Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Ghana

Indigenous Slavery: Unspoken Reality, Lingering Impact

  ACCRA, Ghana – As an American, you can’t visit Ghana without thinking about slavery because a significant percentage of African Americans trace their lineage to this West African country.

  This I knew.

  But I was unaware the majority of slaves who ended up in the U.S., Caribbean and South America were already possessed property, owned by Black tribes who sold or traded them to White Europeans. Which is why I’m in the suburban Accra mountain home of Akosua Adoma Perbi, Ghana’s foremost author and educator on indigenous slavery. Her bonafides include serving as a Fulbright Scholar-in-residence at Manchester [Ind.] College and professor of history at Ghana University for nearly 40 years.

  We begin with a candid admission on her part: When she started her research she was almost as clueless as me on the topic of Ghanaians as slave owners.

  “I had no idea,” she says. “All I knew was the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

  What is especially telling about this remark is that Professor Perbi is an Ashanti, Ghana’s largest tribe which for centuries was the most dominant force in the owning and selling of slaves. Yet it was by chance that as she was considering her path for a master’s degree in history a professor suggested she consider the theme that would shape the remainder of her career.

  Professor Perbi’s thesis, completed in 1979, focused on slavery in her native Ashanti region. She remembers her initial feeling as she delved into her research and uncovered the mostly-buried truth.

  “I was sad.”

  Her mentors were impressed with her findings and she was encouraged to continue her research while pursuing a doctorate.     This time she expanded her reach to all of Ghana. Her findings were even more distressing: “All of the tribes were involved in the slave trade.”

Why indigenous slavery?

  According to Professor Perbi, slavery in Ghana was not unlike slavery in the southern U.S. Here, labor was needed by tribal leaders and wealthy land owners to work their farms, gold and salt mines, and serve as domestics in their homes.

  “The only difference I found,” she says, ‘is the slave owners here would often adopt them into their families. Some men even married their slaves and had children that became part of the family.”

  Glancing around Professor Perbi’s living room, the importance of family in her life is vividly clear. Photos of her wedding 45 years ago, her four children over the years and her 11 grandchildren are among the dozens that fill most of the shelves and tables not otherwise crowded with books befitting an academic.

  Her family and obligations at the university kept her busy. Yet, somehow, she found the time to continue her research. Beginning in 1990, she spent 12 years traveling the country interviewing tribal leaders, their families and their servants.

  At the time, it was not only an uncomfortable topic but one that required considerable resolve and finesse on the part of Professor Perbi to succeed.  A stamped letter from the university served as a calling card. Her late father, Kwabene Nketia, Ghana’s most famous composer and musicologist, inadvertently helped when some of her interview subjects discovered she was his daughter.

  Her line of questioning depended on whom she was interviewing. When speaking with tribal leaders, whom she calls royals, she said she was focusing on general history. When she attempted to interview servants she was candid about her intent. Most of those who agreed requested anonymity.

  “They would say, ‘Come to the bedroom and let’s talk.’

  This comment was followed by a surprising punchline and oversized laugh.

  “I’ve been to a lot of bedrooms.”

  Her research also included tracking interior slave trade routes and markets as well as perusing thousands of documents from a 400-year period beginning in 1500, a massive undertaking. Eventually, a clear picture emerged. The majority of domestic slaves were captured in tribal wars. There were around 60 inland trade markets where tribes sold or traded slaves for commodities and men plucked young women to join their concubines. Slaves also were gifted from prosperous farmers to family members and friends. As the Trans-Atlantic slave trade grew into an enormous business, proposerous Blacks took their surplus slaves to the coast to sell or barter with the Europeans and British. 

  “It was,” she says, “an age-old system.”

  Professor Perbi turned her research into “A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana from the 15th to 19th century,” published in 2004. It remains the definitive voice on the subject.

Britain arrives, a new revelation

  Britain took control of Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, in 1821, and would govern until Ghana’s independence in 1957. Slavery was abolished initially in South Ghana in 1874 and in the remainder of the country in 1908. [Yet it was common for the colonizers to own slaves and Britain was a major player in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.]

  While researching her first book, Professor Perbi uncovered something that would evolve into an idea for a second manuscript.

  She explains: “In talking with the servants in many of the palaces, I discovered that many of them were the descendants of slaves.”

  This revelation inspired her to probe deeper. Mostly, she’d get two stories. From the tribal chiefs and queens, they would stress that their servants were not slave descendants but long-time members of the family and that they were paid. Some had jobs outside the palace even though they still lived there.  Some attended college. But, according to the professor, almost all of them returned to their ancestorial homes.

  “[The chiefs] would give them titles, like sub-chiefs, to make them happy,” she says. “But the reality was something different.”

  From the servants, she would confirm their indentured lineage going back several generations. But, usually, her quest to connect the dots ended there.

  “They feel as though they are free,” says Professor Perbi. “But the fact is they remain in the same house as their parents and grandparents. No one leaves.”

  This discovery was in some ways more troubling than her original findings.

  She explains: “Because even though slavery has been abolished it has not been forgotten.”

  Sadly, the second book focusing on this theme never materialized. After Professor Perbi officially retired from teaching five years ago vision issues surfaced. First she had a cornea transplant and then cataract surgery. Her vision has improved but no longer can she do the extensive reading and writing it would take to publish a book.

  “My doctors said, 'Enough.' My colleagues told me there’s no need for a second book; my work is completed.”

  Of course, that’s not entirely true. A writer’s work is never finished. Professor Perbi knows that.

  So, instead, she’ll settle for days like this.

  “Although I can’t write anymore, I enjoy talking about my work. It makes me happy.”

Editor’s note: Third in a series of articles from a reporting trip to Ghana Sept. 15-22, 2022

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