Scholars from around the globe gathered this summer in Ghana to discuss the history of efforts to end the Atlantic slave trade.
The conference was decades in the making. Ronald Hoffman recalled one participant that had received his Ph.D. at Northwestern in the 1950s and then returned to Africa. Though his scholarship was known in Tanzania and Zambia near his home, he hadn’t had any contact with scholars in West Africa.
It wasn’t an isolated incident of scholarly isolation, but rather a situation common enough throughout Africa to be a major challenge in assembling scholars throughout the continent.
“Imagine a university of 12,000 or 15,000 people and only one person will have e-mail and that’s the president or the provost,” said Hoffman, the director of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture at the College of William and Mary. “The problems of identifying scholars who are working in these situations are pretty formidable and that’s the area to which we devoted such a huge effort.”
The August conference, “The bloody Writing is for ever torn”: Domestic and International Consequences of the First Governmental Efforts to Abolish the Atlantic Slave Trade, was sponsored by the Omohundro Institute and hosted in Elmina, Ghana, by the Historical Society of Ghana and the University of Cape Coast in Accra. Attendees included scholars from 24 countries including the United States, Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya and Lesotho.
“It was the first major historical conference of this character to be held in Africa in 40 years,” Hoffman added.
For three days, the delegates participated in sessions that explored the abolitionist influences that persuaded Great Britain, the trade’s dominant carrier, to end its involvement in the international slave trade. Hoffman said one delegate equated the impact of ending the “traffick” in human cargo to the effect that cutting off oil imports would have today. The presentations that focused on the United States explored the substantial expansion in the domestic slave trade’s geography and volume that resulted from the decision to stop importing slaves from Africa.
African presence was important
For Hoffman, having African scholars present was imperative to the success of the conference. African scholarship on the issue of the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and its abolition is not one often heard, he said.
“The slave trade was a European-run operation from the coastline out, but from the coastline in, it was run by the African people, the African nations,” Hoffman explained. “It’s a point that should be made but hasn’t been focused on officially.”
There were 15 African historians featured on the panels, but, in addition, the Omohundro Institute raised funds to pay for the travel and accommodation expenses of 58 African scholars and graduate students based in sub-Saharan African universities. The Travel Scholarships Initiative was a mammoth enterprise, Hoffman said. Communication barriers on the African continent made even alerting scholars to the conference and the scholarships challenging.
“It was a mass, Herculean effort,” said Hoffman. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Mellon Foundation were among the meeting’s major financial backers, along with several other foundations and individuals including Omohundro’s two permanent co-sponsors, the College of William and Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
On the ‘slave coast’
The conference’s location in Ghana presented challenges for Omohundro, but also had advantages. Elmina, Ghana, is located on Africa’s “slave coast.” Trading ports along this coast served as administrative centers for the conduct of the slave trade in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Hoffman noted.
“The conference took place in a location that sits between two of the most important trading capitals on that coast,” he said. Holding the conference in Ghana also helped to facilitate the attendance of the numerous African scholars.
At the conference, the attendees gathered to discuss issues ranging from the national and international contexts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to whether the most profound effects of this decision occurred in Africa or throughout the Atlantic world.
On the Web and in Print
All of the conference proceedings are available. In addition, selected papers from the conference will be published in a future special issue of the Omohundro Institute’s academic journal, The William and Mary Quarterly.