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AfriGeneas Africa Research Forum

Re: Who Were the Skilled African Iron Workers?

The Bantu people of Gabon, in West Africa, had acquired iron-making skills around the 7th century, according to Encarta Africana. The Bantu spread their skills and culture throughout western Africa, particularly south into modern day Angola, where the Mbundu People were observed in iron-making in the 15th century.

Ironmakers in the northern American colonies used enslaved African labor for a variety of roles in the furnaces and forges, generally beginning as unskilled labor and gradually introducing them to more skilled roles. That enslaved people from certain geographical areas in Africa were familiar and comfortable working around furnaces was evident to many ironmakers, who did not hesitate to employ slaves instead of indentured servants or free labor in highly skilled roles throughout the eighteenth century.

John Beziz-Selfa, writing in 1997, notes, "The presence of so many slaves among the ranks of forgemen may well have been the result of a combination of African metallurgical skill and proprietary need. On his journey into West Africa at the end of the eighteenth century, Scottish surgeon Mungo Park observed smiths who produced steel tools from smelted iron using techniques that were similar to those exploited within forges in British North America. Although no evidence indicates that ironmasters specifically directed agenst working in Africa to buy individuals or groups of Africans who had expertise in working with iron, it seems plausible that they knew that African ironmaking techniques resembled many of those used in refinery forges in British North America. Possession of such knowledge could only have increased the attractiveness of skilled enslaved labor to an entrepreneur looking to control both the costs and quality of the bar iron he sold." (John Beziz-Selfa, "Slavery and the Disciplining of Free Labor in the Colonial Mid-Atlantic Iron Industry," Pennsylvania History, Vol. 64, Summer 1997, p. 277.)

In notes to the text above, Beziz-Selfa refers to the following works on the African iron industry:
-Schmidt, Peter R. "The Culture and Technology of African Iron Production," Gainesville, FL, 1996.
-Herbert, Eugenia W. "Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Societies," Blooomington, IN, 1993.
-Haaland, Randi and Peter Shinnie, eds. "African Iron Working, Ancient and Traditional," Oslo, 1985.
-Kense, Francois. "Traditional African Iron Working: African Occasional Papers, no. 1," Calgary, 1983.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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