Volume 10, Issue 4
Spring 2009

A. E. Afigbo. The Abolition of the Slave Trade in Southeastern Nigeria, 1885-1950. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2006. 210p.

Print/Download PDF Version

This book is about the history of the British campaign against the internal slave trade in colonial Nigeria. It focuses on the Bight of Biafra and its hinterland, a region long buffeted by slavery and slave trading. In five chapters, Afigbo skillfully demonstrates how the export trade in palm oil, missionary expansion, and British ideas of civilization, undermined slavery and the internal slave trade in the region.

Afigbo shows that the abolition of the internal slave trade in southeastern Nigeria took three distinct stages. The first phase, often characterized with a language of philanthropy, humanitarianism, and evangelicalism, concerns the period 1830-1885. This phase (the subject of chapter one) was dominated by the British navy, which policed the West African Atlantic coastline, seizing ships that carried human cargo bound for the Americas. This initial campaign was largely on the sea with limited action to enforce the ban on the mainland. The coastal phase of the campaign (c1885-1900) instituted a tighter control of coastal towns and cities. During this period, the British government and its agents had started to advance British economic and political interests in the African interior. For example, in 1849, Britain appointed a resident agent as consul to oversee and protect British interest in the Bights of Benin and Biafra. This British establishment overtime grew from strength to strength. Even though the British agents were stationed mainly in coastal towns, it enabled Britain to gradually consolidate its imperial authority in the Biafran frontier. The final phases of the campaign described what happened during the colonial period proper (i.e. 1900-1950). This period witnessed the British advance into the heart of the Biafran hinterland. This coincided with the declaration of a Protectorate Government, a by-product of the use of military force or conquest. The entire region was apportioned into divisions and districts, each with its own headquarters, courts, military post and colonial staff (47).

Despite the paucity of sources on the working of the internal slave trade and/ or its abolition, this study has made a significant addition in the overall historiography by eloquently showing how the abolition of the trade was inextricably linked to southeastern Nigeria’s colonial history and the processes that undermined its existence. While Afigbo’s analysis does not diminish the efforts made by Great Britain in eroding the internal slave trade, at the same time, it discusses the crucial role played by the African middlemen in the overall process.  The presence of the British on the coast limited the scope the coastal merchants and rulers had to continue to engage in the slave trade “since the European supercargoes would not take kindly to such an activity” (17). Consequently, these coastal merchants diverted their interest away from trading in slaves to trading in “legitimate” goods. The British also mobilized them “as part of its motley army of legitimate traders, free traders and abolitionists” in the hinterland (40). In the end, these merchants not only abandoned slave dealing as their main line business but became anti-slave police. They entered the Biafran hinterland, creating awareness among the interior peoples how unviable slave dealing was. In this way, Afigbo argues that they helped to pave the way for the gradual decline of the trade. Subsequently, the political arm of Britain’s civilizing mission began following behind these coastal traders to implant the British presence further and further into the interior. Afigbo argues that without the African middlemen, the abolition of the internal slave trade by the colonial government would have been slow, if not tedious (p. 28). The role performed by these middlemen yielded positive results in that the people “responded in an impressive manner to the lure of the new trade” in natural products such as palm oil and elephant tusks (p. 21).

The missionaries, especially the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the Presbyterians, also played an instrumental role in depressing the internal slave trade. In fact, Afigbo argues that their activities in the Biafra were by nature anti-slave trade. The missionaries “preached, knowingly or unknowingly, by word and by deed, the doctrine of legitimate commerce” (23). They also preached their doctrine of the equality of all men, a message which supposedly undermined the nefarious trade. This preaching posed a fundamental challenge to the “old” culture of the inhabitants of Biafra, and by extension, slavery and slave trading (22). It not only turned Biafran culture and society upside down but helped “drive more people into other lines of business, especially trading and agricultural production.” The pitfall of Afigbo’s analysis, however, is that he does not give us enough information on the groups that were carrying out much of the slave trading. To what extent were they an organized group? In many ways, he seems to assumes the readers’ familiarity with the Aro and as well as the region’s history.

Colonial brutality and/ or the oppression of colonial subjects have received a fairly amount of attention in the past decades. Many scholars have used instances of such brutality to criticize European colonialism in Africa. Yet, while such instances of colonial violence and brutality occurred and were inhumane, Afigbo shows that the British actions also had a profound impact in transforming Biafran society and modes of economic interaction to replace slavery. The British adopted harsh punishments which “taught all . . . that the new masters were not to be toyed with.” It produced shock and fear and made people realize that participating in the illegal trade could bring them into conflict with the British (p. 53). Afigbo’s work also suggests that the colonial policy of conscription had vital implications in weakening internal slave trading in the Biafran frontier. After the British passed the Roads and Creeks Proclamation in 1903, a huge burden of work was imposed on the adult male population, the class of people usually involved in slave raiding and kidnapping. Adult males took to hiding instead of wandering around. The proclamation required an adult male work for the colonial government for six days in each quarter. Moreover, Afigbo views conscription as a “kind of social leveler.” He implies that the twentieth century conscription policy of the British, unlike earlier forms of conscriptions, did not discriminate between free and un-free. It did not also spare the freeborn from brutal treatment to which workers were subjected to. By subjecting all workers to similar brutal treatment, the colonial government indirectly undermined the social prestige of acquiring and owning slaves, even if it did not undermine the economic value of slaves (50).

Finally, most of the literature on the slave trade in Africa focuses on the external slave trades (i.e. the trans-Saharan slave trade, the Indian-Ocean trade and most importantly, the Atlantic slave trade). In short, the internal slave trade in Western Africa in general and the Bight of Biafra in particular “has been neglected by many scholars” (117). Thus, although the author should have shed more light on the slave markets in the Niger Delta and Upper Cross River as well as the “consumers” of slaves (whose demand helped sustain the trade for decades, if not a century), the end product is no doubt a major contribution to the historiography of slavery, slave trading and its abolition in Africa.

Assan Sarr
Michigan State University