Journalism in the service of society

Professor Paul Lovejoy at 80: Understanding slavery 

(Prelude of the Interviews with Professor Paul Lovejoy on his long career, to be conducted in multiple locations, including Toronto and Costa Rica)

‘All the works he has authored serve as incredible sources of rigorous knowledge on slavery. Without the various books and essays by Paul Lovejoy, our understanding of slavery in general and the trans-Atlantic slave trade would have been considerably diminished’

THE history of slavery has always attracted nuances from those who examine its attendant consequences, implications and significance or lack thereof, in the world of the perpetrators and the victims. Incidentally, the activities of history are not exclusive for any party to relay. No matter the gravity of destruction undertaken by one person to another, each has the latitude but not necessarily the moral right to relay history. This opportunity has been over-flogged by everyone who immediately rushes to inscribe issues on the black and white paper, even when they are quite aware of the overbearing problems they constituted for the issues they raise or discuss. 

For slavery as an epochal event in the history of Africans, numerous writers have struggled to put their sides of the story down for the consumption of the public. Thus, objective works on slavery are understandably inadequate for obvious reasons. Those with a resource to objectively evaluate the experiences are already compromised by commission or collaboration. Commission because they are beneficiaries of the morally reprehensible actions of slavery, and collaboration because they have a history of playing an integral role in the process mentioned. 

The cumulative work of Paul Lovejoy is constantly reminiscent of a generous engagement of a committed intellectual who makes painstaking and laudable efforts to resist the partisan temptation to mischaracterize the events of slavery, especially as seen from the angle of the exploited: Africans. 

The intellectual works he has produced on slavery are massive, and from them, we have gained insight as to how the experience of slavery was not only wreaking emotional havoc on the victims and their offspring but was also the source of psychological, economic, moral and ideological trauma which they face today. For instance, Lovejoy x-rays the underlying challenges enslaved Africans face in an excruciatingly traumatic way. In Slavery, Abolition, and the Transition into Colonialism in Sierra Leone, the scholar educated us about the deep-seated racism that motivated and also characterized the business of slavery in Africa. It seems very apparent, for example, that the underrepresentation of figures of Africans who were the victims of slavery was aimed at undermining the outrageous roles played by Europeans in the event of history. The book tells us, among other things, that contrary to the belief that slavery tuned down in Sierra Leone, numerous events of history reveal the patterns of enslavement that were consistent there. In all fairness, these patterns were not devoid of the brutally dangerous styles by which the people were subjected to ridicule. Apart from denying them the decency of human dignity, the Sierra Leoneans of the slavery period were forced to undergo torturous processes of naked and blatant destruction. 

In 2011, Lovejoy made another seminal academic exploration of reevaluating the aftermath effects of the experience. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa is a landmark, unfolding in understanding otherwise misconstrued information that earlier works have made. Several materials available on transatlantic slavery underplayed the figures and gravity of the experience in ways that one would believe was passive historical event that did not deserve attention. The implications of this orientation are numerous. Among other things, reducing the figures taken into slavery intends to achieve a purpose for which luxury the victims of slavery cannot afford. That the number of enslaved Africans was reduced, among other things, paints the European perpetrators as passive actors in the problems of Africans. And more than this, it obscures the underlying problems that the people would face in contemporary times, among which is the descaling of intellectual and economic power. Enslaved Africans carted away from their bosom in Africa were individuals of intellectual and economic importance. They were the architects of their people, doctors of their people, craftswomen and men and creatives who were drawn away forcefully, which had outrageous consequences on the continent. Invariably, Lovejoy offers a wide range of interpretations and conclusions. 

Lovejoy has dedicated much of his intellectual energy to examining these historical events so that the scholarly efforts to appropriately register the contributions of every party to the problems of Africans and others who once experienced slavery would be understood and put into the right context. If anyone offers us data about the challenges associated with slavery and colonialism, scholars have the moral responsibility to interrogate the data so that they would understand the hidden messages kept in the documents. Such is the energy dissipated by Lovejoy when he wrote an exemplary work on The Impact of the Atlantic Slave Trade on Africa: A Review of the Literature. What he does in the book is to interrogate the problems keenly connected to the history of the enslavement of Africans and the economic opportunities that perpetrators enjoyed during the time. In his review of relevant literature, he understood that the accuracy of the figures given is contestable. And more than this, his examination of the events reveals that slavery was systematically encouraged and morally supported by Europeans who offered everything to make such an experience a success for the perpetrators. For instance, locals involved themselves more in internecine wars, conflicts and hostilities that led to the enslavement of others for sale. The expectation that these Europeans would do their bidding contributed to why they fought their types, which worked for them for a long time. Nevertheless, they were left to suffer the consequences themselves. 

With the same interest and energy, this scholar of stellar academic contributions has considered the troubles and terrible experiences enslaved Africans faced in the New World. The work titled Crossing Memories: Slavery and African Diaspora helps us to contextualize the challenges of people displaced by Europeans for economic reasons. The victims were first exposed to an unfriendly atmosphere where they could not enjoy the dignity of being humans. They faced unprecedented racial abuses, were confronted with a deepened identity crisis, and were overwhelmed by social challenges that immersed them in the problems mentioned. Therefore, the accumulation of these bad experiences triggered them to think about their very background in Africa. While consumed by the challenges they faced there, they were relieved by their experiences of their indigenous life. They found assistance in nearly all the things done in the past before they crossed their borders, either deliberately or forcefully. They have, therefore, weathered all conceivable challenges directed towards them, and they now become very important in the diaspora as external wings of Africans who now contribute in different dimensions to the uplift of the African nation. The work’s central message is that enslaved Africans could not but experience divided and unstable consciousness. They are already helpless in determining what happens to them from when they were taken to the New World, but they can create a better experience in New World.

It is, therefore, understandable why his intellectual mates have consistently revered Paul Lovejoy. His dedication to studying recent African challenges has yielded substantial outcomes for the people. For one, his research involvements have taught us that the experience of slavery sets the history of Africa and Africans back but does not necessarily define it. This is underscored by the awareness that numerous great things are associated with the continent in the distance and proximal past, so they cannot be defined by it. He made very revealing comments about achieving specifics about captives forced to the periphery in a strange land. He understands that there is the coloration of ethnic identity associated with slavery, which means individuals either in the Americas or Europe as enslaved Africans can have their origin looked into so that appropriate information about them can be sourced. It is a relief that he mentioned, among other things, that capitalist ambition was the primary driver of the slavery business in England and other European countries. And for them to continue to have necessary powers over others, they needed access to human and natural resources that would be used to their advantage. 

All the works he has authored serve as incredible sources of rigorous knowledge on slavery. Without the various books and essays by Paul Lovejoy, our understanding of slavery in general and the trans-Atlantic slave trade would have been considerably diminished.

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Part 2

Peculiar Substances!

PAUL Lovejoy has approached African history by studying commodities: kola nuts, salt, tobacco, and cowries, among others. My dialogue with him will reveal the crucial importance of these objects that interface with such issues as trade, trade routes, trading colonies, and short- and long-distance commerce. When you cumulate his studies on these objects—peculiar products—you can understand why no scholar compares with him in his enduring contributions to African Economic History. As objects connect with our desires and habits, Lovejoy becomes a pre-eminent social historian. He followed the trans-Saharan trade routes from one end to the other, diverted to the Sudan, to the Swahili city-states and crossed the Indian Ocean to Gujarat. Is a Zaki allowed to drink? If so, we must add the study of alcohol to the items of trade and habits.

Critical attention that Lovejoy accorded to the exploration, examination and interrogation of slavery would almost make one assume that outside of that intellectual discourse, he barely picks other interests. This is not so. His available contributions to other related but different tropes of knowledge signal that, like all other prolific scholars, he has made an incredible addition to numerous areas of knowledge. One may not have the idea that Lovejoy dedicated much of his intellectual energy to studying objects and commodities.

In the spirit of fairness, the common attitude to recognizing objects is harsh, taken for granted, based on the misleading assumption that we need not study them. Why natron, why bitter kola? Meanwhile, that orientation towards all these objects and commodities is ill-motivated and misinformed, given the magnitude of ideas that the works of Lovejoy have opened our minds to. The meeting point between people and objects is understanding the cultural ideologies of groups of people. In essence, all human activities are somewhat connected.

Paul Lovejoy, alongside some other scholars, undertakes the responsibility to understand some aspects of human cultures that are considered good and bad, respectively, concerning how they use them to drive or advance their civilization forward, beyond the imagination of anyone. They look into drugs in human society, their consumption and cultural attitude to their proliferation. Drugs have different levels that they operate within the human body. That they have superficial effects in some cultures or people and have deeper psychological outcomes on others reveals how some groups have decided to immerse themselves in the habit for certain reasons. In Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology, the tripod of Lovejoy, Sherratt and Goodman perform anthropological operations on some cultures to bring to the fore the cultural reasons for the consumption of some hard drugs ranging from opium, cocaine, coffee, tobacco, kola, and betelnut among other substances. One thing they reveal is that these consuming habit helps to characterize people and define how they understand drugs from time to time. Drugs are objects, but they are consumable ones with definite results on the human psychological domain and, in some cases, their socioeconomic conditions eventually.

The central message of their examination in Consuming Habits is that behind the success of countries in their endeavors is an untold story of their deepened involvement in the patronage of some substances as they employ them to perform engagements that dramatically affect the human world. Perhaps, the knowledge that the consumption of drugs has increased crimes and encouraged morally condemnable engagements, the world, through policies, has emphatically opposed the patronage of these substances. The irony of this moral quandary is that hard substances patronage is increasing daily in many countries. This raises important questions about the seriousness of combating consumers of hard substances and their very intentions about others they have successfully de-marketed. The endgame is that when they label some items “legal” or “illegal,” they have disallowed scholars from understanding the cultural context of their patronage and the reason for their continued appropriation. Lovejoy has helped us understand the overlapping beauty of culture and moral principles and how the desire to separate them has always generated unimaginable results with negative consequences. To that extent, they let us understand why humans keep using and abusing these substances.

In Salt of the Desert Sun: A History of Salt Production and Trade in Central Sudan, Lovejoy uses his scholarly work to understudy production and exchange systems. Before then and after, it has often become the subject that pre-capitalist African cultures were unaware of market forces, a point that Tony Hopkins also demolished in An Economic History of West Africa. Both Lovejoy and Hopkins did not tie the idea of a subsistence economy to the template of racial ideology that drove it. In that ideological template, Africans were unfit to talk about advancement in ways we have observed in Asia, Europe and the Americas. The foundation of that assumption was faulty, given that it was recorded that salt, as an object, was sufficiently distributed across different areas in the Sudan in an advanced economy. Lovejoy saw increased salt production as a testament to the ability to produce mass commodities that they used for various purposes.   

Of course, the hallmark of the economic success of the period was the ability to sustain such a high level of performance to meet the demands of people in different places, especially in contiguous areas. Production quantity would be affected because the major means of conveyance and transportation were animals (camels and, in some cases, horses). However, the salt trade promoted interstate economic affairs of the time.

Lovejoy opened our minds to equally significant information usually masked in popular narratives. More than the distribution of salt in Western, Central and Eastern Sudan, there was an extensive exchange of cultural ideologies. The more economic engagement they had, the deeper they penetrated the culture of one another through intermarriages, migrations and resettlements. Therefore, these aspects of history reveal the complex nature of local and international politics, as it hinges on impressive economic transactions. The interlink of economy and culture is constantly strengthened by the fact that one would have to absorb the ideas and values of others, using whatever means, before taking advantage of economic strength and activities.

Commodities, as Lovejoy analyzed, aided the transfer of cultures. He mentioned, for instance, how the Wangara became initiators of economic ideas in the old Songhai empire during the 15th and 16th centuries. The Wangara became exceptional in their economic investments by adding commodities and new products such as kola nuts, and they became actively involved in the spread of the Songhai monetary system based on cowries and gold. Meanwhile, they also produced quality textiles spread across the vast areas of the Hausa territory and Borno. In other words, the vast involvement in the sale of these commodities became the reason for their continued economic growth and what brought them to the limelight in the period, thereby becoming strong reasons for the unity of cultures. Objects facilitated the empowerment of the Wangara, transforming cultural and political institutions. In essence, the onus of Lovejoy’s argument is that there were strong economic institutions in the period constructed on the forms of substances they produced and how they managed to sustain and establish an economic system.

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