Africa Gold Coast, Asante, and Slavery

On the Gold Coast west of the Volta River, the Accra people destroyed the Portuguese fort at Accra in 1578 that had been there since about 1500. The Ga people, led by priests, moved into the Accra region and came into conflict with the Akwamu, reaching their peak of power during the reign of Accra king Okai Akwei (c. 1640-77). In 1659 Denkyira defeated Adansi and surrounding tribes to take control of trade routes from Assini and Axim to the coast. From 1662 to 1666 so much fighting occurred in the Accra region that Danes at Christiansborg could not get their provisions locally. The Ga army did not defend Okai Akwei, who was surrounded by the Akwamu army. He shot himself and left a curse on Accra. His son Ashangmo continued the war against the Akwamu. In 1677 the Akwamu led by Ansa Sasraku (d. 1688) using cannons took over the capital of Great Accra and drove their kings beyond the Volta to Little Popo on the Dahomey coast, where they became vassals of the Dahomey kingdom. The Akwamu made Nyanoase their capital.

As trading for gold gave way to trading for slaves, the Akwamu tried to stop the raiding but eventually engaged in it themselves. The Akwamu were disliked for robbing Akyem and Fante traders and selling them to the Dutch as slaves. By 1706 English ships had transported more than ten thousand captives in the last thirty months from Cape Coast. In 1726 a Dutch employee wrote that gold had become so scarce that the Gold Coast should be renamed the “Slave Coast.” In 1730 a conflict between the Akwamu king and his maternal uncle provoked rebellions among the Akwapim scarplands. The Dutch supplied the Akwamu with muskets, cannons, and ammunition; but Akan chiefs in Akyem, longtime enemies of the Abrade, sacked Nyanoase and killed the king, causing the Abrade royal family to take refuge in different directions.

Under Oti Akenten the Asante (Ashanti) became a military people. When he died about 1660, his nephew Obiri Yeboa continued military expansion and confederated Asante tribes. Obiri Yeboa’s sister Manu Kotosii had a son named Osei Kofi Tutu, who was raised at the Denkyira court of Boa Amponsem. After making the chief’s sister Ako Abena Bensua pregnant, he fled to the Akwamu court. There he became friends with the priest Okomfo Anokye. When Obiri Yeboa was killed fighting the Doma, Osei Tutu was chosen chief. Okomfo Anokye and thirty Akwamus from Anum accompanied him back to Asante. The spiritual power of Okomfo Anokye helped mold the Asante into a unified nation so that they were able to overcome the Doma and the people of Tafo. The Doma chief was given a position in Osei Tutu’s house, and the Tafo chief was killed. People hated and feared the domination of both the Akwamu and the Denkyira; but Okomfo Anokye brought conquered provinces into the Asante confederation as equals, respecting their customs and territory while listening to their chiefs in the Asante council called Abrempon.

The Asante had to pass through Denkyira and Adansi territory to get to the sea. When the Adansi rebelled against Denkyira and fled to Asante, the latter prepared for war against Denkyira. After Denkyira chief Bosianti died, he was succeeded by Ntim Gyakari, believed to be the son of Osei Tutu and Ako Abena Bensua. When Ntim Gyakari demanded tribute from Asante, Osei Tutu declared war in 1699. The Asante won the battle of Feyiase and captured Ntim Gyakari, whose successor Boadu Akefun swore to serve Asante. Then the Asante invaded and took over Denkyira territory. The Akyem had fought as allies of Denkyira and lost 30,000 men, becoming tributaries of Asante. The Elmina fortress, which had passed from the Kommenda to the Denkyira, was now controlled by Asante. In 1717 the Asante went to war with the Akyem Kotoku and killed their chief Ofosu Apenten; but Osei Tutu died also.

Osei Tutu was succeeded by his grandnephew Opoku Ware, who extended Asante territory to the Volta River. During this war the Sefwi raided the Asante capital at Kumasi. After his mother was killed, Opoku Ware sent Bantama chief Amankwa Tia, who defeated the Sefwi army at the Tano River and executed their ruler Abirimuru. Four years later a quarrel with the Wassaw resulted in their king dying too. The Asante army defeated Bono in 1723, threatened the Fante in 1726, and invaded Gonja in 1732. The Asante attacked Gyaman in the northwest and killed their ruler Abo Kwabena. Between 1742 and 1744 Opoku Ware’s Asante armies invaded Akyem Abuakwa, Accra, Adangme, Akwamu, and Dagomba. Na Garba was captured and was released when he promised that Dagomba would send 2,000 prisoners annually to Kumasi. This caused Dagomba to engage many warriors in man-hunts within its own territory and in Gonja. By 1745 the Asante kingdom stretched from the Comoe River in the west to the Volta River in the east and beyond the Volta in the north. When Opoku Ware died in 1750, the Muslim chronicler al-Hajj Muhammad ibn Mustafa in the Kitab Ghunja criticized him for harming the people of Gonja by oppressing them and robbing their property, complaining he ruled violently as a tyrant and noting that people all around feared him greatly.

Opoku Ware was succeeded by his uncle Kusi Obodum (r. 1750-1764), who was remembered as “the chief that never killed a man if he could help it, but always commuted the death penalty to a fine.”1 His nephew Osei Kwadwo (r. 1764-77) invaded Banda and Wassaw, and he punished Denkyira and Gyaman for having helped them. During a Dagomba succession dispute about 1770 the Asante used firearms against their spears and arrows to occupy their capital Yendi. Dagomba chief Garbia agreed to pay a tribute of 200 slaves annually, and the tribute continued until 1874. Osei Kwadwo continued the fighting against the Akyem, Akwapim, and Assin, even paying the Fante not to help their Assin neighbors. When the Fante broke their promise, Osei Kwadwo swore revenge; but he died. His successor Osei Kwame was only a boy, and for a decade a regent ruled Asante. No major wars occurred, and he prohibited the selling of his Asante people; but Osei Kwame was eventually deposed by the council of chiefs. His brother succeeded but died after a few weeks, making another brother, Osei Bonsu, Asantehene (Asante king) in 1801.

By 1750 the British Parliament was paying 13,000 pounds a year to maintain the forts. Rev. Thomas Thompson arrived from America in 1752 to propagate the gospel; he studied the Fante language but was only able to baptize eight people before he left in 1756. He did arrange for a few boys to go to London for an education. Philip Quacoe returned in 1765 and for a half century taught children at Cape Coast. During the Seven Years War, France tried and failed in 1757 to capture Cape Coast. Two British warships failed to take Elmina in 1780; but the next year Captain Shirley took the forts at Mori, Apam, Kormantine, and Beraku from the Dutch. A joint British military operation also captured Kommenda; but in the 1783 peace treaty of Versailles the status quo was restored, though the one fort at Sekondi taken by the Dutch had been destroyed. In 1792 the Danish governor at Christiansborg asked Osei Kwame for Asante mercenaries to fight the Fante. The British tried to stop this war between Asante and Fante, but the Asante warriors went to the coast. By then the Danish governor had died, and his successor paid the Asante to go home. Between 1750 and 1807 the British exported to West Africa 49,130,368 pounds of gunpowder and exported from West Africa slaves valued at 53,669,184 pounds.

In 1772 Granville Sharp helped a former slave from the West Indies to keep his freedom when his former master tried to claim him in the Somersett case that went to England’s chief justice Mansfield. Sharp befriended Africans who had been in America and persuaded the British government to let them move to Sierra Leone in West Africa in 1787. Most were Christians, and they named their province Freedom. Temne chief King Tom made a treaty with the self-governing citizens; but when he died, the Koya Temne regent Naimbana could not read a new treaty that granted the newcomers claim to the land. When the settlers and European slave traders opposed Tom’s successor King Jimmy, he burned their town in 1789. Two years later the Sierra Leone Company financed the venture. A thousand former slaves from Nova Scotia arrived in 1792 and built Freetown. Governor John Clarkson promised them free rent; but he left that year, and the Company demanded a small quit rent. Religious Zachary Macaulay was an effective governor and resolved this crisis; but when he left, armed rebellion broke out in 1800. A British ship arrived with troops and 550 new settlers, and they helped suppress the revolt.

Three former slaves from West Africa wrote books about their experiences that were published in England. The Letters of Ignatius Sancho (1729-80) were published by Joseph Jekyll in 1782. Sancho was born on a slave ship; on this journey to the Spanish West Indies his mother died, and his father committed suicide. Sancho was only two when he was taken to England to be a servant for two sisters. In 1773 he married and started a small grocery store. He recommended reading the Bible and believed that blessing follows virtue. His letter to novelist Laurence Sterne asked him to support the anti-slavery campaign.

Quobna Ottobah Cugoano was born in a Fante village about 1757. He was kidnapped by Africans about 1770 and sold to Europeans, who transported him to the West Indies. Taken to England in 1772, he became the servant of painters Richard and Maria Conway, who introduced him to prominent people such as William Blake. He worked with Olaudah Equiano to oppose slavery, and in 1787 he paid for the printing of his own Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. Cugoano argued that since God created all the races, none is inferior. Although Christianity advocates duties to fellow humans, he noted that this religion has been used to dupe innocent natives. He held that those enslaving humans could not be Christians. He suggested abolishing the slave trade and enforcing it with British ships. He hoped that the British could help improve Africa, and in exchange Africans could supply labor for industry and defense. He lamented the villainy of chieftains who cause the common people to suffer because of their wars and feuds. He wrote that any robbery is wrong, but stealing people is the worst.

But the robbers of men, the kid-nappers,
ensnarers and slave-holders,
who take away the common rights and privileges of others
to support and enrich themselves,
are universally those pitiful and detestable wretches;
for the ensnaring of others,
and taking away their liberty by slavery and oppression,
is the worst kind of robbery, as most opposite
to every precept and injunction of the Divine Law,
and contrary to that command which enjoins that
all men should love their neighbors as themselves,
and that they should do unto others,
as they would that men should do to them.2

Olaudah Equiano wrote that he was an Ibo from the Niger region and that when he was twelve years old, he was abducted and taken to America, though some research indicates he may have been born in South Carolina. He served in the British navy during the Seven Years War. By trading and saving, Equiano bought his freedom from a sea captain in 1766. After a shipwreck near the Bahamas, he helped save the crew. When a captain died, he was able to take over and sail to Antigua. In England he worked with abolitionist Granville Sharp on establishing the Sierra Leone colony; but he criticized the corruption that siphoned off the needed funds for the provisions he was employed to purchase. Although the Navy Board defended him, Equiano was fired. His Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was published in London in 1789. During the middle passage he remembered the slaves’ agonies, but he also observed a white sailor who was flogged to death and dumped overboard. He reminded the Europeans that their ancestors had once been uncivilized like the Africans. He blamed European traders for causing many tribal wars between Africans. He was proud that the Ibos were hardy and intelligent with integrity and zeal. The main purpose of his book was to persuade people to abolish slavery. In addition to the obvious human rights violations and the cruelty he witnessed, he argued that the slave trade was not economically viable. Equiano promoted his book and the abolitionist cause by going on lecture tours throughout the British Isles. His book was a financial success, and he married an Englishwoman in 1792. John Wesley liked Equiano’s Narrative so much that he had it read aloud to him on his deathbed.

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