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  • Comment on Jean-Pierre Warnier's "The Grassfields of Cameroon: Center or Periphery?"
  • Joseph E. Inikori (bio)

Jean-Pierre Warnier attempts in this article to revise some of the conclusions reached in his earlier work. He had argued that the kingdoms of the Grassfields of Cameroon emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a result of the impact of the transatlantic slave trade. He now believes the kingdoms were founded much earlier, "one to two thousand years ago"—which would mean either the beginning of the first or the beginning of the second millennium. He argues further that the Grassfields ("western highlands of Cameroon") were "an ancient center of development, presumably connected to the Euroasiatic and African world system through the Lake Chad area and the upper Nile Valley." This new argument is still founded on some fundamental claims in his earlier work. The most significant of these is the claim that extensive polygyny by a few elites created a scarcity of marriageable women and a large proportion of bachelors ("a majority of men ages 25-30 and a considerable, if declining, number thereafter") unable to find wives, and that many of them were sold for export to the Americas by members of their own kin groups under the sanction and control of the kingdoms' governments. Both the revision and earlier arguments rest heavily on demographic and other oral evidence collected in the 1970s and later (Warnier, 1995: 251-272). More often than not, the evidence relates to "the end of the nineteenth century," not the slave trade era, 1650-1850.

My comments focus on both the revision and the claim concerning the nonviolent procurement of captives for export from among kin groups within the kingdoms, controlled and sanctioned by their governments. The comments are based largely on previously unused written records on the transatlantic slave trade from the Cameroon ports. My ongoing research and more recent publications focus on the use of long-run changes in the region-specific commodity composition of imports, age and gender composition, and age- and gender-specific prices of the captives exported, and domestic prices as critical data needed for a serious analysis of the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on the long-term development process in sub-Saharan Africa (Inikori, 2009: 85-114; 2007a: 57-80; 2002: 41-79). A distinguishing feature of the data on which the comments are based is that they are not lumped together as slaving voyages to and from the Bight of Biafra. They are data from slaving ships that traded specifically in Cameroon, and the [End Page 76] commodities they carried were calculated to meet the demand in Cameroon. We can learn a lot about the economies and societies of the Cameroon hinterland from the commodity composition of the imports.

The Cameroon evidence is not yet as dense as the data on southeastern Nigeria, but the pattern that has emerged from the much larger data on southeastern Nigeria, the Bight of Benin, the Gold Coast, and Senegambia is helpful in interpreting the data from four Cameroon slaving voyages covering the period 1779-1790. The more detailed evidence from Brig Sarah's Trade Book, 18 December 1789 to 30 May 1790, is presented in table 1. Comparable evidence from three other Cameroon slaving voyages is presented in the text.

Brig Sarah's Trade Book (table 1) shows four trading spots in the Bight of Biafra. It is unclear whether Birby is a Cameroon or southeast Nigerian port; however, only one boy was purchased there. Old Calabar is a southeast Nigerian port, while Bimbia and Cameroon River are in Cameroon. The assortments of goods in the Bimbia and Cameroon River purchases are somewhat similar. Guns, gunpowder, cowries, and textiles were the main goods. Regular and important goods not included in the table are salt, iron bars, brass rods, beads, and neptunes (brass pans). The way the tradebook shows the purchase costs makes it impossible to compute the percentage of each good in the total cost of each purchase, but the quantity of each good per slave purchased can be computed and provides a comparative measure. The tradebook shows forty slaves were purchased at Bimbia and 171 in...


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