Book review

‘Where the Negroes Are Masters’ broadens discussion of slavery

Updated: 2014-02-16T04:05:30Z


The Washington Post

Randy J. Sparks takes his title, and one of his book’s two epigraphs, from comments made by Thomas Melville, the principal British representative on the west coast — also known as the Gold Coast — of Africa in the mid-18th century.

Referring to an unnamed worker, presumably white, Melville said, “He is a good workman and does very well to repair the forts, but is not fit to go where the Negroes are Masters.”

What Melville meant was that in the land now known as Ghana, the power of the native hierarchy was so strong that only whites capable of negotiating with it could be posted there.

This period was the height of the slave trade, and a coastal settlement known as Annamaboe — now called Anomabu — was at its very epicenter.

Few people outside Africa are likely to have heard of it today, but Sparks makes a persuasive case that in its day Annamaboe was a hub of Atlantic commerce, comparable in size to Charleston, S.C., and Newport, R.I. He says Annamaboe’s “capable and crafty merchants relied on the exportation of maize and slaves and the importation of European goods to build a wealthy, independent and powerful commercial center.”

That some African tribal chieftains and their underlings collaborated with the slave traders — chiefly English, French, Dutch and American — has long been known, but the assumption has been that they did so to punish rival tribes or to curry favor with whites.

With his history of Annamaboe, Sparks upends that assumption. He leaves no doubt that, at least at certain locations on the Gold Coast, native Africans were not merely complicit in the trade, but were active, enthusiastic and decidedly voluntary participants.

In particular through his portrait of John Corrantee, “a military commander, a skillful political leader, and a successful trader and diplomat,” Sparks leaves no doubt as to the validity of this argument.

The term for Corrantee, whose African name was Eno Baisee Kurentsi, was the “caboceer” of the Fante, a Gold Coast ethnic group prominent in Africa for centuries.

Its chief rival during this period was the Asante people, now known as Ashanti, and many of the slaves shipped out from Annamaboe were Asante captured in warfare.

A Dutch official “compared Corrantee to Nanni … the spider who figures so prominently in trickster tales from the region,” and Sparks agrees, writing that “Corrantee’s skillful diplomacy kept the British and French ensnared in his webs throughout his long life, and he manipulated the European presence on the coast to build his own power base in Annamaboe.”

Quoted is historian David Northrup: “African slave traders are usually cast in the role of victims … naive persons caught up in the vicious machinery of a larger economy they could not begin to comprehend,’ a view that badly misrepresents men like Corrantee. 

“As accomplished international merchants, local rulers, and diplomats, Corrantee and his fellow caboceers should occupy a central place in the historiography of the slave trade,” Northrup said. “These African merchants were as fully engaged in the Atlantic economy as their European counterparts.”

We meet Richard Brew, an Irishman working for the Royal African Co. and its successor, the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, “one of the very few British merchants who settled on the Gold Coast” and who married Corrantee’s daughter. He, too, was a tough trader.

But unlike his father-in-law, who seems to have viewed the slave trade in purely commercial terms with no moral reservations, Brew had at least a glimmer of conscience, writing in 1770: “I am a friend to Liberty and … I Mortally hate logs & Chains, tho I live in the Midst of Slaves & Slavery.”

It was nearly four decades after that when Britain finally abolished the slave trade, which did more than anything else to end Annamaboe’s golden age. While it did not end the traffic, Sparks writes, “built to protect the slave trade, the forts now became enforcers of the ban against it, and the economies of Cape Coast, Annamaboe, and the other towns surrounding those forts simply collapsed …”

“Understandably, none of this made much sense to the Africans engaged in the slave trade, who were baffled at the sudden about-face. The slave trade might have been outlawed by the British, but not in Africa.”

Though other historians have been working in this direction in recent years, Sparks’ book is a pathfinding work that surely will have great influence on our understanding of “the largest forced migration in history.”

Jonathan Yardley is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.

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