Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Perspectives of African Elites on Slavery and Abolition on the Gold Coast (1860-1900) - Newspapers as Sources

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

The Perspectives of African Elites on Slavery and Abolition on the Gold Coast (1860-1900) - Newspapers as Sources

Article excerpt

When the British founded the Gold Coast Colony in 1874, they abolished slavery and the slave trade there. Earlier, in the 1860s, the Basel Mission Society had ordered its indigenous members to emancipate their slaves. Beginning in the 1860s, there was growing discussion, mainly in the coastal towns and especially among the Gold Coast's elites, about the legitimacy of slavery.1 Relying on the contemporaneous Gold Coast press2 as a source for specific African perspectives, this essay investi- gates the attitudes and arguments of African elites on the Gold Coast about slavery and abolition during the period after abolition.

It was only recently that research started to pay more attention to African domestic slavery and slave emancipation.3 This new interest has been especially concerned with the transformation of slavery and slave labour that took place after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807.4 Research on the Gold Coast up to the 1980s did not consider such themes. Historiographical texts that mentioned slavery at all described it as a benign institution and did not consider significant the social and economic changes which resulted from the British Colonial Government's abolition of slavery on the Gold Coast in 1874.5 In so doing, authors uncritically reproduced the arguments of colonial authorities in 1874 and afterwards to defend the results of the Emancipation Act and their reluctance to deal with ongoing slavery.

This changed with Gerald McSheffrey and with Raymond Dumett and Marion Johnson,6 whose research began the controversial discussion of the "policy's impact on slavery within the region"7 and who also regarded slaves as an active group that had the ability to contribute decisively to the effectiveness of emancipation. Since the 1980s, the possibilities open to slaves for deciding about their future have become a central subject of research. John Parker, for example, points out that slaves and their owners evinced a wide range of responses to abolition, and these resulted in ongoing negotiations between owners and slaves over ownership structures and the reciprocal relationships of dependence.8 So far, though, researchers have paid little attention to the detailed results of these negotiations.9 Still, what research there has been10 has shown that these results depended on the options available to slaves. For example, Peter Haenger, Kwabena Opare Akurang-Parry, and Trevor Getz have brought into focus slaves' varying chances for success in colonial courts and the striking incompetence of the colonial administration in recognizing cases of slavery among the wide spectrum of forms of dependency that remained on the Gold Coast.11

The Gold Coast Press: A Unique Source for African Perspectives

Research on the Gold Coast elites' attitudes to slavery and abolition in this period is a promising way of adding new perspectives on and insights into the possibilities open to slaves on the Gold Coast after abolition, for many elites on the Gold Coast were slave owners, at least until 1874, and thus made decisive contributions to the success of all forms of emancipation. At the same time, as Akurang-Parry first mentioned, in 2004, some elites were "abolitionists."12 The different views members of the elite class had towards slavery and abolition are displayed in the contemporary Gold Coast press, which therefore provides a unique source for research on slavery and abolition on tiie Gold Coast.13 Unlike most of the sources, such as court records, colonial documents, and missionary correspondence, which so far have been used in research on slavery and post-slavery history, these local newspapers were mostly published, managed, and written by some of the Gold Coast's new elites and, thus, by literate members of African society rather than Europeans. Further, even though subscribers, who were also members of the elite class, seldom numbered more than 200-500, there are indications that they read these newspapers out loud to a wider audience. …

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