[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Africa]: Ferrell on Shell, 'Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Feb 26 17:44:52 MST 2020

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Begin forwarded message:

> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: February 26, 2020 at 7:26:04 PM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Africa]:  Ferrell on Shell, 'Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Sandra Rowoldt Shell.  Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo 
> Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa.  Athens  Ohio University Press, 
> 2018.  Illustrations. 352 pp.  $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8214-2318-9.
> Reviewed by Lacy S. Ferrell (Central Washington University)
> Published on H-Africa (February, 2020)
> Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut
> Sandra Rowaldt Shell's _Children of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo 
> Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa_ uses prosopography--the 
> systematic analysis of a collection of biographies--to construct a 
> nuanced and detailed picture of the experience of enslaved people, 
> with particular emphasis on the "first passage" of slavery from 
> capture to the coast. She works with a remarkable (and unique) set of 
> sources, consisting mainly of sixty-four original accounts by 
> enslaved Oromo children, given to missionaries within weeks of their 
> liberation by the British navy off the coast of Aden. These accounts, 
> complemented by later reports from the Keith-Falconer Mission in Aden 
> and the Lovedale Mission in South Africa, allow Shell to reconstruct 
> life histories that contribute to the histories of the East African 
> slave trade and children's experiences of enslavement. 
> This highly technical work is divided into five parts that trace the 
> children's journey from their homes in Ethiopia to South Africa and, 
> in many cases, back to Ethiopia. She begins with part 1, "Roots: 
> Memories of Home," in which she establishes the Ethiopian context. 
> Each chapter of the book builds around the children's narratives, 
> which include descriptions of their families and communities. The 
> children's enslavement came during the rise of Menelik II as well as 
> catastrophic ecological collapse, leading to displacement and famine 
> and the choice by some families to sell their children or kin. 
> The second part, "Routes: From Capture to Coast," traces the "first 
> passage" of the children's journeys and describes not only the moment 
> in which they became enslaved but also the journey they took before 
> arriving at the coast. This section is particularly notable for the 
> many hardships that inflicted psychological and physical trauma to 
> these girls and boys, who at the time of their interviews ranged in 
> age from ten to nineteen. Because her sources provide such consistent 
> information (each child answered the same set of questions by the 
> missionaries), she can use her analysis to identify many patterns 
> through the data, from the relative ages of boys and girls to the 
> likelihood of running away, time spent enslaved before reaching the 
> coast, and the manner in which they became enslaved in the first 
> place. 
> The data here is truly remarkable. For scholars of childhood, the 
> availability of first-hand accounts by children offers unparalleled 
> insights into their experiences. Shell is correct to note that most 
> accounts of childhood are filtered through adult perceptions; in the 
> case of these narratives, that is not because they are the later 
> reflections of an adult but because adult missionaries asked the 
> questions and the responses were "transcribed and translated by 
> Matthew Lochhead, assisted by interpreters" (p. 111). She dismisses 
> any possible anti-Muslim bias but does not address other ways the 
> missionaries may have, intended or not, shaped the accounts of the 
> children. She also goes too far in her assumption that because the 
> children gave the accounts within weeks of their liberation they are 
> not touched by "the filter of hindsight, learned experience, or 
> suggestion," since hindsight is of course always a factor when 
> recounting events, even from an individual's recent past (p. 6). And 
> indeed, as her sources show, these children had traveled great 
> distances, been traded by many individuals, and worked in various 
> capacities before being caught onboard trading vessels (dhows) and 
> liberated by the British. 
> However, the stories still offer incredible insight into these 
> children's lives. She explicitly challenges much of the Africanist 
> scholarship on the interior slave trade, though for the most part she 
> critiques arguments (such as Paul Bohannan's, that Africans did not 
> trade slaves for money, and the slavery-kinship continuum model that 
> Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff used to argue that acquiring slaves 
> was largely about incorporating kin, and that kinship protected, 
> broadly speaking, from enslavement) that are quite dated and have 
> robust challenges in more recent scholarship. 
> The real benefit of the stories, then, is their unique specificity. 
> These are not anonymous, generalized experiences over an entire 
> region and large span of time; they are the individual reflections 
> reflecting slave trade patterns in central Ethiopia during the late 
> 1880s. As a result, many significant patterns emerge. One of the most 
> interesting to me was the length and duration of their first-passage 
> experience. These children passed through two to ten different 
> traders' hands, and their journeys, mapped in the book, zigzagged 
> back and forth before reaching the coast. Boys covered close to 2,000 
> kilometers on average, and girls around 1,600 kilometers; these 
> distances took anywhere between a couple of weeks and, in one 
> shocking outlier, seven months. In the seven-month example, the boy 
> in question walked almost the equivalent distance from Cape Town to 
> Cairo. 
> The gender difference throughout the entirety of the ordeal is 
> striking. Girls' journeys, for example, were markedly shorter than 
> those of the boys, suggesting higher value in the export market. 
> These girls were also by and large described as beautiful, suggesting 
> the importance of their sexual value. Indeed, the sexual aspect of 
> the trade is under-theorized in this text. The girls themselves, or 
> at least, in the accounts we have from the missionaries, never 
> discussed any possible sexual abuse, though Shell does briefly 
> address its almost certain inevitability. She only raises it, 
> however, in relation to the markedly different behaviors of the boys 
> and girls upon their arrival at Lovedale, when the boys seemed 
> "ebullient, noisy, talkative, merry, and 'naughty,'" in contrast to 
> the girls' "quiet, obedient, shy, and unhappy" demeanors. She remarks 
> that "the silence surrounding any reports of the inevitable sexual 
> abuse they would almost certainly have experienced could have 
> concealed some massive instances of personal trauma" (p. 130). This 
> point is not raised again until the appendix, "The Variables and 
> Authentication of the Data," when she references extensive evidence 
> that girl children, in particular, were treated as "concubines" 
> throughout their journeys and by successive owners (p. 208). In a 
> work that otherwise is so careful to trace the devastating traumas of 
> first-passage experience, it is disappointing that there is not more 
> attention drawn to this all-too-common abuse and the physical and 
> psychological consequences it could entail. It is also worth noting 
> that the missionaries themselves asked the same questions of boys and 
> girls, which may have contributed to this silence in the data. 
> Parts 3 through 5 mostly rely on records from the missions 
> themselves, though there is also some later correspondence from the 
> Oromo themselves. Part 3, "Revival: From _Osprey _to Lovedale," 
> follows the children from their liberation in the Gulf of Aden to 
> South Africa, allowing her to explore the history of these 
> anti-slaving patrols and the larger mission politics of the region, 
> which among other things determined the ultimate demography of the 
> children who ended up in South Africa, since the missionaries 
> selected those children deemed most fit for agricultural labor. At 
> Lovedale, explored in chapter 10, knowing the fates of the non-Oromo 
> in attendance casts stark light on the toll that the first passage 
> took, as the death rate from disease was unusually high, even as the 
> Oromo children consistently outperformed the others in their class 
> marks. Within the comparisons and conclusions that are possible 
> across the sixty-four children, Shell treats each child as a distinct 
> individual. She uses their names and exact details throughout, 
> bringing them to life on the page and providing a powerful reminder 
> of their individual identities. 
> Part 4, "Return: Forging a Future," consists of a single chapter 
> tracing the lives of the surviving Oromo and investigating their own 
> attempts and desires to return to Ethiopia. Of the original group, 
> approximately a third died in South Africa before repatriation was 
> widely available, a third made their way back to Ethiopia, and a 
> third settled permanently in South Africa or farther afield. Return 
> was made possible in part by a rather tense scuffle among the 
> British, German, and Ethiopian state over funding, after which 
> thirteen returned on a German vessel. 
> In the final part, "Reflections," Shell offers a useful summary 
> overview of the data and arguments from the text. As throughout, this 
> is methodical and clear. The organization moves clearly, and each 
> chapter uses section headers to group themes and data. There are 
> thirty-five pictures, thirty-six graphs, eleven maps, and individual 
> maps for each child's journey to the coast. The appendices include 
> the children's narratives, as well as "My Essay Is upon Gallaland," 
> an account of Ethiopia by one of the boys. In all, this book has an 
> incredible collection of sources and uses the data clearly and 
> methodically to trace almost every aspect of the children's lives 
> from their homes through enslavement, liberation, and adulthood. Some 
> of the generalized conclusions she makes seem to stretch her data too 
> far--she is, ultimately, talking about Ethiopia during the 1880s, and 
> so comparisons to West Africa during the era of the transatlantic 
> slave trade might be overstated. But the detail she can give about 
> these children challenges the use of assumptions anywhere in the 
> history of African slavery. Most notably, her deeply analyzed 
> assessment of the first passage, and its impact on mortality and 
> trauma, offers rich potential for historians of slavery across the 
> continent. 
> Citation: Lacy S. Ferrell. Review of Shell, Sandra Rowoldt, _Children 
> of Hope: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South 
> Africa_. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54446
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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