The idea that slavery poisons socioeconomic development and, therefore, prosperity of enslaved nations has been cited and repeated in academic quarters so often that it has become a platitude, assuming the aura of conventional wisdom. Indeed, whereas slavery augmented the riches of the slave-trading states and supported the labor force of the states on the receiving end of this phenomenon, it had debilitating and far-reaching consequences for the enslaved states. Projecting these simple empirically-grounded assumptions onto the case of Ghana and other West African states, it appears that slavery deprived these societies of their most productive members, leaving a trail of underdevelopment in its wake. Fast-forward to the early 21st century and the socioeconomic situation in Ghana is not significantly better. Indeed, barring some achievements that Ghana has scored since the abolition of slavery, the country still acquits itself poorly in terms of socioeconomic and political development. Despite the reach bounty of mineral resources that could have kick-started and underpinned its development, Ghana remains an underdeveloped country. If GDP per capita at purchasing power parity is taken as a yardstick against which to measure the country’s level of socioeconomic development, Ghana is the world’s 136th most prosperous country (“GDP Per Capita, PPP” 1). The country fares equally poorly in other development indices. Against this backdrop, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that the debilitating legacy of centuries-long slave trade in Ghana is at least partly responsible for Ghana’s lackadaisical development at this juncture of history. In the same vein, this legacy is, perhaps, the main factor underlying the continued presence of slavery in Ghana today.
Given the problem as it is outlined above, this essay seeks to ascertain the correlations between slavery and Ghana’s development. To set the tone for the analysis of the main question and to provide a benchmark against which to compare Ghana’s performance during the age of slavery, the essay delves deeper into history to understand how the territories making up present-day Ghana acquitted themselves in terms of political and socioeconomic development before the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century and other European traders in the following centuries. The essay then examines the antecedents of slavery in Ghana. The main focus of the essay is, however, on both immediate and long-term effects of slavery and slave trade on Ghana. Finally, before concluding the essay, the researcher also briefly explores the correlations between European slave trade in Ghana and the continued presence of slavery in the country today. At this point of the research process, the preliminary findings allow the researcher to advance the following tentative hypothesis: Although slavery was already firmly entrenched in the societies that lived in the territories making up today’s Ghana even before the arrival of European overlords, slave trade assumed threatening proportions only during European involvement, reaching such a scale that it depopulated Ghana and, therefore, diminished its socioeconomic potential. Simply put, Ghana would have definitely been better off without slavery.
Before exploring the antecedents of the European slave trade in Ghana, it would be useful to first outline the contours of political and socioeconomic development in the territories making up today’s Ghana before the beginning of this trade in the 17th century. This could help to set the tone for the discussion of how slavery changed the country. Yet, it is essential to make a reservation in this context that only fractured evidence exists about the history of Ghana before the beginning of the slave trade. Part of the explanation is that European overlords had an interest only in exploiting the country’s resources, failing to study and document the Ghanaian history preceding their arrival. Another part of the explanation is that Ghanaians themselves preferred oral storytelling to written chronicling and, therefore, did not produce major primary sources that could be used to learn the Ghanaian history before the arrival of European slave traders. Furthermore, in the absence of meaningful archeological finds, historians cannot corroborate many claims about Ghana.
With the caveat that there is little credible historical evidence about Ghana’s pre-colonial history, those rare pieces of evidence that do exist attest to the wealth of pre-slavery Ghana. It is essential to note in this context that the history of the territories constituting today’s Ghana should not be mistaken for that of the eponymous Ghana Empire, a powerful African empire that encompassed the territories subsumed into today’s Senegal, Mauritania and Mali between the early 8th and mid-13th centuries (see figure 1). The territories making up today’s Ghana were, by contrast, included into a series of other kingdoms and empires that changed each other in quick succession (Holsey 28-43). Even so, however, because the history of modern Ghana is strongly associated with that of the Ghana Empire in popular imagination, a brief explanation of socioeconomic and political development of this empire could be useful in the context of this essay. Thus, al-Yaqubi, a 9th-century cartographer and historian from the Abbasid Caliphate, referrs to the vast reserves of gold in the Ghana Empire and the opulence of its courts to describe the Ghana Empire as one of the most well-organized and prosperous states in West Africa (cited in Conrad 85). Al-Bekri, an 11th-century cartographer, for his part, draws on the accounts of a Spanish caravan to the Sahel to describe the Ghana Empire as a rich land, whose ruling families relied on pagan religions to consolidate national loyalties (cited in Goodwin 108). Apparently, the Ghana Empire was one of the most developed and well organized geopolitical entities in West Africa at the time the Europeans did not even eye expansion into this continent.
As far as the territories constituting present-day Ghana are concerned, they were also relatively prosperous. These territories changed hands multiple times before they came under European influence and even thereafter. Thus, in the pace between the 11th century and the 19th centuries, the territories making up today’s Ghana were part of various Dagomba and Akan states, including but not limited to the Bono state, the Ashanti state, the Denkyira state, the Mankessim kingdom, the Akwamu state (Shumway & Getz 35-118). Many of these states overlapped chronologically and had belligerent relations. All these aspects notwithstanding, the territories making up today’s Ghana were nonetheless generally regarded as rather prosperous. Like the Ghana Empire to the northwest of today’s Ghana, Dagomba and later Akan states participated in extensive trade with North African states (Shumway & Getz 40-43). The main commodity exported by Akan people was, of course, gold, as the territories in the south of Ghana earned a reputation for possessing significant reserves of this precious metal (Collins & Burns 138-140). Against this backdrop, the Akan people – the Ashanti people, particularly – were able to ride stable gold prices to relative prosperity (Collins & Burns 138-140). Looking ahead, it needs to be said that this gold wealth translated into increased stability for the Ashanti people, as their eponymous kingdom continued to thrive even during the era of slavery.
Importantly, even when the Europeans established their first contacts with Ghana sometime in the 15th century, nothing augured ill for Ghanaians at first. Indeed, as the Europeans did not bestir themselves to subjugate early Ghanaian states in their entirety or to reduce Ghanaian people to slavery, these early Ghanaian states were allowed to continue their existence largely unscathed. For example, the Ashanti Empire, the most prominent Akan state in the territories making up present-day Ghana from the mid-17th to the mid-20th century, continued to trade with the Europeans and use the proceeds from this trade to consolidate their power (Shumway & Getz 44-60). Indeed, boasting impressive gold wealth and military prowess, the hitherto small Ashanti chiefdom embarked on the path of transformation into a veritable empire in the mid-17th century. By the early 18th century, Ashanti leaders took control over most of the territories making up today’s Ghana, transforming their loosely organized geopolitical entity into a relatively strong regional power with centralized authority and sophisticated bureaucracy (Bailey 84-248). On the face of things, military conquests and territorial aggrandizements of Ashanti leaders facilitated the consolidation of political power and political stability in the territories making up present-day Ghana. Indeed, despite their penchant for centralized authority, Ashanti leaders still accorded a reasonable degree of self-rule to the constituent Akan tribes instead of subjugating them (Shumway & Getz 46-57). The problem, however, was that the Ashanti sold their prisoners of war to European slave traders. In fact, the Ashanti waged war on the neighboring Akan people not only to gain their territories but also to capture more prisoners of war to subsequently exchange them for European guns or other goods.
Before proceeding with the discussion of how the slave trade between the Europeans on the one hand and the Ashanti and their allies on the other affected the territories making up today’s Ghana, it would be useful to first explain the standpoint of the Europeans on the early Ghanaian states and other West African states. Thus, a common thread from the reviewed literature shows that the early contacts between the Europeans and the Ghanaians were mutually beneficial (Shumway & Getz 29-46; Greene 93-108). Portuguese forts on the Ghanaian coast that would be later used to store slaves were originally built to facilitate commodity trade, much to the benefit of the communities that call themselves Ghanaian today (Clair 181-245). Importantly, the coast of Ghana was chosen as a site for dozens of forts not only because Ghana had large deposits of gold but also because, unlike the swampy coastlines of the neighboring parts of West Africa, Ghana’s coast offered easy access to the interior (Shumway & Getz 29-46).
Due to its favorable topography, Ghana was poised to take advantage of the flourishing trade with the Europeans beginning in the late 15th century. The fortified trading outposts built by the Portuguese at the turn of the 16th century served as strongholds to protect Ghana against both other foreign settlers and threats emanating from other African people (Diarra 1). Within short, however, other European powers, too, flocked to Ghana to avail themselves of the mineral riches of this newly discovered land. In the ensuing centuries, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the British and even the Swedes reached the shores of Ghana in an effort to purchase its timber, ivory, gold and other commodities. Hence, the forts built by the Portuguese and later other European powers were essential sites for non-human commodity trade. Hence, the early European presence in Ghana had a mostly positive impact on the territories making up today’s Ghana. The Europeans were not even originally interested in subduing Ghanaians and, save for their limited control of the Ghanaian coast, diminishing the sovereignty of the Ashanti kingdom and other Akan states in other ways. Things were meant to continue this way.
Before long, however, the Portuguese began to reconsider their stance on their trade with the early Ghanaian states. The Portuguese required slaves to toil on their plantations in the newly acquired Canary Islands (Thomas 44). As the Portuguese began to establish permanent settlements in parts of Latin America in the mid-16th century, they required additional labor for work in the sugar cane industry and other enterprises in these Latin American settlements, not least because indigenous populations succumbed to infectious disease imported from Europe. In these circumstances, they could no longer afford to sell slaves to the Ashanti. As surprising as it sounds, the previous inference is not a mistake. Indeed, lest criticism should appear too harsh to the Europeans, it needs to be noted that slavery in Ghana – and, for that matter, much of the rest of Africa – predated the arrival of the Europeans. In fact, there is ample evidence proving that Arabs enslaved African people across the continent as early as in the 9th century (Conrad 15-62). People living in the territories making up today’s Ghana were not immune to the problem. However, of particular significance in the context of this discussion is the slavery institutionalized by the Ashanti themselves. Indeed, a common thread from the reviewed literature indicates that the Ashanti had the institution of slavery at the time the Europeans arrived in Ghana for the first time (Shumway & Getz 181-219; Conrad 15-62). It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Ashanti kingdom was gold exporting and slave importing economy for much of the 16th century. Hence, slaves were among other commodities that the Ashanti bought from the Portuguese during their early contacts on the cusp of the 16th century.
Even so, however, it is imperative to make a reservation in this context that traditional Ashanti slavery was not as brutal as that introduced by the Europeans. Some authors go as far as to contend that Ashanti slaves were treated almost as full-fledged members of society and had their specific rights. Ellis, for his part, explains in his 1887 ethnographic study of the ways and mores of the Tshi-speaking peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa that slaves owned by Ashanti families could request a new master on the grounds that their current masters were severely abusing them (285-295). As a result, those found to be abusing their slaves often earned public disparagement (Ellis 285-295). In some cases, slaves living in Ashanti families could own their own slaves (Ellis 285-295). Overall, this passage serves to show both that slavery in the territories making up today’s Ghana predated the arrival of the Europeans and, at the same time, that this slavery was less severe in nature.
As the polities of the Gold Coast – that is, today’s Ghana and some adjacent territories – transformed from gold exporting and slave importing economies in the 16th century into slave exporting economies in the 17th century, the nature of slavery in West Africa changed dramatically. Again, the Ashanti originally purchased slaves from the Portuguese for the purposes of augmenting their labor force to continue on the path of state formation that was taking place in the 16th century (Bailey 243-278). Within short, however, the situation changed, as the Ashanti and other Akan subgroups began to capture their own slaves and sell them to Europeans or merely barter these slaves for European weapons (Bailey 84-278). In essence, Akans enslaved their own people – that is, people from the subgroups that belonged to the Akan meta-ethnic group.
There followed a hectic period in the history of Ghana, as ever more European powers arrived to its shores to take advantage of both non-human commodity trade and growing slave trade. The clusters of castles, forts and other fortified trading outposts on the Gold Coast built by the Portuguese changed hands, as other European powers joined the fray to avail themselves of the opportunities stemming from the Gold Coast. More specifically, Diarra explains, these trading posts were “seized, attacked, exchanged, sold and abandoned during almost four centuries of struggle between European powers for domination over the Gold Coast” (1). Having seized control of the Gold Coast in 1637, the Dutch, for example, redesigned the Elmina castle, which was built by the Portuguese as a trade outpost in 1482, to set up a marketplace where slaves could be auctioned (Diarra 1). Yet, while these forts changed hands repeatedly, the fate of Ghanaian people was more stable, as the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and the British sought to purchase Akan and other African slaves for their plantations in the Americas. Hence, as the colonizers reduced Ghanaians and other African people to yet another commodity, the redoubtable fortresses dotting the Gold Coast no longer stored ivory, gold and other hitherto popular goods. They stored humans poised for sale into slavery.
The transatlantic slave trade route was a very lucrative industry for European overlords (see figure 2). Just as the earlier Arab slave trade along the sub-Saharan, Read Sea and Indian Ocean rotes, the transatlantic slave trade engineered by the Europeans was designed to benefit Europe and, to a lesser extent, its colonial holdings in the Americas. Indeed, as slaves imported from Africa toiled in the plantations of the Americas, they helped to sustain agricultural production in these colonies and, therefore, augmented the proceeds of European colonial powers. Conspicuously absent in this discussion are the benefits that Africans received from the triangular trade. To be sure, those Africans who were involved in the slave trade did derive benefits from the slave trade, as the Europeans – no longer willing to organize raids to capture slaves – paid Africans either in gold or in European commodities for the slaves. The situation was similar in the territories making up today’s Ghana, as the slaveholding interests augmented their personal wealth through slave trade (Greene 27-143). The Europeans also brought weapons to Ghanaian people to enable them to repel aggression and capture even more slaves. Other than that, however, the triangular trade had few benefits for Ghana. Of course, the introduction of cassava, maize, yams, potatoes and some other crops by European traders during the transatlantic slave trade served to boost Ghana’s agriculture. In fact, cassava and yams are still grown by virtually every family, accounting for a daily caloric intake of about 30% in the country (Ferris 1). Equally indicative of the cassava’s importance in Ghana is the fact that this crop accounted for about 20% of the domestic agricultural output in the country at the turn of the 21st century (Ferris 1). One way or the other, the introduction of these crops to Ghana was not a fair price for more than one million Ghanaian people captured and sold into slavery in the Americas.
There is no gainsaying the fact that centuries of slavery had taken a heavy – nay, irreversible – toll on Ghana. The consequences of slavery under the aegis of the transatlantic slave trade manifested themselves most clearly in terms of demographics. These consequences were becoming particularly alarming as the slave trade reached its height in the 18th century, when as many as 50% of the transatlantic slave trade occurred (Thomas 88-263). Thus, according to the generally accepted estimates, as many as 12 million Africans became victims of the European slave trade in the space between the 16th and the 19th century (Lovejoy 365). A careful analysis of online databases failed to produce even an approximate number of Ghanaians, who became victims of European slave trade in the 16th-19th centuries. That fractured evidence that does exist suggests that slavery profoundly affected the demographics of the territories making up today’s Ghana. Richardson, Tibbles and Schwartz, for example, reckon:
The period between 1706 and 1725 was the period in which Akan/Aja dominance was most pronounced in Jamaica, with 48.7 per cent of slave arrivals emanating from the Gold Coast and 32.1 per cent coming from the Slave Coast… Hardly any slaves came from Upper Guinea or from South East Africa (151-152).
Furthermore, the authors calculate that no fewer one million residents of the Gold Coast [read Ghana] were sold into slavery in the space between 1701 and 1801 (see figure 3). On the basis of these calculations, Richardson, Tibbles and Schwartz reason that four regions – the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, the Bight of Biafra, and West Central Africa – accounted for almost nine-tenth of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century (45). The share of Akans in the transatlantic slave trade on the other stages of this endeavor is somewhat more obscure. One way or the other, based on the empirically grounded fact that Akans willingly engaged in slave trade with the Europeans and that Akans were often mentioned in slave inventories in Jamaica and other parts of the Americas, it seems logical to assume that slavery had a profound impact on Ghana’s demographics.
Apart from its direct impact on the dispersal of the Ghanaian people, the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in general affected Ghana’s demographics in other ways too. For example, it is understood that slavery had a disproportionate effect on males. Thus, according to Thomas, the transatlantic slave trade disrupted Africa’s gender balance, as slave traders were more willing to purchase males (417-786). Again, the specific impact of slavery on Ghana’s gender balance is unclear. Yet, given the prevailing tendencies in the region, it seems reasonable to argue that the effects were roughly the same.
Against this backdrop, there appear to be ample grounds to talk about the adverse demographic impact of slavery and slave trade on Ghana. Indeed, the problem was that slavery eliminated the country’s productive forces, leading to the dispersal of artisans, intellectuals and other individuals, who could have worked for the benefit of Ghana and produced progeny. This loss of generations of men and women to slavery slowed development in Ghana. Gray and O’Day agree with the reasoning that the transatlantic slave trade blighted Ghana’s perspectives for the future, further enunciating:
Now, Ghanaians die from a lack of economic development. The slower economic development in Ghana – and in many other places around the globe formerly colonized by Europeans and North Americans – is related, in large measure, to the economic despondency and scarcity of social infrastructures (e.g., potable water, healthcare, sufficient roads and schools) left in the wake of Trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism (425).
Nunn agrees with Gray and O’Day’s argument, further adding that the slave trade undermined the Ashanti economy in the long term (139-176). Wengraf, for his part, weighs in to add that the labor potential lost to the slave trade thwarted Ghanaian and other African communities in the process of capital expansion (37-42). In fact, the slave trade affected Ghana’s economy in other ways that were not directly related to the lost labor potential. More specifically, Wengraf explains that the slave trade narrowed the range of exports from Ghana, led to the focus in imports on weapons and other nonproductive commodities, stultified the development of productive capacities in Ghana itself, prevented innovation, and led to technological stagnation (37-42).
While they poisoned economic development in Ghanaian states, slavery and the slave trade did not particularly impact the organization of the government. To be sure, in much of the rest of West Africa, the transatlantic slave trade diminished the capacity of local communities to develop stronger ties of trust and, correspondingly, stronger political structures in the long term, leading to fragmentation and fractionalization in the long term. Nunn, for example, asserts that the transatlantic slave trade “weakened ties between villages, thus discouraging the formation of larger communities and broader ethnic identities” (164). Nunn further adduces several examples to demonstrate how the transatlantic slave trade facilitated political disintegration:
In sixteenth-century northern Senegambia, the Portuguese slave trade was a key factor leading to the eventual disintegration of the Joloff Confederation, which was replaced by the much smaller kingdoms… In Southern Senegambia, the same pattern is observed. Prior to the slave trades, complex state systems were in the process of evolving. However, the evolution stagnated soon after the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century (143-144).
Judging by the highest standards, the situation was different in the territories making up present-day Ghana. Indeed, as mentioned earlier in the text, the Ashanti Empire had, by contrast, developed a rather robust bureaucracy with a system of checks and balances (Abegaz 50). In this system, the chiefs and elders could check the power of the king (Abegaz 49-50). Even though they participated in the oppression of their own people, Ashanti leaders’ deft management helped to largely avoid such unfavorable scenarios as occurred in much of the rest of West Africa. Likewise, unlike in much of the rest of Africa, internal conflicts in Ghana – that is, military campaigns led by the Ashanti – did not, in fact, perpetuate political instability. On the contrary, they led to more stability under the centralized power, thereby ensuring the survival of the Ashanti Empire until the mid-20th century. Even after Ghana became a British colony in 1867, traditional chiefs continued to play a prominent role in domestic administration. Even so, however, it is vital in this context to make yet another reservation that the slave trade did have a negative impact on Ghana’s political system in the long term, partly explaining why this country continued to have a weak and unstable state in the wake of independence in 1957 (Nunn 139-176). Overall, with the caveat that the Ashanti achieved the loyalty of the groups they conquered not least owing to their possession of firearms, there are ample grounds to believe that the transatlantic slave trade did not have the same negative effects on Ghana’s politics as it had on Ghana’s demographics and economy.
Importantly, however, Ghana’s experience with slavery did not end with the 1807 abolition of the slave trade by the British. The Dutch abolition of slavery in 1814 also did not end the problem. Although the fortresses like the Elmina castle and the Cape Coast castle, the main centers of slave trade in the Gold Coast, fell into desuetude following their cession to the British in 1872, slavery did not disappear from the face of Ghana forever. Although slavery no longer thrived in Ghana, the descendants of slaves continued to be insulted occasionally and encountered some other forms of discrimination on the cusp of the 20th century (Venkatachalam 136-139). Today, almost two centuries since the abolition of the slave trade in Ghana and the complete manumission of all thralls, slavery has reemerged in Ghana. In fact, a common thread from the reviewed literature suggests that Ghana continues to suffer from the problem of slavery. Coorlim, for example, explains that approximately 20,000 Ghanaian children work on Lake Volta, “enslaved by the fishermen they call master” (1). Ghana’s historical involvement in the slave trade is in many ways responsible for this state of affairs. Indeed, the historical tolerance of slavery is part of the problem, as it perpetuates cultural tolerance of slavery. Ryan of Reuters concurs with this judgment, further adding that “Ghanaians are still coming to terms with slavery’s impact on their country’s development” (1). Furthermore, because Ghana’s record of slavery and slave trade is responsible for the country’s economic woes at this juncture of history, it is not particularly surprising why Ghanaian poverty-stricken parents see it as acceptable to sell their children into slavery (Coorlim 1).
In conclusion, this essay has shown that the underdevelopment of Africa in general and Ghana in particular can be, to a great extent, attributed to slavery and the slave trade in the 16th-19th centuries. To be sure, this essay has shown that slavery in the territories making up today’s Ghana predated the first contacts with the Europeans, as the Ashanti and some other subgroups of the Akan meta-ethnicity had the well-established institutions of slavery even before. Of course, given the existence of slavery in Ghana even before European contact, it is reasonable to assume that slavery would have continued in this country for some time even without European involvement. At the same time, however, it is also reasonable to surmise that the scale of this slavery would have never achieved its historical highs if it had not been for the European demand. By extension, the supply would have been lower. As a corollary of this, the population decline and the loss of economic potential would have been correspondingly milder. After all, this essay has confirmed the tentative hypothesis that the slave trade produced a series of untoward long-term socioeconomic effects on Ghana, leading to labor potential loss, causing a scarcity of social infrastructure, and trapping the country in the vicious cycle of reliance on commodities from abroad. Likewise, even though the slave trade facilitated the consolidation of the Ashanti power, it nonetheless contributed to political instability in the long run, as the military campaigns of the Ashanti, which were largely possible due to their involvement in the slave trade, brought together people that had little in common besides their ethnic affiliation. As a result, hostility persisted even after independence. In fact, Ghana is still struggling to recuperate from the scars of the slave trade. The legacy of slavery still manifests itself clearly across much of Africa, including Ghana. For example, the ongoing involvement of some 20,000 Ghanaian children in slavery on Lake Volta is in many ways related to the country’s historical record of slavery and slave trade. In these circumstances, there are ample grounds to assert that Ghana would have been better off if it had not been for slavery and the slave trade.
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