New Perspectives on Slaveries in the African World: A History Symposium

New Perspectives on Slaveries in the African World
A History Symposium

March 6, 2015
The Skylight Room, 9th floor, room 9100
The Graduate Center, CUNY

On the heels of the international conference on “Slavery in Africa” held in Kenya and Kwasi Konadu’s Transatlantic Africa, which tells the story of transatlantic slaving through African optics and voices, this symposium brings together leading thinkers of global slaveries in the African world to share their work through a full-day of engaged dialogue, offering new perspectives and directions.

This program is sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative and the Ph.D Program in History. The symposium is free and open to the public. Seating is limited.

The symposium will be live streamed here.

Breakfast (9 – 10 am)

Welcome (9:45 am)
Helena Rosenblatt

Panel 1: Economics of Slaveries and their Reverberations, (10 am – 12 noon)
Panelists: Catherine Hall, Warren Whatley, Joseph Inikori. Moderated by Kwasi Konadu

Luncheon, (12 – 1 pm)

Panel 2: Theory and Story in the Narration of Slaveries, (12 – 2 pm)
Panelists: James H Sweet, Herman Bennett, Kwasi Konadu. Moderated by C. Daniel Dawson

Panel 3: Atlantic and Indian Ocean Slaveries in Conversation, (2 – 4 pm)
Panelists: Boubacar Barry, Pier Larson, Patrick Harries. Moderated by Megan Vaughan



Catherine Hall, Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London

New Perspectives on Slavery in the British Atlantic World

In Britain it has been abolition which has been remembered, not colonial slavery. For the last six years we have been developing a project at University College London, “The Legacies of British Slave-ownership.” We have taken slave-owners as the lens through which to bring slavery home to Britain, demonstrating the ways in which the slavery business permeated British society, economy and culture. In this contribution, I will first present the database we have established from the first phase of our project, which focused on the estimated 47,000 claimants for compensation when slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape in 1834. We have worked extensively on the legacies of the estimated 3,000 so-called absentees who lived in Britain, demonstrating their commercial, political, cultural and imperial legacies and the part which they played in the making of modern Britain. I will then talk briefly about the second phase of the project, “The structure and significance of British Caribbean slave-ownership 1763-1833,” with a particular focus on my own work on the slave-owners as key figures in the development of racial thinking.


Warren Whatley, Professor of Economics and Faculty of the Center for Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan

The Economic Legacies of the African Slave Trades

A growing body of evidence is showing that the international slave trade was a significant shock to African economies—one with negative long-term consequences for economic growth. The slave trade was a welfare loss for Africa, which begs the question “why were so many slaves exported?” The main reason is that slave production was organized theft, so by its very nature it generated negative externalities and overproduction—overproduction that was further encouraged by the importation of the gunpowder technology. People fought back, reconfiguring the ways they interacted with each other as insurance against capture. The general trend was towards political decentralization, stronger and more-absolutist local chiefs, more polygyny and a culture of mistrust—all of which reduced long-term growth. These legacies remain developmental challenges for much of sub-Saharan Africa today.


Joseph Inikori, Professor of History of the University of Rochester

The Development of Commercial Agriculture in Pre-Colonial West Africa

This paper focuses on the development of commercial agriculture in pre-colonial West Africa. The evidence shows that subsistence agriculture was overwhelmingly dominant on the eve of European colonial rule. The historical explanation for this long-delayed development of commercial agriculture in the region is the central analytical task in the paper. Given the initial conditions of a predominantly subsistence agricultural economy, sustained long-run population growth and inter-continental trade are identified as the main drivers of the commercializing process in the long run. The analytical task, therefore, boils down to examining the development of these critical factors over long time periods. We find that both factors grew steadily (with some breaks as would be expected) up to the mid-seventeenth century, when population declined absolutely up to the mid-nineteenth century, at the same time that inter-continental trade in West African commodities also declined. The paper argues that these developments explain satisfactorily the delayed development of commercial agriculture during the period of study. We reject arguments in the literature which attribute the decline of population and inter-continental trade to West Africa’s ecology. We argue instead that the violent procurement of millions of captives shipped across the Atlantic and their employment in large scale production of commodities in the Americas for Atlantic commerce—with the abiding support of mercantilist European states—had profound adverse effects on West Africa’s population and the development of the region’s competitiveness in commodity production for Atlantic commerce.


James H. Sweet, Vilas-Jartz Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

New Perspectives on Kongo in Revolutionary Haiti

For many scholars, the history of Africans in the Atlantic world only becomes visible at the juncture of the history of the “slave.” However, the sources upon which most of these studies are based, and the organization of the colonial archive more generally operate as something of a trap, inviting researchers to see how African slaves embraced or manipulated colonial institutions and ideas for their own purposes. This paper focuses on methodological and conceptual questions that challenge how historians conduct African-Atlantic history. In particular, I will focus on a French-Kikongo vocabulary published by a French planter ten years after he fled St. Domingue. I will explicate this source in order to achieve two goals: First, by asking the right questions and employing a range of methods, we can find ample evidence of Africans shaping the intellectual history of the Americas. Second, I want to demonstrate how bringing the Africanist’s methodological toolbox to bear on Haitian sources can challenge the very way we understand “slavery” and “revolution” in Haitian history and memory.


Herman Bennett, Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center

Sovereigns, Subjects & Slaves

In the century between 1441 and 1540, the subject position of Africans and their descendants who were part and partial of the African diaspora came under scrutiny by Christians. By recognizing the legitimate sovereignty of certain Africans and through the enactment of sovereign power by African lords, Christian traders had to accept prevailing norms, respect governing mores, and in some instance simply acquiesce to the terms Africans dictated in initiating and maintaining trading relations. Africanists have long shown an awareness of this dynamic, known as landlord-strangers relations.   But not all lords were respected as sovereigns nor their vassals accorded status as sovereign subjects. “Sovereigns, Subjects, & Slaves” brings into relief how such distinctions arose in the context of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries and the implications these framings had in identifying who legitimately constituted a slave. Stated differently, in the emergent social landscape that accompanied the earliest Iberian-African encounter we glimpse a complex configuration of social differentiation that brings into relief the very making of some Africans into slaves.


Kwasi Konadu, Professor of History and ARC Distinguished CUNY Fellow

Unearthing a “Liberated” African Muslim between Africa and the American Diaspora

This paper unearths and reconstructs the identity of a “liberated” African Muslim from southern Senegambia who left a little known and undeciphered Ajami manuscript. Ajami texts are compositions in African languages that use the Arabic script. As it turns out, available archival records and a translation of this unique manuscript crafted in the African diaspora became critical in locating its author and something about who he was (or could have been), from whence he came, how he eventually reached the Bahamas, and life thereafter. More than coalescing archival fragments, I demonstrate the critical importance of un-silencing (diasporic) African travelers of the Atlantic world, the symbiosis of African and African diaspora histories, and of competencies in African languages in producing such histories.


Boubacar Barry, Professor of History at the Chiekh Anta Diop University, Dakar (Senegal)

New Perspective on Slavery in African World: The Case of Senegambia

Senegambia is a region of convergence and dispersion because of its position at the crossroad of the Sahara, the Sudan and the Atlantic. Therefore, Senegambia was influenced from the beginning by the Tran-Saharan trade and the Atlantic trade, both dominated by the slave trade from the fifteenth century. The continuity and the terminus of the slave trade into the nineteenth century show the importance of the transformation of the societies and region of Senegambia during this period. Beyond the debate over the number of enslaved individuals sold respectively in either direction, our research must emphasize the economic, political and social consequences due to the destabilization of the societies and region of Senegambia that have continued into the present day. The nefarious commerce continues to influence, in a very insidious manner, Senegambian societies through “ethnic” conflicts as well as the violence of the military and militia in the service of corrupt and irresponsible elite. In spite of the existence of many places of memory, such as Gorée or Dufore in Gambia, our destiny is dependent on our capacity to challenge fundamentally the links of dependence and domination, both internally and externally, in connection to the Atlantic economy. The shame of slavery and forced labor still endures. The many civil wars that have given birth to forced migration between states and the clandestine emigration to Europe reminds us the trauma of the slave trade. Beyond the colonial period, we have to return to this long period of five centuries to comprehend the actual making of Africa during those centuries, in addition to the condition and destiny of millions of Africans in the diaspora. The many publications on the traumatic effect of the slave trade and slavery shows the importance of this examination, which is so central in our conscience we, the people on both sides of the Atlantic, cannot sleep. Without any reference to the skin color, the slave trade has bearing on the everyday liberty and prosperity of all of us.


Pier M. Larson, Professor of History and Acting Vice Dean for the Humanities and Social Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University

Antananarivo: Portrait of an Indian Ocean Slaving State

My contribution is a study of enslavement in Madagascar between about 1820 and 1860 by armies of the empire of Antananarivo. It is based on new research in the archives of that empire, which have seldom been employed in writing the history of Madagascar. By analogy, there are relatively few nineteenth century slaving polities in Africa that have left administrative archives testifying to how enslavement proceeded. Those of the empire of Antananarivo offer an understanding of enslavement as administrators of the empire (the slavers) described and explained their actions. The paper examines a number of themes of relevance to both Indian Ocean and Atlantic slaving: the relationship of European oceanic empires to African and Malagasy polities, the seldom explored acts of enslavement generating captives for external and domestic consumption, the relationship of literacy to violence, and similarities as well as differences between slaving in Atlantic and Indian Ocean regions.


Patrick Harries, Professor of African History at the University of Basel (Switzerland)

The Long Middle Passage: Remembering the East African Slave Trade and the Role of the Cape in this Trans-Atlantic Commerce                                                          

This presentation concentrates on East Africa’s participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the role of the Cape of Good Hope in this commerce. It starts with a quantification of the trade, concentrating on its spikes and the participation of various exit points on the East African coast. It then moves to examine the organization of the trade and the goods used by various American slavers to assemble their human cargo. A third part examines the changing legal position of the slavers and the growing pressure for abolition in the southwest Indian Ocean. The presentation then looks at Africans as consumers of goods exchanged for slaves, as suppliers of slaves and, most importantly, as human commodities embarked on a long Middle Passage. It concludes by focusing on the estimated 40,000 slaves from East Africa and Madagascar taken to the refreshment station at the Cape, and especially the cultural practices they brought to the region. The presentation closes with a short analysis of the memory of slavery in South Africa, particularly in the Western Cape Province.



Kwasi Konadu, Professor of History and ARC Distinguished CUNY Fellow

C. Daniel Dawson, filmmaker, photographer and faculty at Columbia University/New York University

Megan Vaughan, Distinguished Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center


Uncovering the Literature and History of US Slave Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp: An Archival Study at the University of Virginia

In thinking about marronage as an alternative to the more standard narrative of escape to the North that has been codified by the canonization of the slave narrative as the prevailing representation of the US slave experience, voice, and subjectivity, my research is guided by the following overarching questions: What happens to our understanding of slave resistance, collectivity, autonomy, and the geographic coordinates of freedom when we consider representations of maroon slaves and communities in antebellum US fiction?

Sean Gerrity

English Ph.D. Program
The Graduate Center, CUNY
Presented at the First Graduate Center Archival Research Conference
September 6, 2014

In the broadest sense, my proposed dissertation will examine representations of maroon slaves and maroon communities in antebellum United States fiction. By maroons I mean slaves who escaped their bondage and secluded themselves in the dense, inhospitable, and oftentimes nearly impenetrable swamps and forests of the southern United States, often for many years at a time or permanently. Instead of movements into free states, I am interested in lateral and southerly movements within slaveholding territory to places of relative autonomy where escaped slaves established lives for themselves within the juridical reach of the chattel slavery system but outside of its immediate terror, control, and white domination.

In thinking about marronage as an alternative to the more standard narrative of escape to the North that has been codified by the canonization of the slave narrative as the prevailing representation of the US slave experience, voice, and subjectivity, my research is guided by the following overarching questions: What happens to our understanding of slave resistance, collectivity, autonomy, and the geographic coordinates of freedom when we consider representations of maroon slaves and communities in antebellum US fiction? How do these representations challenge critically entrenched notions of the means for slave freedom as they are articulated by the canonization of the slave narrative and its coupling of literacy with liberty? How do representations of marronage offer alternative ways of imagining the experience of enslavement and the routes to and means of slave freedom and autonomy in antebellum African American writing and writing about enslaved African Americans? By pursuing these questions I aim to complicate the North/South, free/unfree binaristic geographical axis through which enslaved and emancipated black subjectivities have predominantly been imagined in US literary and cultural studies.

I arrived at the archives of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia looking for literary and historical sources related to marronage in Virginia. In particular, I was interested in the Great Dismal Swamp region, estimated to have consisted of over one million acres spanning southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina before human activities like logging, shingle making, and canal building interrupted the ecosystem. A critical consensus exists suggesting that the Great Dismal Swamp was probably home to the highest concentration of maroons at any given time between the colonial and antebellum periods. But the structure of the archive reproduces nineteenth-century strategies for denying the existence of maroons in the United States. By this I mean that the search terms “maroon” and “marronage” will only yield results for twentieth-century secondary sources on maroons because Southerners deliberately avoided these terms when referring to the fugitive inhabitants of the swamps and forests around them. Maroon was a word already associated with militant runaway slave communities in places like Jamaica, Suriname, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, and Southerners had no interest in drawing a parallel between these radically disruptive fugitives and the ones in their midst. Maroons were also ignored by Northern abolitionists, who preferred for a variety of reasons the compellingness and marketability of the slave narrative’s trajectory from descriptions of the brutality of slavery in the South to the advantages of freedom in the North. Thus, maroons only become legible in the archive when we learn to see through the semantic dissembling and deliberate ignorance that have obscured them from view.

This has meant first identifying search terms that will produce archival sources related to what we now call—and should properly be called—US maroons. Working backward from texts like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Martin Delany’s Blake, and antebellum periodical pieces by David Hunter Strother and Frederick Law Olmstead, among others, which deploy the vocabulary used by Southerners to obliquely describe maroons and their activities, I was able to assemble a preliminary list of such terms. Some examples are: bandit, banditti, truant, fugitive, runaway, outlier, depredations, skulking, and lurking, often in a Boolean search combination with swamp, forest, or “obscure places.” These searches began to produce results, though of course further vetting was needed since words like fugitive and runaway, in particular, were primarily used to refer to runaways in the conventional sense as opposed to maroons as I am defining them.

Some permutation of these terms, the specifics of which I cannot now recall, led me to a text I’d like to elaborate a bit on today, an 1856 play based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, published the same year. Entitled Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, A Drama in Four Acts, the work was authored by H.J. Conway, Esq. exclusively for the stage at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan. The printed version of the play was released by New York based John W. Amerman Printers in 1856, and this was the original text I read. A bizarre marriage of an already strange and somewhat episodic, disjointed 600+ page novel featuring a heroically portrayed maroon insurrectionist; the rowdy, mass cultural appeal of Barnum’s entertainment industry; the blackface minstrelsy tradition that had been booming in New York since the 1840s; and the success of stage adaptations of Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this play’s existence was and remains rather mind boggling to me. It’s hard to imagine just how the crowd on the play’s opening night would have reacted to the titular character Dred clutching the mutilated body of a fellow bondsman who had been killed by slave hunters and proclaiming in unison with his maroon compatriots:

A Brother’s blood! A Brother’s blood,
By cruel white men slain!
Aloud to Heaven it sends a cry,
Shall it cry in vain?
    No, no, we swear, [Elevating their rifles]
    No, no, we swear,
Just vengeance we decree;
Blood for blood shall be our cry,
We swear on bended knee. [Thunder claps]

A low comedy part was written for some-time Barnum star General Tom Thumb, the “world-renowned and celebrated man in miniature,” whose likeness adorns the cover of the play. Nevertheless, the play is militantly antislavery and we are meant to sympathize with Dred’s plight in a an over the top, melodramatic death scene in which he calls for ruthless vengeance against slave masters and complicit Northerners who acquiesce to the South’s demands. The next stage of my research on the play will focus on its critical and popular reception, and it will be an integral part of my dissertation chapter that uses Dred as its set piece to initiate an exploration of the novel’s cultural work and its impact on the attitudes of the reading public and theater-going populations’ toward maroons and their experiences as a facet of US slavery. Maroons existed as a kind of open secret in Southern society, but citizens’ knowledge of them is harder to assess in the North. For me, this almost entirely forgotten and understudied play will serve as a generative start toward beginning to investigate these questions moving forward.

Kwasi Konadu: “By Her Grace – Slavery and Spirituality in the Making of Atlantic Africa”

The ARC Research Praxis Seminar Series Presents Kwasi Konadu: “By Her Grace – Slavery and Spirituality in the Making of Atlantic Africa”

The ARC Research Praxis Seminar Series Presents

Kwasi Konadu
By Her Grace: Slavery and Spirituality in the Making of Atlantic Africa

Thursday, November 20, 2014
4:00pm – 6:00pm
ARC Conference Room
Room 5318
The Graduate Center, CUNY


Kwasi Konadu
Professor of History,Borough of Manhattan Community College

Kwasi Konadu has conducted extensive archival and field research in West Africa, Europe, Brazil, the Caribbean basin, and North America, and much of his writings focus on African and African diasporic history. He is the author of Indigenous Medicine and Knowledge in African Society (Routledge, 2007), A View from the East: Education and Black Cultural Nationalism in New York City (Syracuse Univ. Press, 2009), The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), The Akan People: A Documentary Reader, 2 vols. (Markus Wiener Publishers, 2013), Transatlantic Africa, 1440-1880 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014), and (with Clifford Campbell) The Ghana Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke Univ. Press, 2014). Dr. Konadu is currently writing a history of diaspora and settlement in the Gold Coast/Ghana, a history of slavery and spirituality in Atlantic Africa, and a world history that focuses on the challenge of human co-existence. Dr. Konadu is also the founding director of the nonprofit publishing group, Diasporic Africa Press, Inc.