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  • The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade by Rebecca Shumway
  • Sandra E. Greene
REBECCA SHUMWAY , The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press (hb $85 – 978 1 58046 391 1). 2011, ix + 232 pp.

The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is an important contribution to Ghanaian history as well as to the larger field of slave trade studies. As Shumway correctly notes, much has been written on the Fante but only a few scholars have explored the linkages between the historical development of Fante institutions and cultures and the transatlantic slave trade. Shumway has done a remarkable job in pulling together the existing literature, supplementing this with archival research and situating her analysis within the context of the literature on changes that were occurring in other coastal societies in West Africa during the era of the Atlantic slave trade.

To briefly summarize her main points, Shumway argues that ‘the rapid growth . . . of the transatlantic trade in slaves . . . created . . . conditions within which the people of southern Ghana completely transformed their political structures and created the groundwork for a new cultural identity’. The political changes she documents involved the creation of a coalition government (as opposed to a fullblown state system or new forms of economic and social networks, as happened elsewhere). The cultural changes included the rise of a powerful war shrine that expanded in influence as the coalition government developed, the expansion of the Fante language as the principal lingua franca on the central coast of what is now Ghana, and the emergence of community-organized militias.

Influencing these political and cultural changes were a number of different developments that Shumway discusses in clear and understandable prose. Among these developments were the fourteenth-century migration of the so-called Borbor Fante from the interior to the town of Mankessim, just north of the coast; the establishment of trade relations between the descendants of the original Borbor Fante and the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century; the emergence of a people known as the Akanny, who came to be the dominant economic brokers in the region; the rapid decline in the export of gold from the region by the second half of the seventeenth century and a concomitant increase in the slave trade; the development of the coastal town of Anomabo (a Borbor Fante community) as the largest slave-exporting port on the central Gold Coast; the emergence of a Borbor Fante military elite that led to the Fante language becoming the dominant language on the coast; and, finally, the success of the Borbor Fante at Anomabo in bringing together a number of different polities into a coastal coalition while using the Fante Borbor shrine Nananom Mpow as an additional unifying force.

This is a well-argued reconstruction and discussion of the history of the Fante during the Atlantic slave trade era. Still, there are issues that could have been developed further. At one point in the book, Shumway says that her study is ‘primarily a story about state formation’ (p. 2), but at other times (p. 9, 10, 11) ‘state’ is placed in scare quotes. At yet another point, she says that ‘the Fante engaged in a type of state formation, but remained distinctly decentralized’. [End Page 491] And, of course, she talks throughout about a political coalition. This discussion would have been stronger had she chosen a particular term (or set of terms) to define the Fante political organizational system as it shifted over time. In making the case for the expansion of the Fante language and therefore a Fante identity, Shumway notes that the coastal communities prior to the seventeenth century were composed of a number of different groups (Abrem, Etsi, Eguafo, Efutu and Asebu as well as Akan and Borbor Fante). Sometimes Shumway defines these groups as ethnicities (p. 19), sometimes as having distinct cultural traditions (p. 15), and at other times as different linguistic communities (p. 30), yet these are not synonymous terms. A discussion of exactly what is meant by ethnicity in eighteenth-century Fante would have been more instructive.

Her discussion of the Nananom Mpow shrine, however, provides tantalizing clues about its economic operation (it offered...