For students of human history, Ghana provides perhaps the most fascinating source of information about the Transatlantic Slave Trade from the African perspective. With over 78% of ‘slave forts’ built on the West African coast, there are many who argue that Ghana was ‘the epicenter’ of that trade, the ‘ground zero’ even of the destruction of African civilizations and people, and holds the answers to many of those bedeviling Questions which have plagued both historians and the descendants of those taken, alike.
So where do we begin…..
Before Europeans came to West Africa in the 1400’s, Africans from West Africa and beyond had settled in Southern Europe, bringing their civilization with them, including their advanced knowledge in education, architecture, religion, science and enterprise. The impact on Southern Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, resulted in the period known as ‘the Renaissance’. However, contact with these Africans also led to marked racial mixing across the Peninsula, and the Europeans began to fear that their European characteristics would be lost forever. Hence, after 700 years of dominance, the Africans were finally expelled in 1492, and forced to return to their land, leading Columbus on this journey. It is suggested that the purpose of Europeans coming to Africa was to find the source of this once dominant civilization and destroy it. (http://www.taneter.org/moors.html)
At first, Ghana was named by Europeans as ‘The Gold Coast’ because of the abundance of this natural resource found here. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to come to Ghana, after the expulsion of the Africans from Southern Europe. They claimed that they were coming to trade in gold and ivory. Other Europeans followed and challenged the Portuguese for this gold and ivory trade: the Dutch, who built forts from 1598,and also the English, the Danish and the Germans.
However, once the Europeans had established sugar plantations in the Caribbean, the trade in gold and ivory was surpassed by a ‘trade’ in human beings. It is claimed that this was because Africans were considered the best labourers for these plantations; yet the real motive was probably to destroy the potentially dominant civilization that had been created.
By 1720 the shameful ‘Transatlantic Slave Trade’ had taken hold of the region economically, socially and politically. Gun and greed fuelled wars raged along the west African coast, in which whole ‘nations’ were defeated, bound and sold to the Europeans, often just for more guns, or cloth, beads and mirrors. In Ghana, the Asante were the main suppliers of ‘slaves’, including to the Dutch and the British. Powerful with guns, they ‘sourced’ captives for the trade, through war or simple kidnapping, and handed them– through a long chain of African middle men, to the Fanti traders on the coast, who concluded the negotiations with the ’white men’. By the 18th century the British were the dominant slave traders. “The Atlantic slave trade became part of a prosperous trading cycle known as the triangular trade. In the first leg of the triangle, European merchants purchased African slaves with commodities manufactured in Europe or imported from European colonies in Asia. They then sold the slaves in the Caribbean and purchased such easily transportable commodities as sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Finally the merchants would sell these goods in Europe and North America. They would use the profits from these sales to purchase more goods to trade in Africa, continuing the trading cycle.” (Microsoft Encarta ® 2006.)
However, to retrace our steps a little: the first organized state of the Akans, which developed to become a kingdom, was the Adanse state. This state was later defeated by the Denkyira state, also an Akan state. Denkyira was a powerful nation of Akan people that existed in southern present-day from , but who, like all Akans, originated from . Before 1620 Denkyira was called Agona. The ruler of the Denkyira was called Denkyirahene and the capital was ., and later Abankeseso. The first Denkyirahene was Mumunumfi. The Denkyira became powerful through gold production and trade with Europe.
The Denkyira kingdom ruled absolutely and very firmly over the other minor Akan states. These minor states were not able to overthrow the Denkyira individually, and did not consider unifying to fight their overlord until trade with the Europeans became significant in the region. The individual Akan states which united for the purpose of war to overthrow the Denkyira kingdom were named “Esa-Nti-Fo” i.e. “because of war”, which was later polluted to “Asantefo”. These Asantes united under Nana Osei Tutu . The Asantes lived in the forest around Asumegya and around lake Bosomtwe.
The 1690s saw wars between Denkyira and the and . The goal of these struggles was to keep open the trade routes to the coast. The Denkyira totally dominated the neighboring states until 1701 when it was defeated by a united force of their former subjects, the lesser states who became part of the “Asantefo”, (Ashanti), in the Battle of Feyiase. The rich cultural heritage of the people of Denkyira brought them great success and wealth. Also, historical reports suggest that the Ashanti’s studied from the Denkyiras and that even the founder of the Ashanti Kingdom himself, Nana Osei Tutu, understudied some Denkyira chiefs at the Jukwa palace.
One interesting historical view of the fall of the Denkyira kingdom and the rise of the Ashanti kingdom is that it was a result of early European foreign policy goals to bring about ‘regime change’ in the region in order to secure their trade interests in in gold and human trafficking for the ‘slave trade’.
This view is that the Dutch orchestrated the downfall of the Denkyira in order to remove opposition to their expansion of the slave trade, and replace them with more willing partners. Also, the Denkyira dominated the land richest in gold reserves and were controlling the price of gold, to the irritation of their European trading partners- .’The Fall of the Asante Empire: The Hundred-Year War For Africa’S Gold Coast’, By Robert B. Edgerton.
At that time, the main economic goal of the inter-state wars waged by the Denkyira was for control of the gold, not the trade in slaves with the Europeans-’Transformations in slavery: a history of slavery in Africa’, by Paul E. Lovejoy. Is it possible that they realized the destruction that such a trade would eventually bring to their culture and peoples, or that they simply did not want the Europeans to dominate them in their trading relations, but preferred to maintain control of their resources? In any event, it is arguable that the Dutch eventually decided to arm and encourage the lesser tribes who were subject to the Denkyira, and make an agreement with them: Dutch assistance in taking power over the region, in return for ’unfettered’ trade in gold and human trafficking of ’slaves’ for Dutch colonies.
However, history also suggests that many of the Denkyira subjects themselves defected to fight with the Asante against the Denkyira. One explanation for this is that the young king of Denkyira at that time, Ntim Gyakari, was a despot who had designated 10 classes of subjects who were to be sacrificed whenever a member of the royal family died. It was these subjects who defected, to save themselves from this fate, and seek the protection of the Asante.
Nevertheless, the regime change proved a resounding success for the Europeans! But a disaster for the African people. Within 20 years of removing the Denkyira from power, human trafficking for the ‘slave trade’ had become the dominant activity in the region. The Asante waged wars against all they could, and traded liberally in gold and humans to the apparently exclusive economic benefit of Europe.
Historian Paul E. Lovejoy also concludes that: “Thus by mid-century, the Akan wars had devastated the region, thereby accounting for most, if not all of the approximately 375,000 slaves exported from the Gold Coast between 1700 and 1750. The volume of exports was maintained at about this level for the rest of the century with a notable expansion in the 1780s and 1790s when the Asante attempted to occupy the Fanti coast.”
In looking for a motive for this behavior, some historians argue that the Akan were apparently keen participants in human trafficking as ‘slaves’ were often used for sacrifices in funeral ceremonies, and that they believed that slaves would follow their masters into the afterlife. The motive, then, appears not to have been economic, but spiritual.
Historians agree that the slave trade was the driving force in the development of capitalism throughout Europe and the colonized Americas. For example: between 1500 and 1750, (when the British took over from the Dutch as the largest slave-trading nation) the trade was the biggest employer in Holland and Portugal. ‘Wall Street’ in New York City, became a vital capitalist financial centre because it was the first big slave trade center in the colonies, and later, the new nation’s principle slave trading port where the business of slave trading was conducted, until 1862. It is equally well-documented that England accumulated enormous wealth from the trade, directly funding many ‘institutions’ in the business world, including Barclays Bank, founded in 1756 by brothers David and Alexander Barclay from the profits made in their slaving business; and Lloyds of London, which evolved from a humble coffee house to a leading insurer of British Slave ships and their human cargo.
There are many records from the time detailing the dependence of British prosperity on the trade. Malachai Postlethwayt, an 18th Century capitalist and mercantilist theoretician, wrote that: “The African Trade is the first principle and foundation of all the rest, the mainspring of the machine which set every wheel in motion…the African trade is so very beneficial to Great Britain, so essentially necessary to the very being of her colonies, that without it neither could we flourish nor they long subsist.”. During the 18th Century British slave traders supplied the sugar planters of France and Spain; and by 1795 Liverpool had five-eighths of the British slave trade and three-sevenths of the whole European slave trade. As for France, historians, including CLR James, suggest that the trade was the economic basis for the French Revolution, as the wealth produced at Nantes and Bordeaux “gave the bourgeoisie a pride that needed liberty!” James concluded that: “…nearly all the industries that developed in France during the 18th Century had their origins in the goods or commodities destined for the coast of Guinea or for America”. (CLR James– The Black Jacobins, 1963).
Conversely, historians have not identified any resultant lasting benefits or developments for the African partners in this trade. Eventually, the Asante came into conflict and war with the British when, in 1807, the British officially abolished the trade in slaves. The trade was no longer profitable for Britain, due to the increasing costs of containing plantation revolts; and ‘free trade’ now offered better profits than those possible under the monopoly on trade with Britain enjoyed by plantation owners in their colonies.
The illicit trade did not end for several decades, as the African chiefs involved had no other ‘commercial enterprise’ to replace it! Historians say that these chiefs found new ‘ports’, suitable points, along the coast, from which to ship the captives, after the British had actually ‘bricked up’ the “Doors of No Return” in their forts, including at Cape Coast and Elmina. The Europeans had developed a whole economy based on the manufacturing of goods in their home countries, which were then exchanged for human beings in Africa. By the 19th Century, these European goods were no longer considered as luxuries to the African chiefs, but as necessities in West Africa! The position of the African chiefs involved in the trade was simple: if they wanted European goods, the only way to get them was by providing human beings, as the Europeans would accept nothing else in place, except Gold.
Of the 44 slave forts built along the West African coast, 34 were found along the coast of today’s Ghana, signifying the extent of the involvement in the ‘slave trade’ here. Conservative estimates conclude that between 1451-1870 approximately 10–20 million people were transported from the West African coast to the Caribbean and the Americas, with at least as many dying in the slave raiding wars or along the journey. Other historians have concluded that the numbers were multiples of this total. The impact on West Africa was quite devastating. These regions are still ‘developing’ and remain largely dependant. The “removal of millions of young men and women led to depopulation that stifled African creativity and production… slaving and slave trading stimulated warfare, corrupted laws… stifled technological advancement, and created a class of elite rulers and traders…the slave trade was the beginning of a dependency relationship with Europe.. based on the exchange of Africa’s valuable primary products for European manufactured goods, which continued after the slave trade ended, through a colonial period and beyond. In this sense, the slave trade was the first step towards modern Africa’s current status as a region where technological development has yet to match that of more industrialized nations.”Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006.
For the rest of the world: “The Atlantic slave trade involved the largest intercontinental migration of people in world history prior to the 20th century. This transfer of so many people, over such a long time, had enormous consequences for every continent bordering the Atlantic. It profoundly changed the racial, social, economic, and cultural make-up in many of the American nations that imported slaves. It also left a legacy of racism that many of those nations are still struggling to overcome.” Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006.
The trade in human beings only really came to an end around 1880, after Ghana officially became a British colony. The British officials finally realized that the only way to effectively stop the ‘slave trade’ was by replacing it with a different trade which would allow Africans to sell local commodities, at reasonable prices, to Europe. In many parts of West Africa palm oil was produced and sold to power the new industries in Europe. These had developed as a result of the huge wealth derived from their slave-labour intensive colonies in the Caribbean. In Ghana, cocoa production became the new business. The very long and difficult road to healing could now begin.
When the British defeated the Asante in 1826, various treaties were signed with the chiefs of Asante and the coastal regions. Christian missionaries then began their work: the Basel Missionary Society started schools in Aburi and Akropong from 1835; the Wesleyan Methodists started schools in Cape Coast, and in 1876 founded Mfantsipim, the oldest secondary school in Ghana; and the Bremen missionaries started work in the Volta region, amongst the Ewe people.
The Gold Coast became a British Colony in 1874, but the Ashanti continued to fight. They were led by the legendary Yaa Asantewaa in the last of the wars with the British, The War of Independence 1900, described as “…the most bloody, most fiercely and hotly contested and the most protracted of wars.”- Ivor Agyeman-Duah, The Asante Monarchy in Exile 1999. However, as the author of this book also explains, Yaa Asantewaa “was involved in if not actually led all the negotiations for an end to the war… The peace proposals were that (i) restoration of slavery (ii) abolition of forced labour (iii) return of Nana Prempeh (the exiled asantehene in the Seychelles) (iv) departure of the British and all other foreigners especially the Fante traders from Asante. When these were refused, she was given four days to surrender, her reply was that they would rather commit suicide than surrender.”
By the time of gaining independence on 6 March 1957, under her first President Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the borders of the newly named country ‘Ghana’, had been negotiated and drawn up by agreement between the former colonial power Britain and her French ally in the victory over Germany in WWII. Dr Nkrumah, amongst many of the first Presidents of independent African states, was inspired in his struggle for the independence of Ghana by the Jamaican born, Christian, mass political leader, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who advocated the independence of Africa. Much of the insignia of Ghana’s national independence is borrowed from Garvey’s movement: including the ‘Black Star’ of Independence Square in the capital, Accra; and the name of the Ghana national football team- ‘The Black Stars’.
Dr. Nkrumah invited many great political thinkers from the Diaspora to help him create the Pan African vision of an independent African nation, including most significantly George Padmore, from Trinidad, who was Nkrumah’s chief advisor and architect of the construction of the newly independent nation of Ghana. He advised Dr. Nkrumah in long detailed letters on how to conduct the movement for independence; and after independence had been granted he continued as President Nkrumah’s confidante and chief consultant on the affairs of government and the development of the new nation. After his death President Nkrumah paid tribute to him in a radio broadcast: “One day, the whole of Africa will surely be free and united and when the final tale is told, the significance of George Padmore’s work will be revealed.” His ashes are interred at Christiansborg Castle, in Accra.
Ghana is now striving forward! It is peaceful and democratic, and welcomes all visitors, regardless of nationality or creed.
But So Many Questions Remain:
1. How was it possible to transport so many people through Ghana to the coast?
Answer: Did the slave dealers make use of the numerous water tributaries, rivers, that flow through the country, linking to the Volta River, to the sea?
2. What is the connection between the creation and rise of the Ashanti Kingdom and the slave trade?
3. What were the perceived benefits of the trade to the Africans involved?
4. Would the slave trade have ‘flourished’ in the region had the Denkyira not been ousted?
5. How much gold was taken out of the region during the period of the Slave Trade?
6. …and many many more…
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