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Review of Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa


By Will Jackson

Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. Eds. Henri Medard and Shane Doyle. James Currey, 2007. Pp. 288. ISBN 978-9970-02-727-9 (pb) £18.50

It is salutary perhaps (it is certainly welcome) that while the abolition of ‘the’ slave trade was so publicly and politically remembered in Britain last year, at the same time an addition was made to the scholarly literature on slavery that offered rich new insights and posed challenging new questions to anyone interested in the subject of African social history, and indeed in the question of slavery itself.

The collection of these essays has slavery as its central theme but they are authored by historians with diverse agendas for research. Slavery in East Africa was (of course) no single thing but the extent of its complexity can surely only be appreciated through the pooling of expertise such as is offered here. The book is structured geographically, but each chapter places slavery within a particular analytical context. Thus, Richard Reid, a historian of warfare in the region (amongst other things) considers slavery in terms of human booty, while Shane Doyle, a demographic historian, assesses slavery in Bunyoro in the light of population decline. Michael Tuck explores slavery in Buganda through the gender lens while Jean-Pierre Chretien and Jan-Georg Deutsch investigate interactions between African slavery and European colonialism, though the conclusions they reach are far from the same. The result is a treatment of slavery as a social, cultural and political phenomenon that is as multi-faceted as the subject itself and (though the combining of material and method is bound to be restricted by the limitations of sources) one cannot but wonder at the possibilities for new research.

Taken together, however, what do these essays contribute to East African history and what are their implications for the understanding of slavery in Africa and elsewhere? The most obvious lesson is that slavery in the region was far more important than has previously been imagined. Slavery did not arrive with the Swahili traders from the coast, though it would be wrong to assume that it did not undergo significant change in response to the international trade (or indeed that relations between the coast and the interior were not in fact far older than have been supposed). David Schoenbrun, by using language evidence to examine ideas around honour, scorn and hierarchy, shows not only that the experience of violence and marginalization within societies predated contact with the coastal trade, but also that the meaning ascribed to these experiences was inseparable from the particularity of its time. Such sophisticated analysis feels a long way from the bald science by which slave ‘systems’ have been contrasted in dichotomous counter-distinction.

If slavery was (generally speaking) far more ‘central’ than has previously been imagined, it was Africans themselves, not the Swahilis from the coast, who directed the trade. As Deutsch’s chapter shows, even after two (connected) markets had emerged, around Unyamwezi in modern day Tanzania and on Zanzibar Island respectively, it was Unyamwezi that was the greater; a regional hub in its own right as opposed to a way station to the coast.

The real significance of this book, however, is not in its emphasis on the importance of slavery within East African states (or vice versa). That slavery was important is about as much as these kingdoms shared. The editors of this volume are wise to set out a concrete definition of their term, (a slave as a kinless outsider, following Miers and Kopytoff) for the sheer variability of its form challenges any simple conceptions of what slavery was, and was not. Some slaves were foreigners. But not all foreigners were slaves. Similarly, while slaves suffered various forms of indignity and exploitation, so did others (women and children most notably.) What distinguished the un-free from the free? Is the concept of freedom even applicable here?

These questions are not new but the studies collected in this volume provide rich new material for rethinking slavery and its connection to other ways by which human relations are structured, contested and understood. As Medard tells us in his introductory essay, to the Europeans at the start of the twentieth century it was only at moments when slaves in East Africa were traded that they became visible. A century later, they have been brought back into view. This book is an exciting new addition to the literature on slavery and servitude in Africa as well as an important contribution to the historiography of the Great Lakes.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 78-79]

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