Every Periphery Is Its Own Center: Sociopolitical and Economic Interactions in Nineteenth-Century Northwestern Ghana*

Article excerpt


Interactions between the raiders and the raided of West African history can be studied at a variety of scales. These interactions are often presented as flowing out of the regional systems personified by a center-periphery approach where labor (in this case enforced), and other economic resources flow from decentralized societies in the periphery to politically centralized societies at the center.1 In many large-scale, regional analyses of the slave trade in West Africa, the primary emphasis thus tends to fall on the role of the state, which is constructed in opposition to its political, economic, and social other: decentralized or "acephalous" societies.2 This emphasis on the state, a factor of scale, goes some way towards describing interactions between state-level and other societies within the West African sub-continent, but does not aid in understanding the events and processes which played out in the so-called periphery. Further, it fails to sufficiently account for the observable complexity of relations that exist between different groups in these regions.3 In addition, many of these regional approaches tend to subordinate political, cultural and social relations to the economy. An economic sub-text tends to prevail where the relationship between slave-raiders and the raided is conceptualized as being one of a resource subject to exploitation.4 This exploitative relationship is seen to result in a situation of structured inequality between groups within the same economic system,5 and tends to reduce groups in what is regarded as the economic periphery to non-actors, ignoring the role that they played in shaping interactions with other polities.

In this paper I draw on archaeological, historical, and oral evidence to explore the complexity in what some might categorize as the slave-raiding periphery of northwestern Ghana (this is expanded upon below). The latter half of the nineteenth century in northern Ghana was a period rife with uncertainty and insecurity and has been described as one of the most intense periods of slave-raiding in this part of West Africa.6 Despite the near demise of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by the 1860s, the internal trade within many parts of Africa continued up until the early years of the twentieth century. The populations most affected by this ongoing trade in northern Ghana were those in decentralized societies.7 Decentralized here refers to the so-called "acephalous" societies made famous by early anthropologists,8 which were generally characterized by a level of government that did not supersede that of the village. Leadership roles were fulfilled by a variety of individuals including elders and "big men," but the abuse of power was most likely kept in check by the democratic forces inherent within settlements that contain a number of different lineage groups.

There now exists a considerable body of historical,9 archaeological,10 and anthropological11 work on the manner in and degree to which decentralized societies were affected by both the Trans-Atlantic and domestic West African slave trades. These studies examine the impact of raiding and other slave procurement strategies on the history, social organization, and culture of decentralized groups. These were the communities that were often most affected by the slave trade and slave warfare as they were targeted by neighboring states. They were not, however, passive components in this process. As much of the literature highlights, decentralization is a dynamic and flexible form of social organization that allows societies to shift back and forth between a number of political formulations: lineage headship, village headship, regional chiefship, kingship, and so on, albeit only temporarily.12 In these kinds of societies, individuals and communities access networks of power that are organized around the control of particular resources. Such resources are not only economic in nature, but may include social and political alliances, as well as information. …