Where The Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade, by Randy J. Sparks chronicles the power dynamics at Annamaboe, a Fante-controlled port in the coast of West Africa. The Atlantic was a commerce conduit for two simultaneous trades between America and the Gold Coast; while plantations traded with American merchant ships, slave trade blossomed as well. He depicts the role that the native Africans played at the coastal settlement, Annamaboe, where they acted as power brokers in the triangular trade with the Europeans and Americans. He weaves the complex web of trade linking Newport, Rhode Island; London, England; Paris, France; Kingston, Jamaica; and Charleston, South Carolina (Semley, 2014). This essay offers arguments focused on the hierarchy of power at the port of Annamaboe, the implications of the “pawn system” used in the trade, and explores the issues that led to the trading port.
The Power Dynamics Present in Anomabo
Rebecca Shumway borrows the comments of Thomas Melville to put matters into perspective, “He is a good workman and does very well to repair the forts, but is not fit to go where the Negroes are Masters” (Shumway, 2011, p. 1). Set in the middle of the 18th Century, native Africans held so much power at the port that a select few Caucasians could negotiate with them. The Fante town of Annamaboe was ruled by a paramount chief, John Corrantee (Eno Baisee Kurentsi), and then his successor, Amoony Coomah (Amonu Kuma) (Shumway, 2014). They, among other Fante elites, developed a sophisticated network of trade and diplomacy using their exposure to years of international trade in the Gold Coast and their travels across America and Europe. If at all the Europeans had a hand in developing the slave trade at Annamaboe, it was not very apparent. So impressive was development of the centre that Sparks compared it to Charleston and Newport, remarking that its capable and crafty merchants built a wealthy, powerful and independent port. This signifies the independence of the region from the influence of outsiders who were interested in its slaves.
It is no secret that several native African chiefs collaborated with European slave traders. However, it has been long assumed that they all did so at the behest of the whites, or due to antagonistic reasons such as retaliation on rival communities and to form favourable positions with the slavers. Sparks banishes this notion as he offers the history of the transformation and consequent dominance of Annamaboe. He convincingly shows that the native Africans in the Fante region were, in fact, actively complicit, rhapsodic, and decidedly voluntary parties to the establishment, perpetuation, control, and management of slave trade. He depicts this through the character John Corrantee, the successful Fante diplomat, magistrate, military and political leader to ascertain this argument.
The representation of African slavers as naïve victims in a larger system of an economy that they could not comprehend is completely misplaced. It misrepresented dominant characters such as John Corrantee, who single-handedly built an African hierarchy sustained by slavery. Locally known as a “caboceer”, Corrantee wove an expansive and sophisticated network that entrapped his opponents (Sparks, 2014). He used diplomacy to manipulate the Europeans to build a confederacy that was wholly run by Africans. However, there was an equally prominent European slaver who operated from Annamaboe, Richard Brew. The tough British merchant skilfully negotiated with the native African traders and helped in building the human trade in West Africa. Despite this, a strong African hierarchy had been established in the commerce and the Europeans played second fiddle.
The Pawn System
Fante rulers, chiefs, and coboneers jealously protected the profitable trade that was ongoing at the Gold Coast. To this end the indigenous trade custom of pawning was used- family members were given as collateral to ensure trade obligations were met. This practice was a bit of a challenge with European slave traders. English captains dared not to travel to America with African pawns even when they had not yet been redeemed (Shumway, 2014). They, therefore, exchanged them with foreign slaves in order to remain in the good graces of their valuable African trade partners.
Indeed, although the foreign traders were averse to the practice of pawning, they grew accustomed to it. Eventually, the practice lent itself to the African-European socio-economic relationships. This later proved critical to the expansion of slave trade in the region. The commercial trade between foreigners and the African traders and “Negro masters” now depended on familial consent and personal connections. Essentially, pawning forced trading relations to be built on a cultural exchange between Africans and Europeans that was underlined by a titillating balance of trust. This forced the two sides to work in unity to enable the building and expansion of slave trade in Annamaboe. It pushed them closed and mixed race people appeared in the port town. Counterintuitively, the pawn system proved to be a favorable practice as it fostered the Atlantic commerce.
Decline of Anomabo
It has long been held that a non-African event led to the demise of Annamaboe’s golden age of slave trade- the abolition of slave trade by the British empire and the death of the American revolutionary, Richard Brew (Shumway, 2014). According to Sparks, this is a total misrepresentation of facts as these did not, in any way, stem the flow of slaves from Annamaboe. The abolition only led to a slight decline in the trade. The actual reason that led to the end of the trade was the disruptive invasion of the Fante region by the Asante tribe and its subsequent subjugation. The Asante destroyed the town and rule for several years. The economies around Annamaboe, and the other towns then collapsed, ending the trade.
- Semley, L. (2014). Randy J. Sparks. Where the Negroes are Masters: an African Port in the era of the slave trade. The American Historical Review, 119(4), 1403-1404. doi:10.1093/ahr/119.4.1403a
- Shumway, R. (2011). The Fante and the transatlantic slave trade (1st ed., p. 1). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
- Shumway, R. (2014). Where the Negroes are Masters: an African Port in the era of the slave trade. By Randy J. Sparks. The William and Mary Quarterly, 71(3), 479-483. doi:10.5309/willmaryquar.71.3.0479
- Sparks, R. (2014). Where the Negroes are masters. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.