ROBIN LAW. First half of Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port,’ 1727-1892. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. The first half covers the eighteenth century, 1-154.
SILKE STRICKRODT. “In Search of a Moral Community: Little Popo and the Atlantic Trade in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, New Series, No. 14 (2012): 105-130.
The readings for this week are the third in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This third case study is on the “Slave Coast,” an area on the Gulf of Guinea that stretched from the River Volta in the west to the Lagos Channel in the east. This area comprised small portions of western Ghana and eastern Nigeria as well as all of modern-day Togo and Benin. The region is often known to historians as the Bight or Gulf of Benin, though sometimes the Slave Coast is described as the Bight’s western half. During the eighteenth century, the Slave Coast hosted a variety of European traders at its many coastal ports, like Jakin or Badagry in the east and Keta in the west. Danish, Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese traders all conducted business here with private individuals and representatives of African kingdoms like Dahomey and Little Popo. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources. They discuss two different parts of the coast. One is the first half of Robin Law’s monograph Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port.’ This half surveys the eighteenth-century history of Ouidah, a city near the shore of present-day Benin. The other is an article on African-European trade relations at the port of Little Popo, which is today the town of Aného in the nation of Togo.
Silke Strickrodt’s “In Search of a Moral Community”
In his article, “In Search of a Moral Community,” historian Silke Strickrodt examines trading relations between European and African merchants at the port of Little Popo, which is situated on the Western Slave Coast in what is now the nation of Togo. Strickrodt examines these relations during the reign of Ashampo, who ruled the Ge Kingdom of Little Popo between the years of 1737 and 1767. Strickrodt approaches her subject by using the concept of the “moral community,” which she basically defines as a mutual, cross-cultural system of values that serves to stabilize commerce. In the “moral community,” traders establish a shared system of values, generally around a common binding principle like ethnicity, religion, or political allegiance. This system of values gives traders confidence that their contracts will be honored or guaranteed by the opposing party. It also creates a situation where traders are comfortable taking risks, like extending credit or opening permanent centers (known as “lodges” on the Western Slave Coast). Alternatively, a “moral community” can be established by the presence of a strong and reliable intermediary, such as a centralized state. As Strickrodt explains, this was the case with other areas of West Africa. A notable example is further to the east, where the Kingdoms of Dahomey, Oyo, and eventually Bonny operated.
But Strickrodt argues that Little Popo is a peculiar trading center. She concludes that, even though “there was no effective ‘moral community’ between African and European traders at Little Popo in the period of Ashampo’s reign,” European merchants continued to do business there. Her main research question is, then, how can historians explain the continuance of trade at Little Popo despite the absence of traditional mechanisms for ensuring trust among trading partners? As a king, Ashampo neither guaranteed the sanctity of contract nor cultivated an environment of trust; rather, he engaged in a short-term strategy of ripping-off European traders, playing them off one another, and otherwise deceiving them. Meanwhile, the particular geographic makeup of the Western Slave Coast meant that European traders needed to come on shore to do business. As a result, they were ever at the mercy of the African traders with whom they negotiated. They were periodically taken captive, robbed, killed, or swindled. Nonetheless, Strickrodt argues that European traders continued to do business at Little Popo because it presented a “high-risk – high-reward environment” in an era of heightened demand for slaves, increasing competition among European powers, and new demand for alternative sources of procuring slaves. Despite the myriad difficulties posed by Little Popo, Europeans could occasionally depend on Ashampo for a quick boatload of slaves. Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Slave Coast”