CHILDREN OF HOPE: The Odyssey of the Oromo Slaves from Ethiopia to South Africa
By Sandra Rowoldt Shell
While this book is the result of a meticulous study of a collection of slave narratives and attendant literature, it is a surprisingly absorbing read.
It contains reams of detail and analysis, but it is written clearly and succinctly. It is the kind of book you dip into, it is too dense to read in one sitting – but the subject matter keeps you coming back and the short chapters and titled sections make it easy to deal with just one topic at a time.
When she started working at Rhodes University’s Cory Library for Historical Research in 1972 Sandra Rowoldt Shell became fascinated by a stack of first hand narratives. They told the stories of Oromo children from Ethiopia who were educated at the Lovedale Institution in the Eastern Cape. That fascination never left her and she finally went down the rabbit hole and did a systematic analysis of not only the mini-biographies but everything else she could find out about the Oromo children.
Like any good research paper it contains lots of references to not only the slave narratives but secondary literature on the Horn of Africa slave trade and a surprising amount of information about the children as grown ups. The original narratives are included in the book alongside maps detailing the children’s first journey as slaves across Ethiopia.
As they were transported across the Red Sea the children were freed by the British navy between 1888 and 1889. Scottish missionaries carefully wrote down their stories while they stayed at a Free Church of Scotland mission station at Sheikh Othman in Aden before they travelled down to South Africa.
Somewhere in the statistics, analysis, maps and careful conjecture Rowoldt Shell finds the children’s identity. Painstakingly she teases out where they came from, who their families were and what their likely cultural background could have been. Since the moment of capture was so indelibly imprinted on their minds, she could pinpoint quite a bit of information about what happened.
This study questions some of the assumptions historians have made about the trade of slaves from the Horn of Africa, particularly around the concept of the first passage. Uniquely, the narratives provide a rare insight into this little-researched area of study – the first passage starts the moment the person is captured, it is that journey from capture to coast.
While historians concluded a while back that slavery around the Horn of Africa concentrated more on children than adults, a large clutch of contemporary and systematic child slave narratives such as these Oromo accounts are virtually unknown. So, the possibility of a study like this is rare.
Then there is the approach – Rowoldt Shell translates the children’s stories into numbers and statistics to provide a glimpse into trends and patterns of this particular slave route even as she humanises them to tell their individual stories.
The children’s middle passage aboard dhows on the Red Sea lasted only a few hours and could not have accounted for their foreshortened life expectancy, placing the spotlight on the effects of the first passage as much more complex than previously assumed. So a second unique point of this study is the conjecture that the deaths on board the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic were not necessarily the result of the harsh middle passage (the boat trip) experience alone but may have been a consequence of the lengthy and grueling first passage.
Rowoldt Shell’s findings suggest a rethink of the effects of this under-studied first passage, providing as she does such a nuanced picture of the first part of a slave’s journey.