The story of slavery's abolition in Great Britain and the United States is well known. But that chapter in the history of oppression was made possible by the slavery that had been practiced in Africa for centuries. So, who abolished slavery in 19th-century Africa? When historian Lamin Sanneh set out to explore this question, he came upon some surprising answers.

Sanneh's latest book, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa, tells a hitherto almost unknown story of the end of slavery: what black Christians did in Africa. Born to a Muslim family in Gambia, West Africa, Sanneh became a Christian while in high school. He earned his Ph.D. in Islamic studies at the University of London, and is the D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale University. CT senior writer Tim Stafford reached Sanneh at his home in Connecticut.

Your book tells how a small band of freed slaves from America planted a Christian society in Freetown, Sierra Leone, that had revolutionary effects. Who were these ex-slaves?

For the most part, they were American blacks who, as a result of the American Revolution, were eventually repatriated through Nova Scotia to West Africa. There they planted successful colonies for freed slaves, becoming antislavery champions. In the medieval period, European missionaries went to Africa with the aim of converting the aristocracy, on the ground that if you convert the chiefs, that would inspire the rest of society to become Christianized. This "top-down" approach was tried in Africa for 300 years (between 1475 and 1785). It didn't have much of an impact.These new antislavery blacks, though, started from the bottom up, first converting former slaves, then instructing them in the Christian life; they showed them how to equip themselves through education, skills, and the institution of the family. They started benevolent societies that looked after the poor. These institutions, created and led by former slaves, were such a powerful example for the rest of society that Christianity spread, beginning with the establishment of Sierra Leone in 1792. Nigerian and Ghanaian colonies were in some ways extensions of the Sierra Leone colony.

How entrenched was slavery in Africa?

The trans-Saharan Arab slave trade was in place for at least 700 to 800 years before Europeans started their own slave trade. Europeans realized that the trade was going on in Africa and that they could profit from it, and thus they introduced the transatlantic slave trade. But prior to that, African society had already been profoundly influenced by slavery. It was part and parcel of the African value system. Had there been no moral crisis in that value system, no matter who said slavery was wrong, people would still have practiced it.

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How did that "moral crisis" come about?

It was actually based on a simple but profound evangelical or Puritan idea: we are each made in the image of God. Evangelical religion seized on that idea, of human personhood founded on divine right, and then targeted the individual as the fundamental unit of society--not the collection but the individual. These individuals--emancipated slaves, ex-captives, repressed women--formed the cornerstone of the new community. This was without precedent.African captives themselves took to this kind of religion with gusto. They embraced it. You can see why: in their own societies, once a slave always a slave. You always carried with you this stigma. This doctrine said that the stigma is dissolved in the blood of Christ.

Your book describes the values of these freed American slaves as bourgeois liberal values: individual responsibility, personal initiative, enterprise. What did these have to do with antislavery, and what did they have to do with evangelicalism?

You might say these bourgeois liberal values have their roots in evangelical Christianity, because all of them are premised on the divine right of human personhood. All men and women are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. When Americans tried to create a fresh political community during the American Revolution, they fell back on a theocentric idea of human community; not a theocratic one, and certainly not a natural-law notion of community, but one that assumed that God has given us the gift of life, and created us in freedom. So liberty is our divine right. It's not something that the king or state gives us.

Typically Christianity in Africa has been linked closely with colonialism. You're suggesting a different story.

I'm actually driving two nails through the colonial argument, from opposite ends. I am saying that this radical view of Christianity and of society that came to West Africa in 1792 preceded colonialism, and that the political view of Christianity--first secure the chief as an ally of Christianity--was tried for 300 years and didn't work. I drive the nail in the other end when I point out that the greatest expansion of Christianity in Africa occurred not during colonialism but after colonialism. In 1960, which is the end of the colonial era, there were between 48 and 50 million Christians in Africa. In the year 2000, merely 40 years later, the numbers have increased to 340 million.

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What was the colonial policy regarding Christians?

Most of the early Christian leaders in Africa were arrested by the colonial authorities. Many of them were tried and sentenced because preaching Christianity, especially from the Bible, was deemed a criminal offense.


One senior colonial administrator in Nigeria said that Christianity was giving Africans the wrong ideas of equality and justice, and that these ideas did not belong to Africa. Christianity taught that God had accepted them, and so all believers could stand before God without prejudice. But this religious idea also gave Africans the political notion that they were equals of Europeans, and that was not acceptable. But political repression only strengthened the conviction of Africans that they had actually found the truth.

Still, the colonialists managed to disenfranchise these Christians. And they have remained disenfranchised to this day.

Yes. Today Africa's new political leaders behave like the old chiefs. They connive in looting the continent, traumatizing their citizens, and flouting the rule of law.Consequently slavery has re turned to some parts of Africa. And there is no institution or structure to challenge it.

What do you think western churches can do to help Africa today?

They can be partners in this business of saving souls and ministering to the immense physical needs. What is crucial is not just structures, institutions, general trends, and forces but what I call moral agency: human beings as moral agents. It doesn't help to throw money at problems out of a sense of Western guilt. That only deepens the problem. The most important thing we need today is moral character and leadership, men and women who are not in it for their own gain. Identifying such people and equipping, training, and supporting them is one of the most important investments the church can make.You find such people not among the privileged but among what you might call the flotsam and jetsam of society. These are people who have been to the depths of human experience and have come to their faith in Christ in a way that places them at the very center of God's moral redemption of the world.That is what happened with the antislavery movement in Africa. It was not a movement of the privileged but of those whom the world despised. Nevertheless, their faith was strong, because their work was plainly "the work of God," as they put it. In spite of human obstacles, they were able to undertake this tremendous revolution of love, peace, and justice.

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Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today's current coverage of Sierra Leone includes "Suckled on Gunpowder", Lorraine Hooper's article about orphaned children forced to fight for rebel armies, and the Christian ministries attempting to rescue them.Harvard University Press offers an online synopsis, as well as reviews of Sanneh's latest book Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa. The book can be purchased at and other book retailersYale University has chronicled Sanneh's education, awards, and other writings.To read transcripts of Sanneh's 1999 radio interview on Islam and world politics, visit Radio National's religion report.For more of the history of Sierra Leone, "Cry Freetown" spans the 1700's to present day photos and political analysis.Articles and studies of West Africa are catalogued in Stanford's Africa Guide, including lists for Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Ghana.

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