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Slavery, politics, fetishism

Rebecca Shumway’s The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is an elegantly written masterpiece of a crucial period in West African history when a coastal belt of European slave forts and African chiefdoms consolidated new forms of ‘fetishism’ and political economy. Despite the excellent body of historical scholarship on coastal and hinterland Akan polities and societies in what is present day Ghana, there have been no studies of systematic regional transformations since Ray A. Kea’s Settlements, Trade and Polities in the Seventeenth Century Gold Coast. This highly charged zone of ‘global modernity’ was critical to the development of the Atlantic world, as Danish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British chartered companies competed for control over markets in slaves through warfare and diplomacy, playing local chiefs against each other while confronting increased competition from independent ‘interlopers’ seeking to undercut protectionist prices.  In this dynamic coastal zone, a space of what Philip Curtin has called Euro-African creolization, critical contours of the Triangle Trade took shape throughout the eighteenth century, linking European metropoles, African slave coasts, and American plantations within an emergent Atlantic system.  Analyzing this complex historical configuration, Shumway’s book makes several important contributions.

First, by focusing on the particular fort community of Anomabo, which, in contrast to the better known sites of El Mina and Cape Coast Castle, experienced a much higher volume of traded slaves, Shumway throws the orders of Atlantic articulation into bold relief, illuminating the complex pattern of shifting alliances between European traders and African chiefs.  By identifying the emergence of what she calls ‘the Coastal Coalition’, she is the first scholar to capture the institutional organization of what otherwise looks like a free-for-all struggle between opportunistic Europeans and local merchant-chiefs.  Focusing on the African side of this system, she shows how the incorporation of Caboceers and Creolized African elites into the councils of ruling chiefs and company boards organized the risk-taking and risk-sharing ‘games’ of local actors into coalitions regulated by formal and tacit rules.  In doing so, Shumway illustrates how a ‘chaotic’ coastal zone developed translocal councils that regulated competitive policy between local polities, generating nothing less than a new form of government.

Secondly, Shumway identifies a host of associated developments that accompanied the rise of the Coastal Coalition. These include the emergence of a literate creole elite, some of whom studied in Europe; new systems of trust and credit; new patterns of gift-giving (‘dashee’) and patronage; and the transformation of military associations, or Asafo Companies, into competing patrilineal sodalities cutting across matrilineal clans.  The Asafo literature is fairly developed, arguing over indigenous vs. imported European influences.  Shumway deftly illuminates how the companies were modeled on the European slave forts, appropriating flags, titles, even architectural forms into the shrines of specific deities.  Most innovative in this respect is her analysis of the rise of a local religious shrine—Nanannom Mpow—into an overriding regional cult which provided ritual sanctions for the Coastal Coalition at large.

Finally, Shumway’s book speaks to a general transformation throughout West and Central Africa as these areas became incorporated into the Atlantic cultural economy; namely, the dynamics of ethnogenesis when ethnic labels such as ‘Yoruba’, ‘Congo’, ‘Ashanti’, and ‘Mandingo’ emerged as dominant cultural identities.  Throughout her study, and in the final chapter, Shumway shows how the ‘Fante’ emerged as a regional cultural identity linking subgroups and dialects within a singular ethnic frame.  As Atlantic historiography pays closer attention to the identities of coastal ethnic groups and of the slaves they sold to European merchants, the history of ethnogenesis itself becomes crucial to our broader diasporic formulations.  Shumway’s book is a signal contribution toward the analysis of these cultural trajectories, linking positivist projects like David Eltis’s Atlantic Slave Trade Database to more constructivist accounts of how ethnicity emerged.

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