Academic journal article African Economic History

Ransoming White Captives: An Episode in Anglo-Asante Relations, 1869-1874 1

Academic journal article African Economic History

Ransoming White Captives: An Episode in Anglo-Asante Relations, 1869-1874 1

Article excerpt

Introduction

In 1872, three years after Asante soldiers took four Europeans into captivity negotiations for their release had gone nowhere because the European contact agency, the British colonial administration in the Gold Coast, was reluctant to pay a huge ransom in exchange for the detainees' release. Therefore, Asante chiefs sent a messenger with a simple but tough message to the British Governor in Cape Coast, John Pope Hennessy: "[i]f the Governor has no money to pay the amount we ask let him give the Assin[,] Ackims [Akyem] and Decirras [Denkyira] in the place of the white men, and we will give them up to him. But not any less money."2 For the chiefs it was not whether they could seize the captives but whether they could tie their release to a ransom payment or the return of their coastal territories recently annexed to the British Gold Coast Colony. For Britain, however, it was about the legality and appearance of holding Europeans for ransom at a time of European ascendancy in Africa. Britain later used the detention of the white captives as a justification for the conquest of Asante in 1874.3

Prior to the modern reports of European captives in West Africa- from the Nigerian oil-rich Niger Delta to the Nigeria/Cameroon Adamawa and Lake Chad region and the Sahel district of Niger and Mali, the presence of European detainees in Africa has received little scholarship.4 Thus European captives in Africa were historically associated with the Mediterranean and Maghreb regions.5 Yet, evidence abound, dating back to the initial contacts between Europeans and West Africans, that Europeans were held variously as captives, hostages, prisoners, and as slaves and their release was sometimes tied to ransom payment. Without directly addressing the topic of ransom, Robin Law has criticized the erroneous notion that Europeans always had their way in West Africa pointing out how they relied on Africans for permission to settle, build forts, trade, and recruit labor among other activities. Recalcitrant Europeans faced sanctions for flouting African authorities.6 Punishments ranged from expulsion to death, imprisonment, fine in lieu of deportation or death, or a combination of fine and deportation. At times, the fine was a form of ransom. Those who refused to pay sometimes died in captivity or were treated like slaves. In 1786, agents of the Dahomean king seized fifteen French and Portuguese traders and 80 of their Akan employees from their post in Porto Novo. M. Gourg, the head of the French post in Ouidah, paid £4,600 in ransom to secure their release.7 Four years later, Gourg himself was in trouble for violating certain local rules. He was "seized, bound, and exposed on the beach, till a canoe could be found to deport him. He died on "board the ship Rouen, en 'route towards Cape Francois."8 Reports of European captives continued into the nineteenth century resulting in friction between West African chiefs and Europeans on the eve of European conquest of Africa.

In this three part essay on the neglected topic of European captivity in coastal West Africa, I explore why the freedom of European detainees in the Gold Coast was tied to ransom payment and what negotiations for their release reveal about the making of captives and ransoming negotiations in Africa. Due to the divergent conceptions of "ransoming" and "captives" among scholars and the often common conflation with related practices and statuses like "redemption," "manumission," "emancipation" and slaves part one clarifies how these are applied in this essay. Section two provides an overview of Afro-European relations on the Gold Coast before 1869 a period covering early European settlers and their commercial operations and how British ascendancy in the mid-nineteenth century altered the balance of power between Africans and Europeans. The third section discusses the seizure of white prisoners and the negotiation for their release within the context of contested Afro-European power relations. …

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