In the Early-To-Mid Eighteenth Century, the Saharan Interior of West Africa Was Still Part

In the Early-To-Mid Eighteenth Century, the Saharan Interior of West Africa Was Still Part

In the mid eighteenth century, the Saharan interior of West Africa was still unknown. Where coastal maps were crowded with names celebrating European knowledge, the interior continued to be a collage of pictures and vague kingdoms imaged in fancy calligraphy. As Europeans increasingly encountered the peoples of this region, the knowledge they produced of the unknown had to be articulated in the language of the ‘known’. What mattered was the conceptual framework and the literary traditions which made this possible. The Sahara was a real physical place; Saharans were real people. But what came to be actually mapped, cartographically and textually, was no less an image than the pictures and drawings of earlier times.

What came to be ‘mapped’ in the minds of late 18th and 19th century readers drew from and built upon what they thought they already understood.[1] As explorers and shipwrecked-sailors added the Sahara to the known world(s), literally ‘filling in the map’, they were drawn into existing literary and conceptual paradigms. The Sahara was in Africa. One of the principal activities of its people, trans-Saharan commerce, tied Saharans to sub-Saharan, “black” Africa. Yet everything about Saharan space – the flora, fauna, heat, and sand, and everything about its peoples – their Islamic religion, flowing dress, Arabic-based languages and Arab genealogies, was Middle Eastern or ‘oriental’. The process of ‘knowing’ the Sahara made of it an imagined contact zone (in Mary Louise Pratt’s sense of the concept) in which Africa and the Orient met in the context of their respective literary traditions.[2] Superimposed on these were concerns particular to the author and the audience. Shipwrecked captives sought refuge in a long tradition of survival literature;[3] other travelers, generally in the employ of a government or geographical society, were conscious of contemporary issues. In the late eighteenth- and the nineteenth-centuries, European powers pushed by anti-slavery movements in England were growing more and more ‘abolitionist’ in their rhetoric, if not their policies. Literature dealing with regions where slave trading and slavery existed, had a moral obligation to add ‘knowledge’ to the public commentary and imagination. Consequently, imaging needs to be understood both as a function of merging cultural literary traditions and as a response to contemporary abolitionist rhetoric. It is in this conceptual arena that we will locate the origins of the trans-Saharan slave trade.

Emergent Discourses

Abolitionism and the Orient

In his influential 1839 publication The African Slave Trade (the sequel, Its Remedy appeared in 1840), Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton introduced the trans-Saharan slave trade to the British public.[4] By situating descriptions of slave acquisitions by Saharans in the context of the horrors of Atlantic slaving practices, and by presenting the desert crossing with its high mortality rates as comparable to the infamous Atlantic ‘middle passage’, Buxton inserted the Saharan slave-trade experience firmly within the Atlantic, abolitionist discourse.[5] The title African slave trade was instrumental in establishing the language and imaging already firmly associated with the Atlantic trade as the discourse within which all slave trades out of Africa would be understood.[6] But in his imaging the Saharan trade, Buxton also evoked “Mohamedan towns” like Timbuktu and Kano as being nothing less than “large warehouses where the stores of human merchandise are kept”, the traders variously as “barbarians”, “Arab carriers”, “cruel Moors” and “merciless”, and the slaves as mostly women and children, invariably being ‘cruelly’ treated. Male slaves were destined for Middle Eastern armies.[7] In so doing, he drew on the older ‘orientalist’ discourse rooted in the Islamic, ‘despotic’ empire of the Ottomans and the romanticized views of slavery and society attached to this part of the world. In simultaneously superimposing the abolitionist and the orientalist discourses on the Sahara, Buxton effectively created a new ‘reality’ that resonated with his audiences, public and political, because it was rooted in language and images they understood and accepted. Moreover, by conflating the African and the Oriental, he created an imaginary space that somehow transcended the Sahara itself, without corresponding in any precise way to the geography of either ‘Africa’ or the ‘Orient’ as generally understood. Hence, the trans-Saharan slave trade was part of the western (Atlantic), the ‘African’, and the eastern (Oriental) experiences at one and the same time.

As Edward Said has pointed out, Christian Europe’s long relationship with the mysterious ‘East’ was from the outset shaped by its conflict with Islam and its fear of the powerful ‘Ottoman peril’.[8] This continued to play into Europe’s vision of itself in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even as the quest for ‘the other’ became more nuanced and pervasive, and Europe’s interests became more imperial. A generalized hostility to Islam and Muslims was articulated in stories portraying ‘the orient’ as lasciviously sensual, sexually depraved, ruthlessly despotic and inherently violent and cruel. This ‘orient’ came to be defined as any place that was Islamic– North Africa (and especially Egypt), the central Ottoman territories, Persia, even India. The harem with its eunuch guards as painted, poeticized and narrated epitomized the exotic personality of the east.[9] Travelers’ accounts invariably gave attention to this aspect of the ‘other’, sustaining Europe’s collective imagination about what one should expect to see. In theory, a traveler traveled in order to learn; in fact a pre-determined discourse limited what the nineteenth-century Western observer saw in the East: he (and increasingly she), had already made the journey before setting foot outside of Europe.[10] Roxann Wheeler argues that male travelers to this ‘orient’ were sources for the initial ideas and images about Africa. “Their observations were avidly read” she goes on to say, “and appeared wholesale in compendious editions of travel narratives throughout the [eighteenth] century as well as in magazines. Theologians, natural philosophers and other men of letters also included and refined upon these observations to illustrate their particular speculations.”[11]

This recognition of ‘the expected’ was widely reflected in contemporary literature. Said’s concept of orientalism merged with romanticism and the possibility of adventure. India was such as arena for the imaginations of nineteenth-century British poets. Sir Thomas Moore, writing of Mughal princes, was said to have known and represented more about the “real” India from reading travel accounts than if he had been “riding on the back of a camel” through the land. His poems were praised for having the quality of historical “truth”, and for being the “finest orientalism literature so far…”. Sir Walter Scott’s India was characterized by the anticipated harems, Muslim holy men, human sacrifice and despotic Sultans, who “thought nothing of decapitation to terrify a slavish nation”.[12] In the African context, the best studied cross between popular culture, travel literature and romantic adventurism is the 18th century account of Scotsman, Mungo Park.[13] Ashton Nichols has argued that Park’s attitudes towards Muslims were a notable exception to his otherwise romanticized Africa, and that his “Moors” “parallel other excessive Romantic accounts of the East”, like those of Moore and Scott.[14] He cites the following description as evidence of Park’s “Rabid anti-Moslem bias”:

“I fancied that I discovered in the features of most of them [Moors], a disposition toward cruelty, and low cunning; and I could never contemplate their physiognomy, without feeling a sensible uneasiness. From the staring wildness of their eyes, a stranger would immediately set them down as a nation of lunatics. The treachery and malevolence of their character are manifested in their plundering excursions against the Negro villages”. [15]

In fact, Park repeatedly made much of the “fanatic” Moors’ proclivity to murder, theft and cruelty, as well as to their hatred of Christians and their belief in the superiority of Islam. Invoking almost every ‘orientalist’ stereotype of the day, Park continued:

“It is impossible for me to describe the behaviour of a people who study mischief as a science and exult in the miseries and misfortunes of their fellow creatures. It is sufficient to observe that the rudeness, ferocity and fanaticism, which distinguish the Moors from the rest of mankind, found here a proper subject whereon to exercise their propensities. I was a stranger, I was unprotected, and I was a Christian; each of these circumstances is sufficient to drive every spark of humanity from the heart of a Moor…. The Moors are rigid Mahomedans, and possess, with the bigotry and superstition, all the intolerance of their sect. …Cut off from all intercourse with civilized nations,… they are at once the vainest and proudest, and perhaps the most bigoted, ferocious, and intolerant of all the nations on the earth – combining in their character, the blind superstition of the Negro with the savage cruelty and treachery of the Arab.[last emphasis mine]”.[16]

A few years later, Park’s French counterpart, Rene Caillié echoed many of the same sentiments. ‘His’ Moors were variously cruel, insensible, violent and barbarous; he chose to travel disguised as a Muslim, a reiteration of his fear that he would be killed if known to be Christian.[17] The important and respected Clapperton-Denham mission through the Sahara in the 1820s[18] reiterated more of the same. The issue of traveling in ‘Muslim disguise’ was much debated a prior to their trip and in the end, they had been forced to be ‘openly European’.[19] Adu Boahen, summarizing contemporary response to their mission, attached considerable importance to the fact that it “buried the myth that the Muslim had an instinctive hatred for the Christian and that a ‘cruel death’ awaited any person who went beyond Fezzan [northern Sahara] undisguised”.[20] However, in acknowledging that these Muslim ‘African’ rulers (the Sultans of Bornu and Sokoto) were reasonable, religious men, respecting all who prayed to one God, Clapperton and Denham pointedly distanced them from the nameless oriental ‘Moors’ and ‘Arabs’ who crossed the desert to buy slaves (a point I will return to below).[21] Moreover, the respite from stereotyping was short lived. When Clapperton succumbed to illness and died while under the protection of the Sultan of Sokoto, it was readily believed that this behaviour was typical of a Muslim, cunning and untrustworthy. Following the same reasoning and buttressed by the anti-Arab prejudice of the local British Consul-General in Tripoli, Colonol Hamer Warrington, the story that the Pasha of Triopoli had arranged for the murder of the British explorer Richard Laing and then stolen his papers, went unquestioned in London.[22] Laing’s personal correspondence also fed the discourse governing discussion of the Sahara and North Africa. He wrote of an important tribe as “an extensive Arab tribe where [sic] life is devoted to hunting, rapine and war and [who] from this constant vigilance are the terror of travelers” (1825).[23] Put succinctly, at this point the Sahara and its peoples had been appropriated by not only by personal prejudices but by an established orientalist discourse that allowed for little innovation.

The Making of “The African” Slave Trade

The founding of the African Association in 1788 was about ‘casting light upon darkness’ in the British national interest: ‘casting light’ meant exploration and mapping, and national interest meant wealth. The perception of Africa that drew Park and others into the interior was articulated by the Association committee member who wrote of Timbuktu: “Gold is there so plentiful, as to adorn even the slaves… If we could get our manufactures into that country we should soon have gold enough”.[24] Those who argue that this turn-of-the-century exploration was not yet an arm of the abolitionist movement are probably correct.[25] That said, however, contemporary abolitionists were extremely active. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787, and from that time, they lobbied effectively for a political ending to the slave trade. Little that was written about Africa did not have an impact on this debate and in turn, the debate shaped closely what was written.

“Tracts, reprints, abridgments by prominent abolitionists were printed in the thousands, inevitably encouraging others to write supporting pieces in newspapers and magazines. … Indeed slavery and the slave trade became something of a literary genre, attracting the most talented (and talentless) of the late eighteenth century poets and novelists. …The anti-slavery writers created a pseudo-African to dwell in a pseudo Africa. Counter to the ‘beastly savage’ of the slavers was the ‘noble savage’ of the anti-slavery romances”.[26]

If “abolitionist literature was being produced and consumed on an unprecedented scale”[27], so too was its iconography.[28] In 1787, the new abolitionist Society approved a medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood that is still today used to evoke the cause, namely a black man on bended knees, raising hands and eyes in prayer, with the caption “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” This medallion, widely produced and distributed,[29] underscored the Christian base of the abolitionist movement. The argument emphasized that the Africans being enslaved could be ‘saved’ and that as a Christian nation, Britain had to be true to its own national ‘soul’ and allow such people to find their way to God. Slavery as it was being practiced in the British West Indies was said to deny slaves the possibility of freedom and redemption, as well as the right to own property and access the law. It was specifically this slavery, not slavery in general, that the abolitionists targeted. Indeed, early debates involved actual defense of Hebrew slavery and African (domestic) slavery as being intrinsically different, as not being permanent (one allowing for manumission, the other for community/familial absorption).[30] In the initial stages, the movement resolved first to end the supply of slaves; hence came the second image publicized in July 1799, the drawings of the slave ship Brookes. This diagram showing the placement of slaves ‘packed in’ for the Middle Passage became an immediate and stunning piece of anti-slave trade propaganda, reproduced on posters and distributed widely in both Britain and France. [31]

The campaign was effective in Britain, bringing about the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Immediately following, attention turned to promoting similar action on the part of foreign powers. By the 1820s it was clear that the treaties and diplomacy had not succeeded in reducing the Atlantic trade; on the contrary, it appeared to be growing. For many abolitionists, it seemed the only way slavery could be brought to an end was by out-right abolition. Just as initial efforts had succeeded by raising public awareness with stories of the horrors of the trade, the continuing campaign also utilized all forms of printed publicity, bolstered by an active schedule of local lectures. The public played its role in petitioning members of Parliament. Indeed, many members (like Sir Buxton) were themselves leading advocates of abolition. Buxton’s publication, the second part of which dealt with the ‘remedy to the slave trade’ argued that the most effective way to end the ‘illegal’ trade in humans was to replace it with ‘legitimate’ commerce in produce. Africa was to be come both producer (of raw materials) and consumer (of British-manufactured goods); the thousands of former slaves were to be the wage-workers who would do both, produce and consume. [32]

What needs underscoring, for there is nothing here that is not well-known, is the extent to which the whole 19th century discourse continued to be shaped by these forces – the Atlantic slave trade and attempts to end it. Even Clapperton and Denham’s identification of a specifically “Saharan” slave trade can only be understood in this context. The explorers’ concerns were not abolitionist initially. They were interested in promoting trade with the ‘wealthy’ interior of Africa (consistent with earlier goals) and became convinced that the region’s slave-producing raids were counter-productive. They became converts to abolition and active participants in supplying accounts of the traffic, complete with horrors, in order to support recommendations for its suppression. Clapperton tried to convince Ahmadu Bello of Sokoto that the British could replace the ‘slave dealing Arabs’ if he would agree to trade in some other commodity. [33]

Arabs and Mohammedan Slavery

Although Buxton would soon subsume the ‘Saharan’ to the “African” trade, Clapperton and Denham’s description of a desert-based ‘Arab trade’ dovetailed with a ‘dialogue’ on slavery and abolition with the Ottomans beginning in the mid-1830s[34]. Ehud Toledano has argued that initial attempts to discuss slavery with the Porte proved pointless because two different value systems were operating. He might better have said that the British were applying a very particular concept derived from their own construction of Atlantic slavery.[35] The results of this impasse were twofold. First, continuing to operate in the dichotomized ideological straightjacket fashioned by the Christian abolitionists, Britain responded by creating ‘Mohammedan’ slavery in the image of its conceptions of Hebrew and African slavery. Central to “the peculiar nature of the institution in the ‘East’” as it was referred to in an 1840 report, were possibilities open to slaves for social elevation (the reference being to the wide range of royal and administrative posts occupied by ‘slaves’)[36] and most importantly, the role played by women – especially harems.[37] To attempt to abolish this slavery, so different from the one abolitionists were targeting in the West Indies, would be to invite major social upheaval. As one British official explained in 1869: “As long as the detestable social system which is part of the Mohemmedan religion continues, female slavery must remain in connection with it. … The difficulty of dispensing with female slaves in the Harems necessarily existing in Mohemmedan countries, appears… to make it impossible to sweep the atrocious institution away. [my emphasis]”[38] Western fascination with the harem was a long-standing element of orientalist literature and art; that it came into play in constructing the very nature of Islamic slavery is not surprising. What is significant here is that something called ‘Islamic slavery’ was created by the West, for the West, in contra-distinction to ‘real’ (understood New World) slavery. From here associations were then abstracted between the ‘Mohammedian’ religion, the countries where this religion was practiced and the presence of this ‘peculiar’ institution.