Slavery in Africa’s Past: Some Tentative Thoughts on Its Christian Shame and Glory

Slavery in Africa’s Past: Some Tentative Thoughts on Its Christian Shame and Glory

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By Dr. Esther Acolatse
Assistant Research Professor
of Pastoral Theology and Global Christianity
Duke Divinity School

Recently President Obama and his family visited Ghana and like all African Americans before them took a pilgrimage to a former slave castle in Cape Coast. Though I recall not only his words but the expressions on his face, what struck me most was the demeanor of Sasha Obama. She peered through the hole in the wall through which slaves were tunneled to the dungeon, averted her eyes, and began twisting the hem of her blouse as she looked up at her father. Obvious signs of discomfiture, but tinged with what seemed like embarrassment. But why?

I’m probably the only Ghanaian who’s made the trip to the slave castles, even taken touring groups and has waited outside as they retraced the steps of former slaves, waited in the damp, dark dingy dungeons and came out through the now famous “door of no return.” Perhaps one day when I’m old enough I may have the courage to go through the place without the visceral responses that I have experienced in the past. I’m trusting my body not to recall where it has been before – in the loins of some forebear who’s walked that mile. And no one can tell me such things are not possible, especially people who’ve built a religion around an Adam and Eve and a “Fall.”

Back to the discomfiture and embarrassment I sensed in Sasha’s expression. Our people say that before the stranger dips his fingers into the communal pot, a villager must have shown him the way. Of course Africa had its form of slavery before colonial times, but it was nothing like what pertained before the emancipation bills and its aftermath. The closest inhumanity then was the 7th century Arab raids of sub-Saharan Africa in which slaves were transported to parts of Asia, and the documented female shrine slaves in parts of west Africa. Otherwise the common form of slavery known in traditional times was the kind that increased land ownership for the master. This is because the concept of individual land ownership was unknown in Africa. Land was distributed according to the need of the family for farming and domicile. The more people one had to farm a land the more land one could receive. Raiding neighboring villages for slaves, usually of other ethnicities, was not unusual for the wealthy and powerful. But usually the slave became integrated into the family with the opportunity to wealth as well as rise in military rank during war if he fought.

In the case of slavery on the coastline of Africa, sheer selfish greed and avarice from two unlikely sources colluded. The economic crisis which plagued Europe in the 14th century sent the Portuguese who had mastered the art of navigation on high seas to search for resources in distant Africa. They landed on the coastline of West Africa and raided it of its gold and ivory, naming present-day Ghana the Gold Coast, and the Ivory Coast was named so for its wealth in ivory. What tipped the scales was that the Europeans, who also brought with them religion, particularly the English Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries who established themselves as the biggest Christian denominations on these shores, discovered not only converts but cheap labor. The chiefs on the coast were more than willing to pay in slaves for rum and gin. Today, the Ghana House of Chiefs ─ a body comprising all the country's traditional kings and chiefs ─ has placed a plaque on one of the castle's walls, asking for forgiveness.

Perhaps the reason I’m unable to enter and retrace the steps of slavery is because I share a double heritage of guilt and shame ─ an African from Ghana and a Presbyterian Christian (I’m still working out which identifier takes priority). I find I still have only tentative answers for the questions raised by the atrocities of slavery and Christian??? complicity in it. How is a church atop a dungeon that houses human beings to whom a liberating gospel has been preached possible? How does one worship the God of all peoples ─ according to the Bible brought by these same missionaries ─ and treat them inhumanely? How does one sing and pray and preach at least on Sunday mornings and go buy human beings and dehumanize them, rape and torture their women the rest of the week, and many times immediately following worship? More to the point, what must it have felt like for these bound and chained humans to hear singing and praise in honor of a god of love?

If the gospel indeed has the power not only to free from sin but give power to overcome sin because of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, then it is fair to assume that chapel or no chapel these were in no way Christians. Products of Christendom perhaps, but not those who have been confronted with the claims of Christ and given accent to them, and turned their lives over and asked that they be continually transformed.

Most missional religious traditions have their own history of compromise with political power and privilege, and of complicity in violence that has marred human history. My own tradition, Christianity, for instance, has been, on the one hand, a force that brought the message of God's unconditional love for and acceptance of all people. On the other hand, its history, sadly, is also marked by crusades, insensitivity to Indigenous cultures, and complicity with imperial and colonial designs including slavery and its attendant effects to date.

Such ambiguity and compromise with power and privilege continues to be part of our Christian heritage and shows up in places where discrimination in any form goes unnoticed, unchallenged and unchecked. All the places and times when we “gain the world and lose our souls” individually or corporately we make the gospel ineffectual. In light of the history of slavery, it is to our shame and to God’s glory that there are African Christians both at home and in the Diaspora. We see resplendent, the power of the gospel to transcend borders and transmitters and recipients. The gospel had full effect only in places of confession and repentance and desire for restitution. These are always the seeds and fruit of forgiveness. It is more than time for these to occur. Various trips to Elmina or Cape Coast castles may be therapeutic and cathartic, but we need a more enduring ritual that translates into flourishing for all.

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