Servants and slaves in Christian Africa of the past

Admitted: the title of this entry is much wider than the actual scope of its content. It would be impossible to speak about any phenomenon concerning the Christian African past in general. But an online presentation of some fascinating new archaeological research reached us through the channels of SAfA and inspired the few ideas that will be presented below.

This research concerns the uncovering of the remains of a church on Cabo Verde’s Santiago Island, off the West African coast, dating back to the 15th century, when Portugal first colonised the islands that played a central role in the global African slave trade. In fact, the earliest remains of the church of Nossa Senhora da Conceiçao constitute the oldest formal colonial building yet discovered in sub-Saharan Africa! The islands of Cabo Verde were uninhabited before the arrival of the Portuguese, but very soon became the center where slaves were gathered and shipped across the Atlantic. Such an early monumental structure is hard to imagine exercising any other sort of policy than the one promoting the interests of the Portuguese traders.

Reading about these discoveries, I was reminded of some similarities with the conditions of medieval Nubia, in the following manner:

1. It seems that, since the formation of the first states along the Nile until well into the 20th century, slaves have been both owned and traded in Nubia and Sudan. Although concrete evidence is lacking, the prevalent idea is that these slaves were procured from the regions neighbouring the heartlands of the Kushite and Nubian states, and that from there they were funneled to the trade markets of the north, first and foremost Egypt. The most up-to-date discussion of the topic (for the period of our interest) is the article by David N. Edwards “Slavery and Slaving in the Medieval and Post-Medieval Kingdoms of the Middle Nile” (Proceedings of the British Academy 168 (2011), pp. 79-108).

2. There is, however, evidence that also locals of the Nubian kingdoms have been traded as slaves, the most renowned case being that of an Alodian slave girl, whose fate was preserved for us in the Papyrus Strassburg Inv. 1404. The publication of this papyrus is the work of Richard Holton Pierce, professor emeritus of the University of Bergen, with whom by the way I am preparing the next blog entry about some comments on legal traditions and texts in Nubia. It is certainly difficult to imagine today the selling of members of one’s own community as slaves. It is, however, believed that the king of Nubia “owned” his subjects; they were his slaves. The idea appears in a story from the 9th century CE, known from various sources, the most complete being that of Al Masudi (Les Prairies d’Or, trans. Meynard and Courteille, Paris 1863, vol. II, pp. 22-3). Here, I quote from W.Y. Adams’ “Nubia Corridor to Africa” (1977), p. 437:

“Some Nubians in the vicinity of Aswan had sold their lands to Egyptian Moslem purchasers, in defiance both of the Baqt agreement and of the medieval legal principle which held that all land belonged to the Crown and could only be tranferred by the king’s writ. In Nubia that principle was expressed in a legal fiction that all the king’s subjects were his slaves.”

3. In my opinion, the church was not impartial of such power relations. Although church officials appear next to state officials in legal documents, there is no direct evidence for the Church’s involvement in “Slavery and Slaving”. Christianity could provide though the ideological background/backing for the institution of slavery. “Slave of God” is often translated today as “Servant of God” and a lot of ink has been used to debate the differences of each term. How did such expressions affect the self-consciousness of Christians? In medieval Nubia, it was not only the Bible that was heard and read including such statements. There were personal names also containing the Greek word “δούλος” (“slave” in Greek); and as if not to allow for misunderstandings the Nubians had coined several local names with a second element -ΚΟΥΔΑ, which translates in Nubian the word for “slave”. The topic touches upon the way language elicites specific reactions in the human brain and subsequently to the human standing in life.

All in all, I am intrigued by the idea that the Christian Church is a foreign institution not only for Cabo Verde, but somehow for Nubia too. It developed among some civilizations of the Medterranen Sea, and then spread (violently more often than not) throughout the world. Arriving in Nubia it found fertile ground to grow, but consequently it must have contributed substantially in creating a mentality of submission to an authority that controlled life and death of its subjects.

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One Response to Servants and slaves in Christian Africa of the past

  1. Ustadh Ruban says:

    Thank you very much for this thought-provoking contribution. What you say about the king’s slaves reminds me of a passage in al-Uswānī’s Kitāb akhbār al-Nuba (quoted by al-Maqrīzī) : “Their king can reduce to slavery any of his subjects he wants whether he be guilty of a crime or not, and they do not oppose him, rather they prostrate themselves before him. They do not revolt against his order, however, unjust it may be; [on the contrary] they call out loudly “May the king live (al-malik ya’īsh!)! And let his order be executed!” ” (trans. Vantini, Oriental Sources, p. 614)

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