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How is the slave trade remembered in West Africa? In a work that challenges recurring claims that Africans felt (and still feel) no sense of moral responsibility concerning the sale of slaves, Rosalind Shaw traces memories of the slave trade in Temne-speaking communities in Sierra Leone. While the slave-trading past is rarely remembered in explicit verbal accounts, it is often made vividly present in such forms as rogue spirits, ritual specialists' visions, and the imagery of divination techniques.
Drawing on extensive fieldwork and archival research, Shaw argues that memories of the slave trade have shaped (and been reshaped by) experiences of colonialism, postcolonialism, and the country's ten-year rebel war. Thus money and commodities, for instance, are often linked to an invisible city of witches whose affluence was built on the theft of human lives. These ritual and visionary memories make hitherto invisible realities manifest, forming a prism through which past and present mutually configure each other.
What shall I say of the ports, particularly of the one in the Bay of Serra Leoa, which is so suitable for docking ships? Here the foreigners regularly careen, build and repair their ships. The port gives them refuge by protecting them and defending them from fierce storms, and they repay this by leaving their names as a memento. They carve them on the flat stones and the boulders of the famous Harbour of the Watering-place and on the trunks of trees there. Thus they offer perpetual thanks to the place for the kindness in the aspects of nature with which they were received.The upper Guinea coast (sometimes called the Windward Coast or the Rice Coast) on the West Atlantic edge of Africa comprises the Casamance region 25 of Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. It is a mostly flat, swampy length of coast except for the hills of the Sierra Leone peninsula, and it is crossed by numerous rivers whose navigable stretches were channels for trade and transport for centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans (Brooks 1993: 49). Inland, the rivers flow through savanna and forests froma range of mountains that protected the upper Guinea coast from invasion and conquest by the medieval Ghana and Mali empires to the northeast. The coast's inhabitants were--and are--rice farmers: the Casamance in the northern part of this region was, in fact, a "secondary cradle" of the development of African rice, Oryza glaberrima (Rodney 1970: 20). With a few exceptions, peoples organized themselves into small political units headed by chiefs and kings. They spoke languages classified as "West Atlantic"--a language family distantly related to the Bantu languages of Central, East, and Southern Africa, and whose southern cluster has been subcategorized as "Mel" (Dalby 1965). On the coast of Sierra Leone were Bullom-speakers and, further inland, speakers of Temne. Both peoples lived in villages, each village having a king (Bee in Bullom; Obe in Temne) who was paid no tribute but was owed farm and building labor, assistance in war (provided that a council of elders agreed the war was just), and special parts of wild animals killed in his domain (Fernandes 1951 [1506-10]: 80-93).
--Manuel Alvares, Ethiopia Minor and a Geographical Account of the Province of Sierra Leone
But at a certain time a man was born, who was a wicked person, and a violent person: he was also a great man, he had plenty of money, and many slaves, and plenty of cattle, and many servants; who did not care for any one, and did just as he pleased, and troubled all his people: he became the author of death in the world.
--C. F. Schlenker, A Collection of Temne Traditions, Fables and Proverbs:
The tangomaus . . . are a sort of people who, although Portuguese by nation and Christian by religion and baptism, nevertheless live as if they were neither Portuguese nor Christian. For many of them go naked, and in order to get on better with the heathen of the land where they trade by appearing like them, they score their whole body with an iron blade, cutting until they draw blood and making many marks which, after they have been anointed with the juice of certain plants, come to resemble various designs, such as figures of lizards, snakes or any other creatures they care to depict. (Hair 1989: document 4, pp. 3-4; quoted in Brooks 1993: 191)Body decoration was not the only form of Sapi material culture in which these European settlers participated. Admiring the ivory-carving skills of craftsmen in Sierra Leone, the lancados commissioned hybrid African forms of European dinner table objects: delicate, intricately decorated ivory cups, spoons, and salt-cellars that are now famed as the "Afro-Portuguese Ivories." Alvares describes "spoons made of ivory, beautifully finished, the handles carved in interesting shapes, such as the heads of animals, birds or the corofis, "spirits"], all done with such perfection that it has to be seen to be believed" (Alvares 1990, 2, chap. 2: 6).
Africa was supposed to be a savage continent made that way largely by the slave traders. As "savages," the Africans had been seen only as victims, never as men in command of their own destinies, having a serious role to play in their own history.... If they said that African states had had real and legitimate interests, which they pursued through diplomacy and wars--that they were not mere puppets in the hands of the slave traders--the new Africanists could be accused of trying to shift the burden of guilt for the horrors of the trade from European to African heads. (1975: 153)It seems curious, as Inikori again observes, to argue "that to explain political and social conflicts in economic terms diminishes the level of civilization in pre-colonial Africa" (1982: 46). It is also odd that "political" and "economic" interests were presumed to be mutually exclusive rather than mutually constitutive. In the context of the slave trade on the upper Guinea coast, as we shall see, new forms of wealth enabled new forms of leadership, new political interests, and new sources of conflict that were both "political" and "economic." This is not a simple, unidirectional history of Western "causes" and African "consequences," but neither is it an unfolding of parallel but autonomous histories of European commerce and African politics: there are too many interweaving strands. Ultimately, discounting the influence of the Atlantic trade on warfare in the name of African agency represents little improvement over simplistic claims of omnipotent European guile if our aim is to understand multiple, complex forms of agency and power in the integration of West Africa into the Atlantic world.
"They never care to walk even a mile from home without firearms," wrote John Atkins in 1721. This testimony clearly points to a state of insecurity bordering on anarchy. Another graphic illustration of this was to be seen in the dislocation of villages in Sierra Leone, and their resiting in almost inaccessible hideouts, away from the main waterways and the slave-raiding chiefs. (1970: 259)
Excerpted from Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone by Rosalind Shaw Copyright © 2002 by Rosalind Shaw. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Illustrations|
|Note on Temne Orthography|
|1||The Atlanticizing of Sierra Leone||25|
|3||Roads to Life, Roads to Death: Materializing Memory through Divination||70|
|4||Diviners' Knowledge, Diviners' Lives||103|
|5||A Thing under the Water||149|
|6||The Hidden Ritual Process||170|
|7||The Production of Witchcraft/Witchcraft as Production||201|
|8||Cannibal Transformations: Experiencing Colonialism in the Sierra Leone Hinterland||225|
|9||The Politician and the Diviner||247|
|Conclusion: Remembering Modernity||263|