African history specialist discusses Adrien Atiman, freed slave to medical missionary

Stephen Rockel holding his book Carriers of Culture

Professor Stephen Rockel, a specialist in African history, particularly in Tanzania, East Africa and South Africa, will discuss “The Autobiography of Adrien Atiman: Freed Slave to Medical Missionary” Thursday as part of the Tubman Speaker Series.

The talk will take place March 20, from 3:30 to 5pm, at 280N York Lanes, Keele campus.

Some time in the early 1870s, a young boy from Tundurma on the Niger River near Timbuktu was pawned and sold into slavery. Passing through a series of masters, he was taken across the Sahara. In Algeria he was redeemed by White Father missionaries. Baptized Joseph Adrian Atiman, he was educated and trained in medicine.

Stephen Rockel holding his book Carriers of Culture
Stephen Rockel holding his book Carriers of Culture:  Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa

In 1888, Atiman travelled to Zanzibar and to Karema on Lake Tanganyika with a missionary caravan. Thus began a remarkable career of 67 years as a medical catechist. Atiman left a rich autobiographical account of his enslavement, manumission, and incorporation into the White Fathers’ mission and medical work.

Recent work on slavery in Africa illuminates the slave experience by tracing lives from enslavement through incorporation into host societies and the construction of new identities or social rebirth. Slaves and freed slaves were not only commodities and labourers, they also took part in the development of new communities.

This talk contextualizes Atiman’s story, highlighting three themes: processes of enslavement and manumission; transcontinental aspects of the 19th-century slave trade; and missionaries and freed slaves in the construction of new communities in the East African interior. Sources include the autobiography of Adrian Atiman, mission documentation, colonial records and ethnographic material.

After completing his PhD at the University of Toronto, Rockel taught in the Department of Economic History at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, before returning to Toronto in 1999. His research interests include: labour history, slavery, urbanization, colonialism, nationalism, and war and society throughout the African continent and beyond.

His book, Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa, was awarded the Joel Gregory Prize by the Canadian Association of African Studies for the best book on Africa written by a Canadian and published in 2006-07. His current projects include a history of Tabora – a 19th-century commercial city in Tanzania – as well as research on Tanzanian national identity and South African anti-apartheid exiles in Canada. In 2009, he published (with Rick Halpern) Inventing Collateral Damage: Civilian Casualties, War and Empire.