In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and Slavery

  • Introduction
  • Guide to Sources
  • Historiography
  • Definitions
  • Documenting Historical Change
  • New Forms of Slavery
  • Slave Narratives

African Studies Women and Slavery
Claire C. Robertson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0113


The study of women and slavery in the world and in Africa is relatively new. The first study focusing on enslaved women’s experiences was by Lucille Mathurin Mair on their resistance to slavery in the Caribbean (see Mair 1975, cited under Historiography), followed shortly by Boniface Obichere’s consideration of Dahomean women’s slavery in 1978 (see Obichere 1978, cited under Slave Culture? Cultural Influences of Women Slaves). Strobel 1979 (cited under Slave Culture? Cultural Influences of Women Slaves) is an influential study of women in Mombasa that paid significant attention to the particular experiences of slave women. More widespread and sustained scholarly interest began in the 1980s, providing new perspectives on slavery in general and in particular. This interest grew out of the development of women’s and gender studies in the United States, where plantation chattel slavery had been an important practice in shaping history, and where two studies by Lerner and Davis were published in 1983 (see Lerner 1983 and Davis 1983, both cited under Historiography) that paid significant attention to women in slavery, although not as a primary focus in the latter case. Also in 1983, the first work to focus explicitly on what slavery meant for women in Africa was published (see Robertson and Klein 1983, cited under Historiography). Therefore, in this article, historiographical aspects are considered first before going into the specifics of slavery and women in Africa, including variations in types of slavery and their gendered aspects; economic, geographical, and cultural differences; changes in slavery over time; the impact of the export slave trades and of emancipation; and contemporary forms of slavery.

Guide to Sources

Slave narratives or accounts written down by missionaries, such as those that can be found in the Archives de la Congrégation du Saint-Esprit in Paris or the Council for World Mission Archives at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, are some of the best sources, when proper caution is used to factor in their usual abolitionist origin. Some of these materials have been digitized. Alpers 1983 (cited under Gendered Impact of Slave Exports) and Wright 1993 (cited under Slave Narratives) analyzed some of these slave narratives. Baepler 1999 (cited under Harems) edited a diverse collection of slave narratives from the North African Barbary pirate trade. A few accounts are available written down by oral historians, such as the ones analyzed in, or included as an appendix to, Robertson 1983 and Nukunya 1983, but most who became slaves in older systems have now died (see also Slave Narratives). Another good source for late slavery and emancipation in Africa is colonial court records, mainly not digitized (some for one section of Accra, Ghana, were kept under the bed of a local chief), usually held in the national archives of the fifty-five countries in Africa with such institutions,, but these records are highly variable in availability, language facility required to read them, content, and condition. Some material on new forms of slavery can be found in Bales 1999 (see New Forms of Slavery), for instance, many oral accounts based on interviews with current or past slaves. Most scholars, such as Troutt Powell 2012 (see Slave Narratives) make effective use of all available sources, archival materials, and oral history, as well as any relevant secondary sources, to document African history. Oral history, however, is the preeminent specialty of many African historians who have pioneered its techniques (see Vansina 2009, originally published in 1961, and subsequent works). These techniques are necessary in many African contexts in which written materials relevant to older history are not available. The exceptions are in Arabized and old areas of European settlement, but those records are often completely silent on the subject of women, thus necessitating the kinds of extrapolation used by many scholars mentioned in this article. No journal or bibliography devoted especially to the history of enslaved women in Africa is available. Most of the secondary sources included here can be found online, as can some archival sources held in Europe and the United States, but resources for making African archival materials available online are lacking. This bibliography is primarily for Anglophone sources but refers to a number of sources whose bibliographies include Francophone, Lusophone, and Hispanic sources.

  • Nukunya, G. K. “A Note on Anlo (Ewe) Slavery and the History of a Slave.” Appendix to Claire C. Robertson, “Post-Proclamation Slavery in Accra: A Female Affair?” In Women and Slavery in Africa. Edited by Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein, 243–244. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

    Nukunya draws on his own family history to describe and analyze the story of Adzo, an Ewe slave in southeastern Ghana in the late 19th and early 20th century.

  • Robertson, Claire C. “Post-Proclamation Slavery in Accra: A Female Affair?” In Women and Slavery in Africa. Edited by Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein, 220–245. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

    Suggests that vital female economic roles in Accra helped to perpetuate slavery as an institution after emancipation through an extended analysis of the life of Adukwe, a slave purchased in Accra after emancipation and ultimately assimilated into her owners’ lineage. Her history was recorded from Adukwe by Robertson during fieldwork in Accra (the recordings, along with English transcripts/translations are available in the Folklore and Ethnomusicology Archives at Indiana University and in the Robertson papers in the Indiana University Archives). Adukwe’s experiences included failure to find a husband who would pay bridewealth to claim their children but also a relatively high degree of autonomy.

  • Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Translated by H. M. Wright. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine, 2009.

    Vansina and many of his students pioneered the practice and description of the use of oral history; this is the classic early text on the methodology. First published in 1961.

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