Ransoming Prisoners in Precolonial Muslim Western Africa

Jennifer Lofkrantz

In a few short sentences, please tell us about your book Ransoming Prisoners in Precolonial Muslim Western Africa.

This book is focused on the legal debates, policies based on those debates and actual practices of ransoming prisoners in Muslim West Africa mostly during the 19th century jihad era, but tracing the discourse further back in time, when societies were debating who is a Muslim, the role of Islam in the state, and who gets to decide.  Ransoming is the return of a prisoner/captive prior to enslavement to their own society with their social status intact for cash or kind whereas a redeemed enslaved person usually remained in their former owner’s society in a subservient social position.  Understanding African debates and ideas on ransoming and how ransoming functioned provides a clearer understanding of slavery in African societies, of African ideas on abolition as well as issues surrounding identity. Through the study of the debates and policies on ransoming and how they fit into the larger intellectual discourse, this book is also an intellectual history of the jihad era and adds to our knowledge of African contributions to the Islamic intellectual canon.

Your book focuses on the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, including the present day, what was the biggest difference you find in terms of ransoming during this time period?

Actually, I find that there are more similarities between contemporary and historical ransoming practices than differences which is why I often draw parallels within the book.  In both the historical and contemporary eras, captors have the same options – to kill, exchange, enslave (slavery is illegal in all UN-recognized states but still practiced widely around the world), or ransom their prisoners and that their choice is based on the same factors – the weight that they put on the variables of their interpretation of their intellectual canon, their view of past regional ransoming practices, prudency, and cash and labour needs.  This is why I am hoping that researchers and practitioners/negotiators involved in contemporary ransom negotiations will also find this book of interest.

You cover a broad geographical range, did you find a lot of similarities between these in terms of your research?

The connection between the different regions covered within the scope of this book is the rooting of interpretation of law regarding ransoming within the Mālikī madh’hab– the school of Islamic law predominant in the Maghrib and Muslim West Africa in the precolonial era. On the individual level the motives of individual captors and prisoners were similar. Prisoners and their families and friends wanted freedom and were willing to go to great lengths to locate prisoners and their captors and to negotiate and raise ransom fees whereas individual captors were motivated by the greater profit they could get from ransoming the captive. The main differences between ransoming in the Maghrib and West Africa are at the state level. In Morocco there was a bigger emphasis on using the ransoming of captives they held as a way to increase government revenue and as a political strategy in its dealing with the European powers and in its relationship with al-Sūs and Wād Nūn. In West Africa though, ransoming was used by governments as a practical means to ensure the freedom of freeborn Muslims. However, there were differences. For example, the Sokoto Caliphate proactively encouraged and was involved in the ransoming of their captive subjects whereas the Umarian governments were more tacit in their support of the practice. 

How did you perform your research? Was there anything you found that especially surprised you? 

Unfortunately, no African nor European source kept registries of West African ransoming cases. Also, many writers did not distinguish between the related but separate practices of ransoming and redemption. Researching ransoming therefore meant combing through a plethora of documents and transcripts including treatise, poems, personal and official correspondence, trade documents, economic, ethnographic and political reports (the more local the better), travel reports, autobiographies, oral histories, records of enquiries etc in several African and European languages for mentions of ransoming cases, policies and debates. I never knew where I would find a key document or case.  One of my most exciting finds was at the Archives Nationales du Niger where I located an original letter written by Muhammad Bello (the second Sarkin Muslimi of the Sokoto Caliphate) outlining his view on ransoming policy. I conducted research in archives and libraries in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and France and am very thankful that Martin Klein gave me access to his material from the Archives Nationales du Sénégal and to having had access to the archival and oral history material held at the Harriet Tubman Institute on Africa and Its Diasporas at York University, Toronto. I am also immensely thankful for all the hard-working interlibrary university librarians at the various universities with which I have been affiliated who tracked down copies of numerous published and microfilmed primary sources for me.

What do you want readers to take away from your book?

There are three main points that I am hoping that readers take away from my book.  First, I hope that they gain a greater appreciation for how African debates, policies and practices regarding legal and illegal enslavement and remedies for illegal enslavement, such as ransoming, shaped enslavement, the slave trade and slavery within West Africa as well as the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Saharan slave trades and therefore affected the formation of culture in the Americas and North Africa. Second, I hope that readers will gain a greater appreciation for African intellectual history and African contributions to both Islamic and global philosophy in general and to the global debate on slavery and abolition specifically.  Third, I hope that readers gain a greater appreciation that the precolonial African past still matters.  There is a prevailing idea that somehow colonialism was a big break in the African experience and that what happened before is irrelevant and does not affect the present world.  However, as I am sure most historians of the precolonial era will attest, precolonial practices, ideas, beliefs, and forms continue to resonate and help shape the present and that to fully understand contemporary events and developments requires an understanding of the precolonial past.  I hope that this book is a contribution to that endeavor.

Ransoming Prisoners in Precolonial Muslim Western Africa

Jennifer Lofkrantz

9781648250644, hardcover,
June 2023
Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora
University of Rochester Press
£85 / 99


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JENNIFER LOFKRANTZ is an Associate Professor of History at Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait.