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Medard, Henri and Shane Doyle, (eds.). Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa.

Medard, Henri and Shane Doyle, (eds.). Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007)

This edited work by Henri Medard and Shane Doyle, Slavery in the Great Lakes Region, is an ambitious attempt to further elucidate the various structures and processes of slavery and the slave trade in the lacustrine region of East Africa, including Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and the Congo. Building upon previously neglected sources, like the records of the French White Fathers mission, and historical linguistics, the articles in this new volume attempt to shed new light upon the institution of slavery and the slave trade in the Great Lakes region.

The work can, in some ways, be read as a complimentary volume to Suzanne Miers' and Igor Kopytoff's path breaking work, Slavery in Africa (1977). In Miers' and Kopytoff's work they emphasized the intrinsic social nature of African slavery as an outgrowth of kinship. Although not specifically looking at African slavery through the lens of kinship, the editors place great importance on the autocthonous nature of this form of bonded labor in East Africa. The editors make it clear that the new light of knowledge that they possess, reflected in the various articles in the book, tends to undermine Paul Lovejoy's transformation thesis regarding African slavery and instead supports the contentions of John Thornton (p. 7). In Lovejoy's book, Transformations in Slavery (1983), he stressed the impact that the external demand for slaves in Africa, manifested in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, had upon the growth and development of indigenous slavery in Africa. Thornton, on the other hand, in his equally important work, Africa and the Africans and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800 (1992) contended that extroverted slave trades, like the trans-Atlantic commerce, actually emerged from the native institutions of slavery deeply embedded in various African societies.

The book is split into 10 chapters. Most of the articles, 6 to be precise, deal with the institution of slavery and the slave trade associated with the inter lacustrine kingdoms of the geographical region of modern day Uganda. Out of the remaining four, an article by David Northrup, "Slavery and Forced Labour in the Eastern Congo," deals with the Eastern Congo while two articles cover the impact of the East African slave trade in the region of modern day Tanzania. The other article, which is actually the first in the volume, is by the Northwestern University linguist/historian, David Schoenbrun, and uses historical linguistics to assess historical changes in the institution of slavery on a wider geographic basis within the Great lakes region of East Africa.

Through the various articles a consensus emerges. First of all, according to the editors, the impact of the East African slave trade within the Great Lakes region was actually evident before the 19th when the institution of plantation slavery actually matured along the East African coast. Consequently, although scholars, like Frederick Cooper, Plantation Slavery in East Africa (1977) and Abdul Sheriff, Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar (1987) have previously focused upon Zanzibar as the major slave market in East Africa, other centers, like the cultural and geographic zone of Unyamwezi in Tanzania, were equally important. Secondly, the various chapters also show that slavery and the slave trade were very important to the rise of kingdoms like Buganda, Bunyore, Buhaya, Toro, Busoga and Ussuwi. In tandem with the value of the slave trade to these kingdoms, middlemen, like Swahili and the Nyamwezi, occupied a crucial role in the growth of the slave trade in the interior.

Due to time constraints, it is not possible to discus all of the chapters. Individually, however, Schoenbrun's chapter" Violence, Marginality, Scorn and Honour: Language Evidence of Slaving to the 18th century," probably goes the farthest in proving the editors contention about the deep rooted nature of African slavery. Using historical linguistics in an analysis of Great Lakes proto Bantu, Schoenbrun shows that around the 18th century new words for slave emerged along with new meanings for servile status attached to older words which previously did not have the same direct association with the "commercialized marginality" of the 19th century (p. 38).

For example, Schoenbrun states that before the 18th century the Great Lakes proto Bantu term, zaana or muzaana was used to denote a female servant. The term probably developed around the 16th century and continued with the same connotation into the 18th century in many Bantu languages found within the Great Lakes region. To Schoebrun, this is, at the very least, linguistic evidence of a gendered aspect to Great Lakes slavery before the rise of long distance trade in the 19th century.

Another Great Lakes proto Bantu word, bairu or mwiru, shows the historical impact of the 19th century. The term is very old and probably developed after 1200 C.E. Originally, the term only meant peasant farmer or male client (p. 44). However, by the 19th century the term meant a male slave or a social outsider. This change in the meaning of the term coincided with the increase in long distance slave trading.

As previously noted, Jan-Georg Deutsch's 2nd chapter on the slave trade in Tanganyika emphasizes the importance of Unyamwezi to the East African Slave trade, particularly in the second half of the 19th century. According to Deutsch, the slave trade in the latter half of the 19th century increased and transformed aspects of Nyamwezi society. By the mid 19th century Swahili caravans began to dominate the trade and Unyamwezi became an important transit point for the slave trade (p. 84). Among the Nyamwezi, slaves were exchanged for bridewealth and commercially for ivory and arms. This lead to a militarization of Unyamwezi and the eventual growth of powerful chiefs whose power was based upon the manipulation of the trade.

The fourth chapter of the book by Mark Leopold deals with some interesting legacies of the slave trade in Northern Uganda. Leopold's chapter describes how the Nubi people, like the Nyamwezi, became constituted as an ethnic group as a result of the 19th slave trade to Sudan. Furthermore, according to Leopold, the ritual facial scarring that was practiced among the Nubi, the so called one eleven markings, was originally used as a method of identifying slaves (p. 125).

Similar to P. E. H. Hair's earlier 1965 analysis of the German missionary S. W. Koelle's records of recently manumitted slaves in Sierra Leone, Michael Tuck's chapter on women and enslavement in 19th century Buganda explores recently unearthed records of baptism of ex slaves from the Mill Hill Fathers mission. Re-emphasizing the impact of the 19th century East African slave trade in regards to the commercialization of female labor, Tuck's analysis of the baptismal records shows the varied ways women became slaves in the 19th century. Although the records show that most of the women became slaves through kidnapping and exchanged through sale, Tuck curiously does not explore further why kidnapping prevailed.

In the introduction the editors boldly assert that this book refutes Lovejoy's transformation thesis. In truth, most of the chapters actually reinforce it, with the exception of Schoenbrun's. This could be more of a reflection of the limitation of sources, however. Within this vein, many of the chapters are basically reproductions from earlier works. For example, David Northrup's and Richard Reid's chapters on slavery in the Congo and Buganda, respectively, have appeared in their previous works. But, in retrospect, the strength of the book is in bringing together the various strands of scholarship within one volume.

Despite these weaknesses, this book is a much needed addition to the literature on the East African slave trade and will be very useful in the classroom. Echoing the increasing literature on the broader Indian ocean aspect of the slave trade, manifested in works by Gwyn Campbell The Structure of Slavery in Indian Africa and Asia (2004), Pier Larson History and Memory in the age of Enslavement (2000) and Edward Alpers, Slavery and Resistance in Africa and Asia (2005), Slavery in the Great Lakes Region takes us away from coast to the much neglected interior where, to paraphrase the missionary David Livingstone, Satan had his seat!

Opolot Okia

Moi University
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Author:Okia, Opolot
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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