Appointed As

Center for Social Solutions


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

PhD Field of Study

PhD, History of Africa, Northwestern University

Dissertation Abstract

"Speaking of Slavery: Strategies and Moral Imagination in the Lower Congo (Early Times to the 19th Century)"

My dissertation examines a deep-time history of slavery in the Lower Congo region in West Central Africa between 1000 BCE and the nineteenth century. My research deals with a persistent problem in African history: while historians acknowledge the importance of Lower Congo societies in shaping Atlantic slavery, they rarely consider what slavery meant and how it was practiced by indigenous communities in the region. This state of affairs has fueled a long-standing debate among historians and anthropologists around two topics: (1) whether “slavery” emerged in the Lower Congo prior to the arrival of Europeans and (2) whether the very “institution” of slavery is Eurocentric. My findings suggest that the heuristic categories that historians use to understand slavery—such as thresholds between clientship and slavery, the dichotomy between free and slave, or the distinction between chattel and lineage slavery—misrecognize the original pathway of slavery in this region. Instead, this work shows how ambitious individuals seeking to establish or secure their position as leaders resorted to slaving as a crucial strategy to seize political consolidation in contexts of new demographic, ecological, or material opportunities over 3,000 years of Lower Congolese history.
The deep history of slaving strategies in the Lower Congo flows from word histories reconstructed through the method of comparative historical linguistics. By following the words that Lower Congo peoples used to name and frame their slaving strategies, I identified crucial contexts of change where people crafted new practices that shaped their shifting understandings of their idea of slavery. The first chapter explains how archaeology and historical linguistics can be productively used as strands of historical evidence to uncover past slaving strategies before literacy. It highlights the importance of reconstructing the nouns that slavers innovated to designate the enslaved and, based on an established literature, it proposes a way of correlating this information with other strands of information, such as archaeology, paleoenvironmental data and ethnographic reports. From this point forward, chapters 2 to 6 excavate progressively narrower Lower Congolese contexts, exploring the innovations that ancient Lower Congo slavers made in order to bring outsiders into their communities. My research proposes four distinct historical contexts when Lower Congo peoples and their ancestors created slavery: (1) 1100-700 BCE; (2) 100-400 CE; (3) 1100-1400 CE, and (4) 1665-1880. Therefore, of all four contexts when ambitious leaders resorted to slaving strategies in the Lower Congo, only the last moment co-occurred with the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The dissertation foregrounds the historical trajectory through which the category of slavery was built and rebuilt by Lower Congo peoples. Rather than simply pursuing the ‘origins of slavery’ in Central Africa, this dissertation reveals important new social aspects about the history of slavery in Africa that speak to ongoing conversations about Africa’s development, in which scholars place great weight on histories of slavery that remain thin for periods before 1500. It revises the established literature, develops a new methodology, and calls for a reappraisal of the significant interpretations of slavery in the region. Finally, it provides a model for investigating slavery in times and places beyond literacy and for exploring the intellectual history of Africans in the Atlantic world.