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Cultural productions in the context of slavery: slave narrative, narrative of the self and religious configurations

Location C6.01
Date and Start Time 29 June, 2013 at 11:30


Camille Lefebvre (CNRS) email
Emmanuelle Kadya Tall (IRD) email
M'hamed Oualdi (INALCO) email
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Short Abstract

This panel will examine cultural productions in context of slavery to point out social change both through slave narratives collected in the 19th and 20th century and through the religious configurations on both sides of the South Atlantic.

Long Abstract

In this panel, we wish to examine cultural productions in context of slavery in two ways.

The first one is to trace through slave narratives collected in the 19th century mainly by foreign individuals or institutions, what do they tell us about narratives of the self. These narratives have usually been transmitted after a process of translation and rewriting and even after having been heavily transformed, but they still are perceived as life stories or autobiographies. One will question what has been socially and historically constructed in those accounts and what they are telling us about self-perception and self-representation in West and North Africa.

The second one is to take the example of the religious field in the context of Atlantic slave trade, to show how it is organized in a global world on both sides of the South Atlantic. Speaking in terms of syncretism or diffusion processes does not take in account the changes endured on African soil, making its religious cosmologies something out of history. In Africa also, the slave trade did transform the religious field, upheaving for example, ancestry cults into territories deities to legitimate new political configurations. As such, one should not consider Afro-American religious productions as syncretism or conservatism from Africa but as productions born from the Atlantic slave trade, whose different ranges have more to do with their local context development.

To conclude, we will question the interweaving between slave narratives and African diaspora religions' narratives in the construction of narrative of self.

Chair: Martin Klein

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The Atlantic slave trade and the religious productions in the south Atlantic

Author: Emmanuelle Kadya Tall (IRD)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper will stress how in the context of slavery, on the African continent and in the African diaspora, religious productions, far from being syncretic movements to manage a free space within an dominant religious scene, were a way to fit in with the theological and political main view of their society.

Long Abstract

Comparing the African religious field in Benin and Brazil, during the Atlantic Slave trade, we would like to stress that in both of them, it made strenuous changes in the religious field that one cannot explain in terms of acculturation or syncretism. In Benin, the old Dahomean kingdom strengthened itself by transforming ancestor cults into territory and political cults, making them part of a new cosmology, nowadays recognised as a unified set that was transferred in to the New world.

In Brazil, the African cosmology was constructed at the end of the XIX century with the help of Retornados making round trips between the old Slave Coast and Brazil during the illegal slave trade from l830 to 1888. In both cases, these African religious creations were mainly a means to cope within each ones political context. As such, the Dahomean religious universe, resulting from a transformation of ancestor cults and nature deities into a cosmology, helped to consolidate a kingdom strengthened by the slave trade. Meanwhile, Afro-Brazilian cults participated in the building of the nation State at the end of the XIX century and beginning of the XX century, taking part of the racial fraternity ideology raised by the elite to transform a colonial state into a modern one. The detailed analysis of a candomblé ritual during Corpus Christi will show how this ideology can be seen through the various entities presented during its different phases.

"Abáni fugurá" / "My father was a scholar": autobiographical accounts of Ali Eisami Gazir

Author: Stephanie Zehnle (Kassel University)  email
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Short Abstract

Ali Eisami Gazir was enslaved during the 19th century in West Africa. But his account does not only give voice to a whole generation of slaves captured throughout the Sokoto Jihad. His identity heavily relied on Islamic education. He proudly told his owner: "My father was a scholar".

Long Abstract

When Ali Eisami Gazir was interviewed by the German missionary Sigismund Koelle in ca. 1850, he had already reached high age. He was looking back on over 60 years of his Bornu childhood, enslavement, trafficking, freedom and resettlement in Sierra Leone. Being kidnapped by Fulbe warriors in 1806 he was only one victim of many of the Sokoto Jihad years that lead to the formation of a West African Caliphate.

Ali narrates his religious life caesuras and disastrous occurrences of regional scale in a parallel way. He went to an Islamic teacher; he was initiated together with other boys in a common circumcision. When his row of Islamic life rituals stopped because of Jihad attacks - he was about to marry - Ali lists this war after a sun eclipse, locust menace, a famine and the pestilence.

It was a missionary who finally gave Ali a voice in Latin letters, but Ali himself could read and write Arabic and dictated his story. Because his father was a scholar, Ali was engaged in the Royal Palace for four years and learnt the Yoruba language. In opposite to himself as a Muslim, he defines non-Islamic African regions as uncivilized: According to Ali they drink cow blood, alcohol, and ride their horses without saddles. He is not alienating the Spanish or British he met, but exoticizing some Bornu neighbours. Ali Eisami Gazir uses his literacy for class distinction apart from his slave status. He therefore is an example for steady religious identities defying new environments.

The freed slave behind the statesman: the writing strategies of General Husayn (1820s-1887)

Author: M'hamed Oualdi (INALCO)  email
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Short Abstract

Hiding his backgrounds as a slave from the margins of Islam and at the same time, shaping the image of a Statesman in North Africa, before dying in Florence in 1887: that was the main strategy of the general Husayn in his writings in Arabic language that I will seek to analyze in my paper.

Long Abstract

By the end of the 19th century, general Husayn was one of the last mamluks in the Muslim world. Trained and gathered originally in the first caliphs' entourage, in the 8th and the 9th centuries, the mamluks were mainly - but not only - slaves converted to Islam through the medieval and modern ages.

Legally General Husayn was clearly one those mamluks as a slave and then a freed one. But he was not converted as he was born in the 1820s in an Islamic area of Caucasus, in Circassia. What was original about his trajectory though, was his education in Tunis: he was one of the first mamluks trained in a military school, learning European knowledge and Arabic language.

Through his administrative letters, the aim here will be to understand to what extent the practices of writing were used by a former slave: how he did refer to his former legal status and how did he succeed to shape a public image linked to a broad political vision of Islam with the beginning of colonization of North Africa?

Mapping who you are: the use of geographical references in slave narrative in central Sudan in the 19th century

Author: Camille Lefebvre (CNRS)  email
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Short Abstract

Geographical references are a common feature of slave narratives from 19th century Central Sudan. Narration of self seems in this context intricately combined to a geographical frame. This paper will question this relation between geography, narrative of self and slavery.

Long Abstract

Stating your origin, describing the area you visited or listing the places where you have been taken or sold, appears to be a common feature of slave narratives collected in 19th century from people from central Sudan. If the interest of the collectors for the geography of this area introduces a bias, it doesn't change the fact that these slaves or ex-slaves remembered long lists of places and itineraries sometime several decades after having left the area. The memorization of geographical data and travel accounts are part of the oral practices in this area in 19th century, most of the time linked to professional practices. But in the case of slave narratives references to places and traveled routes seem to be part of a statement of whow you have been and whom you have become. This prominent feature of geographical information in these slave narratives call for an examination of the relation between geography, narrative of self and slavery in Central Soudan in 19th century.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.