The Zamani Reader

On West Africa, Britain, and the West Indies in the Eighteenth Century


Fante history

Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Gold Coast

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] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Gold Coast”

Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part III of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part III is called “Documentary Sources,” 169-238.

PHILIP D. CURTIN ET AL. Part I of Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. Part I is called “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century, 3-139, omitting the section on Olaudah Equiano, 60-98.

STEPHEN D. BEHRENDT, A.J.H. LATHAM, AND DAVID NORTHRUP. Part II of The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Part II is called “Extracts from the Diary of Antera Duke,” 133-220.


The main readings for this week are documentary sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. Two of these sources were written by West African peoples themselves, while the third was written by a European man yet based off of his interactions with a West African. Additionally, two of the sources appear as excerpts in Africa Remembered, an edited volume compiled by the historian Philip Curtin. They come from the book’s first part, entitled “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century.”[1] The first source is the published slave narrative of a Fulbe Muslim trader named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1734). The second is a series of letters from a Fanti missionary, slave factory chaplain, and sharity school teacher named Philip Quaque (1766-1811). In addition, the diary of a prominent Efik chief and slave trader named Antera Duke Ephrim constitutes the third source (1785-1788). Taken together, these three documentary sources not only represent different regions of Africa but also different experiences with the slave trade and different genres of writing. Finally, chapters taken from Sources and Methods in African History, compiled by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, provide context for analyzing these narratives.

In his introduction to the “Documentary Sources” section of Sources and Methods in African History, Thomas Spear explains why historians of Africa have been more reluctant to critically engage with written primary sources than scholars of other fields.[2] Documentary sources for studying African history, particularly from the long eighteenth-century, are both rare and problematic. As the African philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe has demonstrated in a detailed theoretical and historiographical critique, called The Invention of Africa, these sources often reflect ‘Western epistemologies’ such as ‘discourses on African primitiveness.’ These epistemological frameworks typically fail to engage with how African peoples thought of themselves and their own societies.[3] As Spear explains, the problematic nature of documentary sources has led African historians to devote their energies to developing alternative materials for understanding he African past. These innovative departures are epitomized by scholarship like that of Jan Vansina. An historian and anthropologist of Africa, Vansina devoted much of his career to developing a guide for fieldworkers who want to employ oral traditions as a primary source for understanding both the past and present of African societies. Vansina’s work, written up in 1959 and then updated in 1985, has demonstrated that oral traditions are a complex, diverse, and necessary component of historical research in African societies. They are not just a medium to be turned to when written materials are unavailable.[4]

Inspired by the innovative methods of anthropologists like Vansina and the cogent critiques of philosophers like Mudimbe, many scholars of Africa are starting to revisit the historical potential of documentary source materials, especially when these materials are interpreted in new ways. In a series of three essays on written source materials of the nineteenth-century, Christian Jennings, Kristin Mann, and Meredith McKittrick offer case studies that suggest why “documentary sources remain vital to our historical understanding, no matter who produced them and how and why they did so.”[5] These authors reaffirm the view that, just like oral traditions, written source materials can spark historical revelations about African societies when historians approach them with thoughtful questions. For example, in revisiting early Church records from East Africa in the 1840s and 1850s, Jennings demonstrates that missionaries had a much better understanding of the cultures of Massai and Iloikop pastoralists than later historians were willing to concede. The missionaries had interpreted these Rift Valley societies through the lens of their own prejudices, like Mudimbe explains, but they also based their ethnographic work on local informants from within the communities. As a result, when their works are carefully studied, they have the potential to affect some of our most longstanding historical assumptions—in this case, about the evolution of Massai identity. It is with this view in mind that we turn to our three readings from the eighteenth century.[6]

Continue reading “Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke”

Review of Rebecca Shumway’s The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

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.

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