Akan Slavery in Africa and the Atlantic
Akan Slavery in Africa and the Atlantic
- Pierluigi ValsecchiPierluigi ValsecchiDepartment of Political and Social Sciences, University of Pavia
Slavery was a macroscopic reality in the documentable historical itinerary of the Akan region of West Africa, both as a recognized institution existing in all the societies of the region up to the late 19th century and as a crucial component of its relationships with the outside world from the late 17th to the 19th century. During this phase, and although it lagged behind other parts of West Africa, the Akan region became also one of the most important exporting areas in the Atlantic slave trade. The condition of a slave until the end of the 19th century was generally the consequence of capture in war, judicial sentence, sale for debts, and so on. Akan societies distinguished between different degrees and types of slavery: prisoners of war, convicts sold into slavery, foreign slaves who were purchased, individuals enslaved for indebtedness, children of slave parents, and the like. These gradations corresponded to differences in treatment and could guarantee certain privileges. Many slaves suffered harsh exploitation, deprivation, and constant existential precariousness, while many others were instead immersed in a whole gamut of living and working conditions that bespoke of a more or less advanced integration into the host society, mainly operating through inclusion within the institutions of matrilineal kinship. Pawnship was another widespread institution of servitude that veered toward slavery but remained distinct from it, at least in principle, due to its temporary nature.
The slaves who were shipped from the ports of the Akan region were called “Amina” (or “Mina”) or “Coromantee” in the Americas. These terms morphed into definitions of identity that the deported slaves themselves appropriated—whether or not they were of Akan origin—and that were largely based on common cultural traits originating primarily in the Akan world. The enslaved Amina/Mina and Coromantee left lasting marks on the history and culture of the black communities of several countries, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America and, to a lesser extent, in parts of North America too. A crucial reason was their role in slave insurrections and in the “Grand Maroonage,” that is, the establishment of stable communities of slaves who escaped from the plantations and eked out spaces of independence on the fringes of plantation society.
The early 19th-century abolitions of the Atlantic slave trade caused a decline in slave exports, but the demand for enslaved labor grew within the Akan region itself. While for most of the 19th century, slavery experienced an overall growth, in various coastal centers, and in some areas of the Gold Coast, this same period saw the development of anti-slavery sentiment and strong abolitionist pressures. Later in the 19th century, the abolitionist legislations put in place as a result of the colonial occupation by Great Britain and France had some crucial effects. These laws recognized for the first time the fundamental right to freedom of bonded individuals by outlawing their subjection and providing them with effective and immediate legal instruments for claiming their freedom in colonial courts. In actual terms, however, the pace of change in the realm of subjection was very slow and, all in all, unsatisfactory with respect to the initial intentions of the anti-slavery legislation. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, there were still cases of individuals sold or pawned. Slavery and pawnship, in fact, survived for decades, notwithstanding profound changes in the economic and socio-political framework. That legacy is still very much present in the memory and discourse of Akan societies in the early 21st century.
- Slavery and Slave Trade
- West Africa