A series of transformations, reforms, and attempted abolitions of slavery form a core narrative of nineteenth-century coastal West Africa. As the region’s role in Atlantic commercial networks underwent a gradual transition from principally that of slave exporter to producer of “legitimate goods” and dependent markets, institutions of slavery became battlegrounds in which European abolitionism, pragmatic colonialism, and indigenous agency clashed.
In Slavery and Reform in West Africa, Trevor Getz demonstrates that it was largely on the anvil of this issue that French and British policy in West Africa was forged. With distant metropoles unable to intervene in daily affairs, local European administrators, striving to balance abolitionist pressures against the resistance of politically and economically powerful local slave owners, sought ways to satisfy the latter while placating or duping the former.
The result was an alliance between colonial officials, company agents, and slave-owning elites that effectively slowed, sidetracked, or undermined serious attempts to reform slave holding. Although slavery was outlawed in both regions, in only a few isolated instances did large-scale emancipations occur. Under the surface, however, slaves used the threat of self-liberation to reach accommodations that transformed the master-slave relationship.
By comparing the strategies of colonial administrators, slave-owners, and slaves across these two regions and throughout the nineteenth century, Slavery and Reform in West Africa reveals not only the causes of the astounding success of slave owners, but also the factors that could, and in some cases did, lead to slave liberations. These findings have serious implications for the wider study of slavery and emancipation and for the history of Africa generally.