Several centuries ago, an Old World string of coastal fishing towns in West Africa began to encounter New World traders. The influx of commerce brought newfound wealth—and power —to local leaders. The outgo was gold, ivory, and human cargo. History Professor Rebecca Shumway is fascinated by this moment in human history—and the ghosts of Fanteland that still haunt far shores.
In the cool of the West African morning, before the sun starts its daily broil from the sky, Eno Baisie Kurentsi holds court. As usual, the session is lengthy, animated, and sprinkled with great passions. The elders and town chiefs sit and argue before Kurentsi, who is about 80 years old. Later, he will retire to a bathing tub, drink rum until midafternoon, and smoke tobacco from a long pipe that rests on the ground.
Kurentsi is an Omanhene, a highly respected and charismatic political figure. During the course of his day, he hosts leaders from the green coastal area of Ghana over which he has wide influence. But he also engages leaders of Europe and considers himself an equal to the king of England. He speaks enough English to recite the alphabet. At least two of his sons study in Europe: one in Paris, another in London. He shrewdly conducts commerce. He even sways decisions about war—including the capture and sale of other African peoples as slaves.
A leader of Ghana's Fanteland in the 1750s, Kurentsi ruled amid the palm trees at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. It was a time when many of the Fante elite grew wealthy trading with Europeans. The cargo included some of the 1 million Africans who were sold from the Ghana coast and sent to the New World. Indeed, Fanteland was a place so vital and flourishing that one British governor, living in Ghana in 1753, wrote home to a coalition of English merchants, describing the region as a world "where the Negro[e]s are masters."
University of Pittsburgh history professor Rebecca Shumway studies this world. She is the author of the recently published The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (University of Rochester Press). Her work offers a century-long look at the often-forgotten Fante peoples during a particularly intriguing era in human history.
For roughly a century, from 1700 to 1807 (when Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act), West African societies changed dramatically. The transatlantic selling of human captives and the gold and ivory trades brought sustained commercial relations with Europe and the Americas. Big ships with billowing white sails arrived regularly on the coast. They were full of Portuguese and Dutch and English traders sent to find goods that would build the wealth of foreign merchants. The Fante canoe men specialized in ferrying such goods and eventually human cargo to the European ships, which couldn't dock too close to the rocky shores.
The enslaved were often traded by merchant Ghanaians with names like Fat Sam and Yellow Joe, men who used the slave trade to acquire wealth and influence. The forbidding white fort, from which slaves were shipped to the New World, still stands in the town of Anomabo. It was built in 1751 by the British to address the demand for slaves in Jamaica and Barbados.
The traffic for gold and human captives transformed Fanteland from a loosely connected set of fishing towns to a united Coastal Coalition that battled the neighboring Asante over control of the growing slave trade—and the wealth that flowed from it.
It's a poignant moment in human history, entwined with divided loyalties, newfound wealth, terrible tragedy, and transient bonds among very different peoples across several continents. In many ways, it's a historian's treasure trove, but it took Shumway time to find her way to it.
Her Fante awakening can be traced to the early 1990s, when she was an undergraduate at Northwestern University. The school on Lake Michigan is home to the nation's first African Studies program. It was founded in 1948 by Melville Herskovits, an anthropologist with an interest in Africa and its cultural links to Black Americans.
This research-rich milieu gave Shumway her first scholarly glimpse of Africa. She took two classes with Ivor Wilks, a historian who stoked her developing interest in the continent. Wilks specializes in Ghana and is an authority on the Asante Empire. In his classes, Shumway was introduced to the storied history of these people and their interactions with the Europeans during the Gold Trade and transatlantic slavery.
She was so beguiled by Africa's gems of history and culture that she decided to study there. In 1993, the undergraduate arrived at the University of Ghana, Legon, an airy campus of white buildings with red-tile roofs. During her one-year stay, she explored all things Asante. She visited Kumasi, the cultural capital, and found indigenous goods like Kente cloth, the colorful woven fabric once worn only by Ghanaian kings. She studied the golden stools, which represent the throne of Asante leadership, and she glimpsed a modern-day Asantehene, the chief of the Asante people.
But Shumway also visited Cape Coast, a teeming city by the ocean, blotted with a huge white slave fort. Shumway toured the dungeons where the enslaved were housed— sometimes for months—before being loaded into ships that would carry them to the Americas. In the fort, one of the most emotional symbols is the "door of no return," the huge portal through which the enslaved were led to board the ships. During her visit to the fort, Shumway stood near the door as it was flung open. That moment, she recalls, was so overwhelming that she expected to see a slave ship in the distance, ready to load its cargo.
Instead, what she saw was a busy collection of people: fishermen, canoe men, schoolchildren. She wondered: Who are they? Is their history connected to the forts and castles that sit in their backyards? What she soon learned is that many of the people were Fante, descendants from the heritage and history lived by Eno Baisie Kurentsi.
Shumway's curiosity was ignited. She wanted to know more. Her quest bloomed amid a budding respect and fondness for the people of Ghana. During her year of study there, she lived in Volta Hall, a women's dormitory, often without electricity. She befriended another "Becky," a Ghanaian woman who shared her stew and fufu, a dumpling-like food that is a staple of Ghanaian diets. When the university was virtually shut down by staff strikes, the friend ferried the young scholar into the lush Volta region to visit her small village and meet her queen mother. The food and generous friendship, says Shumway, "kept me alive."
While at the University of Ghana, Shumway studied with a Fante professor, John Kofi Fynn, who earned his PhD in the United Kingdom and wrote about Fante state formation. He was a proud teacher, a man of noble birth who was unafraid to critique Ghanaian politics and who often held class in a local pub. He rarely, however, covered Fante history and never even whispered about the slave trade. It was almost as if the slave trade didn't exist, recalls Shumway. The silence only made her more curious about those unspoken years.
After a year in Ghana, Shumway returned to Northwestern, but the thoughts and emotions of the Phi Beta Kappa student often drifted back to the coast of Ghana. In school, she wrote an award-winning senior thesis on Fante canoe men. By then, she says, she began "to realize how much I didn't know," and her paper became another step on her path of African scholarship.
Encouraged by her Northwestern professors to attend graduate school, Shumway enrolled at Emory University in Atlanta. There, she earned a master's degree in history in 1999 and continued toward her doctoral degree, studying history with an emphasis on the pre- colonial era of Africa's Gold Coast. Her dissertation would eventually provide the basis for her new book. Her work was archival. She accessed British colonial records in London, poring over scores of old documents. She traveled back to Ghana, searching through the dusty, crumbling records of the Ghanaian National Archives. In Accra, she read the papers of the secretary of native affairs, a British official whose job it was to identify Ghanaian "tribes."
In the meantime, she also began to build her teaching career. After earning a PhD from Emory in 2004, she taught on the faculties of colleges in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Colorado before coming to Pitt in 2006. Here, she has taught the history and culture of Africa, as well as the movement of belief systems from Africa to the Americas and, sometimes, back to the Old World.
In the classroom, she favors maps and visual aids to show the massive cultural diversity and geography of Africa, challenging her students to question: What does it mean when you say someone is African? She smiles when a student's interest in Africa sparks, reflecting how her own scholarly journey began in a college classroom.
In her pursuit to understand the Fante, Shumway has won National Endowment for the Humanities and Fulbright-Hays grants, among others. At more than a dozen forums and seminars, she has given presentations on Fante culture, identity, and engagement with Atlantic history. She also has published in Africana journals and elsewhere.
With her book The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Shumway set out to reinterpret her earlier scholarship, to put the Fante in the broader context of the African diaspora. She sought to access the voice of the Fante, to have their words and memories inform her interpretations, together with historical documents. She rode in canoes, walked through fields to shrines, and interviewed Fante regional leaders. Once, when she stopped for a cold cola at a Ghanaian roadside snack shop, a waitress introduced her to a local chief. All along the way, Shumway listened, hearing the Fante describe their own towns, their own shrines, their own stories.
The tobacco-smoking 80-year-old leader Eno Baisie Kurentsi is but one example of the rich, complex Fante culture. He lived in Anomabo, which, at the height of the slave trade, was a port city that became the center of Fante society, political power, and enterprise. About 14 miles east of Cape Coast, it was a city of contrasts.
In Kurentsi's time, Anomabo was tropical and cosmopolitan, full of merchants, African and European traders, and mixed-race people. It would be no surprise to spy an Anomabo leader, a figure much like a king, gliding through the streets under a large umbrella of satin and gold lace, gifts from the British. There were extremes of wealth and poverty.
In Fanteland, the oldest members of society held authority, as respect for elders is an enduring feature of West African social life. It was also a place of abirempong, or big men, African elites who held political power. The akomfuo, or priests, were here, too, supervising the ritual oaths, which in oral cultures are a form of legal agreement. Just like the political elite, the akomfuo also received material support—in some cases yards of blue cloth, gallons of rum—from the Europeans, who hoped the priests would help them curry favor from the gods and ancestors.
As a crossroads of global trade, which brought an astounding influx of wealth and interdependency, the region changed dramatically during the course of a century. The roots of that transformation were coiled around the slave trade, says Shumway. It was a most cruel form of violence, displacement, and killing that led to the suffering of large numbers of innocents. At the apex of the trade, the merchant need for captives was so great that it was no longer safe to travel alone through Fanteland—hunters, farmers, and women going to market "were ruthlessly captured and sold into foreign slavery."
The subsequent need in the region to protect people and land spurred the development of Asafo companies, which were military-like squads that provided a matrix of defense and kinship across neighboring Fante communities. Such fraternal bonds were celebrated through distinctive drum and flag corps that have survived into contemporary Fante culture.
By studying the ghosts of Fanteland, Shumway suggests it is possible to observe how the slave trade created new cultures in this part of West Africa in much the same way that the forced movement of millions of Africans gave birth to new cultures across the Americas. It also opens the door, she says, to comparing how inhabitants of the Ghanaian coast were able to preserve their autonomy when other communities farther east and west were absorbed into expanding empires such as Dahomey (now Benin) and Oyo (now Nigeria).
In documenting an era when it was either enslave or be enslaved, Shumway's own march across the archives and fields of Fanteland reveals the light and the dark sides of Africans' agency in the slave trade. Here, the elite Asante were among the most powerful and wealthiest in West Africa, but they were also the main slave traders in Ghana. In the 18th century, their brilliant Kente cloth was woven with threads of silk, cotton, and wool— textiles imported from abroad and often paid for in human lives.
The Pitt history professor hopes her work will encourage historians and others to begin to study how Fante culture is likely sprinkled across the African diaspora, perhaps showing up in Jamaica, Barbados, and the United States.
To know Eno Baisie Kurentsi and the stories of the Asafo companies is to pull the cloak from a hidden history. It offers a chance to awaken the world to Fanteland, just as a young undergraduate was stirred decades ago in Ghana when she peered through "the door of no return."