Richard Peter Anderson: Abolition in Sierra Leone. Re-building lives and identities in nineteenth-century West Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2020, XIV + 293 S., ISBN 978-1-108-47354-5, GBP 78,99
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Tracing the provenance of formerly enslaved people is challenging, but more tasking is the attempt to examine how these displaced people, disposed of in a new land, attempted to rebuild what remained of their lives and forge new identities given their common experiences of slavery, but different social and cultural backgrounds. Yet, this is what Richard Anderson brilliantly achieves in his book Abolition in Sierra Leone - Rebuilding Lives and Identities in Nineteenth-Century West Africa, published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press. Anderson is currently a lecturer at the School of Divinity, History, Philosophy and Art History, University of Aberdeen: At the time of writing the book, he was a lecturer of colonial and post-colonial history at the University of Exeter. Abolition in Sierra Leone is the result of the doctoral dissertation research Anderson carried out at Yale University in 2015.
Although the author does not specifically state his audience, it is clear that Abolition in Sierra Leone is addressed to scholars of African and African diaspora history in the context of Atlantic slavery. In seven appropriately titled chapters, in addition to a very detailed introduction and a brief conclusion, Anderson sets out with the aim of reconstructing and examining the history of the lives and experiences of the roughly 100,000 Africans who were captured and put on slave ships destined for the Americas, but had their vessels intercepted by British naval squadrons following Britain's abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Their rescue and resettlement in Sierra Leone compelled these Africans to rebuild new lives, communities, and collective identities in this early West African British colony. In each chapter, the author asks key questions and clarifies commonly held views in the existing Sierra Leone and British abolition historiography by placing existing debates into proper historical perspective.
One of the most important opening aspects of Anderson's work is the 'Notes on the Text' (xii-xiii) section which precedes his introduction. Here, the author makes a careful interpretation and analysis of the key terms within the text. The terminology of Liberated African or recaptives, the various meanings of Sierra Leone over time, and the engagement with several African languages the recaptives spoke are all concepts which require proper historical understanding.
In his introduction, Anderson makes three critical points that serve as a necessary background to our understanding of how the recaptives (the subject of the book) rebuilt their lives and identities. These include a detailed explanation of the diverse origin and experiences of other immigrants (the Black Poor, Black Loyalists, and Maroons) already present in Sierra Leone before the coming of the Liberated Africans. The purpose of this point is to clarify that this society was not a coherent "settler" society by 1807. This leads to the next point, where the existing narrative, which has focused on a coherent "settler" society, tends to ignore both the demographic scale of Liberated African arrivals and their patterns of settlement. Very important, too, is that the Africans who arrived did not arrive as linguistic and cultural "isolates" pliable to the English and Christian culture of the colony (28-29).
The first three chapters deal with the regional origins of the recaptives and their experiences of forced migrations to Sierra Leone. In chapter one, which is entitled 'Liberated African Origins and the Nineteenth-Century Slave Trade', the author traces the provenance of recaptured Africans in Sierra Leone by using the database of the coastlines and ports of embarkation for Liberated Africans and ethnographic information on recaptives as contained in CMS school rosters, Koelle's Polyglotta Africana, the 1848 census, and the register of names of Africans landed at Freetown compiled by the colony's Liberated African Department. Chapter two, 'Their Own Middle Passage - Voyages to Sierra Leone', examines the experiences of Africans in the Middle Passage by shifting the analysis from the quantitative approach, which has dominated the literature, to the narratives, microhistories, and biographies of those who experienced the passage. Anderson continues the flow of narration in chapter three by examining the life and labour the liberated Africans experienced in Sierra Leone. He traces the emergence of settlements from the establishment of villages to the more structured parish systems. In the forging of new communities and identities in Sierra Leone, ethnicity played a major role, as it determined how people self-identified and formed communal relations.
The following four chapters explore the life experiences of the liberated Africans in Sierra Leone. In chapter four, Anderson adopts the sociological term of ethnogenesis to find the meaning of ethnicity as understood by the liberated Africans on the one hand and as defined by missionaries and colonial officials on the other. Chapter five investigates the organization and leadership of the national organisations formed by the recaptives as forms of communal welfare born out of the exigencies of displacement. These also resulted in the creation of the political leadership of headmen and kingship as a conscious attempt to preserve African customs. By using the Aku nation (today known as the Yoruba in south-west Nigeria and other parts of West Africa), who were considered the most populous nationality among the liberated Africans, Anderson addresses the interwoven impulses of religion, the return to ancestral land, and the emergence of the Yoruba ethnic group in chapter six. He argues that movement between Freetown and Yoruba land instigated a reciprocal process of cultural influence and identity formation. Chapter seven details the causes, suppression, and legacies of the Cobolo War of 1832 as a climax to the tensions between the colonial government and the Aku (Yoruba) Muslims, whom the former had always viewed as suspicious. Anderson concludes by exploring the connections between the generational identity of colony-born children and their liberated African parents. He dismisses the unidirectional narrative of the creation of a creole identity which subsumed earlier ethnic identities.
The overall significance of Anderson's book is demonstrated in a new approach to studying British anti-slavery by moving beyond the legal victories of abolitionism, which could be viewed as impersonal, to include the human impact of abolition for the supposed beneficiaries. By following Africans who were enslaved from their hometowns through capture, the Middle Passage, 'disposal' in Sierra Leone, settlement and labour, and the formation of welfare organisations, Anderson succeeds in giving a human face to the British abolition of the slave trade in West Africa. Abolition in Sierra Leone is also important because of the author's employment of sociological terms that express the realities of the recaptives. Terms like ethnogenesis (6, 127-166), ethnicity and identity (10-16), incorporation/absorption (26-27), and creolization (7-10, 260-266) that the author uses in his interpretation and analysis are clearly relatable concepts which require a proper understanding in reference to the recaptives' experiences. The constant comparisons of the recaptives' experiences to the enslaved of the New World also add value to Abolition in Sierra Leone, a clear indication of the Atlantic slavery perspective. Anderson's style of writing is equally commendable, since he begins each chapter with interesting and informative narratives from the archives, provoking curiosity in the reader before following with arguments and analysis.
Abolition in Sierra Leone is well written and can easily be followed. The quality of the language is equally excellent. As indicated in the bibliography, Anderson draws on a number of source materials, ranging from records, correspondence, original papers and books from the Church Missionary Society archives and the Methodist Missionary Society archives, Colonial Official papers, Foreign Office papers, Liberated African Department letter books, and narratives of recaptives; he also utilizes published contemporary sources such as newspapers, books, and articles, along with several secondary sources. While these sources are not new, Anderson's ability to knit together a compelling narrative is laudable. The use of maps, tables, and images also adds to the richness of the study.
While a number of monographs on Britain's humanitarian governance during the abolition of slavery in West Africa have appeared in the last few years, Abolition in Sierra Leone injects a fresh perspective, one that focuses on the human aspect of purported British colonial government benevolence.
As a researcher of slavery and asymmetrical dependencies, I find Richard Anderson's book valuable because it enhances our understanding of the complexities of slavery and freedom, which, as shown in the experiences of the liberated Africans, are not fixed binaries. I can confidently recommend the book to other researchers, particularly those working on the British abolition of the slave trade, British colonialism in nineteenth-century West Africa in general, and Sierra Leone in particular. It can also be recommended to scholars of the ethnogenesis and identity formation of formerly enslaved people.
Mary Aderonke Afolabi