Chained to a shameful past

January 20, 2006

Africa has been in the news recently to an unusual extent. Bob Geldof focused minds on the plight of Africa in the summer. British politicians eagerly echoed Geldof in lamenting African poverty and underdevelopment.

Debates on Africa, however, followed a predictable pattern: Europe and the US were the active agents; Africa the passive recipient. What was important was that Europeans recognised the magnitude of their responsibility for Africa, with European participation in the Atlantic slave trade and subsequent involvement in colonisation being prime candidates for European guilt. What was unnecessary was an appreciation of the dynamism of Africa, past as well as present. Ignorance of the extent to which Africans have been active participants in the making of the modern world remains widespread, despite the valiant efforts made by scholars of African history to show that Africans exercised agency in their complex relationships with Europeans and Americans.

Certainly, African agency was apparent in the development of the transatlantic slave trade, as Robin Law shows in his excellent history of Ouidah, a significant nodal point through which thousands of Africans passed en route to American enslavement. Law's exhaustive account (the mass of details presented sometimes threatens to overwhelm) expands current scholarship that emphasises the importance of African merchant communities in shaping the contours of the slave trade. Law's scope is larger than that of how Ouidah functioned within the Atlantic slave trade; he is interested in the relationship of Ouidah to Dahomian rule and how Ouidah coped with the destruction of the trade in slaves by switching, with considerable success, to trading in palm oil. He is also concerned to place Ouidah within West African history as a particular example of a functioning urban port community. But the main focus of Law's investigations is on how the Atlantic slave trade operated in an African town.

His particular insight is that, as in other parts of the Atlantic trading system, the major player determining how Africans were to be sold as slaves was the Ouidah merchant community. The extent of merchant power can be seen in the precarious tenure of Dahomian administrators. Unable to exert control over local merchants, high-ranking officials fell foul of the kings of Dahomey, with an extraordinary number being executed or dismissed. Law's other principal insight is that this merchant community was constantly changing, with the most far-reaching transformation being the rise to prominence of the powerful Brazilian-Dahomian De Souza family in the early 19th century.

The overall impression is that Ouidah was a port with distinct similarities to Atlantic coastal towns elsewhere. Illuminating the African dimension of this seaboard community is a major achievement, although, as Law admits, that dimension is obscured by the Eurocentric nature of the surviving sources. Law's book fills an important gap not only in West African history but also in the history of how Europe and West Africa encountered each other in the period of extensive Atlantic enslavement.

Trevor Burnard is professor of American history, Sussex University.

Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving 'Port' 17-1892

Author - Robin Law
Publisher - James Currey
Pages - 308
Price - £50.00 and £18.95
ISBN - 0 85255 498 2 and 497 4

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