Slavery, Freedom, and the Atlantic System: West African Perspectives and Experiences in the 19th Century

AHA Session 184
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room 402 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Susan Rosenfeld, University of California, Los Angeles
The Audience

Session Abstract

During the nineteenth century, discourses and decisions surrounding slavery and abolition shaped economic, political and intellectual currents in the Atlantic world. This panel examines West Africans’ understandings and experiences of enslavement and freedom during a period of intensive change and exchange. Featuring papers from established scholars (Rebecca Shumway) and early-career scholars (Myles Ali and Susan Rosenfeld), the panel foregrounds West African voices, in order to articulate methodological and historical interventions at multiple, scalar levels.

In the local context, these papers investigate the specific factors and lived conditions that influenced individuals’ views of—and encounters with—slavery. The panelists aim to shed new light on the various ways in which these Africans’ actions and interactions complicated, contested, and contributed to both local and trans-Atlantic conceptualizations and decisions surrounding slavery and the meaning of freedom. These local case studies serve as important points of entry for the panelists to collectively and critically address the inextricably linked themes of slavery and the discourse surrounding its abolition, migration and mobility (both social and geographical), modes and strategies of self-fashioning, African agency, and the fluidity and flexibility of the Atlantic system.

In this vein, Shumway’s focus on the classification of unfree people in present-day Ghana illuminates the ways in which British economic prosperity in the Gold Coast depended on local interpretations and contestations of Atlantic anti-slavery rhetoric. Alternatively, Ali examines the lives of enslaved people in Sierra Leone, tracing their journeys to the British colony of Freetown; in his consideration of migration and African agency, Ali’s paper illuminates the ways that these individuals’ understandings of freedom transformed—and were transformed by—ideologies and policies surrounding slavery in British West Africa. Finally, Rosenfeld investigates the processes that made the relationship between mobility, trans-Atlantic networks, and memories of enslavement and emancipation inseparable for non-elite, Afro-Brazilian returnees in Lagos; she examines how the invocation of these tropes served as tools of strategic self-fashioning, through which the returnees forged spaces of social and commercial distinction in the nascent colony.

Through these papers’ focus on West African iterations and understandings of slavery and liberty, this panel raises methodological considerations surrounding the multiple, alternative avenues through which historians can achieve a more nuanced understanding of what it meant for people of African descent to be “free” within the nineteenth-century Atlantic system.

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