Qualitative and/or Quantitative Change? A Review of Linda Haywood’s Article on the Transformation of Slavery
“The custom of making all kinds of payments in slaves meant that demand for slaves to use as money was high.”– Linda Haywood
Haywood’s article argues that there was a significant shift between the 15th and 18th centuries in the scope of who could be enslaved in the Kingdom of Kongo. Using archived correspondence, reports and diaries, she shows that prior to the civil wars and the Atlantic trade, slaves in the Kongo courts and those sold to Europeans were predominantly foreigners. The state, in the Kongo, had rules that protected its freeborn and, when strong, it limited their enslavement.
However, when the state became weak due to internal strife and increasing dependency on the friendship of Europeans it failed to protect its subjects. As a result more freeborn subjects of the Kongo – in some cases including the nobility – were enslaved. In many instances, however, there were successful attempts to redeem them from their enslavement.
I find Haywood’s argument strong since it provides sufficient statistics to show the radical shift. It also provides rich evidence to show that the state in the Kongo had institutions that protected its citizenry from slavery. Inverting Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson and Simon Johnson's argument on The Rise of Europe: Atlantic Trade, Institutional Change, and Economic Growth, Haywood’s article indicates that the Atlantic trade played a major role in undermining these institutions that could have helped it develop at par with Europe. In fact, the way the Atlantic trade dominated the exchange rate by making slaves the main international currency undermined the main local currency – nzimbu shells – that was used in the Kongo. Its monetary system was thus subjected to the vagaries of international trade that made the state’s elites depend on slavery to cover the costs of running and maintaining rule, diplomacy and their own progress.
The article, however, is not very clear on when exactly did slavery start in the Kongo and whether it was entirely present prior to its international monetization during the context of the Atlantic trade. It gives scanty details on its presence in the 1400s but by that time it had already began to be an international trade as the case of slaves being sold to Sao Tome that she provides indicate. One would expect a more clear-cut analysis on the difference between slavery before and during the Atlantic slave trade beyond the one on a shift from one being dominated by foreign slaves to one being dominated by freeborn subjects.
Nevertheless, this is an important contribution that, on the one hand, absolves the Kongo state for being protective of its people against the odds of an imposing international trading system and, on the other hand, chastises the elites – and in some cases ordinary citizens – for selling their own people. In this regard it resonates well with the work of Nathan Nunn on the long-term effects of slavery in undermining trust. How can one trust anyone if their own kith and kin could sell him or her into slavery? But, again, one needs to investigate further the conditions that might have constrained people to sell their very own. Could it be that for some that was the only way out of the misery they experienced in a shaky Kongo? Or could it be that Kongo without slavery only depended on the mercy of Europeans?
 Heywood, Linda. 2009. “Slavery and its Transformation in the Kingdom of Kongo: 1491-1800,” Journal of African History, 50: 1-22.