View of St. George d’Elmina, by G. Webster, 1806. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As we were reminded when completing the 2020 U.S. census, it is often useful to know more about someone—past or present—than simply their race. Ethnic identity conveys the cultural and perhaps national heritage that shapes our place in the world. Ethnicity is particularly important in ascertaining the identity of an enslaved African person during the era of the transatlantic slave trade. The African continent is huge, even without the Sahara and North Africa. Moreover, the populations living in sub-Saharan Africa between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries differed enormously from one another in almost every conceivable way. Many were literate Muslims living in cosmopolitan cities. Many others lived in relatively small-scale societies scattered over vast rural landscapes, maintaining historical records through oral tradition. Yet another substantial portion of the African population lived in centralized states beyond the Islamic zones of influence and recognized authority on the basis of individual merit and/or spiritual power. Perhaps most importantly, African ethnic identities changed over time, just like ethnic identities elsewhere across the world, and must be recognized within their particular historical contexts.
The historian seeking to know more about an enslaved person or population in the Americas, to identify them in some way beyond the generic label “African,” easily can be discouraged by the sheer volume of African ethno-linguistic groups. (The small country of Ghana has thirty-five.) This is not helped by the fact that the historiography of precolonial Africa tends to focus on polities or states that no longer exist, rather than ethnicity, language, and culture. The Voyages database enables researchers to be much more precise than ever before about which places in Africa were the point of origin of enslaved Africans arriving in particular places in the Americas than ever before. But, as I have argued in “Naming our African Ancestors,” what we learn from analyzing patterns of slave voyages still leaves much to be desired as far as identifying enslaved African women, men, and children with a particular African cultural or linguistic tradition. The case of Asante (also spelled Ashanti) is helpful for understanding how African identities changed over time and why it is difficult to draw conclusions about someone’s ethnic identity based simply on knowledge of the port from which s/he departed Africa onboard a slave ship.
At first glance, Asante identity and its association with slave-ship voyages departing from the “Gold Coast” region (modern Ghana) appears to be straightforward. The Asante kingdom formed in the final decade of the seventeenth century and was the dominant state in what is now Ghana from at least the early eighteenth century throughout the remainder of the era of the slave trade; in fact, it has persisted into modern times as a traditional “chieftaincy” within the Republic of Ghana. The Asante language (Asante-Twi) was and is used throughout the kingdom and well beyond its borders, and Asante identity is widely recognized by powerful symbols such as the golden stool, certain types of kente cloth, and proverbs pertaining to the well-known history of previous kings.
Upon closer examination of the history of southern Ghana, however, the matter of the ethno-linguistic identity of people who were captured and sold from the coast of Ghana quickly becomes more complicated. While Asante is the largest group within a language family and cultural tradition known as Akan, it is clear that during the era of the slave trade the Akan-speaking people identified themselves separately, and often in opposition to one another. The coastal Fante, for example, are part of the Akan language family but fought several major wars against Asante, who they considered their sworn enemy, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Asante and Fante (and at least three other Akan sub-groups) might be considered “fellow Akans” today, but they certainly were not so at the height of the transatlantic slave trade, when individuals from among all of these populations found themselves captured and sold to a slave ship headed for the Americas.
King Asantehene Osei Tutu II of Ashanti Asanteman, by Retlaw Snellac. Licensed by Creative Commons. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Looking even further into this history reveals that the people known as the Fante today actually have many layers of identity that are both Akan and non-Akan. Oral traditions and historical linguistics show that the Akan-speaking Fante migrated to the coast at least half a millennium ago, where they gradually superseded an indigenous population that had an entirely different language, known as Etsi. European traders visiting this area in the seventeenth century reported that several distinct African languages were spoken, each within a relatively small section of the coastline. The Fante incorporated these diverse groups into a regional coalition during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and Fante became the lingua franca, while other languages continued to be used. Until very recently, older members of Fante towns still remembered some of these pre-Fante languages. In addition to these older layers of cultural identity, the urban centers of southern Ghana brought together people of distant ethno-linguistic groups because the growth of Atlantic commerce created new opportunities. Food, supplies, and services were needed to support the urban populations of these trading centers, causing people to migrate from far and wide.
Another complicating factor of ethnicity in Ghana is the fact that the Asante kingdom accumulated many thousands of enslaved people every year during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and while many of them were sold into the transatlantic slave trade, many others remained within Asante. It has been argued that the Asante law forbidding anyone to mention another person’s (slave) origins came into effect precisely because so many Asante people were not in fact Asante but foreigners, brought to the kingdom as captives. If the Asante themselves were forbidden to distinguish between one another as to their Asante identity, how would the African brokers on the coast know the difference, much less the captains of slave ships?
As we search for ways to identify the people who came from Africa to the Americas against their will, it is important to recognize the complexities of African cultural, linguistic, and political landscapes in the era of the slave trade. Historians, of all people, should be quick to reject the notion that any human society would maintain a static and unchanging identity over hundreds of years—least of all those that enmeshed in the highly disruptive and transformative enterprise that was the transatlantic slave trade.