By Hannah Sweet
Esi’s journey through the door of no return in Yaa Gysai’s Homegoing is a single vignette of the experience of millions of Africans. From the 16th to 19th century millions of Africans were herded onto ships for the New World, never to see their families or homeland again. It is estimated that around 12-25 million Africans from vastly different communities, ranging from present day Senegal to Angola, were involved in the slave trade. Dozens of slave forts remain perched on the side of the Atlantic Ocean, a physical reminder of the brutal legacy of the slave trade.
As we discussed Homegoing in class many of my peers were perplexed by the Fante’s role in the slave trade. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade slave trade along with the gold and ivory trade brought sustained relations with Europe and consequently wealth to Fanteland. The British government and the Fante people formed strong alliance that would transform Fanteland from a handful of fishing towns to a prosperous and dominate confederacy. Yet, like all stories it is important to understand that history is nuanced. For the Fante, the slave trade was less of a partnership with the British and rather a relationship characterized by British exploitation.
When the British arrived in Fanteland (present day Ghana) in the 18th century, a domestic slave trade had already been established, although slavery didn’t mean what it would come to mean in the New World. The British saw the domestic slave trade as a lucrative system one that they could take advantage and build upon for their own gain. Additionally, the Europeans were able to exploit existing divisions within Fanteland to meet their trading and colonial ambitions. Fanteland was made up of 24 states along the Atlantic coast. Each of the states were ruled independently by a chief or omanhen. Up until the Fante formed a confederation in the early 18th century and even after, Fanteland severely lacked political unity. When the Fante were not fighting against the Asante people, inter-state conflicts were common. By exploiting these divisions, the British divided and conquered Fanteland, ensuring their control was unchallenged. Further, each state had a handful of organizations of warrior known as Asafo derived from sa (meaning war) and fo (meaning people). The British were able to organize the Asafo warriors into military units that could fight against threats from the interior.
The British legacy of exploitation would continue long past the slave trade. The British made treaties with Fante chiefs. In these treaties the British promised to protect the Fante during a series of wars between ethnic groups in the region. The British then used the treaties to become the colonial ruler of Fanteland. It was not until 1957 that Ghana was able to break away from its colonial ruler and declare independence.
Modern Ghana. “History of the Fante.” Modern Ghana, 2020, http://www.modernghana.com/ghanahome/ashanti/fante.asp?menu_id2=67&s=a1868. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Polgreen, Lydia. “Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace of Slavery’s Diaspora.” The New York Times, 27 Dec. 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/27/world/africa/ghanas-uneasy-embrace-of-slaverys-diaspora.html. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Shenoy, Rupa. “‘Willful Amnesia’: How Africans Forgot — and Remembered — Their Role in the Slave Trade.” The World, 20 Aug. 2019, http://www.pitt.edu/research/ghosts-fanteland. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Sibeko, Siphiwe, and Francis Korokoro. “Retracing a Slave Route in Ghana, 400 Years on.” Reuters, 1 Aug. 2019, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-africa-slavery-journey-widerimage/retracing-a-slave-route-in-ghana-400-years-on-idUSKCN1UR4JV. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.