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Abolition & Transformations in Atlantic Africa

The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and of the institution of slavery in the Americas did not provide any financial compensation for those whose labor had been exploited for generations. Emancipation did not lead to recognition of political or economic rights. Formerly enslaved individuals, and their descendants, continued to experience social exclusion and economic exploitation and faced legal battles to enjoy full citizenship in every former slave society, from Argentina to Canada. In several instances, such as in Barbados, the U.S., and Brazil, free Black populations joined—or were coerced to join—“Back to Africa” movements, which resulted in displacement, migration, and the dispossession of indigenous population in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Gabon, and Angola during the 19th century. With the abolition of slavery in the Americas, planters, missionaries, and investors shifted their interest to African coastal territories, setting up plantations in Libreville, Freetown, Monrovia, Benguela, and Lagos.[1] This new plantation regime relied on the exploitation of unfree African labor, leading to the expansion of slavery on the African continent during the 19th century. Cotton, coffee, cloves, cocoa, and sugar cane production expanded, alongside the demand for rubber, palm oil, ivory, and other natural resources to meet the demands of North American and European industries. By the end of the 19th century, European powers mobilized the continuing existence of slavery on the African continent as a rationale for wars of imperial invasion and expansion—resulting in new forms of unfreedom, dispossession, and displacement. In this sense, the lexicon of slavery and the logics of abolition and humanitarianism became justifications for European empire-building—cementing racial hierarchy and white hegemony in Africa through the mid-20th century. This session will examine these transformations on the African continent in the wake of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas.


[1] Kristin Mann, Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Rachel Jean-Baptiste, Conjugal Rights: Marriage, Sexuality, and Urban Life in Colonial Libreville, Gabon (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014); Robin Law, Suzanne Schwarz, and Silke Strickrodt, eds., Commercial Agriculture, the Slave Trade and Slavery in Atlantic Africa (Woodbridge: James Currey, 2013).