Another odious practice outlawed by colonialism is slavery. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, there is amnesia among Africans about indigenous African slavery. Some West Africans don’t know much about this slavery, and, like many North Americans, imagine that the only form that existed is Atlantic slavery where whites enslaved Africans and worked them to death in the New World. Most are unaware that slavery was once a worldwide phenomenon in which people of all races were enslaved; they are unaware that “there were many more slaves in other places and at other times than in the Americas,” in the words of Paul Lovejoy and Jan Hogendorn in Slow Death for Slavery, a study of slavery in Northern Nigeria in colonial times.
But there was an indigenous African slavery that predates Atlantic slavery by centuries, and it continued long after Atlantic slavery died. In fact, slavery continues to exist in some parts of Africa today. (Some argue that modern slavery is not just an African thing, and that a form of slavery also continues today in the US prison-industrial complex. )
Even as the Brits tried to stamp out the Atlantic trade, West Africans found ways to circumvent these efforts. In the area that became the country of Ghana, African traders sent their slaves by canoe to Popo in Dahomey, where they could be more easily exported by non-British slave ships. In the kingdom of Lagos, King Kosoko engaged in two ferocious battles with the Royal Navy in his efforts to keep selling slaves to Europeans.
The Sokoto Caliphate was the largest slave society in Africa, and the second largest in the world in the 19th century; there, the British had to use military force to compel the African rulers, merchants and ordinary people to cease and desist slave raiding, slave trading, and owning slaves.
As part of the effort to accomplish this, in January 1900, Frederick Lugard the first High Commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, proclaimed that he was going to stamp out slavery, and sent out units of the newly formed West African Frontier Force (WAFF) to interdict slave raiders in the Emirate of Kontagora and, in his words, “break the power of Kontagora.” Some historians say that colonialist accusations of slavery were a pretext for colonization, but even so, slavery and slave raiding were prevalent in the region, and it took colonial military force and occupation to eventually stamp it out.
Those Africans who accept that indigenous slavery existed on the continent try to excuse it by claiming that it was benign and no worse than keeping house servants; they say it was nowhere near as horrific as the plantation slavery of the Americas. But this generalization about the diverse forms of slavery in Africa does not stand up to scrutiny. There was plantation slavery in many parts of West Africa, especially in the Sahel region and some of it was just as cruel as the plantation slavery of the American South.
Moreover, when slaves in the Sokoto Caliphate heard that the British explorer Dr. William Baikie was accepting and freeing slaves in the settlement he established in Lokoja (in the middle of Nigeria where the rivers Niger and Benue meet), and that other British were freeing slaves, they escaped their plantations in numbers and sought refuge in the camp. This was obviously not something people in a benign institution would do. Similarly, when Hausa slaves around the Lagos Protectorate discovered that Governor John Glover was recruiting Hausa slaves for his Hausa Constabulary, they also escaped to join. These escaped slaves formed the backbone of the colonial infantry, and they established a reputation as fierce fighters in their battles against their former slave masters.
These are just two of the terrible practices ended or outlawed by colonialism. There were others. It’s not my intention to portray all West Africa as a land of savagery and barbarism. I merely seek to challenge the extreme position adopted by contemporary educated Africans and their liberal Western allies that colonialism was an unmitigated disaster for Africa, a curse responsible for all its problems. It should be clear that West Africa had problems of its own that colonialism ended or mitigated.
It also goes without saying that colonialism brought its own terrors and errors, not the least of which is that it was highly exploitative. Nevertheless, it performed what I see as the necessary task of bringing the region into the modern world, something that was ultimately a form of progress all things considered.
Ten Africans, edited by Margery Perham
Among the Ibos of Nigeria by G.T. Basden
The Warrant Chiefs by Adiele Afigbo
Mary Slessor of Calabar by W. P. Livingstone
Travels in West Africa by Mary Kingsley
The Cambridge Companion to The Roman Republic, edited by Harriet L. Flower
The Kindness of Strangers by John Boswell
Slow Death for Slavery: the course of abolition in Northern Nigeria 1897-1936 by Paul Lovejoy and Jan Hogendorn.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Southeastern Nigeria 1885-1950 by Adiele Afigbo
A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana by Akosua Adoma Perbi
West African Narrative by Paul Edwards
Baba of Karo by Mary Smith
Igbo Worlds by Elizabeth Isichei