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Chinua Achebe and the Uptakes of African Slaveries

Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi

Research in African Literatures, Volume 40, Number 4, Winter 2009,

pp. 25-46 (Article)
Published by Indiana University Press
DOI: 10.1353/ral.0.0211

For additional information about this article

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Chinua Achebe and the Uptakes

of African Slaveries1

Universit de Montral

This paper examines the representation of slavery in the fiction of Chinua
Achebe. The author suggests that the complex representation of slavery in
Achebes first three novels offers an insight in how writers of Achebes generation wrote within a period of ideological crisis and multiple competing
orders of social reality; they needed to resist European cultural imperialisms and colonial conquest at the same time that they had to evaluate the
imperialisms, injustices, and, more generally, the shortcomings of African political institutions. The author suggests in this paper that Achebe
responds to these situations of competing pluralizing forces by embedding
African articulations of slavery within rival moral frameworks in his first
three novels: Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease, and Arrow of God. Achebe
places slavery in an ongoing process in which the onslaught of colonialism
uncovers and also radically transforms the moral and legal dispensations
in which African slavery was worlded. These novels are thus narratives of
loss and alienation; the afterlives of slavery become an intimate but deeply
perturbing part of postcolonial heritage.

What, then, is the complex of indigenous African notions

relevant to the issues we are discussing here? We have
used the terms slave and slavery, yet one hardly need dwell
on the fact that their meanings, shaped in one culturalhistorical setting, cannot be expected to disentangle very
well the institutions of another place and time.
Kopytoff 490

Slavery in Africa was a complex system of labor use, of

the exercise of rights in persons, and of exploitation and
coercion, tempered by negotiation and accommodation. Its
RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Winter 2009). 2009



form varied over time and place. Slaves might be menial

field workers, downtrodden servants, cherished concubines, surrogate kin, ostracized social groups dedicated to
a deity, or a ready pool of candidates for sacrifice.
Roberts and Miers 3

In the eighteenth century, abolitionists would need ... to

make the case for slave trade abolition. In the nineteenth
century, British merchants would need the moral capital
accrued during the abolition campaign to make the colonization of Africa conform to new definitions of imperial
Brown 32930


Perhaps because it has become enshrined as the novel about the African encounter with Europe, assessing the putative silence on slavery in Things Fall Apart
has become a way of framing a perceived larger displacement of slavery in West
African literatures.2 Yet the occurrences of slave in the novel trace the meanings
of slavery in the sensibilities of the portrayed community. While slavery never
coalesces into a tangible narrative vector for the collective experience of Umuofia,
it appears in a series of references subordinated to the trajectory of the main theme
of the novelthe arrival of Europeans and the colonial dispensation. Appraisals
bemoaning the absence of slavery in Things Fall Apart inherently conceptualize
representations of slavery as slavery in its transatlantic manifestations. Hence, the
novel plays a metonymic role in assessments that often ignore the subtleties of
what slavery might look like on the continent. The epigraphs above dramatize the
point that practices and evocations of slavery in Africa have had so many dimensions that to insist on one single definition for all contexts is to neglect the contextspecific ways in which slavery and its effects are contextually and ideologically
articulated. Besides, it is almost impossible to write about slavery in Africa without
considering that the institution has been mediated by European antislavery, abolitionism and colonialism. Invariably, paradoxical admixtures of colonial violence,
commerce, benevolence, and the enchantment of colonial modernity color the end
of some forms of slavery in African communities. The issue here, then, is similar
to Edward Saids question about the nature of anticolonial resistance: How does
a culture seeking to become independent of imperialism imagine its own past?
(Culture 214). To rephrase that question: How does an African writer remember
African imperialisms and injustices as he writes about European conquest?
Although he is not concerned with writers specifically, Achille Mbembe
examines an aspect of Saids question in relation to African memories of slavery in
his much-cited African Modes of Self-Writing. In trying to explain this so-called
lack of an African memory of slavery as part of African dead-end imaginaries


created in response to slavery, colonization, and apartheid, Mbembe flattens the

complex ways in which Africans remember slavery. This is evident in his choice
and cursory readings of research on African memories of slavery. Thus, he relies
on Madelaine Borgomanos insufficient reading of a putative silence on slavery in
African literature. In short, slavery is remembered in much more complex ways
than Mbembe suggests and perhaps the best way to reconsider the possibilities
of his otherwise creative and suggestive injunction to consider the heteronomy
of slavery would be to examine how, for example, Chinua Achebeamong many
other African writershas offered an inquiry on slavery and memory despite
claims to the contrary. Part of the problem in Mbembes critique resides in his
refusal to think of how Africans legitimated slavery within their sovereign systems and how those systems were recalibrated by colonialism. In other words, perhaps the first issue to consider is how Africans consider the relationship between
slavery and colonization.
If, as Mbembe points out, colonial advance across the interior of the continent could be said to have taken the character of a creeping slave revolt and the
ensuing colonization was a co-invention created by Western violence as well
as the work of a swarm of African auxiliaries seeking profit, how did that coinvention calibrate memories of slavery (262)? At stake here are the African notions
of sovereignty: How did African political thought rationalize slavery and how did
colonization change the bases of that rationalization? Or, for that matter, how did
the arrival of capitalist modernity, in colonial guise, affect African conceptions of
the human? Mbembe only attends to these vital questions about the constitution
of the self, of communities, and of sovereignty as they pertain to the contemporary of period of globalization and not the beginning of colonization. Hence, the
insights from his considerations of African self-styling in reaction to states of
war and conceptions of divine sovereignty are excised from eighteenth- and
nineteenth-century contexts where they could have been useful. Yet we cannot
read the narratives of figures such as Samuel Ajayi Crowther and Olaudah Equiano without attention to widespread forms of endangerment about which they
wrote in their respective centuries. Indeed, for twentieth-century writers, such as
Amos Tutuola (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), Abdulrazak Gurnah (Paradise), and
Chinua Achebe in his first three novels, writing about slavery in Africa entails a
vulnerable positioning in the transition period between African sovereignty and
colonialism. It is during such transitional moments in which multiple orders of
reality are in play that what Mbembe calls the heteronomy [of] the all-purpose
signifiers constituted by slavery, colonization and apartheid can be grasped (258).
At least since the publication of Paul Gilroys The Black Atlantic, capitalist
chattel slavery has been invoked as a point of entry for African-derived populations into modernity. Yet, as Saurabh Dube cautions, articulations of modernity
emerge out of particular specific histories characterized by particular constellations of dominance and visions of progress (19899). If transatlantic slave trade
and slavery are taken as the point of entry of African-derived populations into
Western modernity in the Americas, the colonial incursion arguably does the
same for continental Africans. The point is made frequently that African recaptivesslaves taken off slave ships and resettled in places such as Freetownor
returnees from the Americas paved the way for modernity in West Africa.3 Nonetheless, as Christopher Brown has pointed out, enslaved Africans who embraced



antislavery and abolitionism could not foresee the future the imperial powers
had for the continent. The future the British planned and the future the returnees
foresaw are best imagined as adversative anticipations of possible worlds. Thus,
the figure of the (formerly enslaved) African returnee, roaming the pages of West
African fiction on slavery, arguably serves as a janus-faced figure. It is a proleptic
figure embodying adversarial anticipated worlds while also domesticating the
violence of colonialism and representing it as the enchantment of modernity. The
question is: How does slavery travel from one theatre of modernity, the circumatlantic world, where it is conjoined to capitalism but anterior to formal (and informal) colonialism, to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Africa, where
colonialism needed to suppress slavery as it paved the way for a new phase of
capitalist expansion? As prisms through which to focalize narratives about various African and African-derived populations, the coupling of slavery, colonialism,
and modernity functions as a counterfactual connective agent. Slavery is not quite
colonialism, and colonization is not quite slavery. Indeed, since the abolition of
slavery functioned as a moral capital for later colonial incursions into the continent, the abolition and memorializations of slavery are irredeemably conjugated
with the violence of the colonizing moment. As articulations of slaveryi.e., its
injuries and legaciesare taken from one moral order and resettled in another,
those articulations become surface phenomena that can be pressed into the service
of different representational projects. Hence, returning recaptive slavesor even
blacks from the diasporaare regarded as embodiments of the enchantment of
capital on the continent.
Achebe responds to the fraught conundrum of representing slavery with a
paradoxical mode of narration that interrogates how one form of violence suppresses another but both are legitimated and comprehensible within distinct moral
orders. Precisely because slavery in Africa was a clutch of institutionalized practices within distinct moral orders, any narration centered within the same moral
order can only portray those manifestations as unjust when that same order has
been fractured and an alternative space of inspection becomes available. Achebe
situates and juxtaposes moral orders that authorize the events under inquiry.
While the compromised facts of events can be reconstructed to a certain degree,
their painful meanings are refracted through alternativeoften conquering
moral orders. It is the resulting de-teleologization of moral orders that makes it
possible to perceive enslavement, slavery, and subsequent colonial subordination,
but impossible to construct any teleological moral position. Achebe achieves such
a gesture by placing his first novel at the pivotal point between a coherent African
moral order and an impending European order. In Things Fall Apart, in particular,
slavery recedes into the background because the narrative is vested in a moral
world that not only legitimizes slavery, but also rests upon it as constituent part
of a civil order portrayed through the narratives preoccupation with justice, the
law, and the upkeep of a moral worldview. My agenda, in this paper, is to highlight
how Achebe plots the changing meanings of slavery through reflexive narration
that replicates the power constituting force of slavery in Things Fall Apart, Arrow of
God, and No Longer Ease.4 The transformations in the evocations of slavery across
the novels underline the obligation to jettison one single definition of slavery as we
grapple with the ways in which slavery is remembered across different communities. Taken together, the invocations of slavery in Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God,


and No Longer at Ease point to the search for an irretrievable moral center in which
to enunciate the operations of slavery in one specific historical setting. But since
that moral order is irrevocably altered, Achebe places slavery in an ongoing process in which the onslaught of colonialism uncovers and also radically transforms
the moral and legal dispensations in which African slavery was worlded.


As much as slavery circulates as a heteronomous subject, its meanings are often
delimited within the moral order that functions as a scene of uptake. In her examination of the events leading to the last execution in Australiaknown as the Ryan
storyAnne Freadman reformulates Austins notion of uptake to elucidate the
transformation and assimilation of an event into the stories that become resonant
parts of collective memory. In its simplest sense, uptake occurs when a speech act
crosses a threshold and creates new meaning by erasingor at least reconstitutingthe traces of its previous citations. Uptake is a reflexive process operating
in bidirectional relation between two citations: the utterance turns back upon
its previous citation in order to move forward and create the new meaning in its
uptake. Such an action may form part of a longer chain of iterations. Uptake thus
partakes in the Derridean notion of differance. As Said clarifies, such deferrals of
meaning are not simply invariably at work in language but are part of the mechanisms through which we produce meaning in the respective contextsworldlinessof any utterance that need to be actualized alongside individual readings of
a text (see The Text). As Freadman shows, uptake is also inevitably a process of
adaptation as a narrative is always judged against a memory and the adaptation
of remembered contents to changed contexts (41). Such adaptations are then fed
into a continuum of social action. While it is tempting to read uptake as translation,
it may be better considered as the mediation between thresholds and it must be
distinguished from the violence of translation which actually silences competing
regimes of mediation that may generate uptakes legitimating other kinds of social
action. Achebes use of these senses of uptakeand of the violence of translation
demonstrates powerfully how we may begin to apprehend slavery in his fiction.
Articulations of slavery suppurate at several key incidents but they are suppressed
because it is not the enslaved that determine the ensuing uptake.5
The value of Freadmans fashioning of uptake lies in underlining the crucial
role of the law in the fabrication and consolidation of social imaginaries. As she
explains, although most citizens would think of the law as being on their side,
the Ryan execution went down in popular imagination as a breach in the socially
imagined functioning of the law. The states abuse of due process created a situation in which citizens realized their image of the law was based upon a socially
imagined ideal process. Uptakes deriving from such deviations from imagined
ideals delineate significant thresholds in the lives of deviating individuals and
communities. Such deviations also highlight the imbrications of the law with
legitimating social imaginaries and their implied moral orders. Charles Taylor
describes the social imaginary as a composite set of ways in which people imagine
and propagate collective social identities through images, stories, and legends
and other concrete practices that mediate shared understandings of practices,
norms, and the communally shared sense of legitimacy. The imaginary includes



the sense of how things should be, how they should go, as well as a shared ability
to recognize infractions against common practice. These understandings could
be anchored in some notion of a moral or metaphysical order and they become
the largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation,
within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense they
have. It can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines because
of its unlimited and indefinite nature (2425). Most important is the material
effect of these understandings:
[Social] imaginaries ... have a constitutive function, that of making possible
the practices that they make sense of and thus enable. In this sense, their falsity
cannot be total; some people are engaging in a form of democratic self-rule, even
if not everyone, as our comfortable self-legitimations imagine. Like all forms of
human imagination, the social imaginary can be full of self-serving fiction and
suppression, but it is an essential constituent of the real. It cannot be reduced
to an insubstantial dream. (Taylor 183)

Although Taylor describes the evolution of Western modernity, his elucidations

help contextualize the forced and chaotic nature of the colonial modernity with
which Achebe grapples. The idealized objectives of Western modernity are rarely
extended to peoples of African-derived descent at the moments of their inception.
Those populations encounter, first, the detritus that Simon Gikandi has called
modernitys counterpoints (1011). In this uneven process the European project
proffers ideals and counterpoints depending upon individuals involved in the
encounter. The intrusion of colonial forces into Achebes fictional worlds create
uneven processes of disembedding and re-enchantment, secularization alongside
sacralization, as well as new spaces of individual self-fashioning that may meet
stiff opposition from collectives. The tussles between African legal systems and
colonial law, in Achebes fiction, serve as a framing device for the ongoing changes
in the constitution of social imaginaries since changes in law creates new moral
orders and ways of apprehending dissatisfaction with the imagination of the collective. As Ruth Buchanan and Sundhya Pahuja explain, the law, as a discursive
and institutional practice, is a crucial medium for imagining, constituting and
legitimating communities (261). This is especially true of Achebes fictional worlds
in which communities sustain the constitutive force of their societies through
adherence to a highly articulated legal system vested in divine sovereignty. The
sacralized law recognizes the sovereignty of the people at the same time that it
allows the enslavement of others. Enslavement and resistance to slavery thus
cohere in the same system of maintaining sovereignty according to an inner logic.
The relationship of the slave to the law in Achebes fiction is best grasped
through the concept of the rights-in-person, but this concept evokes some correlations with with Orlando Pattersons formulation of the radical alienation of
the slave that results in social death that needs to be clarified. The rights-inperson also needs to be differentiated from what Mbembe calls the status of the
total domination and social death that characterizes plantation slavery, which, in
turn, is indebted to Agambens elaboration of the homo sacer. Historians of slavery in Africa use the concept of rights-in-commodity or rights-in-persons to
understand precisions of legal definition of ownership of life functions. These
rights exercised by one person or group exercise over another may cover not just


a persons services but [also] his entire person (Miers and Kopytoff 7). Suzanne
Miers and Igor Kopytoff use the term transactions as applied to formal transfers of rights-in-persons to capture a range of relations that include kinship and
marriage. Although these transfers are quite complex and different, they all rest
upon the transfer of rights towards or over a person and his or her descendants
from one group to another within a slavery-to kinship-continuum. While variants
of such concepts appear in most societies, its extraordinary levels of refinement
in Africa suggest that categories as property or salability may not be useful
in entirely extricating slavery from kinship in African societies, in which
rights in wives, children, and kin-group members are usually acquired through
transactions involving material transfers and in which kin groups own and may
dispose of their blood members in ways that Westerners concern appropriate to
property (Miers and Kopytoff 11). Indeed, these rights and transactions are so
intricately embedded within the traditional organization of societies that they
comprehend phenomena for which many societies would not use slavery (12).
Addressing slavery as practiced in Igboland up to the nineteenth century, Victor
Uchendu identifies similar conventions under the rubric of the commodity rights
purchased in a person. He defines slavery as a continuum of status disabilities
that varied with the number of commodity rights purchased in a person (123).
The crucial issue then is that slavery in African literatures cannot be fully apprehended by paying attention to representations of slaves alone. Slavery, as Miers
and Kopytoff stress, must be examined in the contexts of African institutions and
practices and not simply in opposition to freedom. Slavery covers a variety of
dimensions of social mobility that may occur in an individuals lifetime or across
generations of his or her descendants. Slaves may occupy positions of the harshest liminality, be intimate members of a kin-group, or even hold high office and
exercise great influence. To represent slavery, in other words, is to situate it as it is
experienced within its meaning sustaining world with all the nuances that attend
to the legal precisions related to the social thickness of slave life. That thickness
appears even in the eloquent silence on slavery in Achebes fiction.


The six references to slavery in Things Fall Apart delineate how its meanings
depend upon the relationships between individuals or communities. These range
from ties of kinship, to contractual labor relations, forced subordination and
imprisonment, loss of sovereignty, and social exclusion. Achebe arranges the
relationships between these terms through the fundamental juxtaposition of
associations between Mbaino, Umuofia, Abame, and the conquering European
power. While each community stands in a reflexive chain of subordination to the
other, each is also firmly embedded in a life world that precludes an emphatic
comprehension of the others subordination. Achebe epitomizes this modality of
juxtaposed incompatible historical experiences central to his novel through the
narrative of Abame; events of great import happen in a meaning-sustaining order
that is destroyed and overwritten by another conquering order. Each subsequent
narration occurs within a different legitimizing ethical system. As Robert M. Wren
suggests, the narrative of Abame is the symbolization of a past event. Historically,
the Abam warriors procured slaves in raids for the Aro slave traders (Ohadike 447).



Thus, while the relationship between the Abam and Abame is not explicit in Things
Fall Apart, that inconclusive nature could be read as part of Achebes use of ironic
allusionsthe historical function of the Abam warriors is revisited explicitly in
Arrow of God (15; 133; 160; 203). The historical antecedent for the Abame narrative
was probably the murder of D. F. Stewart and the punitive Bende-Onitsha Expedition (Wren 15). The punitive expedition is part of a British colonial tradition of
collective punishment against the Aro who were involved in slave trading. Historians have, of course, pointed out that these punitive expeditions were much
more about colonial conquest: abolition also functioned as legitimation of colonial
conquest. The people of Umuofia, however, do not register the Abam as slave
raiders but as refugees fleeing the destruction of their homeland. The historical
past is resettled within a different ethical framework.
This narrative of Abame underlines the crucial linkage between slavery and
sovereignty in Achebes fiction. By dispossessing the Abam of their right to selfdetermination, colonial terror transposes the previous meanings of the Abam.
Insofar as Abame circulates in Achebes fictional world as a form of originary
encounter with the terror of European modernity, the effacement of its historical connection to slavery creates a form of counterfactual interface, in which the
meanings of slavery are always doubled, between a changing African world and
the impending colonial modernity in Achebes fiction. In Things Fall Apart, the
silence on Abames possible connection with slavery demonstrates ironically the
way colonial violence upstages the violence of slave raids. Because the people of
Abame arrive in Umuofia as refugees and become objects of empathy, their past
deeds recede into a suppressed moral order. In fact, the empathy of Umuofia for
the Abam underscores the fact that Umuofia, itself, is in all likelihood, a slave raiding terror to other communities. In No Longer at Ease, Achebe revisits the silence
on slavery in Umuofia through a series of explicit analogies between the warlike
natures of Abame and Umuofia (No Longer 8; 186). Indeed, the similarities between
warlike peoples of Umuofia and Abame emerge specifically in the latter novel:
The people of Umuofia are very proud of its past when it was the terror of their
neighbors, before the white men came and leveled everybody down (No Longer
5). But the narrative of Things Fall Apart already reveals the deep kinship relations
between Abame and Umuofia:
Abame has been wiped out, said Obierika. It is a strange and terrible story. If I
had not seen the few survivors with my own eyes and heard their story with my
own ears, I would not have believed. ... Most of them were sons of our land whose
mothers had been buried with us. But there were some too who came because they had
friends in our town, and others who could think of nowhere else open to escape.
And so they fled into Umuofia with a woeful story.

But I am greatly afraid. We have heard stories about white men who made
the powerful guns and the strong drinks and took slaves away across the seas,
but no one thought the stories were true.

There is no story that is not true, said Uchendu. The world has no end,
and what is good among one people is an abomination with others. We have
albinos among us. Do you not think that they came to our clan by mistake, that
they have strayed from their way to a land where everybody is like them?
(13841; emphasis added)


Uchendus remark underlines Obierikas indirect allusion to the deep-seated

connection between Umuofia and Abame; Umuofia represents for Abame, what
Mbanta represents for Okonkwo. In other words, Umuofia may only remember
its own imperialismsi.e., its slaving pastthrough indirect circumlocutory
The careful contextualization of the terror of domestic slavery in relation to
the violence of colonial conquest expresses Achebes crucial point; as one system
of subordination conjugates another, the ensuing alterations creates competing moral orders in which events can only be understood and expressed with a
teleological clarity by suppressing all contradictions. Slavery, however, was very
much part of the historical events Achebe addresses. Wren affirms in his study of
Achebes fiction that slavery was part of the moral justification for the pacification
of Igboland although economic activity may in fact have taken precedence over
the war on slavery (18). In 1902, the British subdued the Aro and destroyed the
Long Juju Oracle (ibinokpabi) that functioned as a last court of appeal. But there
were in fact continued punitive expeditions for the next fifteen years (Ohadike 448).
Thus, if slavery does not appear explicitly in the novel, it is because it is embedded in the structure of a civil orderthe system of social cohesion based on local
codes of justice and morality anchored within shared mechanisms of political
imagination. Elizabeth Isichie, in her volume on Igboland history, contextualizes
how slave raiding contributed to a general degree of insecurity that became part
of the social fabric (4267; 75110). She suggests that while the rise of the Atlantic
slave trade distorted the already existing patterns of slavery and created insecurity and a militarization of everyday life, the effects of slavery had an apparent
contradictory nature. In as much as the capture, export, or domestic enslavement
of people created a general atmosphere of insecurity, there were corollary, beneficial transformations in economic life. The increase in slave raiding and its
cessation were invariably deeply enmeshed in the new colonial crisis.
In effect, the fates of Ikemefuna and Okonkwo demonstrate the fusion of politics and religion through the sacrificial logic underpinning the novel. Both Mbaino
and Umuofia sacrifice members of their communities for self-preservation and
in recognition of a superior subjugating power. Taken together, the conjoining of
political expediency and sacral-religious nature of sacrifice offers crucial insight
into the life worlds of slavery in Achebes fiction. Once given away to allay the
wrath of Umuofia, Ikemefuna essentially oscillates between the status of a community slave and a son to Okonkwo until the oracle decrees his death. Achebe
orchestrates a differentiation of the life worlds in which slavery is embedded
through the repetition of slave in propinquity to other forms of social relations:
Sometimes when [Okonkwo] went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts he allowed Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool
and his goatskin bag. And, indeed, Ikemefuna called him father. (28; emphasis
The elders and grandees of the village sat on their own stools brought here by
their young sons or slaves. Okonkwo was among them. (46; emphasis added)



And so [Mr. Brown] built a school and a little hospital in Umuofia. He went from
family to family begging people to send their children to his school. But at first
they only sent their slaves or sometimes their lazy children. (181; emphasis added)

All evocations demonstrate the interdigitation of slavery and kinship. The first
two passages delineate Ikemefunas indeterminate status in relation to Okonkwo
and the community. Whereas Okonkwo allows him to behave like a son, once
Okonkwo is in company of other eldersin the second passageit becomes
unclear who considers Ikemefuna a son or a slave when they emerge into public
life. The third passage again reveals another association between children and
slaves in the villages value regulating system. Here the emphasis on lazy suggests the value of progeny lies in their contribution to the family fortunes. Thus,
sending lazy children and slaves to the white mans school underscores their
Of course, the enslaved do not experience their expendability or the contingency attending their lives with the communitys emotional distance. The narrator
describes Ikemefunas experience of deracination and introduction into a state of
suspension in detail. The description of Ikemefunas feelings is nothing less than
the life world of an enslaved child inhabiting an undefined statusOkonkwo
replicates similar feelings in exile, but he never quite grasps Ikemefunas sentiments. The way Achebe plots Ikemefunas inability to comprehend the events
leading to his uprooting and his painful acclimatization in Okonkwos household
is contrasted to the indifference of the larger community that seemed to forget all
about him as soon as they had taken the decision (28). Ikemefuna oscillates in an
embryonic status between kinship and cult slave. As John Oriji explains, as one of
the oldest forms of slavery in Igboland, cult slavery is very much imbricated with
religious and political power. The meanings of slavery thus emerge in what Oriji
calls the sacerdotal realm of political and religious power (122). While this combination of religious and political power is most pertinent to the fate of Ikemefuna,
it is also pertinent to the larger fate of Umuofia in terms of the desacralization of
its world through the destruction of its political sanctity.
The fate of Ikemefuna can be understood as one instance of transfer of the
rights-in-person as compensation for the homicide committed by a man from
Mbaino. Such practices, as Miers and Kopytoff point out, were part of legal dispensation in some African communities (13). Following the transfer of rights-inperson, the transferred will remain in a status of marginality until the acquiring
group determines what is to be done with him. That person may be handed over
to a caregiver until such a time. Thus, the acquired becomes a kind of non-person
in legal status. As James Vaughn explains with specific reference to the Margi,
societies had detailed processes of incorporating their slaves into the desired form
of integration. Vaughn describes this finely balanced contradictory mechanism
of marginality and integration the limbic institution (100). This institution of
formalized marginality helped maintain social boundaries that may otherwise
be lost. The vacillating relationship between Okonkwo and Ikemefuna outlines
the distinctions between the latters marginality-in-kinship and marginalityto-society. Although an acquired person will first be marginal within his host
kin group as well as his host society, the marginality-in-kinship may change as
the acquired is absorbed into a kin-group. His change in kinship marginality


may, however, not necessarily affect the marginality-to-society since this latter
marginality served to consolidate and preserve a generalized social identity of
slave. Miers and Kopytoff explain the movement of an acquired person moved
through the limbic institution as a process of slave social mobility that included
the dimensions of formal [legal] status, informal affect, and the dimension of
worldly achievement and success. The differences in these forms of slave mobility are crucial in Things Fall Apart: The status mobility of an acquired person
delineates the process of informal incorporation into the receiving group. Such
a person could, for example, become someones slave and come into a specific formalized relationship with corresponding rights and privileges. This formalized
relationship may change over time for the individual or his descendants with the
recognition of additional rights and privilegessuch as the prohibition of resale.
In intergenerational terms, the individuals descendants could be recognized as
free and become fully-fledged members of the acquisitor clan. But the actual formal status of an acquired may not necessarily encapsulate his everyday situation.
Hence, the categories of affective mobility, affective marginality, affective
incorporation and wordly success mobility become necessary implements to
assess the slaves lived life in opposition to his legal standing:
[A slaves] affective mobility leads to a reduction in his affective marginality and to
his greater affective incorporation. This change is in the sphere of emotion and
sentiment rather than formal and legal codes. It has to do with the esteem and
affection in which he is held and the way he is treated. An acquired outsider, for
example, may be warmly accepted by his acquisitor lineage and come to be held
in high regard, yet his formal rights may remain entirely unchanged. He may,
for example, still be legally liable to be resold [or even killed like Ikemefuna],
even though his masters would never consider doing it. ... His worldly success
mobility means changes toward a better style of life, more political influence,
and even more control over greater wealth, all which reduce the marginality of
his everyday existence and indicate success in the business of things. Needless
to say, this may occur with or without any change in either his formal status or
his affective incorporation. (1920)

In such a situation of great variance over the meanings and everyday manifestations of slavery, writers could either pen ethnographic fiction that would explain
all contextual differences or suppress ethnographic contextualization, as is the
case in Things Fall Apart.
Whereas the enslavement of Ikemefuna eludes Okonkwo, he comes close
to grasping the loss of sovereignty as a form of enslavement through the repeated
propinquity of slavery and Abame. The function of this proximity has its most
striking effect on Okonkwo during his exile:
Kotma of the ash buttocks,

He is fit to be a slave.
The white man has no sense,

He is fit to be a slave. (175)

This song appears in Obierikas account, to the exiled Okonkwo, of events in

Umuofia. There is an irony in that invocation of slavery. This song of derision



essentially constitutes the reaction of the men of Umuofia to their subjugation

and undignified treatment by the British colonizers and their court messengers.
Thus, the irony of the song as the futile resort of the conquered strikes Okonkwo
forcefully; the people may well consider the court messengers fit to be slaves,
but from Okonkwos perspective the men of Umuofia are being treated as slaves.
Hence, in a rare display of despondency, Okonkwo bows his head in sadness (175).
Okonkwos despondency results from what he considers loss of sovereignty. As
if to reinforce this point, he immediately reflects upon the reasons for the new
weakness of Umuofias men and discards Obierikas proffered lesson from the
destruction of Abame:
Have you not heard how the white man wiped out Abame? asked Obierika.
I have heard, said Okonkwo. But I have also heard that Abame people were
weak and foolish. Why did they not fight back? Had they no guns and machetes?
We would be cowards to compare ourselves with the men of Abame. Their
fathers had never dared stand up before our ancestors. We must fight these men
and drive them from the land. (17576)

This is in effect the second mention of Abame in proximity to slavery in the novel.
The first allusion occurs in the episode in which Obierika discusses the destruction
of Abame (13741). The manner in which this reference to slavery occurs in the
context of what is essentially a cautionary tale highlights the function of cautionary tales in Achebes fiction: they are for all intents and purposes reflexive narratives that test or attest to a characters level of consciousness or lack thereof. Events
similar to those in Abame overcome Umuofia, but Umuofians heed the lesson
and refrain from attacking the white man. The dialogue about slaves in the New
World and the contingent nature of abominations circumscribes the instability of
the locus of power and, as a consequence, the shifting patterns of signification on
slavery. But the way this reference to transatlantic slavery is coupled to Obierikas
great fear evokes correlations with Ikemefunas own fear immediately after being
introduced into Okonkwos household (28). Indirectly, then, the narrative raises
a subterranean exploration of the elusive conjugations between slavery, colonialism, and sovereignty. Obierikas fear foreshadows the manners in which the
community will go through a symbolic process of conversion similar to Ikemefunas.
The coupling of slavery and sovereignty in Things Fall Apart is, thus, part
of a carefully wrought plan. Umuofia, as Gikandi suggests, has a clear pattern
of zones of inclusion and exclusion that is suddenly subverted by colonization
(4849). Consequently, as much as the first five references to slavery touch upon the
changing nature of political power and self-ownership, the last reference rightly
concerns the emergence of new identities for cult slaves in the fold of Christianity.
The conversation between Mr. Kiaga and new converts of Umuofia is not simply a
tussle over the meanings of osu but a demonstration of the violence of translation:

These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and
such abominations thought that it was possible that they would also be received.
And so one Sunday two of them went into the church. ... The whole church
raised a protest and was about to drive these people out, when Mr. Kiaga
stopped them and began to explain.


Before God, he said, there is no slave or free. We are all children of God
and we must receive these our brothers. ...

You do not understand, the convert maintained. You are our teacher, and
you can teach us the things of the new faith. But this is the matter which we
know. And he told them what an osu was. (156)

In the free indirect discourse that follows the last sentence, an authorial voice
explains the meanings of osu as living practice in a whole paragraph. Mr. Kiaga
reduces all those nuances into the word slave. Whereas the osu and the domestic
slaves gradually find new identities that allow new spaces of affirmation, the
complex issue of lost narratives in the Ikemefuna episode, focalized through
Ikemefunas own lack of an interpretative paradigm for events that befall him as
well as the unrecorded narrative of the girl that accompanied him, underscores
Achebes attention to the consequences of setting a stable normative center through
which to focalize an African historical experience of which slavery is part. More
important, the operations of the osu system as part of a legal dispensation are
seemingly confined to a so-called traditional world while the deities to which the
osu are dedicated are without their legal underpinning in the modern world. The
paragraph of free indirect discourse explaining the worlding of the osu functions
as a counterpoint to the district commissioners paragraph on Okonkwo. While
the former expands a word into a paragraph, the other compresses a life into a
paragraph. The inverse proportion of amplification versus simplification hints at
the thresholds at which African conceptions become modified as they enter the
colonial dispensation.


As much as no slave character gains voice in Things Fall Apart, any critique of this
omission must be coupled with a question: Under which conditions does the voice
of the slave or former slave enter circulation within any given social order? Achebe
does not answer this question but demonstrates how the disembedding of the
sacerdotal realm banishes certain surface realities such as ritual slave sacrifice and
the necessity for the osu to maintain their unkempt hair. Christianity, and behind
it the military force of the British, gives the osu the space in which to fashion new
identities that remain in articulation with the discarded osu identities in the socalled traditional sphere. Put differently, the treatment of slavery in the novels elucidates Mahmood Mamdanis notion of the theoretical bifurcated modern versus
traditional Africa, developed in his Citizen and Subject. As Mamdani argues, the
British colonial administrations system of indirect rule implicated a bifurcation
of political dispensations. There was on the one hand the native law and customs
and, on the other hand, the colonial law and administrationwhich will later
become the independent nation-state. The resulting bifurcation of legal dispensations is omnipresent in Achebes fiction and must be understood as a set of conflicting legal domains in which articulations of slavery have different meanings.
Thus, in Achebes novels, African legal systems recognize the rights-in-person
concept associated with slavery while the colonial and postcolonial state does not.
Although this co-presence could be plotted in narrative and consequently read as



the spectral afterlives of slavery and colonial modernity in Africa, I read it as the
threshold and sign of the interpenetrations of the bifurcated systems and their
respective uptakes of African dispensations displaced into spaces of alterity. Certain aspects of social life do not move easily across the threshold and it is at such
moments of gridlock that the traditional demonstrates its effective hold through
the sudden appearance of its individual uptakes. Especially since the extreme
physical violations that index the rights-in-person just about disappears, slavery
operates as a vestigial remain that Anthony Appiah has described as a stigma
marking the hidden afterlives of African slaveries (254). Achebe demonstrates
artfully the operative force of this vestigial remains by creating parallelAfrican
and colonialremains in Arrow of God and especially in No Longer at Ease. In a
sense, the logic of sacrifice that inheres in Things Fall Apart runs through the latter
novels; however, its sacral and undisputed nature in the former is already being
corrupted in Arrow of God and in No Longer at Ease, it simply operates as unnamable
force that nevertheless possesses effective materiality.
Olakunle George extends Mamdanis notion of a bifurcated Africa to reveal
the pattern of never-ending translation in Arrow of God. He suggests key scenes
dramatize the complexities of conversion and translation, both understood as
motions of historical becoming (349). The conversation on slavery in the two
novels subsists in this larger process of what George calls conversion. Of course,
as demonstrated powerfully in the conversation on the osu between Mr. Kiaga
and his converts, translation is never complete or successful but generates the
surface meaning or the truth events needed by competing communities while
relocating other competing meanings into the sphere. What George calls tensions
and epiphanies are thus markers of the thresholds of uptake. As he points out,
the bifurcation of the African nation-state into dual epistemic orders creates an
educated elite and teeming millions incorporated into state structures through
tribal identity. This bifurcation is also fluid since the elite also participate within
the traditional or switch codes in the continuum between the traditional and the
modernlearning English, French, or Portuguese does not mean Africans forget
African languages or the various creoles that structure living linguistic practice.
Rather, this bifurcation hardens and dissolves according to the lawor the constituting powersof the object in translation. In fact, the ascendancy of one over
the other, tradition over the modern, creates the epiphanies in question.
This concept of a tussle over thresholds of impossible translation appears
in Arrow of Godand even more so in No Longer at Easeas the juxtapositions of
slavery and the logic of sacrifice. At the end of Things Fall Apart, the African world
has lost jurisprudence over political power, leaving only the religious power of
the sacerdotal realm. Arrow of God charts the erosion of that religious power and
No Longer at Ease charts how the sacerdotal operates within the remains of kinship
rules. Hence, in Arrow of God, the recurrent intimations of slavery appear in relation to the transformationsor translationsof sacrifice, the necessary legitimization of such transformations, as well as its explicit reference to the private sphere
of kinship as the realm that confers the powers of transformation. This reflexive
iteration of sacrifice gains its constituting (and indeed constitutional) power in the
narrative from what can be described as the originary human sacrifice at the
formation of the community in a now mythical past:


In the very distant past, when lizards were still few and far between, the six
villagesUmuachala, Umunneora, Umuagu, Umuezeani, Umuogwugwu and
Umuisiuzolived as different peoples, and each worshipped its own deity. The
hired soldiers of Abam used to strike in the dead of the night, set fire to the houses and
carry men, women and children into slavery. Things got so bad for the six villages
that their leaders came together to save themselves. They hired a strong team of
medicine-men to install a common deity for them. This deity which the fathers
of the six villages made was called Ulu. Half of the medicine was buried at a
place which became the Nkwo market and the other half was thrown into the
stream which became Mili Ulu. The six villages then took the name of Umuaro,
and the priest of Ulu became their Chief Priest. From that day they were never
again beaten by an enemy. (Arrow 1415; emphasis added)

Slavery thus gains its salience through its unspoken association with subservience
and its opposition to sovereignty. The villagers essentially found a new community grounded in a fear of enslavement by the Abam. Ulu, then, becomes a form
of ikengathe life-constituting force of the community and its link to ancestors
that protects against the Abam. Readers may remember that the great medicine
created by Umuaro consisted, in part, of a human being from the community. As
Ezeulu explains, times of emergence may need urgent measures such as human
sacrifice (133). While it may be absent as a force in public life, slavery operates as
the occulted counterpoint to sovereignty and self-ownership. In other words, the
opposition to slavery operates as the foundational logic of the communitys political system. The infractions against a persons ownership of the self are thus not
simply rare, but their appearances also crystallize the unspoken law of Umuaro.
It is against this fundamental narrative of community creation that all references
to slavery and sovereignty gain meaning.
A number of distinctive features about the references to slavery bear mention. Unlike in Things Fall Apart, where slaves are members of the community,
slavery appears as a relic in Arrow of God or is simply silenced. Hence, it appears
in proverbs and warnings that refer to the terror of an ancient time anterior to
the constitution of the community (15; 26; 27; 108; 160). The single reference to the
practice of enslavement in Umuaro refers to the abolishment of the institution by
the father of the present Chief Priest (133). The constant reiteration of the absence
of slaves also emerges in a reference to its manifestation in the public. The two
passages reveal the differences between slavery in Umuofia and in Umuaro. The
first passage from Arrow of God revisits a similar passage in Things Fall Apart:
The meeting [of elders and ndichie] began as fowls went to roost and continued
into the night. Had it been a day meeting children who had brought their fathers
stools would have been playing on the outskirts of the market place, waiting
for the end of the meeting to carry the stools home again. But no father took his
child to a night meeting. Those who lived near the market place carried their
stools themselves; the others carried goatskins rolled up under the arm. (Arrow
14142; emphasis added)

In view of the repeated association between stools, slaves and children in Things
Fall Apart (46), the elaborate attention to the children and stools at the political
meeting in Umuaro hints at the possible presence of slaves in that community. But



if slavery does not operate visibly in Umuaro, the foundational logic that is constituted through the human sacrifice against slavery surfaces repeatedly as a series
of allusions to the connections between the contingency of self-ownership and the
contingency of sovereignty. Hence, the numerous references to slavery emerge in
contexts in which the power or limits of self-ownership need to be determined.
Invariably, such contexts are intrinsically linked to sacrifice which functions as
the ultimate means of assuring self-ownership or life (15758).
In his reading of Arrow of God, Mark Mathuray details elaborately the worldconstituting function of the repetitions of sacrifice in Achebes reflexive novel.
Turning to Emile Benvenistes use of the ambiguous character of homo sacer as
both polluted and divine, he reveals that the figureembodied in the person
of Ezeuluis essential to what Gikandi describes in the context of Umuofia as
the zones of exclusion and inclusion crucial to social order. In Arrow of God, the
polarities of exclusion and inclusion are invested in the sacred person of Ezeulu
who functions as mythical hero and sacrificial victim. The sacred is thus not only
intimately connected to divine power for citizens of Umuaro, but it is also the
symbol of sovereignty. Read thus, the political tussle between Nwaka and Ezeulu
symbolize contrapuntal mappings of the impending reconstitution of the sacerdotal realm. Both the European administration and Umuaro are asserting forms of
rights-in-person over Ezeulu. This point emerges, for example, in the opposition
between Ezeulus reference to his possible death as human sacrifice at the burial
of Winterbottom and the command by the leaders of Umuaro that he eat death
(167; 208). Nwaka, the priest of Idemili, sums up the issue as a constitutional battle
to ensure the separation of political and religious power:
We have no quarrel with Ulu. He is still our protector, even though we no longer
fear Abam warriors at night. But I will not see with these eyes of mine his priest
making himself lord over us. My father told me many things, but he did not tell
me that Ezeulu was king in Umuaro. (Arrow 27)

Nwaka in essence explains the necessity for change; the demise of the threat of
slave-raiders augurs a new world in which Ulu is of less use. Ezeulu apprehends
the possibility that Ulu might be abandoned much clearer in his dream (160). Since
this essentially takes place at the end of the narrative, the new world augured by
the decline of Ezeulu and the relegation of Ulu is the conversion to the sacrifice
of Christ (230). Yet the conversion to Christian sacrifice doubles as a veiled interface between Umuaro and the European world. On one hand, it hints at the new
disjuncture between the colonial law and the sacred that promises a disenchantment of modernity. On the other hand, that impending modernity appears in
counterpoint to earlier forms of contact between Europe and Africa through the
self-styling of Africans converted into new beings in the novel: Moses Unachukwu and John Nwokida (47; 16970). If Moses plots his encounter with Europeans
in Onitsha as a sojourn in Egypt, what is evoked is the context of Jewish enslavement in and deliverance from Egypt. Beyond the blatant biblical allusion in Johns
name, his narrative testifies to the benefits of European commerce. Submerged
between these two narratives of trade, Christianity, and deliverance from slavery
is the suppressed history embodied by the conspicuously silent West Indian missionary, Blackett, who impresses Oduchethe son Ezeulu sacrifices to the white


manbecause it was said that this black man had more knowledge than white
men (46). Ultimately, then, the originary flight from slave-raids and Umuaros
human sacrifice to ward off enslavement finds their counterpoint in the missing
narrative of the West Indian missionary. The horror that occurs between the African flight from slave raids and the diasporic return from Atlantic slavery appears
as the enchantment that refuses complete domestication. Achebes portrayal of the
counterfactualas supposed to simply contrapuntalrelations to slavery do not
simply mark the heteronomous nature of memories of slavery. It also indicates the
different temporalities and discrete uptakes of slavery across the diaspora.


Perhaps more than anything else, No Longer at Ease addresses the fractured
temporalities of colonial modernity and the seemingly counterfactual parallel
worlds they engender. Slavery, symbolized by the mistranslated osu institution,
marks the insurmountable obstacle between the traditional and the modernin
fact, the eradication of the stigma becomes the measuring plank for the progress
towards civilization (86). Obi Okonkwo bears an inverted similarity to Blakett; he
is a returnee from an encounter with Europe; his journey is plotted as a journey
to the spirit world (5859). However, the returnee now encounters the suppressed
past as an archaic relic. As readers know, No Longer at Ease revolves around two
seemingly unrelated narratives in which Obi Okonkwo participates. In the first
narrative, he arrives from Great Britain as a graduate with a promising career in
the civil service but is arrested and sentenced for accepting bribes. In the second,
and almost tangential narrative, Obi decides to marry Clara, an osu, and seems
particularly determined once he has the first of many opponents to his objective
(82). These two strands come together, as Gikandi suggests, in terms of Obis search
for the proper moral codes he needs to function in a Nigeria he does not understand (Reading Achebe 8587). Obi Okonkwo, like his grandfather, functions within
imaginaries other than that of the worlds around him. In effect, Gikandis reading
of the novel returns us to the question of moral order I invoked at the beginning of
this essay. The Nigeria Achebe describes in this novel is an inchoate process from
which his characters are alienated. In many respects, Obi shares with his grandfather, Okonkwo, the inability to grasp the transformations of social imaginaries or
the multiplicity of moral orders in which he is placed. Thus, like his grandfather he
orchestrates his own ruin. But while Obis insistence could be read as Obis inability to switch codes as his fellow Nigerians seem to do, my emphasis on slavery
leads me to read the resonances and repetitions between Things Fall Apart and No
Longer Ease around the mutually conjugating issues of slavery, sacrifice, kinship
and sovereignty as part of a deliberate meditation on slavery.
As Don Ohadike explains, the osu had a particular status in an elaborately
articulated system of unfree persons. They were persons dedicated to a deity, who
could neither be killed nor sold but had freedom of movement. They could not
associate with or marry the freeborn, and despite their apparent freedom they
were thought to be socially inferior to chattel slaves because they could never
aspire to the status of a freeborn (43839). In as much as the osu are not slaves, the
only way Achebe can demonstrate their specific status is by demonstrating how
the institution survivesas a vestige of the sacerdotal realm within kinshipwell



beyond the abolition of slavery. Thus, the significance of the juxtaposition of the
narratives of the bribe and the osu is that the former finds an uptakein the sense
of the law capturing and transforming Obis lifewhile the other disappears in
the narrative, although the life of an unborn child is destroyed. In other words,
the law of the colonial state codifies and operates upon a moral order distinct from
the vestigial moral order in which tradition operates.
The particular relationship of the abortion as a death in a reflexive chain of
iterations emerges in the way the trial in all but name within the family inflects a crucial
scene between Okonkwos son and grandson, Obi and Nwoye, with sacrifice:
When they brought me word that he had hanged himself I told them that those
who live by the sword must perish by the sword. ... Mr. Braddeley thought I
spoke the white mans messenger whom my father had killed. He did not know
I spoke about Ikemefuna, with whom I grew up in my mothers hut until the
day came when my father killed him with his own hands. ...

Obi knew the sad story of Ikemefuna who was given to Umuofia by her
neighbors in appeasement. Obis father and Ikemefuna became inseparable. But
one day the Oracle of the Hills and Caves decreed that the boy should be killed.
Obis grandfather loved the boy. But when the moment came it was his matchet
that cut him down. (15758)

There are several uptakes in these passages and the contrast between them
underlines the function of repetition as a device of extrapolation. In the first paragraph, as Nwoye and Mr. Braddeley place themselves in different moral orders
through their affiliation with different victims, they demonstrate their affective
relationships to violent events.
Achebe emphasizes the private nature of Nwoyes grief through the rehearsal
of Obis received memory of the event; Nwoyes pain never becomes as palpable
to his son who receives the narrative second-hand. As much as Nwoye recounts
his pain at Ikemefunas death in order to underline the stress of his conversion to
Christianity, he now uses his suffering during conversion to underline his adherence to an element of Igbo tradition that causes Obi great pain. The latter cannot
marry Clara, the mother of his unborn child, because she is osu:
We are Christians, [Nwoye] said. But that is no reason to marry an osu.
The Bible says that in Christ there are no bond or free.
My son, said Okonkwo, I understand what you say. But this thing is deeper
than you think.
What is this thing? Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man osu, a thing given to idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his
children, and his childrens children forever. But have we not seen the light of
the Gospel? Obi used the very words that his father might have used in talking
to his heathen kinsmen. (151)

These are not just words that the father might have used; the conversation rehearses
almost verbatim the conversation on the same subject in Things Fall Apart. However,
the realm of kinship now harbors a material power that even Obi perceives in a
heathen song offered by a woman who had been married into the village after
he had gone to England:


He that has a brother must hold him to his heart,
For a kinsman cannot be bought in the market,
Neither is a brother bought with money (14647)

In terms of narrative action, this song immediately precedes the conversation

in which Nwoye forbids the desecration of the kinship through marriage. The
larger irony Obi might have recognized, or not, is that phrase had been married
indicates a forceful nature alluding to the common consideration that a woman
who marries away from her into a village or clan where she has no kin was being
enslaved.6 These torturous reflexive maneuvers stress the inverted relationship
between osu and Ikemefunas captivity as part of a complex system of exclusions
translated into English as slavery. In an inverted sense, whereas Ikemefuna
undergoes affective mobility but retains his marginality-in-society, Igbo society
maintains an affective distance from Clara although she cannot be marginalized
within the nation-state. The violence of slavery resides, thus, in a stigma of which
the uptake is an effective death sentence for the unborn.
Yet the gesture towards the virtual on which the Achebes conversation on
slavery ends signals the importance of beginning evaluations of the afterlives
of slavery from within what my selected epigraphs elucidate as their entanglements within local cultural-historical settings. Invariably, constantly emerging
narratives of slaverys multiple manifestations and legacies respond to located
forms of animus. Thus, Achebes attention to the actual social acceptance and
legitimization of a form of what we now call slavery is instructive for learning
how the institution was transformed and subsided into a seemingly imperceptible
social stratum. Among other things, what Achebe teaches us is that with historical
practices, we may best begin by paying attention to their affective and powerful
vestigial remains. In order words, Obierikas reflection about the veracity of stories about slaves taken over the seas should not be read as a silence on transatlantic
slavery. Rather, it is part of the reflexive play of differance in the text. On one level,
Obierikaand perhaps, in extension, Achebedoes not presume to be able to tell
that story for them. On the other, and much more significant, level: since Obierika
lives in an oral culture, that reflection is a meta-fictional nod to the larger world
of storiessuch as the slave and neo-slave narrativeswith which Things Fall
Apart is in articulation. Most important, the feared loss of sovereignty apparent
in Obierikas sudden awareness of the slaves taken away underlines how the
impending formal colonization functions as the bridgehead for Africans into European modernity. This revelation of slavery in practice in the fiction of Achebe is
not a silence on slavery. It promotes an examination of slavery as it was embedded
within a now altered moral order. Obierikas reference to the slaves taken away is
the only instance when any citizen of Umuofia utters the word slaveall other references, except for Mr. Kiagas, simply occur in narrative. As such, it is Obierikas
implicit recognition of injustice of the sanctioned practice within Umuofias moral
order. The slave is seen, shown, felt, but we are never given an unproblematic voice
to reclaim and press into service in our own moral order. Achebe points to the
necessity to consider imaginaries as materially affective entities and to locate how
vestigial afterlives of historical practices, such as slavery, are now legitimized or
occulted within our unfolding present. It is, perhaps, in recognition of Achebes



achievement that a host of Nigerian writers writing in the wake of the return to
democratic rule in 1999 invariably make allusions to Achebes fictional worlds as
they investigate the new values of human life and labor within the twenty-firstcentury cultures of commerce, law, and governance called globalization.7

1. A version of this paper was presented at the African Literatures Association

2009 conference in Burlington, VT. I would like to thank Ato Quayson, Nandini Dhar,
Eldon V. Birthwright, Sandra Richards and Anthonia Kalu for their comments. I thank
also Germain Hamel and Trina Ojo for listening to my endless ruminations on the
grammars of slavery. I am grateful to Adeleke Adeeko for his patience and his encouragement as I worked through the issues in Achebes attention to slavery. This paper is
dedicated to the memory of my father, Matthew Adeyemi Osinubi.
2. For this type of analysis, see Ogundele; Opoku-Agyemang; and Borgomano.
These essays are quite different in their analysis of the silence on slavery and I have
somewhat simplified the nuances of the authors for a lack of space. Besides, these
essays need to be placed in a sustained dialogue with alternative conceptualizations
of memories of slavery in work produced by Modupe Olaogun, Christopher Miller,
Anne Bailey, Bayo Holsey, Achille Mbembe and writers in the collection of essays in
the edited volume Africa and Trans-Atlantic Memories of Slavery. I attend to these larger
contexts in my book project.
3. For one such argument, see especially chapters three and four of Lamin Sanehs
Abolitionists Abroad. For an alternative view, compare Christopher Leslie Browns critical
assessment of the contradictory hopes of formerly enslaved Africans and Europeans in
chapter five, Africa, Africans, and the Idea of Abolition, in his Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. For treatments of returnees in fiction, see Ayi Kwei Armahs
Fragments or Syl Cheney Cokers The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar. Of course, other
novelists use an inverse trope of the returnee that was captured but did not make the
Atlantic crossing. In these novels, such as Amos Tutuolas My Life in the Bush of Ghosts,
Yaw Boatengs The Return, and Obi Akwanis March of Ages, the returnees are dedicated
to forging African modernities with new forms of kinship.
4. I will not be treating the novels in the order in which they were published, but
in the order of the historical periods they cover.
5. Freadmans fashioning of uptake deserves a much more elaborate engagement than I am able to offer in this paper. It is a reading of J. L. Austins How to Do
Things with Words alongside Judith Butlers theorization of the politics of performative
speech in Excitable Speech. What I try to suggest in this paper is that the contexts of antiimperial agitations in which Achebe wrote necessitated a particular mode of writing
that paid attention to African slavery at the same time it needed to avoid legitimizing
colonial conquest. Freadmans use of the speech act in connection to an execution that
most people considered unfair is useful for considering how the human being is produced as a slave and the whole process is regarded as legitimate in any society. What
is important here is that it is the very people who consider the law as working for them
that turn against the same law. It is only through this deviation that we perceive an
otherwise normalized valuation of human life. I attend to the nuances of Freadmans
essay and its connections to the formation of social imaginaries, in which the values
of the human are embedded, in a forthcoming account of the new uptakes of slavery
in Nigerian fiction after 1999.
6. Anthonia Kalu in conversation.
7. For a discussion of ways in which slavery is remembered in contemporary
Nigerian fiction, see my Gridlock and Political Signification in African Post-Slavery
Narratives paper presented at MLA 2009.



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. No Longer at Ease. 1960. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
. Things Fall Apart. 1958. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Akwani, Obi O. March of Ages. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 2003. Print.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Whats Wrong with Slavery? Buying Freedom: The Ethics
and Economics of Slave Redemption. Ed. Anthony Kwame Appiah and Martin Bunel.
Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. 24758. Print.
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