Excerpted From: Benedetta Rossi, The Abolition of Slavery in Africa's Legal Histories, 42 Law and History Review 1 (February, 2024) (98 Footnotes) (Full Document)

BenedettaRossiThe historiography of the legal abolition of slavery in Euro-America is so vast that it has a history of its own. The main ideologues, ideas, and networks have been studied extensively. By contrast, research on African legal abolitions is a narrow field that focuses primarily on European anti-slavery activities. And yet, several African rulers passed anti-slave trade and anti-slavery laws and edicts before colonial occupation. Their initiatives were influenced by both external and internal processes, and by both foreign and local actors including intellectuals, persons of slave descent, liberated slaves, and progressive members of indigenous slave-owning elites. People occupying different positions in specific African localities were involved in nineteenth-century abolitionism as active agents. They shaped, as much as they were conditioned by, the course of regional and global abolition.

This special issue examines the processes that led to the introduction and implementation of anti-slavery laws in African legal systems. It recenters the analysis of the legal abolition of slavery in Africa around particular African actors, concepts, strategies, and procedures. What norms and ideas informed the decisions of individual African rulers, legal and religious specialists, free commoners and enslaved persons who acted in support of the delegalization or prohibition of slavery? What concerns drove their actions? What strategies did they unfold? The articles in this issue address these questions by focusing, respectively, on the dynamics that led to the passing of the first abolition decree in Islamic Africa by Ahmad Bey in the Regency of Tunis in 1846 (Ismael Montana); the anti-slave trade edicts passed by the Sultans of Zanzibar, and in particular the 1890 decree issued by Sultan Seyyid Ali bin Sa'd (Michelle Liebst); the anti-slavery arguments of Fante intellectuals in the Gold Coast and their critical engagement with the British abolition of 1874 (Michael Odijie); the evolution of abolition laws in Ethiopia from Emperor Menilek to Emperor Haile Selassie in the period 1889-1942 (Takele Merid and Alexander Meckelburg); and the strategies devised by enslaved persons to influence the legal procedures of official emancipation under German and British rule in western Tanganyika in the first third of the twentieth century (Salvatory Nyanto and Felicitas Becker).

Together, contributions highlight the historical specificities of Africa's abolitionisms by examining how they developed within local normative cultures and how the idiosyncratic approaches of individual African abolitionists contributed to slavery's suppression in their societies. This statement should be qualified. First, there is no unified African--or Hausa, Swahili, or Fante--abolitionist “culture”: any such claim would be a misleading cultural essentialism; however, the actions of African critics of slavery were informed by cultural representations and normative traditions that varied from society to society. Second, at the individual level, what actors thought and did about slavery and abolition depended on their position in society: wealthy slaveowners, political rulers, religious authorities, and enslaved persons had different interests and tactics, which they developed in the political and economic circumstances of their times. The studies presented here shed new light on the struggles that surrounded abolition in Africa and advance our understanding of abolition as a global phenomenon. While more research is surely needed to paint a clearer picture of these dynamics at the continental level, it is already possible to make at least three generalizations: concepts of slavery differed in European and African languages and cultures; African approaches to abolition must be contextualized in local (and not just international) intellectual and political processes; and African enslaved persons and their descendants, acting within African or European institutions, were the most committed to abolition. The rest of this introductory section expands on these three points.

In most African societies, slavery was “not one social status, but many.” Enslaved persons occupied specific statuses in a range of hierarchically stratified slave roles that carried distinct names and had different characteristics and moral connotations. This resulted in ambiguities and misunderstandings between locals and Europeans. The latter tended to use the single generic term “slave” and, even when individual administrators were aware of translation problems, in official procedures they seldom sought to clarify how the English term corresponded to the slavery lexicon of specific African languages. For example, Odijie lists the names of eleven types of slaves in Fante language in the Gold Coast; he shows that Fante-speakers considered some regional forms of slavery harsher than others and that Fante abolitionist intellectuals and some indigenous rulers supported the abolition of certain forms of slavery, but not all.

Also in Arabic, the terminology of slavery was more varied than it was in English in the second half of the nineteenth century. In her article in this issue, Liebst compares English and Arabic versions of the 1890 edict passed under Seyyid Ali's rule. While the English version used the word “slave” throughout, the Arabic one used “abd” (slave) initially, but switched to the softer “khdim” (servant) in more specific articles of the edict. Liebst suggests that these linguistic distinctions had implications for how Arabic-speaking East Africans understood the new legislation to apply to different categories of enslaved persons; the newly introduced rights could be interpreted to apply only to domestic and urban slaves, as opposed to the more marginalized plantation slaves usually referred to as “abd.” Debates about which labor relations corresponded to “slavery” (as defined in English) and which ones ought to be considered less severe forms of exploitation were critical to those directly involved. In various African places and languages, people who engaged in these debates were not just tinkering with definitions and categories; which terms were used in legal texts had major economic implications for which labor relations would continue being viable and which ones would be closely scrutinized by official authorities or declared illegal outright. Delegalizing slavery, or certain forms of slavery, substantially reduced the ability of wealthier groups to control dependents. The African rulers who passed abolition decrees had to weigh the political costs of their policies against the benefits of assuming an abolitionist political stance.

Rulers had the power to change laws. But if they were to avoid harsh criticism by their peers, moral condemnation by legal and religious authorities, and popular discontent, they had to muster support for their actions. Montana's article shows that Ahmad Bey could not ignore the opinion of Islamic legal institutions in Tunis when he passed what in the 1840s were unprecedented reforms in the whole Islamic world. Surely, he was also influenced by British abolitionist pressures in North Africa. But his arguments in support of abolition were rooted in Ottoman North Africa's jurisprudence and normative rationales; he had to follow, and be seen to follow, the required institutional procedures. He appealed to the Majlis al-Shar' (Sharia Council for Judicial Ordinance) without whose endorsement of his edict his actions would not be legitimate. The African rulers who opted for abolition were not only, and seemingly not primarily, acting out of respect for Europe's anti-slavery agendas or fear of Europe's potential retaliation. Interior politics and sub-regional power relations mattered a great deal. Historiographic interpretative paradigms that see African abolitionisms as entirely derivative and dictated by Europe's humanitarianism, or thirst for power, fail to appropriately contextualize these phenomena in the whole range of local and regional factors that worked sometimes in favor, and sometimes against, those who supported abolition in various African locations. Thus, in this issue Liebst shows that collaboration with British abolitionists and the passing of the unpopular 1890 decree exposed Sultan Seyyid Ali bin Sa'd to the risk of uprisings against him in certain regions. The Sultan found himself politically isolated and existentially troubled. His decree was passed in 1890 at a moment of intense tension in the area going from the East African coast to the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. Here, local “Arab” groups were rebelling against growing European imperialism. In the 1890s some leading traders and landowners connected to Zanzibar's Sultanate still thought it possible to resist Europe's imperialism and defend pro-slavery ideologies rooted in ideas of hierarchy and the management of labor and trade. To them, Sultan Seyyid Ali's attitude displayed weakness in the face of pressures by untrustworthy Christians.

Proper contextualization should account for local and regional, as well as international, factors. Thus, Merid and Meckelburg reconstruct transformations in approaches toward abolition in Abyssinia between the mid-1880s and the mid-1930s. They see interior politics and local norms as primary forces that shaped Ethiopian responses to foreign agendas. As King of Shewa first, and as Ethiopia's Emperor after 1889, Menilek engaged in expansionist warfare. These wars resulted in massive enslavement by Menilek's armies at the same time as Menilek also claimed to be committed to Christian abolitionism against the “Muslim slave trade” in his correspondence with European rulers. What may appear as a contradiction was in fact consistent with Abyssinian ideologies of slavery, which saw legitimate enslavement as necessary for the integration of outsiders perceived as uncivilized into the allegedly superior Orthodox civilization. Incidentally, this is not dissimilar from what could also be seen as contradictions in Napoleon's approach to abolition about eight decades earlier: in his Italian campaigns, Napoleon or his generals sometimes liberated all slaves upon entering Italian cities that lacked a specific legislation on slavery. And yet Napoleon also re-legalized slavery in France's overseas colonies in 1802 by revoking the emancipation decree of the Montagnard convention of February 4, 1794. A generically abolitionist stance was never incompatible with selective pro-slavery laws directed against discriminated groups that could still be portrayed as enslavable before the domestic public opinion.

Merid and Meckelburg show that the ancient legal tradition rooted in the Fetha Nagast legal code made slaving and abolitionism compatible by presenting enslavement as necessary to the expansion of civilization among groups perceived as uncivilized. Once civilized through enslavement to Orthodox masters, slaves would be eligible for redemption through manumission. The emphasis on manumission as an avenue to abolition was consonant with Ethiopia's former morality of slaveholding. But in the early twentieth-century understandings of manumission were repurposed as part of a new discourse of Ethiopian nation building, itself inseparable from the nationalist struggle to preserve Ethiopia's independence in the main colonial era. Around the turn of the century the Abyssinian Empire stopped conquering new peoples and concentrated on consolidating citizenship. Ethiopia had struggled to be accepted as a member of the League of Nations. Key to its acceptance had been its ability to prove its abolitionist credentials. By the 1920s the African continent had been almost entirely colonized and Ethiopia's independence was exceptional. This context differed from East Africa in the 1890s, when the circles surrounding Zanzibar's Sultan Seyyid Ali could interpret his actions as cowardice before a threatening Europe. In Ethiopia in the 1920s, nationalist intellectuals saw their country as the last African stronghold against European occupation, which now appeared extremely likely. They strove to convince their compatriots that the emperor's efforts to demonstrate that Ethiopia was capable of effectively abolishing slavery were vital.

If freeborn people were concerned with national independence, suzerainty, and with preserving their privileges, these matters had a different significance for those who had been enslaved. To them, national independence mattered little if it meant continued exposure to the exactions of former masters. They aimed to take back control over their own lives and build families they could protect against slaveowners' claims that had heretofore been endorsed by local norms and laws. They developed strategies that improved their chances of leaving slavery behind at the least possible cost for them and their loved ones. They soon realized that their main allies were those who had shared their plight and could help them transition to free status. Nyanto and Becker show that enslaved persons seeking official manumission certificates relied on the oaths pronounced by community members willing to support them. Having considered how different logics of slavery and manumission worked, they tried to turn to their advantage the new approaches that they came into contact with in missions, consulates, and local institutions inhabited by new ideas. Nyanto and Becker argue that the struggles of enslaved persons succeeded, as colonial administrators progressively came to rely on public oaths to certify freedom. This shows, inter alia, that colonial legal procedures were as porous and hybrid as all other systems of legal thought. If this process did not release formerly enslaved persons from all coercive relations, it did however increase their ability to distance themselves from slavery.

If local and foreign approaches to abolition differed, different approaches occurred also within any one society and location. For most people in nineteenth-century Africa, much was at stake in the passing of laws that curtailed the power to sell, buy, and own slaves. The stakes were not the same for Emperor Menilek in 1889 or Haile Selassie in 1924; they were not the same for the Regent of Tunis or his Grand Mufti, the Sultan of Zanzibar or his interpreter, an Asante chief or a Fante lawyer, a Catholic Cardinal, an Anglican missionary, or a convert of slave descent in a Methodist mission. In all this, those enslaved were the first to consciously engage with legal procedures that had potential to broaden their limited capacity to choose how to live their lives. They, too, were an internally diverse group. Differences in how different groups perceived slavery were magnified by the many forms of slavery that existed in African societies. In broad comparative terms, this accounts for dissimilarities between how these processes unfolded in the African continent and in the trans-Atlantic and American world, where, by the end of the eighteenth century, slavery had come to be epitomized by the horrors of the trans-oceanic trade in humans and of plantation slavery integrated in capitalist commercial agriculture. These discrepancies contributed to the greater resilience of ameliorationist approaches to slavery in African contexts (discussed in the next section). The third and final section provides the broader context for the case studies examined in the issue's articles.

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The view that Europe was responsible for the legal abolitions of slavery in Africa must be qualified and revised. Individual African politicians developed different visions and strategies concerning slavery and the slave trade. If these African rulers' commitment to abolitionism is questionable, the motivations of Europe's rulers are equally dubious. European and African legal abolitions should be assessed in connection to their advocates' respective motives, means, and objectives. Contributions to this special issue begin to unravel this complexity. They explore the specific dynamics behind the abolitionist stances and strategies of particular African rulers, intellectuals, and liberated slaves. For rulers and policy makers, they show that their actions were based on considerations of interior and external policy. For other subjects, they reveal multiple engagements with opportunities that were geographically and historically contingent and were not equally accessible to everyone. Already at this preliminary stage of research, it is clear that those Africans who had experienced slavery directly were the most radical supporters of abolition, and developed antislavery strategies within both European and African institutions. By contrast, in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Africa, neither African nor European political elites actually intended to legally abolish all forms of slavery. In this, if nothing else, they were remarkably similar. Slavery, and in particular domestic slavery, continued to exist in spite of extant anti-slavery legislation at least until the 1920s, when the intervention of the League of Nations and the continuous resistance of those confronted with slavery and its legacies changed the rules of game.

Acknowledgments. I wish to thank Gautham Rao for his valuable advice and generous support. Research for this article and for the special issue was made possible by funding from the European Research Council for the project “African Abolitionism: The Rise and Transformations of Anti-Slavery in Africa” (AFRAB, grant agreement no. 885418). I am grateful to Michelle Liebst, Alexander Meckelburg, and Michael Odijie for their contributions to the AFRAB Project's research and for their comments on this introduction, to Jane Burbank for her encouragement to publish this special issue in this journal, and to João Figueiredo and Mariana Armond Dias Paes for inviting me to discuss the ideas of this article at the International Workshop “Court Cases in African Archives” that they organized at the Käte-Hamburger Kolleg of the University of Münster on 25-26 May 2023.

Benedetta Rossi is Professor of History at University College London (UCL), UK. She is the Principal Investigator of the ERC-Advanced Project “African Abolitionism: The Rise and Transformations of Anti-Slavery in Africa” (AFRAB). This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.