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The Zamani Reader

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

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History of Ghana

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.

Introduction

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”

Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part II of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part II is called “Archaeological Sources,” 3-104.

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): 29-42.

Introduction

This review paper is the first part of a two-part series about non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based upon a reading of five essays that provide case studies for working with sources in archaeology and material culture. To begin this paper, I would like to summarize what the anthropologist James Denbow concludes about archaeological source materials in his introduction to the “Archeological Sources” part of Sources and Methods in African History. Writing in the year 2004, Denbow states that the discipline of archaeology has traditionally “served history in a ‘validationist’ role,” meaning that practitioners often took their leads from the documentary record and engaged with archaeology as a way to track and confirm stories that they found in written sources.[1] By now, however, researchers are using archaeological methods in a way that is much more expansive. Instead of a supporting role, material culture plays an equal role alongside oral traditions and written records in the process of historical inquiry. Generally, this means acknowledging the fact that archaeology, like these other two modes of inquiry, suffers from “inherent biases and limitations.” It also means recognizing that archaeology has the potential not only to validate, but to amend old theses and even to propose new ones. [2]

Archaeology and the Study of African History – Conclusions from the Case Studies

For the study of African History more specifically, the rise of material culture as an equally valid mode of historical inquiry carries special meaning. The study of archaeology allows historians to move the geographic and temporal boundaries of analysis beyond areas that were only covered by literary sources. With archaeology, so-called “non-literate” times may be used as a vantage point from which to interpret the historical events of later eras that left behind written records. This is done in Laura Mitchell’s chapter on the spatial geography of Dutch, white settler-colonialism in the Cedarberg frontier of South Africa during the eighteenth century.[3] Mitchell uses mapping techniques to literally overlay sites of Khoisan material culture that date back to the Late Stone Age—identified mostly through rock art and the presence of stone tools—with land-grant data taken from the archives of the Dutch East India Company. What Mitchell discovers is that these maps occupy the exact same spaces. Her research suggests that scholars should not understand the colonial war that Khoisan people waged against Dutch settlers in 1739 as a general confrontation over contested resources, but as an engagement over the right to access and control very “specific pieces of land” that were both environmentally strategic and spiritually sacred to the Khoisan people.[4]

In addition to expanding the geographic and temporal bounds of African History, archaeology allows historians to effectively combat lingering stereotypes about the primitive, primordial, or unchanging African society. This theme comes out in several of this week’s readings. Akinwumi Ogundiran’s piece, for example, brings a much greater definition to the precolonial history of the Yoruba-Edo region (today western Nigeria and Benin). Ogundiran uses the archaeological record to outline “six cultural historical phases” that defined the area from 500 BC to 1800 AD. The result is a “long-term chronological scheme” that historians can now use for “understanding the origins, changes, and continuities of the cultural institutions in the region over time.”[5] Ogundiran bases his historical schema off of changes that are visible in the material culture of the region. One piece of evidence, for example, that testifies to the ascendancy of a confederacy-style political structure in the region during what Ogundiran defines as the Early Formative Period (500-800 AD) is the proliferation of defensive embankments, ditches, and ramparts. To mention just one additional example, Ogundiran tracks Ile-Ife’s rise to political and cultural dominance during the Classical Period  (1000-1400 AD) through its monopolization and exportation of several new artistic traditions, like terracotta ceramics, potsherd architecture, brass casting, and glass-bead production.[6] Continue reading “Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana”

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