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Book Review


Benedetta Rossi, ed., Reconfiguring Slavery: West African Trajectories. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii + 236. Glossary of foreign words and index. $29.98 (paper).


     Since the last decade of the twentieth century, comparative slave studies have become increasingly attuned to the great variety and diversity of institutions labeled as "slavery" in Western languages. At the same time, scholars and the public in many countries have developed a growing interest in the legacies and commemorations of slavery. It is at the intersection of these two developments that Benedetta Rossi's collection of essays Reconfiguring Slavery positions itself. The volume focuses on "the detailed reconstruction of slavery's transformations in particular West African contexts" (x). Rossi argues (xiii) that, contrary to earlier views, slavery in West African societies did not end at clearly definable moments, but has been fading in complex and often slow-moving processes. Changes in the institution, moreover, are not simply brought about by impersonal forces. The agency of individuals and groups, not least the slaves and ex-slaves themselves, has been a crucial factor in driving changes.

     The concept of the book originated with an international conference on "African Trajectories of Slavery," which Rossi convened at the School of Oriental and African Studies in May 2007. The collection first appeared in 2009. The 2016 paperback edition that is the object of this review features a new preface by Rossi, but does not introduce any other changes. The studies presented in Reconfiguring Slavery are centered on socio-cultural and political issues, with less attention given to economic questions (cf. however Christine Hardung's study of northern Benin, 116-39). Chronologically, the collection spans some 130 years from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, with some references to the pre-colonial period.

     Unity of focus is the hallmark of a successful collection of essays, and Rossi's volume certainly scores very high in this regard. It is well known that the binary distinction between slavery and freedom encoded in Western languages cannot accommodate the complexities of slavery in hierarchically ordered societies outside the West. Rossi suggests that the problem is not simply one of translation, but also results from "inadequate theorization" (3). Detailing trajectories of slavery thus prepares the ground for better conceptualizing the institution (5-8). Rossi proposes to do so along four dimensions:

(1) the persistence of traditional slavery ("slavery");

(2) the changing application of the stigma of slavery and its extension from slaves and their descendants to other groups ("classificatory slavery");

(3) developments in the use of slavery as a metaphor in public discourse ("metaphorical slavery");

(4) the reception of outside discourses of "slavery" that extend the concept to new contexts ("extraverted slavery").

Most chapters of the book insert themselves into this multi-dimensional framework. As may be expected, however, the contributors focus on different areas and set different accents in the application of the categories.

     In her introduction, Rossi highlights "the fragmentation of 'slavery' into a diversified range of circumstances and situations" (3). Rossi herself details this process of disintegration in her study of "social and physical mobility" in Niger's Ader region, focusing on the period from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (182-206). She traces "trajectories" leading away from slavery that varied with groups, locations, and time. In a similar vein, Jean Schmitz discusses different "strategies of emancipation" among Muslim slaves of the Senegal River Valley between the eighteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries (85-115). Schmitz distinguishes a pattern already established in precolonial times, which saw slaves merge into the local poor, from a response to opportunities arising from colonization, which allowed legally emancipated slaves to extract themselves from the social status of slavery by joining the armed forces of the colonizers or by becoming schoolteachers. Olivier Leservoisier reveals a different dynamic in Mauritania in the early twenty-first century. In this case, former slaves and slave descendants shape trajectories of status change by creating new social barriers (140-51). In the north of Benin, Christine Hardung finds that the legacy of slavery continues to be powerful today, but that its impact differs according to setting (116-39). In herding animals, for example, members of the Muslim group of former slaves in the area still heed socio-cultural traditions rooted in slavery as they deal with the group of their former masters. In other areas of life, however, particularly in local politics, the descendants of slaves play a more independent and assertive role.

     Surveying "Slave Descent and Social Status in Sahara and Sudan," Martin A. Klein notes that the colonial regimes established in this vast area in the nineteenth century were initially slow to take effective measures against slavery (26-44). In the last years of the century, however, as they felt secure in their power, they suppressed slave raiding and trading and no longer forced slaves who left their masters to return. Although this change in policy fell short of any strict enforcement of legal abolition, it led to an "exodus" of slaves from their masters that already began in the 1880s (30, see also Rossi on Ader, 194-98). Nevertheless, the majority of the slave population did not move. In the course of the twentieth century, slavery gradually declined under pressure from the remaining slaves, who occasionally challenged the power of their masters in open revolt, but more often responded to the availability of land or earning opportunities in order to reduce their obligations or to extract themselves from their condition.

     Like Rossi (7), Klein insists on a clear and narrow definition of slavery. A slave is property of her or his master, can be used at will--be it for work or sexual exploitation, and is denied the recognition of kinship (40). Only vestiges of slavery in this sense remain in West Africa today. In Klein's view, "trajectories of slavery" consist in the changing usage of the lexicon associated with the institution. The words traditionally referring to slavery continue to be applied in societies throughout the region even though the institution itself has largely disappeared.

     Two other chapters in the volume make discourses of slavery their focus. Alice Bellagamba analyzes changing "metaphors of slavery" in Gambian politics since the colonial period (65-84). In the 1950s, an increase in prosperity accelerated the fading of slavery as a social institution and thus facilitated the use of the term as a metaphor for colonial oppression. After independence, the charge of slavery came to form part of a more general critique of the West, its corruptive influence on African elites, and its demoralizing effect on African youth. In the 1990s, when large numbers of young Africans began to migrate overseas in search of economic opportunity, Nigerian teacher and playwright Yacubu Saheed described them as "willing slaves to the West" who had fallen victims to the lures of "Babylon," an image that also entered Gambian discourse (73).

     Like Bellagamba, Phil Burnham reflects on "trajectories of slavery discourses" (212) and contrasts the concepts and commemoration of slavery in Cameroon and Trinidad through a series of illustrations, drawn from his fieldwork between the late 1960s and the early years of the new millennium (207-24). Burnham's brief transatlantic comparison and his Cameroonian vignettes reveal the concept of slavery in contemporary discourses to be dependent on its context. Trinidadians turn to the history of their slave ancestors as a source of their identity and purpose. This commemoration of the slave past, however, finds no parallel in Cameroon. In some Cameroonian settings, the legacy of slave status has become linked with ethnic identities; in other cases, the concept of slavery is instrumentalized in conflicts over power and resources. Burnham's contribution also highlights how the work of NGOs has deliberately served to broaden the concept of slavery in Cameroon to turn it into a tool against other forms of exploitation, providing an example of "extraverted slavery" in Rossi's framework.

     Eric Komlavi Hahanou's contribution on northern Benin and western Niger (152-81) connects somewhat more loosely to the book's theme through examining the social stigma affecting slave descendants (155-59). Against this common backdrop, Komlavi Hahanou highlights contrasting developments in the local politics of three communities, focusing on the late twentieth century. In one case, the group of former masters dominate the elected local council whereas in the two other communities the descendants of slaves control the institution, displacing the political power of their former masters. Even where this exchange of the group in power has occurred, however, patterns of governance remain the same.

     The remaining chapter of the volume does not address "trajectories of slavery" as clearly as the contributions discussed so far. Like Burnham, Tom McCaskie considers transatlantic connections (45-62). In his study of Ghana in the 1990s, McCaskie outlines how the regime of President Jerry John Rawlings embraced U.S. American intellectuals with an Afrocentric agenda and used the commemoration of the transatlantic slave trade to promote African American tourism.

     In her introduction, Rossi argues that scholars should use a narrow definition of "slavery" to make an adequate understanding of the institution possible (6). The other chapters in the volume, however, do not everywhere reflect this conceptual clarity in their empirical focus. In her study of Ader, Rossi herself does not always distinguish clearly between "slaves" and "ex-slaves" (197). Similarly, Komlavi Hahanou wavers on occasion between "slave" and "ex-slave" (158) or "slave" and "slave descendant" (161, 171). Bellagamba attempts to address ambiguities by enclosing the words "slave" and "master" in inverted commas but appears not to be altogether consistent in this approach (63-66). On occasion, such lapses may cause brief perplexity with the reader, but perhaps such moments are inevitable and may even serve as helpful reminders of the diversity of conditions and their ambiguities and nuances.

     The various "trajectories of slavery" in the present deserve further attention. Future research should include empirical work on the links between historical slavery and contemporary problems of human trafficking and labor exploitation. Given the continued impact of historical slavery on African societies today, the continent promises to furnish especially rewarding cases for such studies. Unfortunately, the contributions to Reconfiguring Slavery do not address this issue as Rossi herself points out (5; see, however Burnham, 217-18, and McCaskie, 57-58). Nevertheless, the multidimensional framework Rossi proposes for tracing "trajectories of slavery" may serve as a useful reference for further work in this area.

     Reconfiguring Slavery is an important book that provides rich insight into processes of emancipation and the legacies of slavery in West Africa. Most chapters draw heavily on the testimony of former slaves or slave descendants, which gives special liveliness to the difficult conceptual issues under consideration. The book has much to offer for comparisons between slavery in West Africa and in other world regions, in particular perhaps in Asian settings. Many chapters in the volume also shed light on the impact and reach of Western imperialism in Africa. Reconfiguring Slavery will find its readers mainly among scholars specializing in African studies and slave studies, but teachers of world history courses interested in Africa will also find the book rewarding and stimulating even though the chapters do not make for suitable readings in undergraduate college courses.

Claus K. Meyer is a lecturer at the Social Science Division of Mahidol University International College in Thailand. He may be reached at


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