In January 1999, Freetown, Sierra Leone descended into hell. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded Freetown, bringing a civil war fueled by blood diamonds to the capital city for the first time. The Big Market, a covered market that I will discuss today, was razed to the ground as the RUF retreated a week later. The atrocities that followed this invasion are too horrible to describe during lunch. But let me say this, the descriptions of the invasion of Freetown call up memories of the Atlantic slave trade.
This afternoon, I shall link that invasion with the Suppression of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which we are here to commemorate. I will argue that a troubling and ironic consequence of the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade was the escalation of slave trading and slavery itself within Africa. Throughout my talk, I will emphasize a number of distressing contradictions that emerge as we narrate the history of resistance to slavery—what I call four troubling ironies….
As I make a few concluding points, let me return to 1999, the year rebels burnt down the Big Market. First, I don’t think it was a random act that the market was burnt down; the rebels were striking at one of the most significant landmarks in Sierra Leone’s history. Remember I spoke earlier about the way the market fit in the imagination of Freetownians, many of whom thought the market women were so powerful that they need not lock the marketplace at night—this belief persisted despite the huge padlocks that could be found at either end of the building. Imagine, rebels so fierce that they could burn down a marketplace that didn’t even need to be locked from thieves. The market was a complex target: the home of settler women traders who became known for their powerful trading tactics and medicine but also, as I have suggested, a central market that helped spread, first, plantation-like slavery in the region and, second, colonial rule.
So my second point is that we shouldn’t forget or suppress the memories of internal African slavery. We, here, in the New World know how long the shadow of slavery falls across a culture. Slavery lasted in West Africa well into the 20th century—often under the cloak of colonial rule. [Indeed, forms of slavery have re-emerged.] When I read accounts of Sierra Leone’s recent civil war, I feel like I’m reading archives from the internal African slave trade.
Now, there are many reasons for Sierra Leone’s vicious civil war—greed for diamonds, government corruption, globalization. But we can’t forget the impact of a long-lasting slave trade and the central irony that, as the Atlantic slave trade and New World slavery were suppressed, slavery began to flourish inside Africa.
For photos of the old and new Big Market, see my blog entry of April 1, 2007.