Exchanges around emancipation: Birmingham and Dakar

Dr Benedetta Rossi on researching the often sensitive issue of slavery...

Benedetta Rossi with students in Dakar
'It has never been easy to research slavery in West Africa as there can be a stigma attached to being of slave descent in contemporary society. Emancipation is still alive in the memory of the older generations and in the same room one can sit with both descendants of slaves and slave owners. Some, however, regard the ‘slow death of slavery’ not as a source of potential tension, embarrassment and shame but as one of the most important transformations in West African labour history and it is becoming increasingly possible to openly discuss these topics in African research institutions. 

Professor Ibrahima Thioub, Director of the African Research Centre on the Slave Trade and Slavery (CARTE) in Dakar, has led African scholars in actively researching African slavery, its vestiges and legacies in spite of resistance. I was delighted to receive his invitation to teach graduate students at CARTE and Université Cheikh  Anta Diop (UCAD).  Dakar was full of treasures – the national archives, the library of the IFAN, the controversial heritage site of the island of Gorée and the old neighbourhoods that feature in many West African classics. 

The most impressive aspect of my visit, however, was the work I was able to do with graduate students who took my ‘Trajectories of Emancipation’ course. Motivated and intellectually mature, they were full of youthful enthusiasm. Conversations morphed into reflections on the meanings of research, cross-cultural exchanges, religious experience. Our sessions started early and finished late. We have been awarded a grant to support shared graduate supervision across our institutions for the next three years, focusing on slavery and emancipation in nineteenth and twentieth century African history. I look forward to the contributions that the young researchers of the Dakar School of History will make to African historiography in their future careers.' 

Dakar fish market