Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone / Edition 1

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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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226751320
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,215,593
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Rosalind Shaw is an associate professor of sociocultural anthropology at Tufts University. She is coeditor of Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis and Dreaming, Religion and Society in Africa.

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Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone

By Rosalind Shaw

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Rosalind Shaw
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226751325

1 - The Atlanticizing of Sierra Leone

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.

--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 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).

Well before the coming of Europeans in the fifteenth century, the peoples of the region were organized into trade networks that connected different parts of the coast and rivers of upper Guinea and linked themto long-distance trade routes controlled by Mande-speaking peoples to the northeast (Brooks 1993: 79-96). At the other end of these Mande trade routes, in the urban centers of the Mali Empire and its satellite states, there was considerable demand for the salt that the coastal communities of upper Guinea produced. There was also a demand for forest commodities such as kola nuts and malaguetta pepper, for which Mande elites had developed a taste (Brooks 1993: 80). "The best cola," wrote Manuel Alvares, a Jesuit priest who lived in Sierra Leone for ten years in the early seventeenth century, "is so appreciated by the heathen that it is carried by Mandinga merchants as far as Mecca; and there is no heathen sacrifice in which it does not play a part" (1990 [c. 1615], 2, chap. 1: 9). One of the principal kola-producing areas was the Temne-speaking region, which straddled what is now northern Sierra Leone and southern Guinea-Conakry (Brooks 1993: 83); in fact the word "kola"--together with its North American offspring "cola"--is a loanword from the Temne term. In exchange for kola, the iron products of Mande smiths, cotton cloth, gold from the Mali Empire, and exotic trans-Saharan imports flowed into the upper Guinea coast (Brooks 1993: 82). Through the coastal and riverine flows of this trade, Mel-speaking peoples--Temne, Bullom, Baga, and Landuma--adopted "Sapi," the language of a Landuma group, as a common commercial language (Hair 1967; Brooks 1993: 80) that became the basis of a collective identification for Mel-speakers.

When Europeans arrived on this coast, then, they did not suddenly propel untouched and isolated African localities into the wide, cosmopolitan world: a translocal sphere of commercial relations was already in place, and it intersected with a trans-Saharan trade that linked three different continents. Instead, the growth of European trade brought about the integration of the upper Guinea coast's existing commercial system with new kinds of transregional circulations (see Gupta and Ferguson 1992). This new integration was, however, to transformthe region in unprecedented ways.

In 1462, the Portuguese explorer Pedro da Sintra charted the coast of Sierra Leone, naming it "Lion Uplands" (Serra Lyoa) because the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks reminded him of the roaring of lions (or, in another version of this origin story, because he thought the peninsula's hills had a lion's shape). Four years later, Portuguese settlers in the Cape Verde islands to the northwest were given a charter by the Portuguese crown that granted them exclusive license to trade on the West African mainland. When, however, they proceeded not only to trade but also to reside on the mainland, establishing themselves as private traders--and thereby undermining the crown's attempted monopoly on trade--the crown made successive but largely futile attempts to legislate against their settlement. The Portuguese authorities called the settlers lancados, those who had "thrown themselves" among Africans. As the numbers of these European residents grew, and as they intermarried with their African hosts, a Luso-African trade language developed, taking the place of the former lingua franca, Sapi. This new creolized language of commerce came to be spoken throughout trading communities on the coasts and rivers of upper Guinea, as well as in the Cape Verde islands (Dalby 1970-71); remnants of it can be heard in Temne as Portuguese loanwords today (Turay 1976).

Some of the Portuguese lancados, who came to be called tangomaos, not only married African women but also observed local ritual practices and had their bodies inscribed with the tattoos worn by their hosts. Such marks of African affiliation were deeply disturbing to the missionary Alvares's predecessor, Father Baltasar Barreira, who recorded his discouragement at such "backsliding" by baptized Portuguese Christians:

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).

But it was not primarily for the sake of this fine ivory tableware that the lanc¸ados and tangomaos established themselves on the upper Guinea coast. They exchanged iron bars, cotton fiber, woven textiles, and salt fromPortugal and the Cape Verde islands for gold, ivory, kola, malaguetta pepper, animal hides, and--most lucrative of all--slaves. "The tangomaus," wrote Barreira, "make their way through the whole of Guinea in this way, trading in slaves and buying them wherever they can obtain them" (Hair 1989: document 4, pp. 3-4; quoted in Brooks 1993: 191).

These lancados would settle on river estuaries--especially that of the Sierra Leone River--and take their canoes up creeks and rivers to find the slaves and other trade goods that they would sell. Trading nuclei were situated at almost every estuary, while upstream, at the farthest navigable point of the river, trade from the hinterland was channeled through a complementary trade terminus (Rodney 1970: 79). Thus the rivers that had long been the highways of the upper Guinea coast effectively became extensions of the Atlantic ocean, penetrating several miles inland. And because they were foci for European trade and settlement, the rivers also attracted further African settlement: "In the sixteenth century and for much longer," Rodney notes, "European ships and commercial activity acted as magnets in drawing the African population of the Upper Guinea Coast even closer to the waterways, and especially to the estuaries" (1970: 80).

The Sierra Leone River estuary, to which European seafarers were drawn by the trade prospects, safe anchorage, fresh water supply, and large natural harbor, came to be known as "the Watering Place" (plate 2). In 1580, Francis Drake carved his initials on a stone at the Watering Place, like the other "foreigners" that Alvares describes as "leaving their names as a memento . . . on the flat stones and the boulders of the famous Harbour" (1990, 2, chap. 1: 18). Later, in 1607, Hamlet was performed there--during Shakespeare's own lifetime-- by sailors on an English expedition to India (Hair 1978). Pirates also frequented the estuary, attracted not only by the prospects of plunder but also by "the Traders settled here, [who] are naturally their friends" (Johnson, in Fyfe 1964: 69). By the early 1700s these "natural friends" of the pirates were English private traders, many of whom were retired pirates themselves. Johnson goes on, for example, to describe John Leadstone, "an old Fellow who goes by the name of Crackers, who was formerly a noted Bucaneer, and while he followed the Calling, robb'd and plundered many a Man: he keeps the best House in the Place, has two or three Guns before his Door, with which he salutes his Friends (the Pyrates, when they put in), and lives a jovial life" (69).

By the eighteenth century, English merchants had replaced Portuguese traders in the domination of the slave trade. This was a time of unprecedented slaving and warfare: in mid-century, between 4,000 and 6,000 slaves were dispatched from Sierra Leone annually (Rodney 1970: 250-51). Men like "Crackers" were prominent in the slave trade at this time, despite efforts by the English crown to control the trade by granting a private company--the Royal African Company--a sole monopoly. Further up the estuary, at the farthest navigable point for slave ships, this company had a fortified slave factory on Bence Island (later "Bance," and today "Bunce Island"), which was taken over by the London firm of Grant, Sargent, and Oswald in the mid-eighteenth century (Opala 1987: 5). That firm's employees on Bence Island were provided not only with an English country house (whose drawing room window looked directly onto the main slave enclosure [Falconbridge 2000 (1802): 23]), but also with a two-hole golf course (Smeathman 1773, in Fyfe 1964: 70) "served by African caddies dressed in kilts especially woven in Glasgow" (Thomas 1997: 342). Slave ships from Bence Island often took their cargos to South Carolina, where profits from rice plantations created a demand for slaves from Sierra Leone: with their expertise in rice cultivation, slaves from the "Rice Coast" of West Africa, as the upper Guinea coast was known, fetched a higher price (Opala 1987: 1-6).

Causes, Consequences, Agency

Sierra Leone, then, was integrated into an Atlantic mercantile system linking three continents. What were the consequences for peoples such as Temne speakers? In Sierra Leone--as in other parts of Africa--most slaves were acquired through wars and raids. According to Rodney (1970: 102), warfare and raiding accelerated as a direct result of the slave trade, the sale of captives to slavers being initially a byproduct but subsequently a motive for conflicts and raids. This issue, however, has been the focus of much heated argument in historians' debates concerning the impact of the Atlantic trade on Africa.

Fage (1969), most notably, claims that the slave trade did not generate increased warfare and raiding. Focusing on the large West African kingdoms of Asante and Dahomey further east, he argues that the Atlantic trade was inconsequential because the European demand for slaves merely added a further option to patterns of foreign trade that were already developing--including a trade in slaves. He cites two West African rulers, King Kpengla of Dahomey (1774-89) and King Osei Bonsu of Asante (c. 1801-24), who told European visitors that they fought wars for political reasons, not for the "economic" motive of capturing slaves for the Atlantic trade (1969: 402). Yet it is clearly problematic to suggest that simply asking the question "why do you do this?" will elicit a single definitive answer unfettered by the positionality of speaker and questioner in a particular sociopolitical context. As Inikori (1982) points out, both of the rulers in question made their statements at times of strong abolitionist sentiment in Europe, and accordingly "it would seem somewhat naive to expect these rulers to admit that they waged wars simply to acquire captives, in the face of the moral condemnation of this type of activity at the time" (1982: 49).

The argument that the wars of the slave trade era were waged for internal political reasons rather than for the externally influenced economic motive of acquiring captives to sell has sometimes been presented as one that restores agency to Africans. For example, reacting against claims that African participants in the slave trade were duped by the allure of European goods and money, Curtin writes:

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.

Most contributions to these debates on the consequences of the slave trade for Africa have been focused on the large slave-trading kingdoms, whose fighters raided surrounding areas for slaves. Sierra Leone, however, was far from the slave-trading kingdoms of Asante and Dahomey to the east, and its often watery, forested environment provided an effective barrier to slave-trading Mande states further north and northeast. Unlike the large slave-trading states, this region had no major political or geographical boundary separating those who raided and those who were taken as slaves: the small chiefdoms into which Sierra Leone was organized included both those who raided for slaves and those who could be captured by raiders. Conflicts between (and within) these chiefdoms were both exacerbated by tensions generated by the Atlantic trade and encouraged by the slave trade's agents, who often supplied arms to both sides in a dispute. The frequent wars that arose-- wars that defy categorization as either "politically" or "economically" motivated--"received the full blessing of the slave traders and their agents who supplied arms and supported one section against another" (Ijagbemi 1968: 26). The leaders who fought wars and sold their captives to the slave traders who had supplied their weapons were not "mere puppets in the hands of the slave traders," but neither were they wholly "in command of their own destinies" (Curtin 1975: 153): this was an intersection of African and European agency.

In eighteenth-century Sierra Leone, some of the everyday consequences of the above means of production of slaves were, according to Rodney, as follows:

"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.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Temne Orthography
Introduction 1
1 The Atlanticizing of Sierra Leone 25
2 Spirit Memoryscape 46
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
Notes 269
Bibliography 285
Index 301
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