Slavery in the Asante Empire of West Africa
Across the Western world monuments dedicated to historical figures like Robert Milligan and Edward Coulston are being toppled. It is claimed that memorials to men such as these glorify imperialism and the enslavement of black people. However, we cannot cede the debate to the radical left. There is an unfortunate practice in intellectual circles to mainly critique only white people for their involvement in imperialism and slavery. Rarely do commentators discuss these enterprises from a non-Western angle. But this is an unbalanced presentation of history. Contrary to popular narratives, imperialism and slavery are not unique to white people. Throughout history, black people have willingly participated in both ventures. Many people are familiar with the stories of European dynasties, though the history of imperialism and slavery in West Africa is largely unknown outside the scholarly community of Africanists. We must shed light on these developments to destroy the myth that historically blacks have been passive actors in the pawn of European imperialism. West Africa is of significant interest to our analysis, because it is predominantly black. Of note is also the fact that descendants of West African slaves live in Western countries.
Irrespective of race, humans possess a natural inclination to acquire power by dominating weaker groups. As such West Africans also pursued what scholars call “great power politics.” Like their European peers, they too were interested in attaining political dominance over their rivals. Neither was slavery foreign to West Africa. Slavery was an accepted social institution in Europe and West Africa. Few need to be reminded of the exploits of the great British Empire, so we must share the story of its counterpart in West Africa—the Asante Empire. Due to its military prowess, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Asante Kingdom had become the most powerful state on the Gold Coast. Historian J.K. Fynn clearly describes the empire’s thirst for acquiring territories: “The Asante annexed parts of Akyem and Kwawu while maintaining their hold on Denkyera, Akwamu, Wassa, Sefwi, Assin, Aowin, and Ga-Adangbe. Indeed, when Opoku Ware died, in 1750, the only independent country in the south was the Fante group of states.”
Conquered states were reduced to tributaries of the Asante Empire. To administer these new territories, they were placed under the supervision of a chief from the empire. Fynn refers to this style of management as indirect rule—a term usually invoked to illustrate Britain’s administration of her colonies. The organizational sophistication of the Asante Empire was on par with contemporaneous European states, with several of its officials being responsible for the effective management of provinces. On the other hand, the Asante were not slouched in the area of defense; not even the mighty British could defeat them at their apex. In the words of Agnes A. Aidoo: “A smashing defeat of a British led army of coastal Fante and allied states in 1824 crowned the long imperial enterprise….The Asantehene’s ["king of all Asante"] power and influence extended over an area perhaps one and a half times the size of modern Ghana, with a population of three to four million.” Intriguingly, Thomas Bowdich, a British commercial officer visiting Kumase in the nineteenth century argued that “Asante was indisputably the greatest and the rising power of Western Africa.”
And like all imperial powers, it never hesitated to defend its sphere of influence. Dethroning the Asante Empire proved to be a daunting task. From the 1820s, both parties engaged in intermittent warfare, yet a major blow to the hegemony of the Asante Empire only came in 1874. As leading Africanist Kwabena Adu-Boahen notes: “Up to 1874 Asante remained a formidable imperial power in the north but in 1874 the British seriously weakened this power when they invaded and defeated Asante. The British invasion marked their shift from their imperial policy which involved the gradual abandonment of caution for active intervention in the affairs of the interior of Ghana. The policy aimed at destroying Asante hegemony in the interior as a way of breaking its dominance of the trade routes and the flow of the north-south trade.” Despite what some believe even Africans were proud defenders of an imperial tradition.
Likewise, slavery was also evident in the Asante Empire. Yet listening to California’s lawmakers, who are in the process of creating a task force to make recommendations for reparations to African Americans, you would think that slavery is a uniquely Western sin. In his analysis of slavery in African societies Boniface I. Obichere writes that: “The philosophical attitude to slavery in Asante was that it was a natural institution…time honoured, practiced by the ancestors and sanctioned and approved by the Gods.” Slave procurement took a variety of forms, ranging from capturing victims of war to purchasing them in slave markets. Asante society had numerous uses for slaves. As an aggressive society, the Asante had a great demand for slaves to provide military service. Furthermore, many were employed as domestics or farm laborers. Slave labor actually formed a significant component of the economy according to Ivor Wilks: “Slaves were in fact of crucial importance to the Asante economy not so much for the export trade as for satisfying the labour requirements of agriculture and industry. It seems clear, however, that while free Asante commoners were also heavily involved in food production, there were other spheres of enterprise which were abhorrent to them; in which, therefore, dependence upon unfree labour was all but total. Principal of these was gold mining, against which strong religious taboos operated.”
In addition, it must be stated that even in Africa involuntary servitude could be an inherited condition. For example, among the Asante people, the child of a free man and a slave woman was counted as a slave. Admittedly, slaves could occupy high positions in the royal court, but their treatment was not always benign. During special celebrations, it was typical for slaves to be sacrificed. Writing about the internal slave trade in precolonial Ghana, including the Asante Empire, Akosua Perbi details the horrendous treatment meted out to various slaves: “In the domestic trade, slaves in the markets were chained together in groups often to fifteen by the neck and exposed the whole day from morning till evening in the sun. They were often hungry, thirsty, and weak. Some documentary and oral records assert that on the whole domestic slaves were well treated. Other traditions, however, claim that there was a clear distinction between the treatment of male and female slaves. While the female slaves were treated more leniently, the males were harshly treated and made to do very hardwork….While a female slave would be starved and kept indoors, her male counterpart would be severely flogged.”
Moreover, because slavery was so essential to the Asante, like many conservatives they resisted pressure from the British to abolish the slave trade. Consider the following remarks of Asantehene Osei Bonsu when told by British consul Joseph Dupuis in 1820 that the slave trade had to be abolished for humanitarian reasons: “The white men who go to council with your master, and pray to the great God for him, do not understand my country, or they would not say the slave trade was bad. But if they think it bad now, why did they think it good before. Is not your law an old law, the same as the Crammo1 Law?…If the great king would like to restore this trade, it would be too good for white men and for me too, because Ashantee is a country for war, and the people are strong; so if you talk that palaver for me properly in the white country, I will give you plenty of gold, and I will make you richer than all the white men.” The slave trade was permitted in the Asante Empire until it was abolished by the British in 1874.
The history of the Asante demonstrates that black people, like humans in general, are rational actors who make calculating decisions. Depicting them as innocent victims is a denial of their agency. Some may highlight the role of Europe in imperialism and slavery for political purposes, but we do a disservice to black people by not telling their stories. In short, the truth is that if blacks can only be virtuous, then they are merely children. We must reject the whitewashing of black history.
- 1. Muslim law.