MARGARET PRIESTLEY. “The Ashanti Question and the British: Eighteenth-Century Origins,” Journal of African History 2, No. 1 (1961): 35-59.

ANN BOWER STAHL. Chapter VI of Making History in Banda: Anthropological Visions of Africa’s Past (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Chapter VI is called “The Changing Social Fields of Banda Villagers, c. 1725-1825,” 148-188.


The readings for this week are the second in a series of four case studies on specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This second case study is on the Gold Coast, an area that roughly corresponds to the present-day nation of Ghana. Situated on the Gulf of Guinea, between what is today the nations of Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, Ghana comprises approximately 350 miles of coastline and extends for several hundred miles inland. During the eighteenth-century, this region was known to European traders as the Gold Coast.[1] It was slightly larger, extending eastward from the Komoe River in present-day Côte d’Ivoire to the Volta River. The region may have been home to more than forty separate sovereign polities.[2] These included centralized states, like the Ashanti, as well as coastal federations, like the Fante. Although Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to set up forts in the region in the late fifteenth century, the British and the Dutch were the primary European commercial powers throughout the 1700s.[3] The readings assigned for this week are secondary sources. One is an excerpt on the eighteenth century from Making History in Banda by the anthropological archaeologist Ann Bower Stahl. And the other is an article written by the historian Margaret Priestley that explores aspects of Gold Coast politics between 1765 and 1772.

Margaret Priestley’s “The Ashanti Question and the British”

In “The Ashanti Question and the British,” the historian Margaret Priestley investigates the years 1765 to 1772, what she refers to as an “early chapter in the history of the British relationship with Ashanti and Fante.”[4] Priesley sets up her piece by arguing that historians have paid too much attention to the year 1807. They have positioned 1807 as the origin of “a strong Anglo-Fante link” that served as a protection of commerce and as a bulwark against other powers, notably the Ashanti and the Dutch.[5] 1807 is significant because it was during that year that the Ashanti empire orchestrated an invasion of the coast and compelled the resident leaders of British stations, like the factory at Anomabu, to openly declare their support for the Fante confederation.[6] While Priestley does not deny the importance of this 1807 event, she argues that it should not be interpreted as the beginning of the Anglo-Fante alliance. Rather, agents of the official British Company of Merchants had been “actively involved in the Ashanti question long before” 1807.[7] Moreover, both the Councilmembers and the Governors of the major British factories—Case Coast Castle, Anomabu, Fort James—had articulated their plans to support the Fante and oppose what they perceived as a Dutch-Ashanti alliance several times before. As Priestley demonstrates, the politics of 1807 had forerunners during Ashanti coastal invasions or invasion scares that took place in 1765, 1767, and 1772.[8]

The strength of this article is in how Priestly explores the politics of the eighteenth-century Gold Coast from a variety of angles. She shows us how the powerful inland empire of the Ashanti, led by the Asantehene Osei Kojo in the 1760s, wants to break their dependence upon the Fante as middleman of the Atlantic trade. This ambition leads the Ashanti into conflict with various coastal states, like Wassaw and Akim, that control the western and eastern trading routes from the Ashanti capital at Kumasi. It also leads them into conflict with the Fante—a “coastal coalition” to use the term coined by the historian Rebecca Shumway—whose republic lies on the doorstep of the British and Dutch factories.[9] On the one hand, British actors back in the metropole, like the Committee of the Company of Merchants and the Board of Trade and Plantations, advocates a position of neutrality with all native powers and collaboration with the Dutch in settling any dispute. On the other hand, British actors on the ground in the Gold Coast advocate for a position of preserving the Fante republic against what they understand as a more-autocratic, and thus less amenable to negotiation, Ashanti Empire. This position is strengthened by the fact that Dutch interests, based out of Elmina, have been secretly encouraging an Ashanti takeover of the coast since the 1760s. Throughout this article, Priestley demonstrates how all of these interests converged before the 1807 event.[10]

There is at least one more valuable takeaways from Priestley’s essay. Priestley writes that one of her main goals is to reveal how the Ashanti Empire’s activities affected both European and Fante peoples before 1807. Nonetheless, if one were reading this article a bit more comparatively, they might see Priestley’s main contribution as being about the effects of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, the historian Boubacar Barry has demonstrated some of the many ways that the rise of an “Atlantic trading system” based in slavery dramatically altered the politics of coastal and interior regions. He explores how violent African states, known as ceddo regimes, rose to power and proved that Atlantic slavery “reinforced arbitrary rule and the centralization of monarchical power.”[11] The situation is not quite the same on the Gold Coast. As scholars like Christopher Decorse and Sam Spiers have argued, the Fante republics suggest that centralized African power was not the inevitable result of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s rise.[12] Nonetheless, we cannot forget that Ashanti’s rise and imperial expansion was rooted in their ambitions to secure control of this Atlantic trade. As Priestley shows, British, Dutch, and Fante people were all reacting to the political expansion of the Ashanti Empire throughout the late 1700s. If Priestly’s article was written today, it may look a bit more like Shumway’s The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade or Randy Sparks’ Where the Negroes are Masters. Both of these studies emphasize how the growth of the Transatlantic Slave Trade drastically transformed the politics of the Gold Coast.[13]

Ann Bower Stahl’s Making History in Banda

In Making History in Banda, the anthropological archaeologist Ann Bower Stahl explores diverse sources and methods for studying African History through “a case study of the Banda area of west central Ghana.”[14] Her study is based on the argument “that anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists have mutually valuable perspectives on African societies,” but that their efforts to combine these approaches have run up against epistemological differences. As such, interdisciplinary scholarship on African History has yet to achieve its full potential.[15] Stahl hopes to contribute to a correction of this problem by drawing upon oral-historical, documentary, and material sources “to create images of a lived past.”[16] Her project has a conceptual and a geographic/temporal focus. The first is established by early chapters that explore the historical roots and methodological legacies of some approaches to African Studies. The second is demonstrated in chapters that specifically investigate Banda. These chapters address the meanings of Banda’s history in the present and survey its political-economic contexts throughout history. Afterward, they present a series of images of Banda’s “lived past,” from its involvement in trade with the Niger region around AD 1300 to its incorporation into the British colonial state at the start of the twentieth century. For my purposes, I am interested in Chapter 6, titled “The Changing Social Fields of Banda Villagers, c. 1725-1825.” Here Stahl creates an image of Banda’s lived past during the eighteenth century.[17]

Stahl begins her chapter by talking about ethnogenesis and settlement changes in the 1720s, the probable decade of Banda’s origin. Evidence from both oral histories of Banda groups such as the Kuulu and the Nafana and a manuscript collection from the 1750s called the Gonja Chronicles suggests the Banda polity “took root in the political-economic vacuum caused by” Asante’s initial northern conquest from 1711 to 1723. In specific, Banda owes its formation to Asante’s destruction of Begho and the period of great uncertainty and population dispersal that it caused in the region.[18] One of the main questions which occupies Stahl next concerns the process of Akanization, or when and at what pace the Banda leaders embraced Akan political, military, and cultural practices. Her research suggests that Banda peoples adopted Akan practices in a much more gradual and selective way than has been supposed. This is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that oral histories show Banda chieftains practicing a rotational method of changing stools that is different from the Asante tradition.[19] Similarly, Banda chieftains, many of who were immigrants, strategically adopted some Akan rituals and regalia in order to legitimize their rule in the eyes of their Akan neighbors. In this way, Banda became a multiethnic frontier polity that drew upon various cultural influences.

Stahl then turns to examining her archaeological evidence in more detail. She explains that dateable imports and thermoluminescence techniques have allowed her to propose that a collection of ceramics found at an archaeological site in Makala Kataa are from anywhere between 1750 and 1825.[20] Makala Kataa is significant for the early history of Banda because it was the first place of settlement for Nafana immigrants, even though its historical importance is secondary in the minds of locals to the Begho site of Kuulu Kataa. Stahl has argued that the initial breakup of large Begho settlements, like Old Bima and Kuulu Kataa, by the Asante invasion scattered residents across the region. Refugees rebuilt their households in small hilltop settlements that left a minimal archaeological presence. The time when the material record at Makala Kataa starts to emerge—what Stahl calls Early Makala—coincides with a decline of Asante hostilities and the start of Banda’s incorporation into the Asante Empire. That being said, Stahl argues that material evidence from Makala Kataa between the years 1750 and 1825 should be able to tell us about the early history of Banda.[21] It is with this thought in mind that Stahl devotes the remainder of chapter six to investigating the “lived pasts” of Banda residents through the archaeological record of Makala Kataa.[22]

Stahl breaks her discussion of Makala Kataa’s material record into four sections. These are titled “Household vs. extra-household production,” “Feeding the family,” “Disposing of the dead,” and “Regional and subcontinental economy.” I will summarize some of the major conclusions that Stahl draws from across these four sections. First, Stahl uses her archaeological evidence to make an argument for Banda’s relative stability during its incorporation into the Asante Empire. A relatively great diversity of clay artifacts and faunal assemblages suggests the existence of a regional trade network that stretches across the Banda hills.[23] Stahl concludes that this network is evidence of Banda’s relative security from at least the 1770s to the 1820s. Stahl locates further evidence of Banda’s stability in the remains of two excavated house mounds. She concludes that these sites were occupied for a considerable length of time because the course, earthen walls had deteriorated and undergone repair, and the depth of midden or refuse deposits was also consistent with a long residence.[24] Next, Stahl hypothesizes from the presence of a small number of spindle whorls that household textile production and consumption may be increasing in Banda after Begho’s decline.[25] Generally speaking, Stahl suggests that these changing patterns of trade imply “a level of security and freedom of movement” that is specific to Banda during this period of time. [26]

Second, Stahl argues that the people of the Banda region were becoming increasingly connected to Atlantic commerce—what she calls “subcontinental trade” in contrast to “regional trade.” Nonetheless, Stahl contends that the presence of this trade was still minimal throughout the eighteenth century.[27] Stahl makes this case through the increased presence of New World cash crops in Banda. She infers a high presence of New World tobacco from a plethora of clay smoking pipes.[28] The archaeological record also provides evidence for maize, another New World cultigen. However, the presence of maize alongside native crops like Sorghum suggests that the effects of Atlantic commerce were not that dominant.[29] As Stahl writes, “long-distant trade networks were incidental to daily life.”[30] This conclusion is further supported by the fact that most imported goods were restricted to prestige items, such as fabrics for adornment, beads for ceremonies, or weapons for destruction. As such, they probably posed no immediate threat to Banda’s regional production networks of pottery, cloth, and iron.[31] Other objects, like brass items, are a reminder that the Niger River trade remained a predominant part of subcontinental commerce throughout this era.[32]

Third, Stahl makes the argument that enslavement was not a serious threat to Banda peoples throughout this period.[33] This claim builds upon her previous statements in arguing that regional trade networks, material diversification, increased household production, and the greater presence of prestige items all point to a time of security and stability. Likewise, Stahl argues that settlement patterns can be read as responses to the slave trade.[34] In this regard, her most convincing evidence for Banda’s security from enslavement is the fact that Malaka Kataa exists at all. Stahl judges the absence of a comparable, large and centralized settlement in the first half of the eighteenth century as a direct effect of the trauma that accompanied Asante invasion. When the robust archaeological record of Makala Kataa from roughly 1772 to 1825 is read against the meagre evidence in the time prior then security from enslavement becomes a reasonable conclusion. That being said, Stahl does not dismiss the possibility that Banda people engaged with the regional slave economy as purchasers. In particular, Banda families may have used enslavement as a form of ethnogenesis. Enslavement was a way to augment community and household numbers following the great upheavals that had accompanied the Asante invasions that previously dispersed the region’s peoples.[35]

Takeaways from Ann Bower Stahl’s Making History in Banda

Making History in Banda is a truly remarkable work of scholarship from an Atlantic perspective, if only because of where Stahl has chosen to study. Nearly all historical works about the Gold Coast diaspora in the Atlantic World focus on the hinterland and coastal polities that resided between the Asante Empire and the Atlantic coast.[36] Even works by African historians, such as the essay by Priestley, privilege direct interactions between the European powers on the coast and the various African polities with which they interacted. One effect of this bias is that historians of the Atlantic World often write rather uncritically about “Akan” peoples in the African of Black Diaspora, forgetting the fact that many enslaved peoples from the greater Gold Coast region came from non-Akan polities that were located north of Asante.[37] Of course, Stahl is conscious of this problem. She cites scholarship by Kwame Arhin, for example, in an acknowledgement of how historians have overlooked Asante’s northward expansion.[38] In fact, Stahl has chosen Banda precisely as an exercise in trying to overcome this difficulty. Banda’s position north of Asante presents a set of unique source difficulties that makes the region an valuable case study in interdisciplinary work.

What makes studying the Banda area so challenging and, therefore, also so promising? To start, as a polity north of Asante, Banda is very distant from the centers where textual sources were produced. The earliest written reference to the Banda chieftains, for example, does not appear until two decades after the eighteenth century. It appears in 1820, when a British official named Joseph Dupuis visited the Asante capital at Kumasi.[39] Obviously, this makes any attempt to work with the documentary record of the eighteenth century an exercise in extrapolation or upstreaming. Similarly, Stahl can draw upon local and oral histories—and indeed she does—but these are impossible to anchor in time.[40] Stahl is compelled to acknowledge that “We cannot model precisely the structure of the Banda chieftaincy at any particular moment in the past.”[41] Finally, the material trail of the Banda region goes cold for long stretches of time. This happens from the middle of the seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century, and then again for about the middle half of the nineteenth century. Overall, these source difficulties make Banda a place that not only benefits from an interdisciplinary approach but requires an interdisciplinary approach.

I think that historians can learn a lot from the ways that Stahl deals with her source limitations. First, when faced with these difficulties, Stahl does what Americanist historians like Wendy Warren and Daniel Richter have also done.[42] She embraces the potential of historical imagination (informed, of course, by the circumstantial evidence). For instance, Stahl makes use of her “sociological imagination” to interpret the home burial practices and the “taste-making” role of prestige objects.[43] At another time, Stahl uses her “historical imagination” to understand what Banda refugees fleeing from Asante invasion might have experienced when they ascended the steep slopes of a cave.[44]Additionally, Stahl draws on the theory of scholars like Marshall Sahlins to think critically about how imported items might have been re-contextualized in local society rather than assuming that they were used according to the logics of the societies in which they were produced.[45] Finally, when faced with source difficulties that seem insurmountable, Stahl draws on a historical literature about archival silences, especially Michel Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. Perhaps some practices, she concludes are “irretrievable” because evidence for them did not make it to the present.[46]

The strength of Stahl’s Making History in Banda is its spirit of investigation and curiosity. In her preface, Stahl argues that she wants to propose a “Re-visioned historical” anthropology that can overcome disciplinary differences and, literally and figuratively, go where no single discipline can go by itself. As a polity north of the Asante Empire, Banda presents the ideal case study to test this vision. In doing so, Stahl make use of her imagination, local and oral histories, textual sources, material evidence, and a range of academic theories. She embraces the fact that certain realms of knowledge lay beyond her control, and that much of her conclusions remain speculative in nature. Nonetheless, her work contributes to our greater understanding of the daily lives and social worlds of Gold Coast peoples in the eighteenth century. Along with Priestley’s article, Making History in Banda also widens our perspective on Asante expansion and its various consequences.


[1] The area received its name the “Gold Coast” because Gold was the primary export commodity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, the region originally imported slaves from other places in Africa to support this gold trade.

[2] Ray A. Kea, Settlement, Trade, and Polities on the Seventeenth Century Gold Coast (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982), 26.

[3] The British had all of their nationalized West African factories situated along a 200-mile stretch of the Gold Coast with two exceptions, James Fort on the Gambia River and Ouidah on the Slave Coast. See Philip Curtin, The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850 (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964), 8. The Danish were also a presence on the Gold Coast, though their presence was minor compared to the British and the Dutch.

[4] Margaret Priestley, “The Ashanti Question and the British: Eighteenth-Century Origins,” Journal of African History 2, No. 1 (1961): 59.

[5] Ibid. 36. In arguing that aspects of Ashanti history have been overlooked before the beginning of the nineteenth-century, Priestley is following up on earlier work by scholars such as J.K. Fynn. See J.K. Fynn, Asante and Its Neighbours, 1700-1807 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), xi.

[6] Ibid. 35-36.

[7] Ibid. 46.

[8] Ibid. 36.

[9] Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011), 10.

[10] Priestley does not discuss the Danish presence on the Gold Coast in the eighteenth century. For a discussion of their interests, see Fynn, Asante and Its Neighbours, 1700-1807.

[11] Boubacar Barry, Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 58.

[12] Christopher R. DeCorse and Sam Spiers, “A Tale of Two Polities: Socio-Political Transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World,” Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 27 (2009): 37-38.

[13] Randy J. Sparks, Where the Negroes are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 11; Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

[14] Ann Bower Stahl, Making History in Banda: Anthropological Visions of Africa’s Past (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), xvii. As Stahl writes, the Banda region lies northwest of the historic Ashanti capital at Kumasi and “immediately south of the Black Volta River in west central Ghana” (47). She includes a map of the Banda region on page 46.

[15] Ibid. xvii.

[16] Ibid. xvii.

[17] Ibid. 148-188. Stahl also addresses the eighteenth century for a few pages in Chapter 4, entitled “The Political-Economic Context.” She discusses it under the section heading “Asante’s dominion c. 1700-1896,” 90-93. In this section, Stahl identifies Ashanti imperial and demographic expansion, succession disputes, commerce and spheres of trade, commodities in demand, and the Atlantic and domestic slave trades as broad themes that shaped Banda’s history in the 1700s.

[18] Ibid. 150-151.

[19] Ibid. 152.

[20] Ibid. 161. Today, the Makala Kataa archaeological site is just southwest of Kuulu Kataa and next to the Makala village. Maps and diagrams of the site are provided on pages 160, 164, 166-168, 170. Stahl later acknowledges that, in all probability, her archaeological data from this site only pertains to the years 1772-1825 (187).

[21] Ibid. 161.

[22] Ibid. 163. During several visits to Makala Kataa in 1989, 1990, and 1994, Stahl excavated “two house mounds, a depression between mounds, and a midden mound,” (165).

[23] Ibid. 175, 187.

[24] Ibid. 171.

[25] Ibid. 172.

[26] Ibid. 177.

[27] Ibid. 184.

[28] Interestingly, the residue from these pipes also provides material evidence that they were used to smoke tobacco (185).

[29] Ibid. 179.

[30] Ibid. 187.

[31] Ibid. 184.

[32] Ibid. 180.

[33] Ibid. 187.

[34] Ibid. 181

[35] Ibid. 181.

[36] For a recent example, see Rucker, Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015). Nonetheless, this is true for almost all works about the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World.

[37] Proslavery writers who had lived on the coast frequently claimed that as many as three-fourths of enslaved persons came from the interior of the region as opposed to the coastal polities.

[38] Sahl cites the following pieces on page 180: Kwame Arhin, “Aspects of the Ashanti Northern Trade in the Nineteenth Century,” Africa 40 (1970): 363-373, and “Savanna Contributions to the Asante Political Economy.” In The Golden Stool: Studies of the Asante Center and Periphery, edited by Enid Schildkrout, 51-59 (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1987).

[39] Ibid. 152.

[40] Ibid. 149. Stahl’s claim that oral histories are impossible to anchor in time recalls Jan Vansina’s proclamation in Oral Tradition as History that chronology is perhaps the most difficult part about working with oral histories.

[41] Ibid. 154.

[42] I am thinking particularly about the following pieces: Wendy Anne Warren, “The Cause of Her Grief”: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England,” The Journal of American History Vol. 93, No. 4 (March, 2007): 1031-1049 and Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

[43] Ibid. 180.

[44] Ibid. 158.

[45] Ibid. 183-184. She cites Marshall Sahlins, “Goodbye to Tristes Tropes: Ethnography in the Context of Modern World History, Journal of Modern History 65 (1993): 1-25.

[46] Ibid. xvii, 150, 155.