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Book Review: Transformations in Slavery by Paul E. Lovejoy

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Book Review: Transformations in Slavery by Paul E. Lovejoy
An introduction to the history of slavery in Africa which examines how indigenous practices of slavery developed under the influence of international trade. The book is not limited to a study of the trans-Atlantic slave trade but considers the impact of all forms of slavery on the social, economic, and political development of the continent.

Paul E. Lovejoy published the first edition of Transformations in Slavery in 1983, following a world conference on slave studies. He attempted to describe and explain African history from the perspective of slavery. It suggested that, although slavery was a central institution in many parts of Africa, its development was heavily influenced by external forces - specifically Islam and the Trans-Atlantic trade.

Lovejoy points out that to understand the legacy of slavery in Africa it is essential to study the mechanisms and structures which developed within Africa. He suggests that commentary is usually tempered by a description of the structure of slavery in the Americas, which has little bearing on what happened back in Africa. Particular consideration needs to be given to the role of enslavement itself which he claims "was not an integrated part of the slave system" elsewhere. Lovejoy explores the changes that occurred in Africa which allowed both the spread of slavery and its continuation long after the abolition movement succeeded in the West.

Lovejoy has taken his original thesis and updated it with reference to the combined data resource of the W.E.B. Du Bois database. This database includes the records of more than 27,000 slavery voyages between the Americas and Africa - roughly half of the estimated number that occurred in total.

The demographics presented are, of course, dependent on the authenticity and accuracy of the original data - the Du Bois database is strong on records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but weak on the trade carried out by the Portuguese and Spanish (many of these records have been lost or corrupted). A similar problem exists with quantifying the Islamic slave trade. In addition the tables, analyses and conclusions presented in the revised edition of this book have been updated to reflect recent scholarship on the history of slavery and its effect on Africa.

The book has chapters on slavery from the fifteenth century and the medieval slave trade in Muslim Africa, the Islamic and trans-Atlantic trade form 1600 - 1800, the organisation of slave marketing, the relationships of dependency within different geo-political regions, the trade in the nineteenth century, abolition, and its legacy.

There is only one nagging problem with the book - apart from an exceedingly limited number of maps. The export figures Lovejoy quotes for the trans-Atlantic trade are based on arrivals in the New World. It seems strange that no allowance was given for the deaths which occurred during the middle passage - especially since Lovejoy acknowledges a seaboard mortality rate of 5 - 15%.

Transformations in Slavery - A History of Slavery in Africa by Paul E. Lovejoy, No 36 in the African Studies series published by Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-78430-1, 367 pages.

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