Witchcraft, Murder and Adultery: 'Slavery as Punishment' in European Writings about Atlantic Africa around 1800

No. 2021-15

Scholars often state that African societies inflicted slavery on individuals as a punishment for crimes in the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Such statements are largely based on the writings of Europeans who travelled to Atlantic Africa for various reasons and in different capacities. This paper offers a close investigation of four such texts written in the late eighteenth century (two by English authors about the coast of Sierra Leone and two by French authors about the Loango Coast). It argues that »slavery as punishment« should be placed within the larger argument(s) the authors pursue in their works. Deliberations about African legal systems were not simply based on observation, experience, and investigation, but also connected to broader discourses prevalent in Europe at the time. Notions of just government (political theories) or about the »correct« way of producing knowledge (science), as well as current debates about the legitimacy of slave trading or of feudal structures played a role in how »slavery as punishment« was narrated – as did theories about the historical development of human societies. This article proposes that we can arrive at a more nuanced evaluation of European statements about African legal practices in the eighteenth century and beyond by considering these contexts.

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