Kwasi Konadu

Lost at Sea: Black Atlantic History off Africa’s Gold Coast

Book ReviewsKwasi KonaduComment

Walter C. Rucker. Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2015. xi + 326 pp. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $55.00. Cloth. ISBN:  978-025301642.

            While searching online at the start of the new year, I came upon a blog maintained by a PhD history student at one of the University of California schools. Interested in Atlantic history and “slave ethnicity,” this student displayed an historiographical essay, probably written for a class, in which the future historian wrote, “Even more dogmatic are such scholars as Kwasi Konadu, who has argued that Coromantees were essentially the early modern precursors to modern Ghanaians, joined together by a ‘shared genetic culture.’” Curious, I emailed the student, who responded, “I meant to quote your phrase ‘shared (genetic) language.’ I have changed the quote, and I also rewrote the sentence to reflect that my opinions are coming from Rucker’s reading of your work.” Less an apology and more a confession, I briefly contemplated this student’s essay and response, and wondered, more broadly, if this is the kind of scholarship Atlantic history—and its stepchild, black Atlantic history—inspires, and to which it aspires. Rather than accept the received wisdom of the academic grapevine, I kept gossip and book reviews at a distance while I carefully read Walter Rucker’s Gold Coast Diasporas with the seriousness it deserved, making marginal notes from the acknowledgement to the bibliography during the spring semester. This book sets out to examine “the formation of the Gold Coast diaspora from the 1680s to the 1760s,” identifying “the early decades of the eighteenth century [as] a period when Coromantee and (A)mina ethnic groups formed in the Americas” from Akan, Gã, Adangme, and Ewe speakers originating in Africa’s Gold Coast (p. 23). Using sociologist Orlando Patterson’s well-worn notion of “social death” and historian Michael Gomez’s “ethnicity to race” paradigm, Rucker argues, “Gold Coast Africans reinvented, redefined, and transformed Gold Coast cultural materials and deployed them in unprecedented ways in the Americas,” informed by a “commoner consciousness” and new notions of masculinity and womanhood (p. 9). This review assesses the validity of Rucker’s case study through an examination of the sources used and the reading practices or interpretive techniques employed, and suggests some implications for African history/studies and diasporic African history/studies.

             Though there are readers who are very familiar with the rich historiography of the Gold Coast/Ghana, it is worth emphasizing the depth and somewhat unique range of sources which make serious historical research a daunting task. Besides a dense and growing archaeological record, most of the linguistic communities and polities now sliced up among Ghana’s regions have recorded—and living—oral traditions with important historical content, transcribed and mostly translated in published and unpublished forms. Key manuscript collections in Arabic and Ajami (modified Arabic script used to write African languages) remain untranslated and thus underutilized. Documentary records supplied principally by Europeans constitute thousands of primary materials scattered not only in European repositories in Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish/Danish, German, and French, but also in those documents and on their own exists archived indigenous and foreign language sources deposited in the Public Records and Archives Administration Department of Ghana in Accra and its regional branches in Cape Coast, Koforidua, Kumase, Sunyani, and Tamale. In Kumase, we have the Manhyia Archives for Asanteman, and in Ghana we have languages (e.g. Akan/Twi, Gã, Hausa) that constitute their own archives through which scholars might fruitfully source and interpret proverbs, lore, bodily gestures, drum and flute texts, as well as a range of material culture. It is against these sources, especially so for historical research, we might measure scholarship that claims competency in them. How does Walter Rucker’s work measure up? First, some background, and then the appraisal.

            Rucker is a U.S. historian fluent in U.S. English, and, who, along one of his academic stops at Ohio State University, began to work on what he then called “The Akan Project.” Previews of this project appeared in his first monograph, The River Flows On, published in 2006. In 2010, when The Akan Diaspora in the Americas was released, Rucker published an article in Afro-Americans in New York Life and History subtitled, “Akan Culture and Community in Colonial New York City.” In it, he claimed “Coromantee” was “an appellation associated with Gold Coast Akan speakers… [in] the wider Akan Diaspora,” and concluded Akan “day names,” loyalty oaths, Ananse folktales, and a “belief in spiritual transmigration represent core elements in the cultural geography of the Akan Diaspora,” where “emerged one ‘Akan’ identity in the Americas” (pp. 80, 110). In the book under review, Rucker’s “Akan Diaspora” of 2010 is problematized now as “a monolinguistic or ‘ethnic’ diaspora” devoid of the “cultural plasticity” that define his new “ethnic labels [of] Coromantee and (A)mina,” contending these “false ethnonyms and constructions of European derivation…were used and embraced actively” by Akan, Gã, Adangme, and Ewe speakers (p. 7). The book, then, is a disavowal of his “Akan Diaspora” project and, in his view, a necessary caricature of The Akan Diaspora in the Americas as “Konadu’s essentialist views of the persistence and continuity of Akan culture in the Black Atlantic” (p. 13). The black Atlantic idea was transformative for Rucker, enabling his dramatic U-turn—conversion?—and providing the framing tools for his case study. Indeed, the study begins with a religious deliverance, where that idea was crucial in his “scholarly rebirth,” “reinvention,” and his “reincarnation as an early modern Black Atlantic historian” (pp. ix, xi). Having no methods or theories unique to it, the black Atlantic view is an ideological, even theological, position where adherents frequently invoke prophets like literary and cultural critics Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, with a penchant for theorizations set against secondary literature and the fetishes of hybridity, plasticity, (re)invention, fluidity, “liminal space,” and “cultural scripts” (pp. 6-9). Armed with this view and having read books that “facilitated [his] fluency in Black Atlantic studies,” let us assess the product of that reading and two tourist trips to Ghana (p. x)

            Gold Coast Diasporas is divided into two parts, three chapters each, bookended by two tales—one of an individual named Don Juan and the other of a well-known folktale character, Ananse. (All references will be to the book under review, unless otherwise noted.) Don Juan’s tale is shorthand for the study and its ethnogenesis argument for a “Coromantee” identity, but also representative of the way evidence is used throughout the book. A standard 4-page form with fill-in-blanks constitute Don Juan’s discharge record and the basis of Rucker’s snapshot, but he reads out of this clerical document “Don Juan’s claim to a Coromantee natal origin” when it was British colonial officials, not Don Juan, who, not knowing his place of birth, crossed out “the county of” and ascribed an identifier by writing in its place “Coromantee in Africa.” Though probable Don Juan could have uttered those words, the fact is he did not. Another discharged serviceman and contemporary also named Don Juan, in fact one of 14 servicemen named so by colonists, had his birth place recorded as “Accoo” (i.e. Aku, a referent to Yorùbá speakers in Freetown), having served “at Sierra Leone in the county of Africa,” but more importantly his discharge came at “his own request” (TNA: WO 97, 1715/141, 16 Aug. 1839). Even the physical description and attributes Rucker extrapolates from his Don Juan to stand in for Coromantee’s “well-earned reputations” in the Americas is at odds with his own evidence. Don Juan’s record places him in “Africa, Bahamas, Honduras [and] Jamaica,” not specifically the Gold Coast or Sierra Leone (pp. 2-3); he is discharged for “being unfit for further service” and “seldom in hospital,” not “never visited the hospital for treatment nor complained about injury” and for “physical fortitude” (p. 2); the “country marks” ascribed to him (“three scars on each corner of the mouth [and] cheeks [and] forehead”) does not match Rucker’s illustration of a “Coromantee youth” (p. 3) nor Akan scarifications but they do conform to Yorùbá and perhaps Ewe ones—the Ewe migrated to the Gold Coast around 1650 from Yorùbá-speaking regions. In the end, the declaration to be made and signed by discharged soldiers “at his own request” was left blank by Rucker’s Don Juan, and an “x” mark on the second page of his record is perhaps the only place where this individual made a self-induced claim.

            In chapters one and two, Rucker promises “a historical optic” through which “the Gold Coast past mattered,” and by focusing on “Gold Coast history through the mid-eighteenth century” he intends to examine “the early modern Gold Coast with a particular focus on speakers of the Akan, Ga, Adanme, and Ewe languages” (p. 22). Besides no competency in any of those languages or having consulted the national or regional archives in Ghana, serious problems of his own making beset this undertaking. Principal sources for the late fifteenth to early seventeenth century are in Portuguese, in various European archives or in published transcriptions such as António Brásio’s 22 volumes Monumenta Missionaria Africana. From that period to the nineteenth century, Dutch, German, Danish, French, and English language sources dominate. Though there are no original, non-English language sources or archives consulted for this study, this does not deter Rucker in claiming, in two of many instances, “beginning in 1482, Atlantic creole culture was given birth in the Gold Coast” or “By the late sixteenth century, the Gold Coast… was thoroughly balkanized” (pp. 74, 107). Even if we suspend our disbelief, ignore such claims, and assess Rucker’s evidentiary base from within the 1680s-to-1760s period, we find that his “primary sources” boil down to a handful of translated and deftly annotated travel accounts, his cartographical evidence is a translated and trite 1629 Dutch map (eschewing maps from 1471 onward), and oral evidence is reduced to a heavy dose of Carl Reindolf’s highly redacted English version butchered by Basel Mission (BM) editors as compared to his fuller, handwritten Gã version in the BM archives. A 1764 text on the Fante and Gã languages by polyglot and African-Danish clergyman Christian Protten would have helped, but this too is inexplicably absent for someone concerned with ethnogenesis and “polyglottal” communities.

The European accounts used are very familiar ones: Pieter de Marees, Dutch merchant with observations on Cape Coast and Accra (c. 1600-01); Wilhelm Müller, German-speaking pastor at Danish fort in Fetu near Cape Coast (c. 1662-9); Jean Barbot, French merchant with observations mainly on Elmina, Cape Coast, and Accra, though he probably remained mostly on a ship (c. 1682); Willem Bosman, Dutch merchant with observations on Elmina and Axim (c. 1688-1704); Johannes Rask, Danish pastor at fort Christiansborg in Osu, Accra (c. 1709-12); and Ludewig Rømer, Danish merchant with observations mainly on Accra (c. 1739-49). Not only are these accounts restricted to the specific locales of Elmina, Cape Coast, and Accra, there are chronological gaps compounded by spatial limitations, in addition to their colored optics and the plague of plagiarism. Rather than engage his sources or check them against the originals or the archives in Europe or on Ghana’s coast, these accounts—a mixture of hearsay, observation, printed sources, and plagiarism—are taken at face value. For instance, Rucker concluded, “Both Barbot and Bosman, reflecting on the decades leading up to the 1690s, concur on the ability of Akyem to serve as a balance to Akwamu’s regional influence,” or other statements with the prompts, “As Bosman and Barbot note,” without interrogating Barbot’s known plagiarism of Bosman or consulting Albert van Dantzig’s multi-articled corrections to Bosman’s flawed English translation published in History in Africa (pp. 51, 55, 77). And so, we end up with concurrence or “matches” between such accounts that are as contrived as the single-minded commitment to one line of argument.

            Some might see the disregard for the rules of evidence, archival research, issues of authorship, or critical distinctions between original and published (and translated) sources as quibbles, but we must treat these matters with the deference they deserve because central to Rucker’s argument is “that Atlantic Africans carried their histories—both distant and present with them to the new worlds… [where] the distant and immediate pasts of Gold Coast Africans helped frame a collective liminal experience in the Americas” (pp. 64-65). If the first two chapters on Gold Coast history were the prologue, in the next four where Rucker sets his sights on the Americas he offers more of the same well-known, published, and secondary English language references that readers are told will distil “a sharper and more defined picture of” polyglottal diasporas “as opposed to a monolinguistic” one (p. 7). Instead of such a portrait, we get, ultimately, a literature review—a convenient overview of the scholarship—grafted onto a repurposed version of his first book, The River Flows On, itself a revised dissertation where half the chapters were previously published. In that book, Rucker’s argument bears a striking resemblance to his recent book: “enslaved Africans adopted these seemingly false ethnonyms and actively referred to themselves as ‘Coromantee’” (2006, p. 8). His “Atlantic world approach” (p. 12) and sources (archives in New York, South Carolina, Virginia; some published travel accounts; hefty secondary literature) are roughly the same. Shocking as this may seem, while conceding literature reviews do have a place in scholarly production, the act of repurposing and the slight handling of evidence is a normative practice among black Atlantic specialists, which might explain his targeted references to a specific black Atlantic literature.[1]

For the uninitiated reader, a few examples from Rucker’s bibliography—who also happen to be endorsers—should suffice. For as much as scholars like John Thornton have argued for the existence of “Atlantic creoles” in Africa, he and they neither have the data nor can they show how most west central Africans became seduced by Portuguese and Catholic ideas and how “creolized” their daily lives became. Staying in that region, Jason Young’s Rituals of Resistance attempts to examine religious traditions of “precolonial Kongo” and coastal Georgia and South Carolina around the ideas of “change, innovation, and creativity [that] were crucial to the development of black cultures around the Atlantic,” but he has no fluency in Kikongo or related languages, no consultation of original archival sources in Portugal, Rome, or the Congo-Angola region, and resigns himself to well-known travel accounts, missionary documents, and to some published Portuguese sources, strangely, in French translation (2007, p. 3). Likewise, in the Gold Coast context, Rebecca Shumway draws on an “Atlantic world paradigm” to argue for a “distinctive [Fante] language and culture” beginning in the fifteenth century and the formation of a new “coastal coalition” in the eighteenth century, but she, like Rucker, references no Portuguese or Dutch language sources, relying instead on secondary literature and, ironically, on her “conversational” Asante/Twi, not Fante (The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 2011, p. 12). Is it, then, surprising that Shumway, like Rucker, often confuses the names of language groups, peoples, and polities? Or that her major claim for the change or newness of the Fante language stands is voided by her confession, “Further linguistic research is needed to more precisely explain how and when the language began to be used along the coast” (Ibid., p. 152)? Scholars are adept at invoking the omnipresence of “change” related to culture contact—as if Europeans were magic wands that upon contact remained impervious yet able to transform Africans into a new species called “creoles”—but are less skillful at demonstrating its precise mechanisms, layered contexts, and with deep empirical accuracy. What do we call Europeans who, on African soil, consumed African crops and cuisine, bodies through intercourse, ideas through “fetish oaths” and indigenous therapeutics, and who spoke African languages?

            The evidence Rucker summons for his case study might be suitable for a literature review or even a constrained survey, but the historical arguments he makes by way of thin, taken-at-face-value evidence exposes serious flaws in his reading practice. A few of the more crucial ones will do. First, Rucker’s allegation that The Akan Diaspora in the Americas (henceforth, ADA) proffered “essentialist views of the persistence and continuity of Akan culture” based on “some ethereal sense of a shared or ‘genetic’ Gold Coast or Akan cultural ‘heritage’ existing… since time immemorial” is a gross misreading of his own evidence (pp. 13, 33). He plucked the phrase “shared (genetic) language” from ADA and confused “genetic” with biological determinism—hence, his caricature that ADA viewed “Akan culture as genetic”—when, in linguistics a genetic relationship exists once languages or dialects belong to the same linguistic grouping and where influence does not constitute a genetic relationship. In fact, Rucker cites an article by linguist Florence Dolphyne entitled, “The languages of the Akan peoples,” in which Dolphyne concluded, “all these dialects are closely related genetically” (Research Review vol. 2, 1986, p. 11). It is indeed a trickster tale to believe someone ignorant of the languages and sources when they charge another who is fluent in both an “essentialist.” But the truth is essentialism is not a boogeyman—for scholars essentialize the American and French revolution all the time—but rather an ideological commentary poorly disguised as an argument rooted in scholarship. Secondly, on the note of scholarship, ADA was the first book on the Akan peoples in the Americas, covering much of the substantial ground on which Rucker has traveled. Rather than build upon that groundwork, Rucker instead appropriates concepts, analyses, cast members, sources, and even reproduces two of ADA’s illustrations (see pp. 171, 223), while seeking to undermine the same work through misreadings, commissions, and taking words out of context and then splicing them together to create a distorted meaning.[2]

Rucker claims ADA’s view of Akan culture is timeless, essentialized, and impervious to change because the project was about “persistence and continuity,” but the word “persistence” occurs nowhere in ADA; rather, ADA stressed “transformation and continuity” by demonstrating “how Akan culture formed in the West African forest and its continuity and transformation in dialogue with Islamic forces to the north and northwest of the forest and European forces on the coast after the fifteenth century” (ADA, p. 23). Not only does Rucker’s reading practice commandeer the “commoner consciousness” idea from Ray Kea’s seminal work (produced when Marxist analysis was in vogue) and the “Akanization” and “(A)mina” constructs from ADA without attribution, his interpretive use of both show (a) his hypothesis of such a group consciousness fails to accord with his evidence as conjecture passes for data (e.g. over 50 instances of “may have been”), and (b) in his argument against an “Akan diaspora” but for “Gold Coast diasporas” he consistently writes about “the dominance of Akan cultures in the Gold Coast” and “the influence of Akan-speaking peoples and polities” (pp. 69-70). Rucker, thus, contradicts his argument in The River Flows On, in that “‘Kormantee’ does refer to most Akan-speakers from the Gold Coast who were transported to the Americas,” and vindicates, even accentuates, the ADA (2006, p. 30). Finally, a very common interpretative technique that weakens Rucker’s argument, and book, is the suggestion of extensive research and followed by a definitive claim. He says, “From the cartographical evidence alone, a few interrelated historical factors become crystal clear,” but this is based on the 1629 Dutch map, not all the available maps from the 1471 Portuguese map to those of later centuries. Then, Rucker claims “all historical references to ‘queen-mothers’ in the Gold Coast originate in, or refer to, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” suggesting figures like “Queen” Nanny of Jamaica were a “new” feature of exile, when English records from the Royal African Company at Cape Coast prominently featured not only “Queen” Tituba of Agona in the 1680s but also the “Queen of Fetoo [Fetu]” in the early eighteenth century (TNA: T 70, 1463, Memorandum Book, Cape Coast Castle, 7 June 1704).

            Turning from an assessment of Rucker’s sources and his interpretations, what implications might his work and more broadly (black) Atlantic perspectives hold for the fields of African history/studies and African diaspora history/studies? I think there are three takeaways. The first concerns language—both the mechanics and documented history of African languages as well as the decorum scholars, and the students who are watching us, might use to show disagreement. I was born in Jamaica and although I have Maroon and Akan ancestry—my great-great-grandmother was named Adwoa Konadu—no one in my family, even those with more ability, took their African-based histories and languages as seriously as I did. And so, I had to learn, and I learned by audio tapes, books, and most importantly spending time in Ghana (and surrounding countries) when it came to Akan/Twi and European languages when it came to the archives. Cutting corners in the archives or the “field” is as dangerous as using conjecture and accusation in place of scholarship—it says more about the accuser than the target of such allegation. If that PhD history student in California is any indication, there may be equal if not greater danger in the combination of graduate programs requiring only French or another European language in lieu of African and diasporic language training (e.g. Haitian Kreyol, Jamaican Patwa), and the fashion of (black) Atlantic world perspectives where Africans remain largely invisible yet legible only as “Europeanized” or “Americanized” souls. The tragic irony is Robert F. Thompson of Yale University coined the term “Black Atlantic” in his 1983 book that took African and diasporic languages and perspectives seriously, only to be appropriated by Paul Gilroy and then remixed, so much so this version eschews Africa and diasporic connections to it and scandalously incriminates Thompson as an essentialist! The revised black Atlantic idea represents, therefore, a ratification of a default “European/white” Atlantic and academia, and for Rucker and company the apparent goal is “to take over black academe,” that subservient niche in partnership with the fashionable views and values of white academia (p. x). Here, á la James Baldwin, “white” is a metaphor for power, and as that power was exercised routinely over the lives of the enslaved and their descendants, especially in naming property, one of the most remarkable aspects of the African presence in the Americas is the ubiquity of Akan “day names” and specimens of their language in the records of repression. ADA makes this clear and its push for a fuller accounting shows that African and African-based or -derived languages are both archives of knowledge and a perceptive lens through which we can better grasp social and intellectual histories on multiple sides of the Atlantic.

            The second takeaway is about belief, evidence, and what some scholars do either to make one fit the other or make belief (ideology) come before or surpass a dense body of evidence. Rucker’s belief in “social death” transforms this abused metaphor into a lived experience in which Africans “suffered a series of social deaths,” only to contradictorily conclude they did not suffer “social death” because that death was only a “temporal waypoint” (whatever this is supposed to mean) (pp. 7, 229). As Orlando Patterson before him, Rucker offers no evidence from the enslaved that they subscribed to this “social death” view. Likewise, as Rucker believed the trial records for Gabriel’s 1800 plot to revolt in Virginia contained too much African content for whites to invent and so the plot must have been true, he also believed the veracity of a 1736 Antigua plot and its trial records, supposedly through a Gã leader named “Court” who built an alliance with “Coromantee” and “creole” participants (pp. 108-11). The facts paint or at the least point to a different story: Antiguan authorities recovered no weapons or gunpowder (supposedly, to blow up a ballroom, signaling the start of the revolt), hundreds were arrested and tortured on suspicion, spies were placed by authorities in the jails where inmates hatched stories to save their own skin, the owner of  “Court” denied the charge, and the judges claimed the two leaders—“Court” and “Tomboy”—confessed, but there is no record of their trials nor confessions.

The records do, however, reveal something about Akan cultural forms and language, which, upon second look, indicate a misidentification on my part: I rendered a reference to “Court,” that is, “Coquo Tackey,” as Kwaku Takyi, when in fact the correct transliteration is “Kokuroo Takyi” (Great Takyi). “Kokuroo” is an Akan/Twi adjective for “great, large, big,” modifying the noun or proper name “Takyi,” which is Akan, not Gã, placing in doubt the belief “Court” was crowned King. Antiguan officials claimed and Rucker believed “Coquo Tackey” meant “Great King,” but the closet approximation of “king” in Gã is Lumɔ and Maŋtsɛ, the Gã rendering of the proper name is “Taki” (phonetically different from Takyi), and the earliest references to Taki in the archived Gã records is Nii Taki Kome (1825-56) and Nii Taki Tawiah I (1862-1902). Finally, as the Antiguan judges’ report noted, “the language and ceremonies used at it being all Coramantine,” shorthand for the Akan language. That language is a composite or combination of three to four mutually intelligible variants—Bono, Fante, Asante, Akuapem—which was the predominant language recorded on the Gold Coast by Eustache de la Fosse in 1479-80, William Towerson in 1555, Pieter de Marees in 1600-01, Wilhelm Müller in the 1660s, Jean Barbot in 1682, and for Gã-Adangme and Ewe speakers in the Accra region “the city and entire Accra plains,” according to Gã linguist Mary Kabuku in Korle meets the Sea, “were dominated by Akan speakers from 1660 until the end of the nineteenth century” (1997, p. 113). This historically informed yet tightly-braided linguistic, cultural, and political reality is at sharp odds with the single-minded case for “Coromantee” or “(A)mina” ethnogenesis, and, as far as “ethnic” categories are concerned, with evidence for competing categories of self-identification, as evidenced in eighteenth-century newspapers ads for “Coromantee, Fantee, and Ashanti [Asante] Negroes” in the Americas.

            Third and final takeaway is about the question of African history/studies and African diaspora history/studies. Are they odd couples? If they are, they need not be. My concern in ADA was to explicate “collective self-understanding as Akan persons or culture bearers and the pattern of individual lives shaped by diasporic experiences,” using the notion of “a composite Akan culture… calibrated among those of Akan origin and a ‘diaspora’ of ‘Akanized’ communities on the Gold Coast littoral and forest periphery (e.g., the Ewe, Gã-Adangme, Guan, Dagomba), that found its way to the Americas.” That argument called “attention to an important rethinking of the historical formation of Akan culture in West Africa and its reach into the Americas” (ADA, pp. 4, 6). “Composite” meant and still means “complex, amalgamated, fusion” between various clans, many of whom formed polities, fought wars yet engaged in extensive diplomacy, traded with yet competed against one another, and ultimately their members became a force in the Americas (despite their relatively small numbers). They did the same on the Gold Coast through Greater Asante, which was larger in size than present-day Ghana, itself a “composite” nation that grew out of the British colonial division of Greater Asante into a tripartite colonial state (Northern Territories, Crown colony of Ashanti, Gold Coast Colony). A simplified version of more intricate historical processes, but the storyline is clear as to how complex Akan cultural forms and norms became so influential in the Americas and into the twentieth century Gold Coast/Ghana, especially its southern half. Ethnogenesis, therefore, is about the formation and development of an “ethnic” group through either a process of self-identification or outside identification.

But the Akan peoples were more than an “ethnic” or “monolinguistic” group, and so scholarship that focuses on how European/white folks cataloged or taxonomized African peoples, ascribed indiscriminately “ethnic” labels onto them, or incredulously argues “out of many, they became one [race]” impoverishes our understanding and our need to fully account for their lives and their histories (p. 6). By “their histories,” I mean all historians study and write about lived experiences that do not belong to them, because those experiences—human actions, if you will—are the sole intellectual property of those who lived them. Some of us think such experiences are the historian’s possession because they “discovered” them in the archives, and therefore they can contort those embedded lives in ways that suit the scholar’s argument. Viewed from this perspective, ADA embraced this view and imperfectly pushed for a fuller accounting and, yes, upstream precisely because the water or scholarship on diasporic African histories was shallow, when we do have the sources, languages, and evidence of self-understanding to excavate their histories. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century records supplied by Europeans, we find repeated references to Africans on the Mina/Gold Coast categorizing a European as a “lagoon person” (ɔburɔni) from lands across the sea (aburɔkyire), but more importantly references (spelled variously) to Akani, Equafoɔ, and Twifoɔ. They tell a story. The suffix -foɔ is a plural marker for “people,” while -ni is the singular, declarative marker for a “person.” Thus, Equafoɔ meant “trading people” (as in de Marees’s aguaede, “trade goods”) and Twifoɔ was “Twi people” (as in de Marees’s batafou, “distance commerce people”), whereas Akani or Akanni meant “this is an Akan person.” While the former were self-identification statements of peoplehood, or what kind of people and business they did, the latter was a declarative statement, most likely in response to a “who-are-you” kind of question. This “Akani” term runs its course through the sixteenth to eighteenth century, and is picked up in the nineteenth century by Basel Mission evangelists who, in their conversations with indigenes in their own language, decided to reduce to writing one variant of the Akan language called “Twi,” or, more recently, Akan/Twi. The root word in “Akan” is kan, meaning “first, foremost,” in that most Akan/Twi peoples claim to be autochthons—the “first” to settle in their respective homelands. The point is we have in the terms “Akan” and “Twi” mutually intelligible languages and cultural forms--constituted not by influence but by sharing a common linguistic root or ancestor—and shared (not the same) histories and self-understandings from which European/white folks took their cues. I only wish scholars would do the same, rather than be deceived like that PhD history student.



[1] Even one of the series editors for the book under review, Herman Bennet, repurposed his revised dissertation-cum-first book, Africans in Colonial Mexico, for his second book, Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico, by using essentially the same source materials and black Atlantic paradigm. His most recent project, Soiled Gods, takes its inspiration from the first chapter of the first book. I have only seen two chapters of the “new” book project, and so any further judgment must wait.

[2] Commission and distorted messaging is also rife in Rebecca Shumway’s The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade and her historiographical essay, “From Atlantic Creoles to African Nationalists: Reflections on the Historiography of Nineteenth-Century Fanteland” (History in Africa 42 (2014): 139-164), where her argument for a historiographical neglect or slighting of “Fanteland” is muted by the absence of T.C. McCaskie’s 1990 essay “Nananom Mpow of Mankessim: An essay in Fante history” and my own “Euro-African Commerce and Social Chaos: Akan Societies in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries” (History in Africa 36 (2009): 265-292) published in the same journal! The Fante are also addressed in The Akan Diaspora in the Americas.