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Religious Hegemony and the African Slave trade to Malta: Exploring Some Preliminary Questions From a Historical-Anthropological Perspective

Rijk van Dijk (African Studies Centre, Leiden University)



In studies of the African Diaspora much attention has been drawn to particular religious and ritual expressions – both in contemporary as well as in historical times – that appear to reflect and address the diasporans’ experiences of (forced) migration, hardship and inequality at the places of settlement. These religious and ritual expressions may be described in the words of Th. Csordas (2009) as ‘transposable messages’ and ‘portable practices’ in the manner in which diasporans introduce these in the places of arrival from their places of origin. In many instances, specific forms of syncretism may have emerged between these expressions and existing forms of religion and ritual at the places of settlement. While this perspective arguably provides space for understanding some elements of the agency of diasporans in addressing and articulating the effects of migration and emplacement also in contexts of sharp inequalities, a question remains how African diasporans precisely dealt with this in contexts where being faced with religious hegemonies and inequalities were sharpest? In such situations, what room was/is there for religious and ritual practices as a means of expression or of being, potentially, a source of interaction?

This paper sets out to explore one historical case of a context of this nature by addressing the history of the African slave trade to Malta. Soon after the settlement on Malta of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem – known as the Order of Malta – in 1530, the hegemonic position of the Roman Catholic church on the Island was further strengthened by the establishment of the Roman Inquisition. While the Episcopal authority was already well-established, these two developments made Malta what can be described as a ’second Vatican’. At the same time, Valletta (the present-day capital of Malta) began to develop as an important slave-trading market in the Mediterranean world of the day, which, in conjunction with the so-called Corsairs of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, brought enslaved Africans to the island. In many cases, these enslaved were transported into the Mediterranean world via Trans-Saharan slave routes, which often had reached into West-, Central- and East-African regions. The enslaved were forced to work on the Corsair galleys of the Order or became included in (elite-) households as servants. This paper aims to raise preliminary questions on how in this situation of sharp and hegemonic religious supervision and inequalities we may be able to develop a historical-anthropological understanding of the African enslaved ritual life. What did it mean for interactions with a small but highly controlled island population in the period from 1530 to 1800, the moment at which the Roman Inquisition was forced to stop its activities? Data to which the paper will speak are derived from archival sources in Malta.

Csordas, Th. (ed.) 2009. Transnational Transcendence. Essays on Religion and Globalization. Univ. of California press.   


May 15, 2024
5:45-7:15 pm (CET)


Global South Studies Center
University of Cologne
Room 2.53
Classen-Kappelmann-Strasse 24, ground floor, 50931 Köln

Registration contact-socialinequalitiesuni-koeln.de