The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

By Dylan C. Penningroth | Go to book overview

Chapter One
One of the Family?
Abolition and Social Claims to Property in
the Gold Coast, West Africa, 1868–1930

On a hot December day in 1874, one year after Pompey Bacon’s hearing before the Southern Claims Commission and exactly twelve years after the soldiers set him free, slavery officially ended in the West African city-states of Fante. Only a keen observer, though, could have marked the day as anything special, for there was no exodus, no angry revolts, no flooding of freedom lawsuits into the courts. Just as in many other parts of Africa, thousands of slaves greeted the official, legal end of slavery by staying right where they were.1 From the perspective of American history, where freedom is defined in terms of individual autonomy, this fact raises difficult questions. Why didn’t enslaved Africans quit and strike out on their own when Britain proclaimed that slavery was over?

Many historians and anthropologists agree that slavery in Africa was (and often still is) defined as an absence of kin. Slaves were viewed as kinless outsiders who were gradually assimilated into society by being absorbed into the family that owned them. During that process of kin incorporation, slaves were subject to forced labor and an array of social handicaps until they or their children finally became full-fledged members of the family. So it went, in principle. Yet, however slavery was defined, people experienced slavery in

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