be transferred to the world.
2. Increased enslavement did not lead African communities to sell their brothers and sisters, as
Konadu, Lindsay, and others show. To suggest that Africans enslaved their own, as some want to
insist, is to turn Africa into all-encompassing category that ignores all of the complexities weâ€™ve
worked through in our first three units.
So what happened? Most commonly, those sold are what scholars sometimes call, â€œsurplus
people.â€ â€œSurplus peopleâ€ are those that most social classes never see, think about rarely, or
simply do not value. Our own society has surplus people who live on the streets, who live in
penitentiaries, who are immigrants, etc. If and when hardship comes to these groups, itâ€™s rarely,
if ever, front page news. (To be clear, I donâ€™t consider any of these groups â€œsurplus,â€ but am
rather creating a historical analogy.) So when equivalent groups could bring forms of material
wealth to a community, selling them to European traders was not all that controversial at first. In
fact, some political leaders found it to be a useful way to deal with politically dissidents. It was
win-win for them: you get rid of trouble and get access to goods.
The Atlantic slave trade also gave rulers a convenient tool for dealing with challenges to their
rule. Far from selling their own, they could bring resources into a community while dealing with
individuals/groups whom they thought could undercut their own legitimacy/rule. In other words,
the slave trade provided a tool for rulers to consolidate their power. As you may guess, this only
As demand grew in the New World, so did shipments. Hereâ€™s how numbers break down by
century (Keep in mind there is a link to watch this on a website):
1450 â€“ 1600
1601 â€“ 1700
1701 â€“ 1800
1801 â€“ 1900
When you watch the interactive map on the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, pay close
attention to the 1700s. This is when a process called the â€œtransformation of slaveryâ€ occurred.
The transformation has at least six elements to consider. Iâ€™ve bolded the bullets I really want you
The redefinition of slavery. Instead of some form of reciprocity and
opportunities for social mobility, most enslaved individuals on central and West
African coasts were treated as chattel â€“ or commodities. In other words, itâ€™s
similar to American plantation slavery.
In addition to export markets, secondary domestic slave markets were needed to
supplement exporting efforts. Put differently, to grow food and provide transport for
the Atlantic slave trade, a regional slave economy was needed as well.
Scholars call this a â€œslave mode of production.â€ It means that most things a society
needs cannot or do not get produced without labor from enslaved individuals. Before
the 1700s, a â€œslave mode of productionâ€ would have been incredibly rare in Africa
(and likely found only in European colonies in the New World). By the mid-1700s,
this mode of production had spread to many coastal African economies as well.
European demand drove this increased, but Africans produced the slaves. In part, this
occurred because Europeans had little clue where to go. More important, however, is
that control over bodies â€“ and over definitions of who was and was not a slave â€“ were
an integral part of political power. African polities were politically strong and would
not concede this important decision to others.
For this unit, perhaps the most important element is that vulnerability spread
geographically and by social class. In the 1600s, most enslaved individuals taken
to the Americaâ€™s were not core parts of the societies in which they lived. But by
the mid-1700s, all social classes were one famine or political upheaval away from
possible enslavement. This period of heightened insecurity lasted at least 200
years. During that time, some 8 million enslaved people crossed the Atlantic.
Likely, an equivalent died before ever getting on a boat.
The experience of enslavement during this time went something like this: 1. Whether
through capture, famine, or political disagreement, a group of enslaved individuals is
marched to the coast into a structure called a â€œfort.â€ 2. This is where Europeans reside
with the blessing of local political leaders. And it is where enslaved individuals are
inspected, where they kept in cage-like barracks called barracoons, and it is where
they are sold to a European buyer or ship captain. They are branded for identification
and for insurance purposes. 3. They then spend several weeks below deck in chains as
they cross the Atlantic. If an enslaved person gets sick, s/he is thrown overboard in
order to protect the rest of the shipment (as you may notice, they are very much
considered cargo, not human). Though incredibly vulnerable themselves, shipments
of enslaved individuals are insured to protect investors. 4. Once at a port, they are
You can read firsthand accounts of each of these steps here:
http://recoveredhistories.org/storiesintroduction.php. Itâ€™s optional, though.
Legitimate/Illegitimate Slavery â€“ Social Morality During the â€œTransformationâ€
This didnâ€™t mean communities accepted slavery as a desirable norm. Far from it, many fought to
protect or distance their communities from encroaching slave frontiers. But protecting oneâ€™s
community theoretically (or philosophically) and doing so practically, were two different things.
For example, the Balanta of Guinea Bissau moved to a naturally protected area in lowland
mangrove swamps. But to continue rice production and to construct walled barriers, they needed
iron. Purchasing iron was most easily done with the enslaved. So elders sent young men far away
to capture the enslaved before selling them for iron on coastal markets. They raided far away so
that they did not destabilize nearby communities â€“ thus bringing their own families nearer to
slavery. And they engaged in slavery in order to get items best purchased on markets that were
tied to slavery, not so that they could become rich and powerful.
The Balanta offer a good lesson for students: within the historical context of slavery, the
choice was rarely between slavery or not. It was about minimizing the impact of the trade on
oneâ€™s community or about redefining what slavery and/or dependency meant.
Doing the latter â€“ defining the nature of slavery/bondage/dependency â€“ came down to definitions
of legitimate vs. illegitimate slavery. This likely sounds odd to you, but go back to our first
heading about the problem between the enslaved/free dichotomy. Pre-transformation definitions
of African slavery not only rested upon some understanding of reciprocity between
enslaver/owner and slaves, but also dictated how the enslaved could and could not be captured.
In one case in what is now Nigeria, two young men were captured in a war fabricated by the
British. According to local custom, the two boys argued, they could not be considered enslaved.
They then took their case to a British court and won their freedom.
I know this distinction may seem really subtle, if not meaningless, to you. But for those in
precarious positions â€“ or for those who knew they could become vulnerable â€“ they were
important details. A distinction between legitimate/illegitimate capture could be the difference
between slavery and not slavery. And the existence of reciprocity between enslaver and enslaved
â€“ instead of complete ownership and a subsequent sale â€“ meant the enslaved had far more
opportunities to make claims on betterment from the enslavers.
And so, old frameworks about social reciprocity provided a language for aggrieved communities
to critique the status quo. In many cases, it did nothing. But its existence shows that Africans did
not take the growth of enslavement passively.
African Identities in the Atlantic
Iâ€™ll be brief here because much of this material is more accessible. Until recently, most scholars
assumed that the horrors of enslavement meant the enslaved either did not want to or could not
replicate their African identities in the New World. Part of this theory relied upon an assumption
that Africans sold â€œtheir ownâ€ into slavery, therefore those sold had no desire to replicate social,
cultural, or religious norms from their homes.
â€œThe Language You Cry In,â€ Gomezâ€™s Reversing Sail, â€œMusical Passages,â€ and â€œOnesiumus,â€
challenge these ideas in some detail. Let me mention two points quickly.
First, the presence of particular African identities in the New World generally depended upon the
demographics of enslavement. Some shipments had â€œcrowdsâ€ of enslaved drawn from various
origins and thus lacking some of the commonalities necessary to â€œremake Africaâ€ in the
Americas. Others came in groups, whether from the same place, having the same ethnicity, or
speaking a similar language. They had a critical mass for remaking African cultures in a new
Second, this returns us to a key point of our class: the notion that African things are somehow
weaker or less desirable in world history. In both cases, we see that the enslaved considered their
identities useful and relevant and used them to remake life as much as possible under slavery in
the New World.
Why does that matter? A key justification for slavery in the New World was that life in Africa
was so bad, so primitive, so hand-to-mouth that anything, even slavery, could be considered
progress. And yet, we have enslaved individuals making what later became known as the banjo;
we have expert rice planters; we have expert healers known for their ability to cure small poxes;
we have rebellions anchored in social and military organizations from Central Africa.
In other words, thereâ€™s no better way to take on that white supremacist narrative about Africa and
slavery then to dwell on what the enslaved brought with them.
The Lisa Lindsay â€œEpilogueâ€ is optional, but it provides a powerful close to this unit. Our society
is still shaped by debates about slavery, its end, and its aftermath. And so getting the details right
still matters. If youâ€™re not convinced, check this out:
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