UG student Luigi Muci selected as a Highly Commended Entrant in The Global Undergraduate Awards
9 October 2020
We are delighted that UG student Luigi Muci was selected as a Highly Commended Entrant in the History category of The Global Undergraduate Awards, for his essay 'Infamous Bondage': Comparing European and African Visions of Slavery in the 16th and 17th century Black Atlantic'.
1. Hi Luigi, thanks so much for talking to us! You were recently selected as a Highly Commended Entrant in the History category of The Global Undergraduate Awards 2020 Programme. This was for your essay 'Infamous Bondage': Comparing European and African Visions of Slavery in the 16th and 17th century Black Atlantic' – can you tell us a bit more about this essay?
It is my pleasure to be interviewed for UCL History.
The idea behind the essay was to weave together European (primarily Portuguese) and African (primarily Kongolese) visions of slavery to understand what motivated the slave trade and why it had such a devastating impact on Kongolese society. From the Portuguese side it seemed like the majority of primary sources I engaged with legitimised the slave trade based on a discourse of converting slaves to Christianity but then judging from the way the Portuguese disregarded Kongolese customs and legal categories on slavery it seemed like the economic motive was the true fuel. The Kongolese leaders had a different legal vision that clashed with that of the Portuguese. By allying with the Imbangala and having their own logic of slavery prevail, the Portuguese heavily destabilized Kongolese society, drawing it into a system that was fundamentally exploitative. The essay was therefore an attempt to explore the intersection of European and African visions of slavery to show the rupture this caused on Kongolese society in the centuries to come.
2. That sounds really interesting! Why did you decide to submit your essay to the Global Undergraduate Awards on this topic?
I heard about the award when a UCL student won the Politics and IR section back in 2019 on an essay on black cultures. I was initially hesitant to submit my work but the summer after my second year I was invited to an academic conference by Dr. Ireton at KCL on the slave trade in Angola and I remember spectating a very lively intellectual debate. It was the first time I was being exposed to the academic world of history and realized it felt a lot more like an ongoing conversation between knowledgeable people bouncing ideas back and forth rather than a world set in stone, where history just exists unchallenged. This motivated me to try to insert myself in this somewhat lively and contested intellectual space by trying to put my essay out there and see how the academic community reacted to it. I realised there was maybe less of a point to writing history if I was not prepared to have other people read it and see what they thought about it, perhaps similar to the way in which an artist probably wants to share a painting they’ve created.
3. Why (or how) did you decide to write a Research Essay on that topic?
In the seminar Black Atlantics in the Global South we were discussing possible research ideas in the class with Dr. Ireton and I realized I really wanted to focus on the transatlantic slave trade. One day I was lying in bed and I had an idea where I mapped out an essay in my mind weaving together different perspectives, European and African ones, into an essay about visions of slavery in the 16th and 17th century and the impact this had on Kongolese society. I don’t know how this came to mind but I remember being really excited by the idea of translating this rough sketch into an essay. It was this idea that then blossomed further into a topic with the invaluable help and tutorship of Dr. Ireton, who patiently worked with me through all of the different proposals that I had and suggested possible texts that I could read to supplement my knowledge. She suggested that I read a chapter by John Thornton titled “African Political Ethics and the Slave Trade” in the anthology Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic, (Ohio University Press, 2010), that further consolidated my interest in wanting to write a history weaving together European and African visions.
4. You wrote the essay for the Research Seminar Black Atlantics in the Global South, can you describe some of the historical sources that you analysed in your essay, and your experience working with these sources? What research and historical skills you developed while writing the essay?
I found the Monumenta Missionaria Africana collection of primary sources in the British Library where I engaged with a letter Queen Njinga of Ndongo wrote in 1624 to the Portuguese administrator Fernão de Sousa and a letter King Garcia II of Kongo wrote to the governor of Brazil in 1643. Both letters were written by African elites who observed the negative impacts the Portuguese transatlantic slave trade was having on Kongolese society. I realized as a historian one can spend large amounts of time even just deciphering a single word or the nuance of a sentence. It is a highly interpretative work as much as it is analytical. Despite having a very basic knowledge of Portuguese, the language was very different in the 17th century, so it took a while to even just understand what was being said. It was certainly a very hands on approach that me realise despite all the theory at the end of the day the work of a historian is also about just getting into the archive and burying your head deep into the texts to work through the basics- when a source was written, who wrote it or what the source is actually saying.
5. This month is Black History Month, and the history of slavery is obviously central to this. Why do you think Black History Month is so important?
I have always felt very conscious as a privileged white European speaking up against the injustices of racism or even BLM when I have personally not been threatened by racism. I sometimes feel conscious of the implications of focusing on African history as someone that is European. However, I don’t think this should matter. Growing up in Kenya and then Sierra Leone I picked up on the ways in which people are treated differently based on something they cannot control, their skin colour. Education and History are a big part of the problem, but are also one of the main solutions. Slavery is a big part of Black History Month, yet it is not taught much in school, and in general African or non-European history has been marginalised in the past in European education. With more focus on these crucial topics such as slavery in the curricula the situation can improve because education is a powerful tool for social change.
6. You are now in your final year with us! What are your plans for the future?
My time at UCL as an undergraduate is indeed coming to an end. I have enjoyed my time here a lot because it was through professors like Dr. Ireton and Dr. Gibbs that I began exploring global and African history. I hope to specialize in the field of African history and ultimately pursue a PhD as I have realized I only function on a day to day level by reading and engaging with academic texts and would find it impossible not to participate in these debates my entire life. I think that although research and academic careers can be challenging and sometimes precarious they would offer a level of intellectual satisfaction that I think I might struggle to find in other jobs. I also feel deeply about the issue of decolonising the curriculum and raising awareness on the importance of studying diverse kinds of history and I think being in academia is a good way to manage my academic passions with some of the social causes I care about.