Saturday, 11 February 2012

African voices of the Atlantic slave trade : beyond the silence and the shame by Anne C. Bailey……………

African Voices and the transatlantic Slave Trade …………..
Were they brave-hearted maroons like those of Accompong, a maroon outpost not far from Middle Quarters in this area of St. Elizabeth? What language and what customs survived the dreaded Middle Passage and made it to Middle Quarters? Finally, what strategies did Bethsheba inherit from her African-born ancestors who had survived the cruel hand of slavery? It appears that this knowledge died with my forebears. Today, only fragments remain. Stories of St. Elizabeth, the parish where Bethsheba and David Sr. were born, revolve around the history of the maroons or runaway slaves who fought the British at every turn to retain their freedom. “They say, most blacks were from the Koramantee strain—very difficult to handle. That’s why they were able to have a revolution down in St. Elizabeth in Accompong—maroon country.”

In fact, there is a particularly strong link between Ghana and Jamaica in terms of slave origins. Slaves from the then Gold Coast came to beknown as “Cormantin” Negroes—a name from the coastal port Coramantin, where the English built their first port in 1631, said to be the “first slave prison on the coast.” In almost two hundred years, nearly seven million slaves were exported through this port. In Jamaica, these slaves gained a reputation in the Jamaican Parliament for starting mutinies.


This shame has lingered even though there is now ample evidence that domestic slavery was a marginal economic and social force before Atlantic slavery took oƒ in the fifteenthand sixteenth centuries. In fact, domestic slavery became a significant

phenomenon in Africa only by the nineteenth century, when it was influenced by global forces and demand.

In her thirteen-year investigation into the subject of slavery in all ten regions of Ghana, Dr. Akosua Perbi found that domestic slaves and servants were indispensable to chieftaincies in pre-colonial Ghana. She shows how slaves were vital not only tothe maintenance of the political realm but to the economy, the military, traditional religious groups, and other social institutions. She goes so far as to suggest that the very concept of chieftaincy is deeply associated with the servitude of others, quoting an 1870 statement from the Okyenhene in Kyebi to support her claims: “Must I let my horn blowers, my drummers, my pipers, my sword bearers and executioners, my hammock carriers etc become Christians? If I do, then I can no longer carry out my ceremonies nor can I receive foreign embassies worthily. Whoever has an obligation to serve me, will never be allowed to become a Christian.” This was his reply to Basel Missionaries at Kyebi regarding the possible conversion of those who attended to his needs.

It is, of course, not uncommon for regal authorities to have attendants who play a variety of roles. Certainly one of the things that distinguishes the Queen of England, for example, from a so-called commoner, would be the many people who attend her—from ladies-in-waiting to guards. The issue here is one of servitude and slavery, and the question is still open to debate: To what extent were Ghanaian societies dependent on different forms of servitude and how widespread was the practice?


Finally, even though the colonial period in Africa lasted not longer than seventy years in some parts—a considerably shorter period than the Atlantic slave trade—it is the most recent and thus the effects and memories of this period are still fresh. New nations (the oldest of which is Ghana at forty-seven) are still struggling with “the burden of the past” of their colonial fore-bears; they are still grappling with institutional structures set up largely with Europe, not Africa, in mind as well as with the psychological legacy of having been occupied by a foreign force and forced to speak and operate in a foreign language. In such a context, the era of the Atlantic slave trade may seem very far away, if not unrelated to present, more pressing concerns. As one oral narrator, Kojo Jantuah, responded to the question of why the silence: “Firstly, it was a very painful past. Secondly, the intensity of colonialism prevented Africans from getting the necessary space needed to reflect on their own history. People are continually struggling to meet their basic needs.”

Still, as will be shown in this study, the fact is that it was the era of the At-lantic slave trade that allowed for the slow but steady erosion of indigenous institutions, which in turn allowed European colonizers easier access and control over African societies. Another possible reason for the silence on slavery may be discomfort with the issue of modern-day slavery in West Africa and other regions. The awful business of slave tracking, according to those who have been tracking such efforts, is still alive in many parts of the world, including Asia, South America, and the African continent. The cases of slavery in southern Sudan and Mauritania are more well known, but according to one report, there are over 284,000 children at work in hazardous conditions in West Africa’s cocoa industry. Many of these children are believed to be slaves. They end up on cocoa farms that contract with the major chocolate manufacturers in the West, such as Hershey.

It must be said that there is no hard evidence of such slave activity taking place on cocoa farms in Ghana. In fact, the largest cocoa producing cooperative in Ghana, Kuapa Kokoo, has the distinction of being one of the few such operations in West

Africa that bears the FAIRTRADE mark. This means that growers are assured of fair prices and a living wage.

The practice of slavery in the form of trokosi, or female religious servitude, does, however, exist in south eastern Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. Two centuries after the abolition of the slave trade, slavery continues in the form of “traditional” practices. Trokosi is a form of servitude in which a young woman is forced to serve a local religious order or shrine in atonement for some debt incurred or offence committed by her family. It is an institution left over from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that persists in spite of bills banning the practice passed in Ghana in 1998.

This is a very disturbing reality. There is also the occasional report of foiled attempts at human tracking. At the time of this writing, an article appeared in the Ghanaian newspaper, the Chronicle, with the fol-lowing headline: “Couple Sell Child for 38 Million Cedis in Nkawanda Near Nkawkaw.” In the end, the couple was arrested for conspiring to sell a three-year-old boy.


Fort Prinzenstein, built by the Danes in the Anlo Ewe town of Keta in 1784 and eventually sold to the English in 1850, is now open to the public. In the year 2000, after substantial renovation work was done by the Ghana Museum Board and a local

MP, Dan Abodakpi, tour guides and caretakers were hired to give visitors a glimpse of the era of the slave trade. Today Fort Prinzenstein and other forts and castles are a routine stop on many a tourist itinerary, and there are greater resources being put into making these and other sites important destinations. African Americans and West Indians, in particular, are flocking to these historical sites in the hope of filling in some of the many gaps in information on their African origins.

At the same time, though many in the Diaspora are generally glad that these historical monuments have recently been restored, Africans on the continent and Africans in the Diaspora sometimes seem to have different views about the purpose of their restoration. For Africans in the Diaspora, these monuments should not be treated as tourism “products.” Though they welcome the fact that these sites will bring much-needed in-come to African nations, they are concerned that they should be treated in the same light as Jews and others perceive Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps It should be said, however, that African Americans have not

simply been visitors to these sites, they were also early pioneers in the efforts to declare them historical monuments. As such, interest in the slave forts and castles did not begin with UNESCO’s official historical declaration of these sites. Dr. Robert Lee, who came to Ghana in the 1950s at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister, spearheaded an effort to repair and restore Fort Abandze. In the 1970s, under the auspices of a new group called the African Descendants Association Foundation, Dr. Lee was given a fifty-year lease by the Ghana Museums Board to restore the slave fort with funds raised from communities in the African Diaspora.” In those days,” Lee said in an interview, “Maya Angelou and Tom Feelings were involved. We were going to use this ex-ample as a soul-searching rehabilitation exercise as it represented the relationship between Africa and its Diaspora. We felt if Africans and African Americans could get together, it would be a healing exercise.


"There was no rest in the land." Mama Dzagba

I can still remember the somber look on Mama Dzagba’s facewhen she made this statement in her stool house in the capital town of Anlo Ga near the sea. It was midday, but yet we satin the dark in a dimly lit room discussing a subject that too often lies in the shadows. Mama Dzagba, an important Queen Mother in Eweland, seemed to want to convey more than any-thing the instability that was a direct result of the slave trade. I would take away from our meeting a sense of the chaos, the un-certainty, and the fragility of those days. It was in her words— and even more so in the lines on her face. As she said the words,” There was no rest in the land,” she shook her head in dismay. Suddenly, I was not just a researcher taking notes in an inter-view. I was brought back for one long moment to a disquieting time. No rest, as in the absence of peace. No rest, as in the absence of stability. It was the kind of time, like moments of regretting a life, that people would want to put behind them and for-get—and maybe then, just maybe, find some rest It was a time, Mama Dzagba goes on to say, when “one man alone was not allowed to go single.”

These and other stories paint a picture of the chaos and fear felt by members of the Ewe community. Such was the level of social upheaval that people were advised to travel in groups lest they be stolen or kidnapped. Parents were afraid for their children and sought all possible means to protect them. “Whenever they know the [European] ship was coming, they had to protect their children, they had to keep them inside.”

An account from ninety-plus-year-old Lucy Geraldo corroborates the same: “When there is a commotion and you go there, you would never return. The Europeans would take you away. My mother said that her grandma [Agoshi] was eating at home and went outside to see the com-motion and she never returned. They searched and searched. Finally, they heard about her in Vodza.”

The young people of that time grew up in a state of ever-present fear of the unknown. This fear was associated with the arrival of European and other foreign ships. Even where people chose to settle was affected by the ever-present concern for security, over and beyond economic considerations.

This sense of insecurity is also evident in the oral account of Kofi Geraldo, descendant of Geraldo de Lima, the most famous slave trader of the area.

He spoke of his own family’s fear of his being sold. His testimony goes a long way in giving insight into the state of chaos and fear that existed even in the coastal areas. Even a trader’s family, years after the trade was over, had a fresh sense of fear associated with the preceding era.” The trade was over, but the stories were still fresh. He was telling me this story because we are now free. We are now free to stay with him.”

This is particularly significant given the importance of kinship roles in these societies. If the family was under attack, the very core of the society was under attack.” Coastal people were afraid,” said Chief James Ocloo of Keta, speaking of the aftermath of the incident at Atorkor in which the drummers were kidnapped.

This incident showed clearly that no one was immune to the vagaries of the trade. It suggests the unthinkable—that relatives of the chief of Atorkor were also taken away.

We may imagine that any prior agreements or working relationships would have been threatened as a result. Furthermore, any previous sense of mutual regard would have been seen as hollow. The coastal people always thought that they enjoyed a level of immunity. They had always felt that this “slave business,” as they called it, concerned only the peoples of the interior. The Atorkor incident changed all that. It solidified the everyday fears that had been felt by the general population and armed in the minds of the Ewe people the principle that anyone, even those who engaged in the trade, could be vulnerable to it.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reviewing and sharing excerpts of my book. I hope you found this history of interest. It changed my life. Anne C. Bailey