In an earlier essay, I described how some Nankani families exchanged their children for food during times of need. This essay offers a perspective on how the Nankani experienced and resisted slave raids.
“The Ashanti were coming here for us,” said Asingya, an elder that gave me Nankani history lessons. He was describing slavery and life in the 1800s. “They killed us with bows and arrows. When they saw us, they tried to either kill or capture us.”
Asorigiya, the head of the Busongo section of Sirigu, had similar narratives. “If people heard the slavers coming, they hid in trees or ran into the bush.” But then, he said, we fought back.
Aggressive neighbors surrounded the Nankani. The state-based societies, such as the Mossi to the north and the Ashanti Kingdom from the south, raided non-centralized societies throughout the Volta Basin. They considered its inhabitants as barbarous and fit only for exploitation. Most of the people captured during the peak of the Atlantic slave trade came from this “hinterland” (1700-1850).[i]
“The Ashanti came to capture and buy people,” Asorigya said. “They seized the northerners and used them to farm their land. Even today northerners labor for Ashanti farmers.” Others expressed similar sentiments that little has changed. Asorigiya stated that when the Ashanti connected with the “whitemen” they received guns and did not hesitate to use them during their expeditions north. Before the transatlantic slave trade, it was common throughout West Africa to exchange people as slaves and servants.[ii] However, as guns flowed into the region, the demand for slaves and acts of predation and warfare surged.
Nearby clans and ethnic groups also posed a threat. If caught unaware, they might capture and sell people to human traffickers who would march them to the coast and ship them across the Atlantic. People were also seized for slave tribute. Offering tribute sometimes safeguarded one’s clan from raids. The growing local and global demand for slaves resulted in increased conflict between groups. And taking slaves as prisoners soon became the primary motive for war.
“From here to Zoko,” said Asorigiya gesturing eastward, “we are the same. If you crossed Zoko, however, someone could see you, capture you, and sell you. If they ask where you come from, and you say you come from this place, this house, and if they know it is a powerful house, they will leave you. Sometimes the people resisted. You could fight back and collect your son or daughter. But if your people are weak, they would capture you and sell you. If you can’t fight back, you have no choice, they will take you to the place.”
“What place?” I asked.
“Sometimes they took them to Tangosigo, that is on the road to Burkina Faso. From the other side they take them to Salaga. That is the slave market. It’s now a tourist thing.” Salaga was one of several markets used by merchants to buy people and convey them on foot to the coast. People also “sold themselves” at Salaga, he said, “because of hunger.”
Early scholarship about the Volta Basin often depicted people as vulnerable, victimized, and subject to the demands of powerful neighbors. This was not always the case. While raiding took a toll on the Nankani, clans fought back, tricked, and outsmarted better-equipped, mounted raiders. During my fieldwork, stories of resistance, often in the face of overwhelming odds, countered the ubiquitous passive characterizations. These accounts affirmed Nankani agency.[iii]
“When the Ashanti fought and enslaved us, they came with horses and guns,” said Asorigiya. “One time, when they reached Zecco, our ancestral land, we devised a means to retaliate, and they retreated. I’ll tell you the story:”
“Because the Ashanti were attacking us, a chief named Akarifu consulted the gods [ancestors] of the land. The gods told him to bring a white goat, a white fowl, a white dog, pito [the local sorghum beer], and asked everyone else to contribute a fowl each. Everyone gathered in a spot with shade and cooked them. While cooking, they gathered the plant called kenkansiga. When it touches your body, you will itch! They added the plant to the pito. If you drink the pito you will go bush [get drunk or become wild] and become lethargic.
When Akarifu placed the food out, he asked the people if they were ready for war. They arranged the meat and the pito in the shade. By then, the Ashanti advanced closer. Everyone hid. People went to the left. Others ran to the right. They were ready to fight.
When the Ashanti arrived, they saw the abandoned meat and pito. They assumed the people saw them coming and ran. So, why not stop to eat and drink? The Ashanti even gave pito to their horses. When finished, they went bush.
Then the Zecco people appeared. The Ashanti ran, but there was nowhere to go. The people surrounded the Ashanti and drove them toward a big river nearby. When they reached the river, the horses plunged in. But it was too deep. Most of them died.
That is how they captured the Ashanti. There was no more fighting after that.”
Nankani elders describe how the British colonial presence later reduced the number and scale of conflicts. Some of these accounts are paradoxical. Despite the British involvement with the slave trade and their use of violence to pacify some communities, they portrayed the British incursion into the Northern Gold Coast as bringing stability and safety.[iv] One man said, “The whiteman came and settled and freed us from capturing people, and we did not fight again.” Another said the whiteman “brought us together. We knew he did not come for us. He wanted us to live together as one people.” One person even blamed his ancestors for not being wise enough to stop neighbors from killing each other.
After years of conflict and predation, I assumed the Nankani held grudges against the Ashanti, the British, and others. Having studied (in other contexts) how communities hold and relive centuries-old trauma and pass the seeds of ethnic conflict intergenerationally, I expected enmity.
“Today, how do you feel about the Ashanti?” I asked. “Is there still anger toward them?”
Few held a grudge. “In Ghana we are one people now,” said a young man. Responses pointed to unity, possibly inspired by nationalistic sentiments linked to independence and post-colonial movements. People still spoke of how the Ashanti have better living conditions and greater wealth, but not of historical resentment or desires for revenge.
While the colonial presence and pacification efforts enabled people to travel outside their territory without fear of capture, it came at a familiar cost. Forced labor, often couched as taxation, persisted. The British ordered people to build bridges, roads, and work on other projects. “If you were lazy, the whiteman would always beat you,” said one elder. “The workers were not paid. They just said we have to do this.” People told stories of colonial officials’ quick tempers, unreasonable demands, and desires to be treated as royalty.
The Nankani and others also viewed war “recruiting” efforts, especially during the First World War, as slave labor. Service was involuntary. When word spread, men ran and hid. They were hunted and captured—forced to join.[v] Brittan continued to profit from unpaid or low-cost labor well past the Gold Coast’s abolishment of slavery in 1874.[vi]
Legacies of exploitation and inequality remain in Northern Ghana. Unbalanced power and labor arrangements within government, international aid, and NGOs are rife. Forms of slavery and servitude, the exploitation of those struggling to survive, and even the toil of exported Chinese prisoners on development projects are survivals little changed from their past incarnations.
In the 1990s anthropologists and historians shifted their accounts from that of victimhood to the resistance and the agency of African people when facing oppression. Abu-Lughod commented that this shift romanticized resistance at the expense of analyzing power or exploring the implications of resistance.[vii] Despite the issues with romanticization or the inadvertent softening of the trauma done to communities, narratives of resilience are essential. Even exaggerated and romanticized stories can become nodes, pegs that pin down defiance and the vitality of acting against oppressors and global structures, flows, and disjunctures built upon traditions of predation and exploitation.
Ortner said “oppression is damaging, yet the ability of social beings to weave alternative, and sometimes brilliantly creative, forms of coherence across the damages is one of the heartening aspects of human subjectivity.”[viii] Marginalized communities need more of these stories. These are more than feel-good accounts. They are beacons, calls to action, and catalogs of creativity.
Future generations need to hear their ancestors are not useless. Understand that their people fought back. I hope the practices of people coming together to drive predators to the river live on. The slavers remain. But they no longer arrive by horse.
[i] Piot, Charles. (1996). Of Slaves and the Gift: Kabre Sale of Kin During the Era of the Slave Trade. Journal of African History 37:31-49.
[ii] It is important to note that when someone was sold or taken as a “slave” the status and relationships between parties were often different from the experience of those forced into the Atlantic slave trade. Slaves, although of lower status, were not abused. Some became family members and were gained status as members of their new community.
[iii] Rathbone offers a perspective on accounts of resistance and the value of African accounts. I quote him at length: “Few Africanists can read the Caribbean and American material without wincing when it adverts to the ‘African background’. For the most part such allusions are generalised, often based on rather ancient scholarship and shy of both the complexity and the dynamism of the history of Africa. […] In the analysis of slave resistance in the Americas there is frequent reference to the significance of the activists’ African past. For some authors, the propensity to revolt is in part conditioned by whether slaves were African born or ‘creole’. Others have tangentially suggested that leaders and followers may well have been people traditionally attuned to ‘jungle warfare’, a position betraying a profound ignorance of West African geography but no less attractive for that. Similarly, ‘African’ patterns of social and political organisation from chieftaincy, through secret societies, to religious structures have been invoked to explain how rebellion could be mounted in the most disadvantageous circumstances. All such thinking might be true, partly true or even wrong; what is missing is perhaps a more thorough understanding of a culture of resistance that is discernible through the records and which is rooted very firmly on African soil.” Rathbone, Richard (1985). Some Thoughts on Resistance to Enslavement in West Africa. Slavery and Abolition 6(3):11-22.
[iv] Nearby ethnic groups, such as the Tallensi, had a much less positive experience of colonial entry. See Allman, Jean and John Parker (2005). Tongnaab: the History of a West African God. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
[v] See Allman and Parker (2005) ibid.
[vi] The 1833 Slavery Abolition Act initially only applied to the West Indies.
[vii] Abu-Lughod, Lila. (1990). The Romance or Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women. American Ethnologist 17(1):41-55.
[viii] Ortner, Sherry (1995). Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal. Comparative Studies in Society and History 37(1):173-193.