World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

Joseph Miller on Africa and African Slaving
Notes from Dr. Miller’s Presentation at the 2006 AP World History Reading

Adapted from notes by Chris Cuddihy

Pomona High School, Arvada, Colorado

At the 2006 AP World History reading, Joseph Miller presented his thoughts on African history and its relationship to world history. A more complete version of these notes can be found at World Class Learning Alliance (, a project of Joseph and Sayuri Adams. Joseph Adams' commentary on Dr. Miller's talk also appears at the site.

Joseph Miller is the T. Cary Johnson Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is current president of the African Studies Association and past president of the American Historical Association. His best known work is Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade 1730-1830 (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

    In Dr. Miller's view, the concept of "slavery" with all of its 18th century colonial and 19th century American connotations must be considered in the broader context of Africa's history. Professor Miller offered no easy answers for achieving this goal in the classroom, but did provide a definitive foundation for incorporating an African perspective rather than more common Atlantic-centered narrative. Dr. Miller suggested six ideas that have guided his work over the years.
    The "Principle of Bafflement": A Way Out of the Colonial History Model. At the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s and 1970s, Miller and fellow graduate students tried to reconcile Western political concepts to their African field studies. In his own work, Miller soon discovered a huge discrepancy between contemporary Portuguese sources on African traders and the oral histories of the people themselves. Miller says he reached a point of thorough confusion regarding the relationship between his academic preconceptions and African society as he found it. The breakthroughs began only when he became comfortable with his confusion. As Miller told his audience, "you can't get anywhere until you become thoroughly confused. This is the Principle of Bafflement."
    Reconceptualizing Africa. Though the AP World History curriculum is one of the first fresh approaches to historical instruction in decades, it relies on outdated political constructs to understand Africa. Consequently, the curriculum asks that students focus on large political units: kingdoms and empires such as Ghana, Mali, Songhai, and Great Zimbabwe. These are familiar categories for thinking about Africa, but we shouldn't forget that they "apply to less than 1% of human societies." Borrowing tools from anthropology and sociology, historians have questioned the utility of Western political terms like "civilizations", "kingdoms", and "states". These terms are particularly problematic when scholars mine African history searching for evidence of "political competence." 4
    Rethinking Chronology. The traditional 8000 BCE benchmark for beginning the world history narrative, though appropriate to Eurasia's river valley civilizations, does not work for most of Africa. Instead, Miller argues, we should look back at least 50,000 years. At this time-scale, states and world religions diminish in importance. Other structures loom larger: particularly kinship and lineage. These become particularly significant when considering the African context of "slaving".
    Rethinking Individualism. Scholars and teachers need to be conscious of the extent to the Descartes articulated a version of economic individualism when he declared "I think therefore I am." The African socio-economic ethos rests on a much more on communal identity. The African equivalent of cogito ergo sum would be closer to, "I am because I belong. We are because we belong." In this context, people represent wealth, not possessions. This means that the African concept of the "slave" differed significantly from that of the European Atlantic. The African definition of "enslavement" or "slaving" comes closer to "taken-out": taken out from one communal or social identity and "taken-in" to another. There are no direct 17th century African equivalents for Western concepts like national identity, individual equality under the law, or social and political categories of race.   6
    African Slaving vs. Atlantic Slavery. Miller advises teachers to be careful using the term "slavery" when comparing African and colonial contexts. Doing so may erroneously imply that slavery is a static, unchanging institution, rooted in individual, economic circumstances of the 17th century. While the African practice of slaving usually meant assimilation into a new social context, 17th century European Atlantic slavery usually made the slave an economic object.  7
    Slavery as Gender History. Until the 17th century, women represented a majority of enslaved peoples. During times of economic duress, rural women were often taken into the cities as slaves to work and / or to produce children. The Roman familia consisted of an extended family that included slave women whose children would be loyal to the familia and the state, making good soldiers and administrators. For similar reasons, the militaries of many empires in history were slave based. African contexts for enslavement were closer to those of Rome than to those of the 17th century Atlantic. In the New World, land was unlimited, willing labor scarce, and enslavement of men more than women served a more purely commercial aim. Further, the Atlantic commercial system maintained control through extreme violence toward male slaves. 8
    Conclusions. Dr. Miller reminded us that our westernized version of identity is dependent on a Cartesian premise of "I think; therefore, I am". Just as David Christian challenged us at the 2005 AP reading to integrate humanity's story into the 13.5 billion year history of the cosmos, Miller challenged us to consider think beyond the state-based societies whose populations are dwarfed by those living outside territorial boundaries. 9


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use