Slavery in the Asante Empire of West Africa
Across the Western world monuments dedicated to historical figures like Robert Milligan and Edward Coulston are being toppled. It is claimed that memorials to men such as these glorify imperialism and the enslavement of black people. However, we cannot cede the debate to the radical left. There is an unfortunate practice in intellectual circles to mainly critique only white people for their involvement in imperialism and slavery. Rarely do commentators discuss these enterprises from a non-Western angle. But this is an unbalanced presentation of history. Contrary to popular narratives, imperialism and slavery are not unique to white people. Throughout history, black people have willingly participated in both ventures. Many people are familiar with the stories of European dynasties, though the history of imperialism and slavery in West Africa is largely unknown outside the scholarly community of Africanists. We must shed light on these developments to destroy the myth that historically blacks have been passive actors in the pawn of European imperialism. West Africa is of significant interest to our analysis, because it is predominantly black. Of note is also the fact that descendants of West African slaves live in Western countries.
Irrespective of race, humans possess a natural inclination to acquire power by dominating weaker groups. As such West Africans also pursued what scholars call “great power politics.” Like their European peers, they too were interested in attaining political dominance over their rivals. Neither was slavery foreign to West Africa. Slavery was an accepted social institution in Europe and West Africa. Few need to be reminded of the exploits of the great British Empire, so we must share the story of its counterpart in West Africa—the Asante Empire. Due to its military prowess, by the mid-eighteenth century, the Asante Kingdom had become the most powerful state on the Gold Coast. Historian J.K. Fynn clearly describes the empire’s thirst for acquiring territories: “The Asante annexed parts of Akyem and Kwawu while maintaining their hold on Denkyera, Akwamu, Wassa, Sefwi, Assin, Aowin, and Ga-Adangbe. Indeed, when Opoku Ware died, in 1750, the only independent country in the south was the Fante group of states.”
Conquered states were reduced to tributaries of the Asante Empire. To administer these new territories, they were placed under the supervision of a chief from the empire. Fynn refers to this style of management as indirect rule—a term usually invoked to illustrate Britain’s administration of her colonies. The organizational sophistication of the Asante Empire was on par with contemporaneous European states, with several of its officials being responsible for the effective management of provinces. On the other hand, the Asante were not slouched in the area of defense; not even the mighty British could defeat them at their apex. In the words of Agnes A. Aidoo: “A smashing defeat of a British led army of coastal Fante and allied states in 1824 crowned the long imperial enterprise….The Asantehene’s [“king of all Asante”] power and influence extended over an area perhaps one and a half times the size of modern Ghana, with a population of three to four million.” Intriguingly, Thomas
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