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  • A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana: From the 15Th to the 19Th Century
  • Stephan F. Miescher
Perbi, Akosua Adoma . 2004. A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana: From the 15Th to the 19Th Century. Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers. 231 pp. $25.95.

This monograph provides an accessible overview of slavery's importance for Ghana's precolonial societies since the fifteenth century and its gradual abolition in the nineteenth century. Slavery lay at the core of Ghana's precolonial states, whose economy was "almost totally dependent on slave labour" (p. 110). Indigenous slavery predated the Atlantic slave trade, coexisted with it from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, and survived it through the early twentieth century. This book has been in the making for a long time. Akosua Perbi, a longtime chair of the History Department at the University of Ghana, wrote a master's thesis about "domestic" slavery in Asante in 1978. She expanded her focus, covering forms of slavery across modern-day Ghana, for her 1997 dissertation and this book. She is a prominent public historian who has appeared in television programs and lectured widely on the history of slavery in Africa. She has contributed her expertise to UNESCO initiatives and participated in commemorative events at Ghana's historical sites of the domestic and Atlantic slave trade.

Informed by influential studies on slavery in Africa, Perbi suggests that "slavery in Ghana must be examined and appreciated from the Ghanaian perspective" (p. 11). In precolonial Ghana, slaves were a commodity and inheritable; their progeny maintained slave status. Slaves, since they became part of their masters' kinship groups through adoption or marriage, were not permanent outsiders and socially dead persons. Still, they were not regarded as equals: they performed different work and kept their inferior status, even over several generations. Perbi defines a slave as "a person in a state of servitude guarded by right" (p. 4) and distinguishes five forms of slavery: servant, pawn, slave, war captive, and slave under capital punishment.

The monograph draws on a variety of sources. Perbi conducted oral research in Ghana's ten administrative regions, interviewing court historians, male and female elders, and ordinary men and women. Though she subjected this material "to coding and analysis," she does not say much about what this process entailed. She did archival research in colonial and missionary collections in Ghana and the United Kingdom, worked in the palace archives of Kumase and Kyebi, and consulted university libraries in the United States. She made good use of published European and African sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the stool histories and oral traditions collected by Ghanaian scholars in the 1960s and 1970s. She explored local orature (proverbs, songs) and archaeological sites.

The book locates the origins of indigenous slavery in Ghana within the neolithic and iron ages and links slavery's institutionalization with the formation and expansion of precolonial states. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, European traders brought slaves to Ghana in exchange for gold. These imports increased the labor pool and strengthened the [End Page 157] institution. By the eighteenth century, Ghana had become a major supplier of the Atlantic slave trade—which had a "profound effect" (p. 26) on indigenous slavery. The main chapters examine themes such as the sources of slaves, their local usage, their succession to political office, and the gradual abolition of slavery. Most slaves were the product of warfare, which intensified under the pressures of the Atlantic trade. Perbi identifies sixty-six slave markets, where female slaves consistently fetched higher prices than males. Slaves were responsible for most food production. They carried the headloads for the regional and long-distance trade, and performed gendered labor in the gold-mining industry: women did the panning, while men worked in the pits. Female slaves were in demand for their reproductive abilities as their masters' concubines and wives. Ghana's precolonial societies, unlike those in the New World, did not consider slaves chattel. Slaves had rights and privileges: the right to be fed, clothed, and housed; the right to marry; and the privilege of an independent income. Some had the possibility of social mobility. Still, all suffered disabilities...