Rebecca Shumway. The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011. xii + 244 pp. $90.00. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.

In The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589, Toby Green wrote, “There was not one Atlantic slave trade, but many trades wreaking many different effects…” Indeed, Shumway’s first book and refurbished dissertation, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is a study of one such trade and the ethnolinguistic culture it allegedly produced. Shumway uses archives from England and Ghana, oral histories from Ghana, and secondary sources to tell the history of the coastal Fante during the long eighteenth century. Today, the Fante people constitute 2 million of Ghana’s population of 21 million, and historiography typically dates their origin to a paper government—the Fante Confederation—established in 1868 to resist British colonization. In this text, however, Shumway argues that the Confederation had a predecessor, a decentralized republic that she calls the “Coastal Coalition.” Her book uncovers the story of this coalition. Her thesis is that both the coalition and modern Fante identity cannot be understood without reference to three contexts that shaped Fanteland during the long eighteenth century: the unique legacy of the international gold trade; the imperial expansion of the Asante Kingdom in the forested interior; and the rise, peak, and fall of the transatlantic slave trade on the coast.[1]

The Fante occupied a region of southern or coastal Ghana from the Pra River to Accra. It is known today as Fanteland but was an 100-mile stretch of the central Gold Coast in the eighteenth century. Before the late-1600s, Fanteland imported slaves and exported gold, first to Western Sudan and then also to European traders. In this period, the region contained small, independent, and feuding kingships, all culturally and linguistically distinct. Then, Fanteland drastically changed its relationship to the Atlantic World by embracing slave exportation. What followed were wars in which one group—the Borbor Fante—conquered Fanteland to forge the coalition. Ostensibly, the coalition served three purposes: to help Fanteland people cope with heightened violence from the slave trade, to protect their privileges as brokers of that same trade, and to defend against conquest by the Asante, who were also their suppliers. The coalition matured by the 1750s and had a “golden age” until 1806/1807, when it was destroyed by an Asante invasion and the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade. According to Shumway, the coalition was characterized by a lack of centralized political authority, a new warlord elite and priesthood, the dominance of an urban creole merchant class at the African-controlled port of Anomabo, a dissemination of the Fante language, and a transformation of pre-existing “social and cultural institutions,” especially a religious shrine of the Nananom Mpow and the commoner militia units called asafo.[2]

What are Shumway’s main contributions? First, she restores Anomabo in Gold Coast historiography. This port has been overshadowed by Cape Coast and Elmina, which performed much less business. Also, unlike Randy Sparks’ recent book on Anomabo (Where the Negroes Are Masters), Shumway balances internal (read: African) and external (read: European) influences. Meanwhile, she adheres to the thesis of John Thornton (Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World) that Europeans shaped yet had no power to control African commerce. Second, Shumway restores non-imperial peoples as well as non-slavers to the story of the Gold Coast, Africa, and the slave trade. She writes, “the majority of people in West and West Central Africa” resembled Fanteland because they lived in “decentralized or stateless societies” that were neither subjugated nor defined solely by their roles as captors and/or captives. Nonetheless, the literature has privileged empires like Asante. Third, Shumway restores the slave trade and the 1700s to national historiography, which has emphasizes Ghana’s earlier reputation as a gold exporter and later reputation as the birthplace of Pan-Africanism and decolonization. In this sense, Shumway picks up where Ray Kea left off in Settlements, Trade and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast.[3]

How persuasive is Shumway’s argument? While I am convinced that Fanteland was shaped by the three contexts mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, I am less convinced Shumway has accurately described the “Coastal Coalition.” Is it a network “of dependency and mutual obligation” and a “remarkable process of cultural adaptation and community formation,” as she argues, or more of a Fantee empire of territorial expansion to contrast with that of the Asante? Of course, this latter perspective is the traditional one. Understandably, there are problems with both of Shumway’s main categories of evidence. It is hard to know if European records are accurately describing a unified “Fantee nation,” or if they are projecting the idea on a diverse area. Conversely, with the oral histories, it is hard to know whether Shumway is correct to attribute their content to the eighteenth century rather than later periods, as others have done. Regardless, perhaps the book’s biggest weakness (in the opinion of this reviewer) is that Shumway makes a regional claim by giving the most space to one group (the Borbor Fante) and one port (Anomabo). Her brief and final chapter on the broad “social and cultural changes” in the region is certainly the most speculative, but it is also the most innovative and compelling.[4]


[1] Toby Green, The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa , 1300-1589 (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14; Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011), 2, 11-12, 153, 157.

[2] Ibid. 53, 108, 132.

[3] Ibid. 4, 8, 43.

[4] Ibid. 12, 88, 89-90.