To mark International Slavery Day (23rd August), Jo Manby reviews:
The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, by Rebecca Shumway (University of Rochester Press: Rochester, NY & Woodbridge, Suffolk 2011) (Reprinted 2014)
The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade diverges from previous accounts of the relationship between Fante political history and the Atlantic slave trade, which have tended to focus on and to amalgamate Akan ancestry; the period of the gold trade (fifteenth to seventeenth century); or the era of British colonial rule, within the context of Ghana’s Gold Coast.
Instead, the focus here is on the development of ‘Fanteland’, a location of specific language and culture, the eighteenth-century political unification of Ghana’s coastal people, and the creation of a coalition government, which Shumway refers to as the Coastal Coalition.
This coalition made it possible for coastal communities to weather the vicious devastation brought about by Atlantic slavery and to an extent take advantage of some of the opportunities that slave trading presented, while at the same time coping with the expanding fortunes of the Asante kingdom.
The book narrates the development of an African elite built on slave brokerage, as well as the history of the African captives sold into slavery between 1700 and 1807, encompassing a detailed account of economic growth, state formation, political structuring and cultural shifts.
The first chapter, Selling Gold and Selling Captives, contextualises these paradigm shifts and outlines the history of southern Ghana in relation to the developing Atlantic World, as a place where Europeans traded with Africans in gold, and then in the new commodity of enslaved Africans.
However, the point is made that unlike many other peoples of Atlantic Africa, the experience of urbanisation through the previous gold trade had equipped them with ‘commercial and diplomatic skills’ which gave them an advantage, allowing them to push towards a sovereignty and unity of their own that could not happen elsewhere on the continent at that time.
Fanteland in the Atlantic World pursues this theme of initiation into eighteenth-century slave trading. While underlining the inappropriateness of any suggestion that the transatlantic slave trade was a benefit to any African community, Shumway illustrates how circumstances led to economic development and state formation in southern Ghana, also focusing on specific areas – the impact of forts and castles, Anglo-Dutch rivalry, the slave market at Anomabo.
A New Form of Government explores the creation and development of the Coastal Coalition, prior to its 1807 defeat by Asante. Shumway divulges this political transformation by drawing upon a range of European documents – correspondence, records, ethnography – and interpreting anew southern Ghana’s political history between 1700 and 1807 by looking at the rise of commerce at Anomabo and of a new military elite, whose authority based on a combination of social standing, sacred power and personal wealth as well as political prowess. This, she argues, was how the Coastal Coalition was able to steer Fanteland through the trauma of Atlantic slavery.
Shumway’s concluding chapter, Making Fante Culture, turns away from the political and economic arena of southern Ghana and towards the social and cultural world through which the common people, rather than the elite, forged their shared identity. Two institutions key to the development of Fante culture are considered, ‘the religious shrine known as Nananom Mpow’, providing ‘spiritual protection, and ‘the asafo militia companies’, unifying people ‘by strengthening relationships between people unrelated by kinship’ (p.133).
Shumway’s study makes an immensely valuable contribution to the field of African studies and the story of the Atlantic World. As she points out, it takes the perspective of hindsight to fully recognise the ramifications of the slave trade on the demographics, economics and political organisation of Africa, Europe and America.