“Slaves”, by Kangni Alem: a dive from Dahomey to Brazil among the actors of the transatlantic slave trade

In the mid-19th century, although the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1815, illegal slave ships still plyed the seas

“Slaves”, by Kangni Alem: a dive from Dahomey to Brazil among the actors of the transatlantic slave trade

In the mid-19th century, although the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1815, illegal slave ships still plyed the seas. There are many actors and beneficiaries of trafficking, both European and African, for whom the benefits to be derived from this system (financial advantages, political and economic power, pre-eminence of certain peoples over others, etc.) take precedence over humanitarian considerations.

Newly republished, Slaves (ed. Seeds of Thoughts), a superb novel by the Togolese writer Kangni Alem, depicts the complexity of this situation and, throughout, a gallery of characters – traffickers, merchants, Portuguese men of influence, English, French, Americans, as well as African men of power and of course slaves – embodies the interests at stake.

The setting chosen by the novelist is that of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, as well as, on the other side of the Atlantic, Brazil and Cuba. We follow in particular the fate of King Adandozan (1793-1861), whose sovereignty will be undermined due to his broad-mindedness, with certain men even within his court considering his abolitionist ideas as a sign of weakness.

The other central character in the plot is located at the other end of the power spectrum, despite his occult knowledge as a “master of rituals”. Manipulated by those who are angry with the king and at the same time a victim of slave traffickers, he will allow himself to be captured with the meager hope of saving his people, deported before him to Cuba. Alas, it is in Brazil that he will first arrive and will have to endure his new life under the name of Miguel. His return to African soil will take place twenty-four years later.

Official rooms and backyards

“I wanted to write a historical fiction on the organization of the slave trade in the Gulf of Benin as well as on those we call Aguda, the Africans deported to South America and who became Afro-Brazilians,” explains Kangni Alem. Many stayed in Brazil, others returned, like the hero of my novel, and gave birth to new generations of men long cut off from their African roots and bearers of an Afro-Brazilian culture. »

We are seduced by the scale of the novelist's project, whose ambition is in reality to produce a trilogy. After Slaves, whose movement went from Dahomey to Brazil, Children of Brazil (2017) was published, dedicated to the famous Agudas. In 2025 the third book will be published, with the central figure of Sylvanus Olympio, born in Togo, first president of the country after Independence and also a descendant of Afro-Brazilians.

One of the great successes of Slaves is undoubtedly also the wonder that Kangni Alem manages to arouse throughout the book, notwithstanding the seriousness of the subject. We enjoy discovering with him the political organization of ancient Dahomey, etiquette, behind the scenes of the court from official rooms to private bedrooms and backyards, from power intrigues to love affairs.

For example, we will delight in following the character of Sophia, a young interpreter who arrives at the king's house as part of a European delegation of Danish abolitionists. Her intelligence, her ease in expressing herself in the Gbe language and her plasticity seduce the monarch who keeps her close to him as an advisor, mistress and favorite.

Curse rumors

Other passages, such as that of the great revolt of the slaves of Bahia, are staged with great attention to detail. We truly believe we are in a period film, masterfully directed. But if it is indeed fiction, it is based on proven historical facts, such as this revolt that occurred in January 1835. We understand that it took more than five years of research and work for the writer to complete his novel.

“Reading The Last Survivor of the Caravan, by the Central African novelist Etienne Goyemide, dedicated to the Arab-Muslim slave trade, marked me and motivated me to write about the transatlantic slave trade,” he explains modestly. Slaves in turn preceded the works of Léonora Miano (The Season of the Shadow), Wilfried N'Sondé (One ocean, two seas, three continents) or even Netonon Noël Ndjekery (There is no rainbow in Paradise) all of which, through their literary contribution, contribute to enriching the perception of these periods of the past and to facing the complexity of slavery.

“The sky, above the sail, is dark like the belly of an abandoned oven. Arched sea. Veiled moon. Mists and freshness of the north. 5:20 a.m..” These few words set the tone at the beginning of Kangni Alem’s novel. We immediately let ourselves be embarked on the old three-masted ship which, in the darkness, heads towards Australia. But will it be possible, like the crew, to ignore the rumors of a curse hovering over the boat?

On an earlier crossing, it is said, when the holds were loaded not with goods but with African captives, “one of the slaves, believed to be a priest of an obscure religion called Vodoun, provoked fury elements and cast a spell on the boat. » When it's time to face the unpredictable swell of the Indian Ocean, on the edge of the Roaring Forties, the old boat pitches and spins, carried towards rocks suddenly emerging from the waves... What's next? Only the novelist knows the end of the story.