Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community


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As the slave trade destroyed families and communities, people tried to protect their loved ones. Various governments and communal institutions developed means and policies that limited the trade's impact. Muslims were particularly concerned with protecting the freedom of their co-religionists. Qur'anic law stated that those of the Faith born free must remain free. But this precept was often violated. Throughout Africa, people of all beliefs tried to safeguard their own.

Sean Hanretta

Some offered themselves in exchange for the release of their loved ones. Others tried to have their kin redeemed even after they had been shipped away. Resistance took the form of attacks on slave depots and ships, as well as revolts in the forts, in barracoons, and on slave ships. But at a higher level, the political fragmentation - many small centralized states and federations governed through secret societies - made it virtually impossible to develop methods of government that could effectively resist the impact of the slave trade.

Even the largest states, such as Asante and Oyo, were small by modern standards. Personal gain and the interests of the small commercial elites who dominated trade routes, ports, and secret societies also worked against the freeing of captives, offenders, and displaced children, who could easily end up in the slave trade. Western European countries established distinct national trades. The European port cities most involved in this growth industry were Bristol, Liverpool, and London in England; Amsterdam in Holland; Lisbon, the Portuguese capital; and Nantes, located on the western French coast.

On the African side most captives were traded from only a few ports: Luanda Angola , Whydah Bight of Benin , Bonny Bight of Biafra ; and the adjacent "castles" at Koromantin and Winneba on the Gold Coast accounted for at least a third of the Africans transported to the Americas. These nine ports accounted for at least half of all the Africans deported to the Americas.

The European countries attempted, though not successfully, to regulate the trade by chartering various national companies established under royal decree or parliamentary order. But these efforts to create monopolies, such as England's Royal African Company RAC , were soon undermined by private merchant companies and pirates who opened up new markets in the Bight of Biafra and the northern Angola coast, and challenged the RAC on the Gold Coast and in the Gambia. Each of the nations and their slave ports experimented with innovative marketing and trading techniques.

Sometimes this competition required the maintenance of trading depots and forts - the slave "castles" or factories - as was the case in the Gold Coast and the Bight of Benin, as well as in lesser ports along the Upper Guinea Coast, Senegambia, and Angola. The trade was propelled by credit flowing outward from Europe and used by merchants to purchase men, women, and children in West Africa.

They advanced goods on credit in lieu of payment in captives. The wares sent to Africa in exchange for captives included those that could be used as money: cowry shells, strips of cloth often imported from India , iron bars, copper bracelets manillas , silver coins, and gold. These goods also had value as commodities: cloth could be turned into clothing, iron into hoes and other tools.

Consumer goods included textiles, alcohol, and jewelry. Their importation supplemented but did not replace the local production of these items. Alcohol was regarded as a luxury, except in Muslim communities, where it was prohibited. Military goods, principally firearms, were also exchanged for captives. They were instrumental in the eighteenth-century Gold Coast wars that enslaved multitudes and led to the Asante people's political ascendancy in the region.

With the exception of the Gold Coast wars, guns played little role at first in local conflicts, due in part to the difficulty of keeping powder dry in tropical regions. For example, the rise of Oyo, which became the dominant slaving power in the interior of the Bight of Benin, was mostly effected by the use of cavalry. Merchants experimented with various trading methods.

In some places, such as Old Calabar and the minor ports of the Upper Guinea Coast, individuals who were often the relatives of local merchants and officials were accepted by ship captains as collateral for credit. These individuals were human pawns who could be enslaved if debts were not paid. In Angola and Senegambia, European merchants married or otherwise cohabited with local women, and these women sometimes amassed considerable fortunes as agents and merchants in their own right.

Their mixed offspring became an intermediate class of merchants along the coast, but especially concentrated along the Upper Guinea Coast as far as Senegambia, and in Luanda, Benguela, and their commercial outposts in the interior of Angola. The trade was a high-risk enterprise. The commodity was people; they could escape, be murdered, commit suicide, or fall victim to epidemics or natural disasters. Local traders could disappear with their payment and never produce the captives stipulated in the contract.

Since the slave trade went across political and cultural frontiers, there was little recourse to courts and governments in the event of commercial dishonesty. No international court or judicial system existed to handle the extraordinary violations of human rights that defined every aspect of the slave trade. The slave trade was driven by both demand and greed. The customers in the Americas who could afford it desperately needed labor and did not care how it was obtained. Traders could benefit immensely from theft, plunder, kidnapping, ransoming, and the sale of human beings as commodities. These slavers took advantage of African political troubles, religious differences, legal technicalities, economic crises, and outright callousness to exploit helpless individuals.

On the first leg of their three-part journey, often called the Triangular Trade, European ships brought manufactured goods to Africa; on the second, they transported African men, women, and children to the Americas; and on the third leg, they exported to Europe the sugar, rum, cotton, and tobacco produced by the enslaved labor force.

There was also a direct trade between Brazil and Angola that did not include the European leg. Traders referred to the Africa-Americas part of the voyage as the " Middle Passage" and the term has survived to denote the Africans' ordeal. Well over 30, voyages from Africa to the Americas have been documented. But numbers and statistics alone cannot convey the horror of the experience. However, the records provide detailed information on some aspects of this tragedy. The dreadful Middle Passage could last from one to three months and epitomized the role of violence in the trade. Based on regulations, ships could transport only about people, but some carried more than men, women, and children.

Branded, stripped naked for the duration of the voyage, lying down amidst filth, enduring almost unbearable heat, compelled by the lash to dance on deck to straighten their limbs, all captives went through a frightening, incredibly brutal and dehumanizing experience. Some people tried to starve themselves to death, but the crew forced them to take food by whipping them, torturing them with hot coal, or forcing their mouths open by using special instruments or by breaking their teeth. The personal identity of the captives was denied. Women and boys were often used for the pleasure of the crew.

Ottobah Cugoano, who endured the Middle Passage in the eighteenth century, recalled: "it was common for the dirty filthy sailors to take the African women and lie upon their bodies. Mortality brought about by malnutrition, dysentery, smallpox, and other diseases was very high. Depending on the times, upwards of 20 percent died from various epidemics or committed suicide. Venture Smith, describing his ordeal, wrote: "After an ordinary passage, except great mortality by the small pox, which broke out on board, we arrived at the island of Barbadoes: but when we reached it, there were found out of the two hundred and sixty that sailed from Africa, not more than two hundred alive.

On board slave ships, in the midst of their oppression, the Africans, who were often as much strangers to each other as to their European captors, forged the first links with their new American identities. Relationships established during the Middle Passage frequently resulted in revolts and other forms of resistance that bound them in new social and political alliances. Ottobah Cugoano described the attempted revolt organized on the ship that took him from the Gold Coast to Grenada: "when we found ourselves at last taken away, death was more preferable than life; and a plan was concerted amongst us, that we might burn and blow up the ship, and to perish all together in the flames.

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It was the women and boys which were to burn the ship, with the approbation and groans of the rest; though that was prevented, the discovery was likewise a cruel bloody scene. The special relations created on the ship lasted a lifetime and were regarded by the deported Africans, torn from their loved ones, as strongly as kinship. They had special names for those who had shared their ordeal. Far from wiping out all traces of their cultural, social, and personal past, the Middle Passage experience provided Africans with opportunities to draw on their collective heritage to make themselves a new people.

Of the estimated ten million men, women, and children who survived the Middle Passage, approximately , Africans disembarked on North America's shores. They thus represented only a fraction - 5 percent-- of those transported during the year history of the international slave trade.


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Brazil and the Caribbean each received about nine times as many Africans. The labor of enslaved Africans proved crucial in the development of South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland and contributed indirectly through commerce to the fortunes of New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Though the enforced destination of Africans was primarily to plantations and farms for work in cash crop agriculture, they were also used in mining and servicing the commercial economy. They were placed in towns and port cities as domestic servants; and many urban residents performed essential commercial duties working as porters, teamsters, and craftsmen.

In eighteenth-century America, Africans were concentrated in the agricultural lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia, especially in the Sea Islands, where they grew rice, cotton, indigo, and other crops. In Louisiana, they labored on sugarcane plantations. They were employed on tobacco farms in the tidewater region of Virginia and Maryland.

The tidewater, together with the Georgia and South Carolina lowlands, accounted for at least two-thirds of the Africans brought into North America prior to the end of legal importation in The largest number of Africans in the lowlands 34 percent came from Bantu-speaking regions of west-central Africa. Twenty percent were transported from Senegambia, while the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone each accounted for about 15 percent of the total number. Others came from the Bight of Biafra and the Windward Coast.

Senegambia accounted for 21 percent of the Africans in this region. Another 17 percent were of Bantu origin, and 10 percent were originally from the Gold Coast. Therefore, nearly 90 percent of the Africans in these two major regions came from only four zones in Africa. Most came from the west-central area of Angola and Congo where languages - Kikongo, Kimbundu and culture often referred to as Bantu were closely related.

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Many more ended up in the tidewater than in the lowlands, but they comprised nearly a third of all migrants in both sectors. Senegambia was strongly influenced by Islam, to a greater degree than any other coastal region where enslaved Africans originated. Their presence was especially pronounced in Louisiana, to which many Manding people - almost all males - had been transported. This state also had a large presence of non-Muslim Bambara from Mali. In all probability, a large number of the many Africans whose origins are not known actually came from this area.

These Igbo and Ibibio people would develop a distinct subculture. Women made up a relatively high number among those groups. They gave birth to a new generation, ensuring some transmission of their cultural values and beliefs. Men and women from Sierra Leone and the adjacent Windward Coast were heavily concentrated in the low country, and most were involved in cultivating rice.

Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 of the U. Constitution stipulated that "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person. In consequence, the United States abolished its slave trade from Africa, effective January 1, But slave trading, now illegal, continued unabated until The U.

Slave Trade Act, enacted by a vote of 63 in favor and 49 against in February , was a half victory for the slavers because it specified that the Africans illegally brought to slaveholding states would still be sold and enslaved. Penalties merely consisted of fines. With the authorities turning a blind eye and refusing to enforce their own law, the illegal slave trade flourished for several decades, particularly in Texas Spanish until , Florida Spanish until , Louisiana, and South Carolina. Africans were sold with little secrecy. As recounted by a slave smuggler, it was an easy task: "I soon learned how readily, and at what profits, the Florida negroes were sold into the neighboring American States.

The kaffle [ coffle]. The introduction of African captives took such proportions that President Madison wrote to Congress: "it appears that American citizens are instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity, and in defiance of those of their own country. Congress passed a tougher law in making international slave trading an act of piracy punishable by death.

Even though the traffic went on, only one American was ever executed for this crime. More than 3.

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Half came from west-central Africa, and more than 40 percent were originally from the Bights of Benin and Biafra, and Southeast Africa - Mozambique and Madagascar. In the s, a movement developed in the South to re-open the international slave trade. It was defeated, but the illegal importation of Africans increased between and , even though the African Squadron, established by the U. Although their respective countries had officially outlawed the transatlantic slave trade, American and British slavers and traders continued to be openly involved in it, and their activities brought money and work to shipbuilders, crews, insurance companies, and manufacturers of various trade goods, guns, and shackles.

Slave ships brought Africans until the Civil War. The Clotilda landed more than a hundred men, women, and children from Benin and Nigeria in the summer of at Mobile, Alabama.

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In both cases, the Africans were sold and enslaved. As a testimony to the persistence of the illegal slave trade, the Census reveals the presence, in the United States, of numerous men and women born in Africa well after The negative impact of the international slave trade on Africa was immense. It can be seen on the personal, family, communal, and continental levels. In addition to the millions of able-bodied individuals captured and transported, the death toll and the economic and environmental destruction resulting from wars and slave raids were startlingly high.

In the famines that followed military actions, the old and very young were often killed or left to starve. Forced marches of the captives over long distances claimed many lives. A large number of the enslaved were destined to remain in Africa - many were transported across the Sahara to the north - which heightened the impact of the slave trade on the continent.

It is estimated that the population of Africa remained stagnant until the end of the nineteenth century. Besides its demographic toll, the slave trade, and the Africans' resistance to it, led to profound social and political changes. Social relations were restructured and traditional values were subverted. The slave trade resulted in the development of predatory regimes, as well as stagnation or regression.

Many communities relocated as far from the slavers' route as possible. In the process, their technological and economic development was hindered as they devoted their energy to hiding and defending themselves. The disruption was immense: the relationships between kingdoms, ethnic groups, religious communities, castes, rulers and subjects, peasants and soldiers, the enslaved and the free, were transformed. In some decentralized societies, people evolved new styles of leadership that led to more rigid, hierarchical structures, thought to better ensure protection.

In addition, European powers intervened in the political process to prevent the rise of the African centralized states that would have hampered their operations.


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In the end, the slave trade left the continent underdeveloped, disorganized, and vulnerable to the next phase of European hegemony: colonialism. The slave trade and slavery left a legacy of violence. Brutality, often of near-bestial proportions, was the principal condition shaping the character of the enforced migration, whether along a trade route, on board ship, or laboring on an American plantation.

The degree of power concentrated in the hands of North American slave owners, interested only in maximizing their profits, allowed excessive levels of physical punishment and the perpetuation of sexual abuse and exploitation that have marked in many ways the development of the African-American community.

There was a marked sexual component to the assaults: rape was common. Kinship was disregarded, particularly the paternity of children. Their status reflected the enslaved status of their mothers, no matter who their father might have been. Slave owners treated their unpaid, overworked labor forces as mere chattel. Avoiding and resisting violence were determining characteristics of the responses of the Africans to their forced migration experience. Individuals attempted to evade physical abuse through strategies of accommodation, escape, and on several occasions, violent rebellion.

The preservation and adaptation of African cultural forms to respond to the new needs of the enslaved population was also an act of resistance to the imposition of European norms. Unlike earlier slave systems, in the Americas racial distinctions were used to keep the enslaved population in bondage. Contrary to what happened in Latin America, where racial stratification was more complex, in North America, any person of identifiable African descent, no matter the degree of "white" ancestry, was classified as colored, Negro, or black.

A racial caste system was established, and as a result racialized attitudes and racism became an inherent and lasting part of North American culture. Though enslaved individuals came from widely different backgrounds and the number of ethnic groups and markers of identity were extensive, certain ethnicities, cultural forms, and languages - usually in pidgin and creolized forms - as well as religions proved sustainable and were maintained, sometimes exaggerated and manipulated during the process of adjusting to enslavement in the Americas.

The overarching result of African migration during the slavery era was an "American" culture, neither "European" nor "African," created in a political and economic context of inequality and oppression. The African contribution to this new culture was a towering legacy, hugely impacting on language, religion, music, dance, art, and cuisine. Most importantly, an enduring sense of African-American community developed in the face of white racism. Gemery and J. Hogendorn eds. Curtin, Philip D.

Diouf, Sylviane. Donnan, E. Drescher, Seymour. In fact, Hanretta adopts an investigative gait that strays from ordinary historical research where heavy emphasis is placed not only on the outsider who narrates the story of the defeated, but also on archives that shun oral and memory-ridden accounts only to valorize those that are written. The logical consequence of what may rightfully be called "traditional historiography" is giving voice to the only dominant discourse in the colonial space where stories like that of Yacouba Sylla's community originate.

The dominant discourse here is one propped up by oppositional binaries justifying the subjugation of the colonized in a pretentious civilizing mission which rather consecrates the diabolization of the "Other. Such a gaze becomes even more penetrating when notable layers of identities like religion come into play.

Islam and social change in French West Africa | AUC Library

In the French Sudan the colonized, i. It happens that in the French Sudan, to a significant extent covering regions claimed by Old Mali, Islam has not just been a matter of faith; it has also a political leverage threatening to dismantle the colonial empire in need of stability. Yacouba Sylla's emergence means a lack of stability because it generates the calling into question of tijjani practices in currency for ages.

Yacouba was at the forefront of reforms that threatened to not only rewrite the tenets of the Tijaniyya by initiating eleven-bead "zikr" recitation against twelve-bead recitations, but also to shatter the control of the French colonial administration of the Sudan. Sylla's innovations--reforming the Islamic bridalwealth, de-stratifying an organically hierarchical society as the Mande society, and de-gendering the devotional space initially controlled by the only males, among others--were a source of social upheaval.

Even though the French could not care less about internecine strife among their colonial subjects who they claimed to be civilizing, their authority and dominance in the region would suffer if they remained passive. Hanretta reveals that the French action, which may be construed as taking side against the Yacouba Sylla's tijani obedience, rather fortified the latter's obedience, making it the main surviving Hamawi movement ever.

Hanretta sets the goals of uncovering stories of marginalized who undid the colonizer's divide and rule politics by not only taking advantage of the colonial presence, but also by consolidating the marginalizeds'

Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community
Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community
Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community
Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community
Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community
Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community Islam and Social Change in French West Africa: History of an Emancipatory Community

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