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A Review of A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana: From the 15th to the 19th Century. By Akosua Adoma Perbi. With a Foreword by Emeritus Professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia. Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2015. xxiv + 231 pages.
In A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana: From the 15th to the 19th Century, Akosua Adoma Perbi offers a fascinating analysis of the institution of slavery in Ghana from the advent of Europeans to the period of complete imposition of British colonial rule in the Gold Coast. The author pins her analysis of indigenous slavery around a perspective conceptualization of slavery based on time and space, slave usage, rights and privileges, its transformation into the Atlantic trade and campaigns towards its abolitions. She postulates the beginning of indigenous slavery from the Neolithic era where man started a sedentary life and possibly, there was a need of more hands in the iron industry for manufacturing of agricultural tools and offensive and defensive weapons for state building as well as protection against wild animals. The book covers the dynamics of the evolution of the institution of slavery from pre-European contact to the rise of the slave trade with its resistance to fade off during the abolition era, and finally the emergence of British colonial rule.
Base on the evidence available and their judicious analysis, the author unequivocally argues that, the institution of indigenous slavery have been instrumental in shaping the traditional, social, and political institutions and structures of the Ghanaian society even after its abolition. Although the practice of slavery have been outlawed Perbi emphases, its traces and imageries are present in the Ghanaian society through oral traditions and traditional songs. Since ‘assimilation was not always complete. There were disabilities and impediments. …one may enjoy the privilege of royal association, one must not assume that this could be converted into the status of royalty’ (p. xi). Agreeing with her contemporaries, the author stresses that the communal nature of African societies for that matter Ghana preconditioned slavery as less exploitative in comparative terms.
Perbi’s book, which was first published in 2004, second in 2007 and currently reprinted in 2015 is enriched with maps and pictures, which provide further illustrations and explanations to the complex advances made in her analysis of indigenous slavery in Ghana. Her organization of the chapters into themes that followed a well-formatted pattern of chronological uniqueness of the historian’s craft is not only awesome but also portrays high standard of internal coherence. She consciously structured the book into seven main chapters with an introduction and a comprehensive epilogue. She designated the first chapter for conceptualizing indigenous slavery vis-à-vis the Atlantic perspective of the term. She remarkably drew a clear distinction between the two spaces’ worldview about the practice of slavery on the notion of chattel and kinship. Since chattel was the major feature of the Atlantic slavery and slaves being considered as a kinless property while in Ghana it was the converse. Perbi, however, was quick to accept that just like the Atlantic slavery, the indigenous slavery was also characterized with exploitations guided by customs and slaves were equally regarded as property and commodities as well. The author further categorized these subjugated fellow human beings in the Ghanaian context, as she termed it ‘voluntary and involuntary subordination’ into five: the servant, the pawn, the slave, the war captive, and the slave under sentence of death with different obligations and privileges while in the Atlantic perspective a slave was a slave and nothing else.
In the following chapter, the author provides a broader survey of indigenous slavery in the Gold Coast and shows how it took different and revolutionary shape from the 16th to the century 18th century where the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade had reached its pick. While in chapter three and four, she outlines the main sources and uses of slaves in the pre-colonial Ghanaian society. Akosua Perbi identifies warfare, direct purchase, pawning, raiding, kidnapping and tribute as the major sources of slaves’ acquisition within the period of her study. She however, noted that gifts, convicts and personal transactions also constituted sources of slaves supply but in minimal level. Among all these medium of slave supply, ‘prisoners of war constituted a large proportion of the total slave output’ (p. 198). Aside serving as labor forces in agriculture, trade, craft industry, mining, domestic chores, procreation, the author emphases that the institution of slavery was central in the administrative structure of the Ghanaian society. As it served as a reservoir of military recruitment into the state army and bodyguards and some sacrificed in state functions.
The author devoted large space on the book discussing slaves in the social structure of the precolonial society and the issue of instances where slaves had privilege to ascend to higher political offices within the period of her research. And these aspects of her analysis constituted chapter five and six respectively where the author indicates that Asante is recorded as a state that have given much opportunities to slaves to occupy the highest office on condition that they were care takers rather entitled to rule. Thus, slaves and servants once occupied 36 royal stools out of the 212 stools studied by Perbi until a rightful heir was gotten. The author however emphases that there were instance where slaves were denied access to the throne due to their status. An example given by Perbi in support of this claim was the refusal of ‘the ‘Safohene’ at Akrodie in Goaso …to allow the slaves in his family to succeed to the stool’ (p. 136).
Finally, Akosua Adoma Perbi’s last chapter looks at the process of the abolition of the slave trade and later the domestic slavery in the British colonial territory that was to become known as Ghana in 6 March 1957. The author provides a remarkable account of the phases and stages the abolition exercise passed through before bringing an end to the indigenous slavery, she however unable to clearly establish why the colonial government tolerated the practice for a long time before taking drastic measures towards it.
The author not unaware of historical consciousness, realized that the topic under her study exceed her chosen scope hence added a brief analysis of the last stage of the abolition process by the colonial government from 1908 to 1928 in an appendix. This helps readers to understand all the trajectories of internal slavery from its institutionalization to its collapse in the country.
Perbi’s utilization of diverse and all means of sources available for the topic of indigenous slavery in Ghana covering over four centuries is recommendable. The gathering and analysis of her evidence trends in a manner that had never been undertaken in this field of academia. Thus, the combination of the rich oral traditions of the various ethnic groups that she consciously subjected to rigorous historical interpretation and analysis to devoid distortions. Thus, primary written documents such as archival materials, court records, chieftaincy reports, trader’s journals, Christian missionary records, travelers’ accounts and colonial reports were thoughtfully put into use in this monumental piece of historical craft. In addition, the author’s exposure to western research institutions especially in the USA is a plus to Perbi’s accessibility of both primary and secondary sources in relations to the topic being studied. Moreover, infusing local proverbs and terminologies into the discussion further enriches the book for historical understanding.
The subject Perbi deals with is complex and not devoid of historical gaps. However, she did not only make thorough use of useful sources towards the analysis, but more so she did control her choice of words in filling such historical gaps through careful interpretation of these facts. Her narrative is easy to hold, has a perfect flow confirming her deeper knowledge in slavery and African history in general.
Her use of the term ‘indigenous’ in the context of her periodization seems to have been a mismatch. Because after indigenous Ghanaians begun trading directly with Europeans, the idea of slavery have taken a new shape and cannot be termed indigenous within the period studied. Although the aim of the author is partly to disassociate her work from the Atlantic slave trade and possibly the Tran-Sahara trade, this could have still been achieved if she had chosen ‘internal’ rather than ‘indigenous’ to qualify the theme. However, her due diligence of justifying the choice of the concept is within the historiography of African slavery. Also, Perbi’s use of maps to illustrate the major spoken languages in Ghana is vital in grasping the story her book tells, however, grouping almost all the northern languages except Gonja as Mole-Dagbani looks inaccurate (map II). Although most of the languages spoken indigenously in Northern Ghana have been classified as members of the Gur sub-family of languages. Historically, the categorization of the Mole-Dagbani is exclusively referred to the descendants of Naa Gbewaa-Mamprusi, Dagomba, Nanumba and Mossi.
Moreover, just like her contemporaries, glorifying indigenous slavery as less evil to Atlantic slavery is losing its weight. Whether less exploitative or more exploitative, slavery is servitude irrespective of time and space. It is commendable of how Perbi structured the monograph. Nonetheless, her style of noting, thus endnotes rather than footnotes does not only makes reading the book boring but also time wasting and inconvenient. Even if the author preferred endnotes to the historian friendly footnotes, it could have served readers well and better if she had provided the endnotes at the end of every chapter accordingly.
The book creates space for contemporary discussion on African slavery in a broader sense. It is one of the most interesting monographs scholars could draw on in exploring the other aspects of the field: interaction among assimilated lineages, indigenous slavery as a precursor of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, indigenous slavery on ethnic identity consciousness and development, and the unnoticed ‘racism’ in the Ghanaian societies resulting from indigenous slavery. The book thematically historicized this complex topic of slavery in pre-colonial Gold Coast and the language is simple to comprehend despite the few unfamiliar terminologies for which the author had to make an effort to make their meanings clear to her audience. It is highly recommended material for both student of African studies and history as well as scholars interested in exploring this rich mine of knowledge.