‘It was a start. We await the end’

21 March 2007

Slavery, an African view: Yemi Adedeji tells of complex emotions

First: the Rt Revd Samuel Crowther

First: the Rt Revd Samuel Crowther

The lack of basic amenities — good roads, water, a regular supply of energy, food, etc. — still looms large. This is slavery of poverty. There is also the slavery of war and political unrest that has made existence difficult and uncertain. Most Africans would love to be celebrating freedom from corrupt leadership, and the achievement of a decent standard of living. The Western celebration will seem to them just another attempt to assuage the guilt of dehumanisation, oppression, exploitation, and deceitfulness.

What might the West next celebrate? Perhaps the divide-and-rule policy, that aimed to create confusion among the African tribes and consequently enslaved them to permanent distrust of each other and the never-ending tribal wars. Or will it be the current exploitation of African natural resources for Western benefit? The list could go on.

Most Africans like me generally do not feel the contemporary pain of slavery because they have not been displaced from their roots and their local connections.

Besides, my mother is one of many children of an important king in the region. Family histories dating back to my great-great-great-great-grandfather have him as one of the main slave-owners.

As a warrior king, he acquired slaves from his conquests, used them as maids, selling them on for economic gain — a thriving practice well before the arrival of the Europeans. Before the arrival of the Christian faith, slavery was thriving among the natives who had an animistic faith.

Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the Nigerian slave-boy who later became the first African Anglican bishop, through the work of the Church Missionary Society, was captured with his mother, two sisters, and a cousin when his village was raided. Their conquerors were locals from another town within the same tribe, working for a chief.

Crowther was later traded in exchange for a horse, and became the property of three different people in the space of 24 hours. He was sold again to a different set of slave merchants, and was later sold to another for tobacco, rum, and other articles.


The Nigerian primary-school curriculum holds up Bishop Crowther as a hero and a role-model through whom the gospel was propagated. He translated the Bible from English into his own dialect. Many will see his work as more worthy of remembrance than the abolition of the slave trade.

As a result of their own history, most Africans are ignoring the bicentenary celebration of abolition. But they might perhaps look at the position of the Africans who sold each other to the Europeans for exploitation, and thus look towards God for forgiveness themselves.

Nor are many African governments featuring the bicentenary to any great extent. Blame, guilt, and reconciliation are not topics anyone is worried about. Similarly, there is little interest in the idea of seeking financial compensation from the West.

Personally, I do not feel any guilt that my forefathers may have been slave traders, or for those whose forefathers they captured. The issue is buried in the past. The concerns of most Africans will not be about what has happened in the past but rather how to live — or just survive — today. Maybe we can open up to the past when our more immediate needs have been met.

The Revd Yemi Adedeji works for the Church Mission Society developing new relationships with churches in the UK.

Slavery, an Afro-Caribbean view: Anthony Reddie on the long wait for justice

THERE IS an old Jamaican proverb: “Every dog has its day, and every puss its four o’clock.” Its meaning is that even cats, which, on the whole, are treated with even less respect than dogs (in some cases disliked with a passion), will get, if not a day, then at least an hour in the sun.

I have often thought of this analogy when reflecting on this year’s bicentenary. I know that, for many, 1807 is most certainly not an occasion for celebration. One could not imagine “celebrating” the liberation of Auschwitz for example, come 2045. For others, it barely warrants a mention at all. The slave trade ended in 1807, but not slavery.

The white Evangelical reformers such as William Wilberforce were active in their campaign to end the slave trade. One should not be unduly cynical in judging their indefatigable work.

But Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, et al. could make a fine, moral distinction between the ending of the slave trade and the continuation of slavery in some form for some years beyond 1807. They argued a need for patience and due process — the idea that Africans needed schooling in the art of manners in order to be ready to take their place at the table of humanity.


When one listens to the words of the Africans themselves, there was no such hesitation. They simply wanted full freedom immediately, without any dissembling, without instruction on the correct procedure, or the requisite moral and societal training to fit one for freedom.

Taking their cue from scripture, many slaves simply asserted the words from John 8.36 as the basis for their own freedom: “If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” African slaves had no truck with the gradualist agenda of white abolitionists who wanted a piecemeal approach to freedom.

For many of the African slaves, taking the central tenets of Evangelical Christianity to heart, conversion and becoming a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5.17) entailed a dramatic change in their very fabric. In theological terms, this signalled a new understanding of the nature of a human being.

This meant that slavery was not compatible with being a member of the body of Christ. For Sam Sharpe, the leader of a significant rebellion in northern Jamaica on Christmas Day 1831, gradual freedom in Christ was an oxymoron. He could no more be partially free than partially a virgin.

And even when slavery ended, the notion of white supremacy and white, enlightened, European superiority remained. The events of 1807 did nothing to remove the tired rhetoric of white paternalism. It is present still: Tony Blair and the other G8 leaders see no incongruity between asserting a desire to help Africa while wishing to berate her for her own failings — which Europeans helped to create. Mother still knows best.

Dr Anthony G. Reddie is a research fellow and consultant in black theological studies at the Queen’s Foundation and the Methodist Church.

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