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Seminar: Dr. Jutta Wimmler

Pawn, Soldier, Palace Woman: Unfree Labor in Precolonial West Africa


Course description:

The Portuguese came to Western Africa in the late 15th century looking for gold. They had to recognize that they possessed no trade goods valuable to the Akan people of modern-day Ghana (formerly called Gold Coast) that could be exchanged for this valuable raw material. Realizing that the Akan had a high demand for slaves, they began to exchange European merchandise for human cargo from Kongo to modern Nigeria, and traded those slaves for gold on the Akan Gold Coast. This is how Europeans were first acquainted with the African slave trade.

Yet slavery had a different meaning in Western Africa – it was part of a complicated system of dependency that included many layers of unfree labor, some of which hardly qualify as “slavery” in the strictest sense of the word. This system permitted, amongst other things, using relatives as short-term security for a debt, slaves holding other slaves, and even slaves holding royal office. This seminar will introduce the West African basis of the transatlantic slave trade by investigating the different varieties of unfree labour in the context of West African social orders, with a special focus on the gender dimension. We will thus see how the Portuguese, and later other Europeans, tapped into an existing system they hardly understood.


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