Original research first published 1982 -  editor

14 Carol P. MacCormack

Slaves, Slave Owners, and Slave Dealers:

Sherbro Coast and Hinterland







Following Goody (1971), we might make a distinction between societies where land was the scarce factor of production and those where labor was the scarce factor (see also Hopkins 1973:23). The Sherbro country today has a population density of less than 100 people per square mile, and the population was Jess dense in the past. Today the area still has hundreds of acres of potential padi rice land. This is clearly the type of society in which labor not land is the scarce factor of production. Goody suggested that serfdom would be a feature of land-scarce agriculture societies, but slavery would bind labor to the land in labor-scarce societies (for case studies see Meillassoux 1975; Miers and Kopytoff 1977; Watson 1980). This latter prediction is quite correct for the Sherbro country.

In a more recent publication, Goody (1980) used Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas to make a rough calculation that slavery was a feature in 73 percent of pastoral societies and 43 percent of societies with advanced' agriculture, but only 17 percent of "incipient agricultural" societies. The Sherbro country, with shifting hoe cultivation, an "incipient agricultural" economy with slavery, was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries therefore somewhat anomalous. However, any tendency engendered by the economic base is, in this case, overridden by geographical location. The Sherbro coast had been exposed since the fifteenth century to the demands of European trade, including the slave trade. "Legitimate" products desired by Europeans were labor-intensive, and their production further encouraged domestic slavery. I have speculated earlier (1977:184) that although patron-client relationships are probably exceedingly ancient in this area of migration and political fluidity, slavery arose in response to the stimulus of European trade (see also Rodney 1970:108, 290ff.) Because the land is swampy and difficult to travel through, and population is sparse, kingdoms of the type associated with trade and horse‑mounted slave raiding in savanna areas did not develop in this coastal area (see Goody 1971; Meillassoux 1975). Population remained sparse. Today chiefdoms may have no more capitalist-type commercial activity than a few small traders' shops and some paramount chiefs' towns have less than 500 residents.

The Sherbro country deviates in other ways from statistical probabilities and theoretical models of slavery. Hindess and Hirst (1975), in their discussion of the slave mode of production, conclude with the "logical fact that no labour process specific to slavery can be constituted on any other basis than private property in the means of the production" (p. 141). Hindess and Hirst can only place slaves in a stratum of class structure if slaves are separated from the means of production; particularly from farm land (p. 127). Indeed in the Sherbro country domestic slaves were a kind of heritable property (lok) but the ethnographic reality in the historical past and today is that land is not a commodity. It remains the corporate estate of descent groups and even aristocrats only have usufructuary rights to it. Slaves, incorporated into their master's or mistress's household as fictive kin, used the land much as any true descendant of the descent group used it. Land has not been a scarce factor of production to be privatized, and what precisely was wanted was slave labor attached to the land. Trade wars and slave raids are painful memories in the Sherbro country today, but domestic slavery as productive labor is not remembered as harsh or  abusive, relative to labor expected from clients, affines and junior kin today.

Most slaves lived in satellite villages, farming as any non-slave would farm, for domestic consumption. They produced a surplus of salt, palm oil, or other products, but today clients and junior kin—indeed the joint residential compound—does the same. The difference between slaves and others was that slaves could not change their master, but clients might change their patron, wives might leave their husband's kin group for a new husband or return to their own kin, and junior kin might shift their residential affiliation to another cognatic group or seek wage labor. This was true for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is true today.

Slaves married and managed their own domestic production. They were never used in plantation-type production in the Sherbro area. Male and female slaves farmed for their own subsistence and produced surpluses for their master or mistress, but today clients and junior kin also produce surpluses for their patrons and elders. Using gender as a variable, I have looked for evidence of domestic exploitation of women today, and have concluded that Sherbro wives are quite successful in resisting attempts bytheir husbands to appropriate the product of their labor. [ (MacCormack 1982b).

Most production was and still is for use rather than exchange. The significant difference in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the presence of European or mulatto traders who delivered manufactured goods on credit directly to the area, drawing people into surplus production for the export market. Market production was perhaps better organized and on a higher level than today, when production for export is organized through the national marketing board. (The highly capitalized foreign-owned mines in the Sherbro country today are an exception.)

The essence of Sherbro slavery was not economic exploitation so much as "ownership" of persons in a social and political sense. Slaves were separated from their own descent group, were not free to enter into their own clientage relationships or marriage alliances, could not claim their own children as descendants, and were therefore made completely dependent upon the descent group of their master or mistress. Using the distinction made by Miers and Kopytoff (1977:10), they belonged to the corporate group as part of its wealth, as indeed kin, affines, and clients did, but they belonged in it only marginally. They were full dependents, but with only some rights and privileges. They could not build their own political faction from clients and descendants, nor claim ancestral legitimacy for seeking high office (MacCormack 1977).

In attempting to define marriage, Edmund Leach, following Sir Henry Maine, concluded that it is not defined by any one characteristic but constitutes a bundle of rights in a person, and all universal definitions of marriage are vain (1961:107-8). Miers and Kopytoff take a similar point of view in defining slavery in Africa (1977, ch. 1). In the further task of defining women's status in a society we must also deal with a bundle of variables.

Sherbro women have relatively high status because none are separated from rights to use farm land, the fundamental means of production. They play a major role in the production process of hoe cultivation. They control the surpluses they produce-they may market produce directly, and use the surplus for consumption, exchange, or investment. Because of a historical combination of migration and cognatic descent, aristocratic women become significant ancestors. They are therefore significant elders with rights in people who are their junior kin or (in the past) slaves Finally, all women's status is enhanced by their being well organized in the Sande society, with religious sanctioning power. It is Sande, not men, who control the biological reproductive power of women (MacCormack 1980, 1982a).

In the Sherbro area slavery was not simply an institution facilitating



 men's greater control of the productive and reproductive capacities of women, but was used by women for economic and political enhancement  as well.

History and Structure of Sherbro Society

This analysis is of slavery in the Sherbro coast and hinterland of Sierra Leone, an area extending southward from the Freetown peninsula nearly to the Liberian border. The principal ethnic group along the coast is the Sherbro people, known in pre-seventeenth century accounts as the Bullom. Mende people are most prominent in the hinterland, having moved into that area during the period of European trade. Since the mid-seventeenth century, Temne people have marked the northern boundary of the Sherbro coast and hinterland.

Sherbro society is organized in ancestor-focused corporate cognatic descent groups—in groups of people descended from named ancestors or ancestresses. The groups are corporate in the sense that land and other resources are held jointly by the descent group and managed by its elders. From the point of view of an individual, he or she has a birthright to use corporate resources of either the mother's or the father's descent. When adult a person declares primary affiliation with one group by residing in its area and farming its land.

Those descent groups that originated with a person who first settled or conquered an area I shall designate as "aristocratic," although I do not wish the term to connote the rigid class structure of European aristocracy. Vast numbers of descendants are "aristocrats" in the sense that they will become respected elders, some of whom will control usufructuary rights to corporate farm land, high office, and other scarce resources. Both men and women become ranking elders who control these resources (MacCormack 1982b). Other descent groups are "commoners," the descendants of migrants who entered the area later, without having made a successful bid for political power. In the past, slaves constituted a third social estate.

Political leadership has been fluid, with descent groups waxing and waning in influence. Ambitious people used slaves and clients in the past, and use clients today to clear new land and produce surpluses that can be used for political ends. In this way individuals gained political hegemony over areas, entitling their descendants to be sem tha che, "principal people," and holders of political office (see for example P.P., Rowe, January 28, 1876).

Ram is the Sherbro word for corporate cognatic descent group, and people who derive their social identity in descent groups by birthright ram de. Slaves were not ram de, having been separated from their natal descent groups and attached, without full rights, to the groups of their master or mistress. In subsequent generations some might transcend this status (see MacCormack 1977:195ff.).

Descent groups have varying genealogical depth. Some originated in the seventeenth century, and others predate them, probably by centuries. For example, the Caulker descent group began after an English trader named Thomas Corker came from London to the Sherbro country in the service of the Royal African Company. He married a prominent Sherbro woman of the very old, aristocratic Ya Kumba descent group. Mulatto descendants became coastal traders, then chiefs in the area (Fyfe 1962:10; MacCormack [Hoffer 1971:86ff.). Descendants claimed political legitimacy through that aristocratic woman, augmenting their claim through the use of weapons, wealth and diplomatic skill in negotiating in the English  language with colonial administrators.

These descent groups are clans in the sense that today's living descendants cannot name all genealogical links to the founder. They are also segmented, with groups of shallower genealogical depths constituting named subgroups that have competed with each other for political office and control of trade spheres (MacCormack [Hoffer] 1971:64ff.). The present day head of a descent group bears a title which is the name of the founding ancestor or ancestress. As a term of address, the title includes the gender of the founding member and a possessive. The latter connotes respect, meaning "my elder whom I respect as my parent." It also connotes descent in the sense that a descent group possesses rights in its members. Reciprocally, the members have rights to good leadership, protection, and blessings from elders and ancestors/ancestresses.

In the Sherbro language, mano means people who participate by birthright in their ancestral cognatic descent groups. Wono were those persons separated from their ancestral group by capture or by having been pawned; they were attached, without full rights of membership to a master's or mistress's descent group. Wono approximates the meaning of the English word slave. Individual freedom is not spoken of as a right or an ideal. In the past, as today, no one who was a "free" individual felt secure if detached from his or her corporate group.

Wono were a kind of property, and the Sherbro language has two words for property. kuu means corporate property which is shared by all in the household or the descent group. For example, farm land, which is not a scarce resource, is kuu, and members of a descent group have a birthright to use it. Lok is heritable property belonging to an individual which may be sold, given away, or passed on to an heir.

These property terms apply to things and persons. Wono (slaves), involuntarily transferred to a master, were lok: property which might be bought, sold, and inherited. Slaves were not fully absorbed into their master's or mistress's descent group, never becoming part of its corporateness. They did not become kuu, but remained lok. (See MacCormack 1977:187ff.). Descendants of slave women and ram de men were more likely to be absorbed than descendants of slave men and ram de women, indicating some patrilineal bias within the institution of slavery that was absent from ordinary Sherbro descent ideology.


In parts of East Africa, the social position of a wife "bought" with bridewealth may be similar to that of a slave (Gray 1960). However, this emphatically was not the case in the Sherbro country. Firstly, a slave (lok) was involuntarily transferred to a social group, but wives were seldom sent into marriage and virilocal residence without their consent.

Secondly, wives were the alliance link. between descent groups, and an abused wife would be protected by her concerned kin. Slaves were separated from their descent group and were not an alliance link, nor did they have a group of kin who were concerned for their welfare and would mediate on their behalf. If a wife had been lazy she would be sent back to her kin, but a slave could be punished and made to conform to expectations, up to certain limits. When a marriage had failed, and differences between the two kin groups could not be successfully arbitrated, a wife could obtain a divorce, whereas slaves could not leave their master or mistress.

Thirdly, payment of bridewealth functioned to guarantee the rights of a child in its mother's and its father's cognatic descent groups. Children born into slavery, especially if they had a slave father, had no rights through their biological parents, who could only be members with limited rights in their master's descent group.

Fourthly, some wives became holders of political office, quite impossible for a slave without genealogical legitimacy or a group of his or her own kin as political supporters. Wives controlled agricultural surpluses and other wealth, sometimes using them to political ends, while slaves could not own any property, either in goods or in persons (MacCormack 1977, 1982b).

Finally, if a husband and his kin had wronged a wife, she could call upon support from her local chapter of Sande, the women's sodality (MacCormack 1979). If the husband and his kin had contravened Sande ancestral laws by being disrespectful to his wife, he could be fined by local officials of Sande. Slaves were initiated into Sande and Poro, the men's sodality, but they never rose to hold office and political power in those secret societies, and were probably only protected in very flagrant cases.

European Traders and Sherbro Descent Groups

European trade, including the slave trade, began in the 1460s when Portuguese ships began to call along the coast. Trading opportunities attracted Mende, Temne, Susu and Fula as well as Europeans to this coastal area. Traders could only operate under the patronage of Sherbro notables. European traders certainly did not go into the hinterland of Sierra Leone to capture slaves, but entered into multistranded relationships with Sierra Leonean middlemen and middlewomen. Indeed, whether they realised it or not, they fitted into the classic Sherbro role of client to their black patron. They gave their Sherbro patron gifts, extended credit, and often upgraded their status from client to affine by taking a woman of the middleman's descent group as wife. (MacCormack [Hoffer] 1971:119ff.; MacCormack 1982b; S.L.A., Lawson, December 15, 1877; February 13, 1879. See also Brooks, below, p. 296.)'

The aristocratic women who were wives of European traders became
prime mediators between the trader and his middlemen., in a very strong position, publicly identified with trade (Martin and Spurrell 1962:x—xi; Caulker Manuscript 1908, part 2:27). Some children or more distant descendants of those unions successfully bid for political prominence, citing descent from the aristocratic "mother" (ancestress) to legitimize their claim (Lewis 1954:103; Caulker Manuscript 1908). Cognatic descent groups thus functioned to rapidly absorb male migrants. In the first generation, male traders might progress from clients to affines, and in the next generation their children became ram de (members of the aristocratic descent group) through their mothers.

The process of European traders entering clientage and then affinal relationships with an indigenous ruling group is illustrated by the family history of John Ormond also known along the Sherbro coast as Mungo John, or Mulatto Trader. He was the son of a European who married an aristocratic African woman. While a boy, he was educated in England, returning to the coast in about 1758. He worked as an apprentice at the trading station on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River, but then went to join his mother, who has been described as a paramount chief at Rio Pongas in what is now Guinea. He took over his father's trading station there and built up the slave trade through raids that depopulated the area between Rio Pongas and Grand Bassam. He is said to have founded a secret society similar to Poro, the ubiquitous men's sodality in Sierra Leone, using it for his own and his agents' protection. Presumably he used young initiates as a force of warriors (see Little 1965-66). He loaned European goods to his mother's sub-chiefs, and if they did not repay the debt in slaves or forest products he raided their villages (Butt-Thompson 1926: 58-59.).


Wives as Mediators between Groups

Canray Ba Caulker, a Sherbro chief in the mid-1800s, initiated raids and wars for control of trade spheres along the Sherbro coast. In one account bodies were piled in a great heap following a battle. Survivors pleaded for mercy. One who was spared effected an alliance for peace between his own people and the Caulker chief. "To show their loyalty they brought about a connection between them and the monarch by giving him a wife (who was) a daughter of one of their chiefs, and when she was accepted they were sure that they were safe from any invader" (Caulker Manuscript 1908, part 1;42-43).

Another Caulker chief, Thomas Stephen Caulker, who died in 1871, acted as patron and middleman for traders and missionaries alike. Merchants made "customary ceremonies" to him, then turned imported goods over to him. He summoned his sub-chiefs and headmen, passed goods on to them, and collected primary products in return. "This was the means of making him financially strong, and presents in money and kind, together with new wives, were brought to him from all parts of the country" (Caulker Manuscript 1908, part 2:1ff.). Presumably the wives were not slave wives, who could merely produce and biologically reproduce, but were wives still attached to their descent groups, the mediators in marriages of political alliance.

Women were mediators and facilitators in other ways as well. Sherbro and Mende warriors were usually young men recently initiated in Poro, the men's sodality. The Temne and other northern ethnic groups did not have Poro in past centuries. When Sherbro and Mende warriors raided Temne towns, the Poro spirit would "speak", or roar out with a terrible voice and the frightened men would run away, leaving women and children to be taken as slaves. The Temne wanted Poro as a social device for achieving age grades of young warriors, and to draw strength from its secret powers. Sherbro chiefs were on the ruling council of local chapters of Poro, but were not the highest-ranking officials. Delegations of Temne, traveling southward, approached chiefs and ranking Poro elders in a succession of Sherbro chiefdoms: Ribi, Bumpe, Kagboro, and finally Timdel Chiefdom. A bargain was struck with Poro elders in Timdel Chiefdom in which the Temne gave five of their women to Sherbro men. The male children of those unions were taken to Yoni, a "deep" Poro place on Sherbro Island. At puberty the boys were initiated into Poro and learned its secrets. These young men then left their mothers in Timdel Chiefdom, returning to Temne country with the secrets of Poro. The first Temne chief these voung men initiated took the title Bai Sherbro, and his town was renamed Yoni Bana to commemorate Yoni, the seat of Poro power on Sherbro Island where the youths were initiated. Today that Temne area is still designated as Yoni Chiefdom,- the place which gave its women to Sherbro men so their sons might bring the secret knowledge and ritual of Poro to all the Temne country and beyond (MacCormack field notes, June 27, 1970)

Slaves as a Resource for Aristocratic Women

In 1976, doing fieldwork on rural economics in the coastal Sherbro area, I attempted to understand landholding patterns by asking the elders in a selection of towns to tell me the history of their towns. Land is the corporate estate of cognatic descent groups, and these historical accounts always began with the first settler, from whom contemporary land-controlling aristocrats were descended. The land-controlling groups are designated by the name of their first settler. The title also designates the gender of the founder. Ya is the Sherbro word for mother or respected older woman, and Ba is the word for father or respected older man. One knows instantly, therefore, which areas were first settled by a woman and her kin, clients, and slaves. The following case is typical, and illustrates the way aristocratic women used slaves as the nucleus of a settlement, attracting more supporters with surpluses produced by slaves until these women became considerable political figures in their own right. (MacCormack field notes, November 8, 1976. See also MacCormack [Hoffer] 1972 and 1974.)

In the latter part of the nineteenth century a young man named Charles Caulker, a member of the ruling descent group in the lower Kagboro and Bumpe rivers area made sexual advances to a young wife of his elder kinsman, the paramount chief. As punishment, the chief sold him into slavery. Charles's sister traveled to the "North Rivers" where he had been taken. She paid the redemption price for him and brought him back to live with another aristocratic elder in the town of Mambo, on the Kagboro River (Caulker Manuscript 1908, part 2:26). Charles became a prosperous trader, acquiring wealth in people. One of his wives was a woman now known asYa Ndama. She also was from a politically prominent descent group in Dema Chiefdom, Sherbro Island.

Ya Ndama is described as having been "a very important woman " and therefore when she came to reside virilocally with her husband at Mambo she was accompanied by many of her own slaves. Probing for more details I was told that the slaves were probably settled upon her by her kin at the time of her marriage. It is also possible that she inherited them from her kin or her deceased previous husband. (See also Brooks, this volume.)

In polygynous households co-wives are ranked, with the first wife having unquestioned authority over all subsequent "little" wives. Indeed at puberty, girls spend months or years in the initiation grove of the Sande society, where the class of initiates is ranked. The first girl to enter the initiation grove is analogous to the first wife in a set of co-wives. Subsequent initiates learn to cooperate under the authority of the head girl, learning the ranked roles of wives in a polygynous society.

Ya Ndama was not Charles Caulker's first, or head, wife. Because she was an aristocrat, with her own slaves, she could not easily fit into the subservient role of "little" wife. The common solution was to allow such a woman to become head woman over one of her husband's satellite villages or, as in this case, found her own village.

Charles Caulker brought Ya Ndama to his town of Mambo to "greet" his kin and wives. In one version of the story, she slept there two nights, then suggested to her husband that they settle a new town. In a complementary version, she did not want her slaves to mingle with those of her husband, and wanted a new place to settle them. She suggested they explore a tributary of the Kagboro River which she had observed on the trip by longboat to Mambo.

On the voyage of discovery, as the boat nosed through miles of mangrove swamp, Ya Ndama spotted oil palm trees rising on high ground, above the mangrove. The party cleared a way through trees that had fallen across the watercourse and finally reached a site suitable for the establishment of a town. It is a ridge of land between the vast, saline tidal swamps of the Kagboro river system and a 2,000-acre freshwater swamp. Ya Ndama named the place Marthyn meaning in Sherbro "the place to hide." Some explained it was a place where Ya Ndama could come if she had a dispute with her co-wives, or where she could secure her own slaves. However, this was also a time of constant warfare between rival coastal trading families, with large-scale looting and slave raiding. A place to hide may have been an attractive prospect indeed. It was also the time after the British government outlawed the overseas slave trade. Ships continued to collect slaves along the Sherbro coast, but would hide up rivers, such as the Kagboro River, when patrol boats came along the coast.

Because there was little dry land in Marthyn suitable for cultivation of upland rice, the staple crop, Ya Ndama directed her slaves to clear swamp for cultivation Rice yields are up to ten times greater in the rich organic mud of swamps than they are in upland farms. This may have been one of the earliest sites of padi rice cultivation in southern Sierra Leone, and the town prospered. Immigrants came and attached themselves as clients to Ya Ndama. They traded in rice and salt, or farmed. Some were sent as children to Ya Ndama to be her wards. She was undoubtedly a ranking elder in Sande, the women's sodality, as well.

Today, members of the land-controlling descent group. ram Ya Ndama, insist that they are the descendants of Ya Ndama, not her husband Charles Caulker. The elders of Marthyn insist that the Caulkers have no right to the land because Ya Ndama was such a "big" woman, with her own slaves. It was she who first settled  the place. She bore no children by Charles Caulker, but only by other men who came to visit her. When I asked if Charles Caulker gave bridewealth when he married Ya Ndama, the reply was, "Yes, he would pay bridewealth to marry such an important woman." I then asked if he was not therefore pater to her children, even though he was not genitor. This caused the elders to "hang heads." They replied, with a shade of irritation, "We do not know how they did things in those days." They then reiterated that Ya Ndama was the founder of the town, they were her descendants, and the Caulkers, who are chiefs of the chiefdom, have no right to be sem tha che the (principal people) in Marthyn. The present day social reality results from an ideology of cognatic descent and local-level political pragmatism.

This is not an atypical case. Thomas Alldridge, the first British Travelling District Commissioner following declaration of the Sierra Leone Protectorate in 1896, carefully explained the generalized principle that aristocratic junior wives became village headwomen or chiefs; "It must be remembered that many of these women [chiefs' wives] did not reside with the chief, but are set over villages which are affiliated to the chief's town, and they are important people, and render much assistance to the chief. There is no sort of jealousy existing among the numerous wives everyone knows her position." (1901:114. See also Bay, ch. 17.)

Chiefs' wives who became widows could either remain where they were as village heads or local chiefs, or initiate marriages with other chiefs in the hope of setting up their own political faction (Alldridge 1901:120). The latter would have been a better tactical move for young widows than for older established widows.

After domestic slavery became illegal in 1927, former slaves tended to remain where they were, as clients to a patron rather than slaves to a master. The patron no longer controlled their direct labor but received tribute, or mata. Today, mata amounts to a bushel or two of rice each harvest, given by the client family to its patron. In Marthyn, the town controlled by the Ya Ndama descent group, the incumbent head of the descent group is an elderly woman. (Heads in the past have been either men or women, though all bear the feminine title Ya Ndama.) She is a widow who had once married and left the area to reside virilocally with her husband. But as Sherbro women often do, she returned to her ancestral area in late middle age, taking her place as ranking elder. One of her sons, his wives, and various wards and clients live in her large compound. Immigrant settlers and former slaves give her tribute following the rice harvest. She uses that wealth to offer hospitality to her own relatives and to immigrants, with the hope that they will settle in her compound or her town.

Speaking in general terms, Ya Ndama expressed a clear preference that wives should use wealth from client labor to attract their own kin to reside with them. Because most women reside virilocally following marriage, they are alone and relatively powerless among their husband's kin. Membership in the local chapter of Sande gives them a base of solidarity that somewhat compensates for their powerlessness. However, beyond the political potential of the Sande society, a wife residing virilocally might also build her own faction of political supporters. In the past, that faction might have been assembled from slaves, clients, and kin. Ya Ndama described slaves as lazy and untrustworthy, clients as more reliable, but kin as the people one can always rely upon for political support (MacCormack field notes, November 14, 1976).2

Madam Yoko, who became one of the most powerful paramount chiefs in Sierra Leone history, provides a further case study of an aristocratic woman using clients, affines, consanguineous kin, and slaves as part of her strategy for gaining political ascendancy in the latter nineteenth century (MacCormack [Hoffer] 1974). In her role of paramount chief she assisted traders, then became a considerable trader in her own right (S.L.A., Pinkett, September 15, 1884; Sierra Leone 1899:62).

Significant numbers of women have built a localized power base into a paramount chieftaincy. In the southern and eastern provinces of Sierra Leone, 12 percent of paramount chiefs were women in 1914, and 12 percent were women in 1970 (MacCormack [Hoffer] 1972:151-52).

Women as Slave Dealers

In his journal, the eighteenth-century British slave trader and evangelist John Newton described how he was virtually enslaved by the Sherbro wife of a resident British slave dealer on Plantain Island. The resident dealer was an Englishman named Clow, who was part owner of the ship in which Newton served. He lived on one of the Plantain Islands, about a mile offshore from the Sherbro coast of Sierra Leone, at the mouth of the Kagboro River. His Sherbro wife is referred to in Newton's journal as P.I. because her name sounded like those letters to him. Newton tells us she came on board European ships with her husband on social and business calls, and ran the trading establishments on Plantain Island in her husband's absence. I do not know exactly who P.I. was, but she may have been Yampai, a name-or more correctly a title-that occurs in Sherbro historical accounts (see Caulker Manuscript 1908, part 2:1). Yampai is correctly spelled Ya m'Pai. Ya means "mother or respected older women," m' is the contracted possessive, and Pai is the proper name.

During a period of a few months in 1750, while Clow was away from the Plantain Islands buying slaves, Newton fell ill with fever. According to Newton, P.I. gave him little water or suitable food, and encouraged her slaves to torment him. When her European husband returned, P.I. prevailed upon him to use Newton as a slave. He worked with other slaves in a lime grove. He was not paid, and considered himself to be inadequately clothed and fed. After about a year, another British slave dealer came to the Plantain Islands. Clow was ashamed to be seen treating a fellow countryman as though he were an African, and released Newton to work in the service of the newcomer (Martin and Spurrell 1962:x—xi).

Many of the coastal traders had close trade ties with Jamaica, especially in exchange of slaves for rum. A woman named Cambeh Jangalloh had at different times, been wife to two African traders on the Sherbro coast with ties to Jamaica: George Stephen Caulker and  S.B.A. Macfoy. On at least one ,occasion Macfoy sent her to Jamaica, presumably to trade (Caulker Manuscript 1908, part 2:22).

Slavery and Commoner Women

Commoner women had very little to gain from enslavement, nor did they have much to lose. Their life of farming and bearing children was about the same in either status.3 Those who became slaves were often caught in raids. Thomas Alldridge, the first British Travelling District Commissioner, described the way villages in the Mende hinterland had accommodated to centuries of trade wars and raids. Some towns were encircled by from two to four war fences, made from living trees planted close together, with their lower branches lopped off. The living trunks were densely interlaced with vines and canes that also sprouted growth. The gates in these concentric fences were closed with doors made from slabs of hard wood (Alldridge 1901:54 and 1910:281).

When raiding groups did breach these fences or enter unfortified villages, they were likely to find mostly women and children in the villages,


















the men either being out fighting or hiding in the forest (P.R.O., Randall, September 2, 1826; P.P., Pinkett, April 19, 1883; Gomer in Flickinger 1885:203; Wilberforce 1886:10; Hallowell 1930:6). In a list  of people taken captive in 1875, most were mature women or children, kin from a single village or compound.

If commoner women avoided slavery, they might still suffer the misfortune of having to give up children, pawned as slaves. Commonly, if a man or woman could not pay back trade goods they had taken in barter, or became engaged in litigation for some other reason in the chief's court, they might be fined. If they could not raise the money, they would have to pawn someone they "owned"; that is, a junior member of their own descent group. With great stoicism, a mother would part with her own child, incurring the risk of growing old without children to care for her. Men would often make a claim upon a sister's child. In this cognatic descent system, a sister's children as well as a man's own children might inherit from him and therefore it was the children's duty to work for him if they resided near him. Pawning was an extension of this claim upon the labor of children of the descent group. Extrapolating from contemporary ethnography according to which women are considerable traders in their own right, women may have incurred their own debts and had to pawn their own children, although I could not find records of this happening. The social tragedy would theoretically have been less for men, since they might acquire a young wife to care for them in old age, but women relied primarily on their children.

Labor of Slaves

Captives who went into the trans-Atlantic trade were either captured in raids or had been pawned. In the latter case they were part of a barter system for trade goods such as rum, gin, tobacco, guns, powder, and cotton cloth (P.P., Kortright, March 1, 1875; Alldridge 1910:280; MacCormack field notes, July 14, 1970). Those who remained in the Sherbro area I shall designate as domestic slaves (wono). Domestic slaves clearly had utility in the production of palm oil and other products for export trade. They also produced surpluses of rice for the Crown Colony at Freetown,

Salt was an important product in internal African trade, providing further stimulus for domestic slavery. People in the Kagboro River area speak of notable historical figures who had large numbers of domestic slaves. One was Ban Bondo Bondopio, who lived in the upper Kagboro River area in the eighteenth century. He is reported to have acquired considerable numbers of slaves from the Kono ethnic area to the north. Some passed into the trans-Atlantic trade, but he settled many in inland farming villages, or in coastal salt-making villages (P.P., Kortright, March 1, 1875; MacCormack field notes, March 30, 1970, June 27, 1970). Yondu, the name of one of the coastal towns he founded and populated with slaves is still a village where women farm and make salt by laborious methods from briny tidal mud. Yondu is the Kono word for slave.

Early in this century, the slave town of Yondu was ruled by a woman who bore the title Ya Mane. She was a high official in Sande and in Yasse, an important healing sodality which initiates both men and women (MacCormack 1979; MacCormack field notes, July 14, 1970). Her title, designating her position as head of a descent group named after its founder, may well go back to the Mane invasionof the Sherbro coast in about 1545 an invasion led by a woman (Rodney 1970:46; Fyfe 1962:2; Kup 1962:130).

Salts, which slaves in towns such as Yondu made, was bartered in the Sierra Leone hinterland to acquire more slaves and settle new towns along the coast. In this way, persons making a bid for political leadership built up populations politically subservient to them, in an attempt to confirm a claim to chieftaincy for themselves and their descendants (Alldridge 1910:281; MacCormack field notes, May 4, 1970).

With the demand for palm oil that arose during the early industrial revolution in Britain, some slave products began to be exported. Ironically, British attempts to reorient Sierra Leone's export trade from slaves to "legitimate" trade made a market for very labor-intensive products, increasing the demand for domestic slaves. Export products such as palm oil are produced by "cooking," and are therefore within the conceptual domain of women's work (MacCormack 1982b). Indeed, the demand for these products exceeded women's capacity to produce them. From a trader's point of view, one of the "good" features of slavery was that under it men could be persuaded to do women's work, something that would be too damaging to men's self-respect for them to do voluntarily. To this day, when palm oil is made on a large scale, in concrete-lined pits, it is low-status client men who tread the oil out of the pericarp of palm fruits.

The vast majority of households in theSherbro         country today, as in the past, are characterized by a domestic mode of production and generalized reciprocities. Women do part of virtually all productive processes within the sexual division of labor. Men and women are interdependent for essential domestic subsistence. This rather balanced gender reciprocity enhances marital stability in ordinary domestic life, and underlies a relatively high social status for women (MacCormack 1982b). On the dimension of biological reproduction, women have organized control of fertility and birth through the Sande society, further enhancing women's status (MacCormack 1982a).

With a shift from domestic production to commercial production, beginning with "legitimate" trade and domestic slavery and continuing today with "modern" market export production using the labor of clients and junior kin, men may be substituted for women in the sexual division of labor. The relative ease with which low-status men were induced to do tasks normally confined to women is undoubtedly one reason why the value of women domestic slaves appears not to have been greater than that of men.

Value of Slaves

Shortly before domestic slavery became illegal in Sierra Leone in 1927, adult male and female slaves might buy, or have bought for them, manumission for a sum "not exceeding £4.00." The cost of manumission for a child "did not exceed £2.00" (Luke 1953:10; S.L.A., Department of Native Affairs, October 21, 1896). Although these figures suggest that the value of adult men and women was about equal, they must not be taken too literally. Today in Sierra Leone few things have a set price, and items such as local fines and bridewealth are matters for negotiation. Similarly, historical accounts of trade along the coast describe barter and bargaining. The age and physical condition of males and females, as well as the negotiating skill of the traders, influenced price. I have found no evidence of a set price for females vis-à-vis males on the Sherbro coast.

Describing the situation between 1870 and 1900, Alldridge gives a range of values for slaves: "I have known a man slave offered for a bushel of husk rice.... At normal times one head of money representing three pounds of merchandise, perhaps consisting of sixteen bushels of palm kernels or fourteen gin cases full of salt, or sixteen bushels of husk rice was the recognized price of a slave" (Alldridge 1910:281). In an earlier account, from 1830, some slaves destined for the trans-Atlantic trade were purchased for ten to twenty "bars," others for as much as eighty. The one valued at eighty bars was a young woman in good health. The following indicates the value of goods for a woman purchased by a dealer for sixty-six bars (P.R.O., Pratt, November 19, 1830).

1 gun                                               10 bars

4 fathoms blue baft4                           4 "

3 fathoms white baft                          3 "

4 fathoms checked baft                       4 "

Tobacco                                           13 "

5 fathoms shallons5                            5 "

7 fathoms pring6                                 7 "

Madrass handkerchiefs                       3 "

3 fathoms satin strips                          3 "

Powder                                                9 "

Rum                                                   4 "

Knife                                                  I "

                                                       66 bars


John Newton, the slave dealer on Plantain Island, described choosing three men and one woman from among seven individuals offered to him on November 12, 1750. Later he described obtaining two small girls, one of three feet, the other of three feet, four inches in height. He lent trade goods to the suppliers, which they were to repay when he came up the coast again. He concluded his account with some satisfaction at having "beat their price down again to 60 bars" for the two girls (quoted in Martin and Spurrell 1962:17, 24).

One might presume from Newton's account that these young girls were destined for the trans-Atlantic trade, since there is no evidence of dealers or a marketplace for domestic slaves (Luke 1953, 3:11). However, children, including girls, were often taken into domestic slavery. The girls probably would not do a full range of farming work until they were about age thirteen (MacCormack 1982b) Nevertheless slave children were cared for until their full productive and biological reproductive potential might be realized, much as wards are taken today.

One might also extrapolate from contemporary ethnography that domestic girl slaves, when mature and marriageable, may have brought some wealth in bridewealth to their master or mistress. Today, if a man or woman fosters a girl as a ward, the bulk of the bridewealth for that girl will go to her foster mother and/or father, the lesser part being shared out to her biological kin. Since slave girls were separated by slavery from their kin, any bridewealth collected would go to master and/or mistress.


American missionaries of the United Brethren in Christ Church began their work along the Sherbro coast in 1855.7 Some of the mission stations were founded and entirely staffed by women missionary teachers and physicians. As was the case in several evangelical American protestant denominations in the nineteenth century, women circumvented excessive patriarchal control of the church b setting up their own Women's Missionary Association, funded with women's voluntary contributions (Hough 1958). Older Sherbro people have explained to me that the church was particularly welcoming to women converts, educating aristocrats and slaves alike, enhancing the social status of all.

The earliest converts to Christianity seem to have been 1) a few high-status women and men who fulfilled the Sherbro role of patron to the missionaries without becoming affines to them, 2) their slaves who were allowed to be trained in the church schools in order to better serve their master or mistress„ and 3) individual slaves who became attached to the mission, which functioned as a corporate sodality. The clergy attempted to convince aristocrats that their slaves were also "brethren in Christ." When there were disagreements between master and slave which became public knowledge, the minister attempted to intervene and mediate (MacCormack field notes, April 3, 1970). The missions also functioned as sanctuaries for people fleeing war, slave raids, and famine (Thompson 1859:335-36).

The church, of course, looked for converts among marginal groups such as slaves. Joseph Gomer, an Afro-American clergyman who survived the tropical climate and diseases for many years, wrote in 1875: "I received six into the Church lately, and dropped one. There are many of the poor slaves that would unite but for the proud Pharisees who stand at the door" (Gomer in Flickinger 1885:192). Spokesmen for  the church in Dayton, Ohio, deplored slavery, but could not operate in the Sherbro country without the patronage of Caulker chiefs who were of course heavily involved in the capture of and trade in slaves (Flickinger 1889:131; Mills 1898:79; McKee 1874:127-28; McKee 1885; Caulker Manuscript 1908). In the 1870s the United Brethren in Christ missionaries purged from members-hip in the church at Mano all those who held slaves practiced polygyny, were con with the liquor traffic. or were members of the Poro society, the universal men's sodality. One is surprised that there were as many as twelve members left (Flickinger 1885:288). They must have been either women, or very low-status men, or slaves.

Mission stations paid for some children, especially girl children, who were being pawned into slavery by parents in "straitened circumstances" (Flickinger 1885:96). Some children captured as compensation for bad debts were also turned over to mission schools by a local chief (Flickinger 1885:174; Sierra Leone 1899:236). The mission station looked after these children until they were of age, then encouraged them to enter a Christian marriage (Flickinger 1885:65-66). While they resided in the mission, children filled the role of wards, giving service in households until they married. Since Christian marriage was the object, presumably the missionaries or well-to-do parishioners who fostered these children did not act as marriage guardian to the extent of collecting bridewealth, considered a heathen practice by the church. If this was the case, then the girls were functionally like slave wives, since there was no bridewealth to mark the beginning of kin group reciprocities. However, when one of these wives was treated unjustly by her husband's kin, the mission played the role of her kin, mediating the dispute on her behalf


This has been a description of slavery in a swampy, sparsely settled coastal area which did not function as a trade center before the onset of European trade, and which has lapsed back into a largely domestic mode of production today. The meager indigenous economy is based upon hoe cultivation in which women play a considerable role in production. Women in significant numbers have had overt political office for as long as can be known from written histories and oral tradition. Within the ideology of cognatic descent, women are key figures in the absorption of migrant men, including European traders into indigenous descent groups, and are therefore significant ancestresses.

By contrast, in African societies with a strong ideology of patrilineal descent, membership in the group passes through males only. But males are not biologically able to reproduce themselves to ensure the continuity of their own descent group. They compensate by acquiring as many wives as possible to bear children for the descent group. In cognatic systems, however, the descent group is not utterly dependent upon the fertility of in-marrying wives, but also enjoys the fertility of its own women for the continuity of the group. Thus, cognatic descent groups are not so desperate to acquire wives-at almost any price-as are patrilineal groups.

The status of women along the Sherbro coast has been influenced by several variables. When the colonial government attempted to reorient the economy of the Sierra Leone colony towards "legitimate" trade in palm oil, rice, and other primary commodities, it unwittingly intensified the demand for domestic slaves to produce those labor-intensive products in an area where land was plentiful but labor was scarce. Because so much of the labor in making a product such as palm oil is within the Sherbro conceptual domain of "cooking" and therefore women's work, labor bottlenecks arose within the traditional sexual division of labor. However, women were saved from excessive overwork because slave owners had enough authority over slave men to make them carry out women's tasks.

Free wives had far more utility in Sherbro social organization than did slave wives. A slave was, by definition, separated from her descent group. She therefore could not link her husband's group with her own group in political alliance. Bridewealth did not function to initiate exchange relationships of reciprocity and political alliance. "Real" marriage to link politically prominent groups and their warriors was especially important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when this coastal area was severely disrupted as a result of European trade.

Finally, aristocratic women who owned slaves enhanced their own and their descendants' political status by using agricultural surpluses from slave labor to attract kin and clients. They thus built up their own geographically localized political faction. In some cases their descendants are local chiefs today. A small group of aristocratic women either traded directly in slaves or traded in partnership with a European husband. In a few cases, the mulatto descendants of those marriages of alliance are also recognized chiefs today.




  1. Mouser (below, p. 334) describes the familiar process of European traders becoming "strangers" (clients) to local "landlords" (patrons). In Guinea, as in coastal Sicrra Leone, these traders commonly received a wife or wives from their patron. Mouser speculates that these wives were slave wives and therefore any daughters of these unions—who may have been prominent traders themselves—had weak matrilateral tics to indigenous kin. Ethno­graphic and historical evidence from the Sherbro coast of Sierra Leone clearly indicates that wives given to resident European traders were daughters, sisters, or other high-ranking female kin of the patron, and all future claims to political legitimacy by mulatto descendants were derived through these aristocratic mothers.
  2. Ya Ndama regarded slaves as being least reliable as rural laborers. Her perspective is rather different from that at the Dahomean palace Bay describes (ch. 17). In Dahomey, succession intrigues made descendants of the royal line least trustworthy, commoners more trustworthy, and slaves the most reliable of all.
  3. Bay (below, p. 354) cites a 1904 survey of slaves freed in the Allada region of Da­homey. Most men returned to their home area but most of the women remained in their slave households and villages. In a patrilineal society, if women returned home. they would have to abandon their children to the husband's lineage, an especially unattractive prospect for older women. Some freed Sherbro slaves returned home, but I do not know if they had to leave their children in this nonunilineal descent system
  4. Bait: a coarse cheap cotton fabric.
  5. Shallons: (sometimes spelled shalloon): a closely woven woolen material chiefly used for linings.
  6. Pring (sometimes spelled prink): trimmings.
  7. The United Brethren in Christ Church was organized in the early nineteenth century, merged into the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1946. and merged again into the United Methodist Church in 1968



ba: father; respected older man.

kuu: corporate property shared by all in a household or descent group.

lok: heritable property belonging to an individual.

mano persons who participate by birthright in their ancestral cognatic descent


mata: tribute rendered by a client or slave to a patron or master.

ram: persons who derive their social identity in descent groups by birthright.

sem tha che: "principal people" holding political hegemony over localities.

wono: persons separated from their ancestral cognatic descent groups by capture

or pawning; slaves.

ya: mother; respected older woman.


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