The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Rebecca Shumway. University of Rochester, Rochester NY, 2011. Pp. 232. ISBN. 978-1-58046-391-1 (hb). $85.

Recent  contributions to the Ghana Studies Council Newsletter (accessible on line) have included articles about the dubious quality of the  guided tours given at Cape Coast and Elmina Castles. Selina Wisnes, whose translations have made  Danish writings accessible in English, described the information imparted as ‘demeaned with absurdities’. Merrick Posnansky, who ‘worked on the only excavations yet conducted on any of the dungeons’,  observed that: ’It appears that many of the recent talks on the castles are not based on accounts by the original occupants but on emotional interpretations by present-day Ghanaians steeped neither in the documentary nor oral histories of the area’. There is, he went on, ‘definite evidence of “feedback”’ from visitors.

Rebecca Shumway’s study is a significant contribution to analysis of what went on at the forts and should feed into the presentations by the tour guides. She writes, for example, that, by 1807, ‘ the coast towns were linked by a highly efficient network of communication that enabled them to orchestrate their responses to the constantly shifting circumstances of the Atlantic trade’ ; she shows how that network came into being and how it operated. I hope her findings will not only filter down to the guides but that her interest in Anomabu (also rendered Anamabo and, in the C18th, Annamaboe) will place it firmly in the awareness of guides and  historians and insert it on the itinerary of visitors.

The Fante and the  Transatlantic Slave Trade throws down challenges to established Ghanaian historians and comes with a ringing endorsement from Robin Law. He  writes of it in terms of a ’significant topic, solidly and comprehensively treated, effectively situated… offering new material.’  This statement stands beside a curious series of comments by Larry W. Yarak who  refers to  (I am tempted to say ‘dismisses’) the book as ‘a novel reinterpretation of eighteenth-century Gold Coast history’ and as ‘a partial reexamination of the archival record’.  To these pejorative descriptions he adds that ‘Shumway  … attempts to refashion our understanding.’   It would be good to have Yarak’s detailed analysis of the book’s shortcomings because, it seems to me, Shumway argues her case with an abundance of  carefully marshalled evidence.  I find originality rather than novelty, and am impressed by the extent of her research rather than ready to swoop on gaps,  or  biases (!), that would justify the word ‘partial’.   Recognising the limitations of travel, time and access under which all research is undertaken, it is a given that every project is incomplete.

The volume has the strengths  and characteristic tone of a rewritten doctoral thesis and its dimensions speak of such a provenance. One hundred and fifty-six pages of text and illustrations are followed by forty-five pages of end-notes (more than 700 in total). The conclusion covers just over two pages and is followed by a twenty-two page bibliography.  What might have been the ‘give away’ of the book’s origin as a post-graduate requirement,  the ‘Literature Survey’,  is present, but in the form of a readable 25-page Introduction supported by 12 pages of beefy notes!

Although the Conclusion is short, Shumway has certainly taken a stand. This is seen in her  observations about  the neglect of Anomabo  and the contrast she establishes between it and Cape Coast / Elmina. This is presented  vividly on the first page of her study where she allows herself to reconstruct the  experience of Thomas Melvil, governor of the British settlements on the Gold Coast, on 24 April 175. She brings Melvil before us, sitting in Cape Coast Castle,  reflecting on the circumstances down the coast in Anomabo –  and writing of Anomabo that ‘the Negros are masters’ there.

I hope that accounts of this ‘mastery’  will be incorporated into the information imparted by tour guides. In the meantime, it should be noted that the people of  Anomabo have, with characteristic resourcefulness and independence,  guarded their ‘narrative’ and those who come to Ghana through her  men of affairs, educationists and writers already find their steps guided to the town. They are drawn thither by, for example, references to Amomabo as the home-town of George Ekem Ferguson, John Mensah Sarbah, Kwegir Aggrey and Kwesi Brew. Brew’s surname hints at his mixed heritage and his links with the family that is at the centre of  Margaret Priestley’s West African Trade and Coast Society.  Shumway, incidentally,  is short with Priestley when generosity would have been more appropriate; the two scholars are  kindred spirits – authors of studies that gain resonance through being focused.

Reviewed by: James Gibbs, University of West of England.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 81-82]