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West African Coastal Slavery in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of the Afro-European Slaveowners of Elmina

The American Society for Ethnohistory
West African Coastal Slavery in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of the Afro-European
Slaveowners of Elmina
Author(s): Larry W. Yarak
Source: Ethnohistory, Vol. 36, No. 1, Ethnohistory and Africa (Winter, 1989), pp. 44-60
Published by: Duke University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/482740 .
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West AfricanCoastal Slaveryin the Nineteenth
Century:The Case of the Afro-European
Slaveownersof Elmina
Larry W. Yarak, Texas A&M University
Abstract.This paperexaminesthe documentaryevidenceregardingslaveholding
by personsof mixed Africanand Europeandescentin the West Africancoastal
town of Elminaduringthe nineteenthcentury.It focuseson the extent of AfroEuropeanslaveholding,the tasks performedby the slaves, and the nature of
master-slaverelations.This evidenceis then used to assess criticallythe develof the natureof WestAfricanslaveryafterthe
oping "revisionist"interpretation
abolitionof the transatlanticslavetrade.
In Elmina the Dutch settlers still hold their domestic slaves, and they
are in a thriving condition. In its immediate neighbourhood I was
surprised to find several fine gardens and plantations, belonging to
different merchants established there. (Duncan 1847, I: 42-43)
[W]ealth in slaves and pawns has always been considered the most
desirable species of riches....
(Cruickshank 1853, I: 323)
By the early nineteenth century a small but intriguing group of inhabitants
of the West African coastal town of Elmina (located in the modern state
of Ghana) had risen to particular prominence in the political and social
affairs of the town. These were the people of mixed African and European
descent who were known to the Dutch officials in Fort St. George1 at
Elmina as tapoeyers or vrijburgers.2The records of the Dutch "administration"3 at Elmina, a town of some fifteen to twenty thousand inhabitants
in the mid nineteenth century, contain sufficient data to permit some reconstruction of the position of these Afro-Europeans in Elmina society
and of their distinctive way of life. The present paper summarizes and
analyzes material collected regardingone important facet of the life of the
Afro-Europeans at Elmina: their activities as a slaveholding class during
the first half of the nineteenth century. In particular, attention will be
Ethnohistory 36:I (Winter I989). Copyright ? by the American Society for
Ethnohistory. ccc ooi4-I8OI/89/$I.5o.
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Afro-EuropeanSlaveownersof Elmina
focused here on such issues as the extent of Afro-European slaveholding,
the uses to which slaves were put, and the nature of master-slaverelations.
Specific empirical data on these matters should prove helpful in fleshing out and modifying some of the recently published general assessments
of the character of slavery on the West African coast in the nineteenth
century. Several scholars (e.g., Klein and Lovejoy 1979; Lovejoy 1983;
Manning 1983) have argued that the abolition of the overseas export trade
in slaves at the beginning of the century resulted in important changes
in the extent and character of slavery along the West African coast.
Manning, for example, has argued that the ending of the export trade led
to a "glut" in the West African slave market; this led to a drop in the price
of slaves, which in turn led to a significant expansion in "the scope of
African slavery," as slaves "came within the purchasing power of African
buyers." The end result was that "the coastal areas now developed slave
plantations that produced for palace populations, for the African market,
and for export" (Manning I983: 853; see also Klein and Lovejoy 1979:
197-98; Lovejoy 1983: 159-60; McSheffrey 1983: 365-66). Manning's
pointed usage of the term "plantation" to describe the new productive
units implies that the social and material conditions of slave life likely
deteriorated in the process of the expansion of coastal slavery. Or as
Klein and Lovejoy stated, "The development of more intensive slave use
involved a breakdown in face-to-face ties, a limitation on the process of
assimilation, harsher treatment, and more rational exploitation" (Klein
and Lovejoy 1979: 198).
In spite of the development of this broad, "revisionist" perspective,
little research attention has so far been paid to the institution of slavery on
the nineteenth-century Gold Coast, despite the existence of a substantial
corpus of documentary sources pertaining to all aspects of coastal life. A
recent exception is McSheffrey (1983); in line with the revisionists, he has
argued that by 1874 the size of the coastal "servile population" (a broad
category that includes both slaves and "pawns")4 was much larger than
has previously been thought and that "a new form of slavery and a new
class of slaves [clearly] did emerge in the nineteenth-centuryGold Coast
out of the traditional mould in response to economic change" (I983: 364).
This form of slavery was, McSheffrey argues further, "more harsh and
exploitative" than that which had existed before and elicited a kind of
"adaptive behaviour"-McSheffrey has in mind Stanley Elkins's (I959)
analysis of the "slave personality"-on the part of the slaves that "was in
all respects similar to [that] on southern plantations in the United States"
(ibid.: 363-64).
Unfortunately, however, McSheffrey's provocative hypothesis rests
upon an insecure empirical base. He relies heavily on extracts of Basel
Missionary records (which are limited to European observations about
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Larry W. Yarak
life in the eastern Gold Coast after the mid nineteenth century) and on
secondary sources, rather than on the massive contemporary documentation covering the entire century and coast, which is located in British,
Dutch, and Ghanaian archives. By contrast, Kaplow (1978) made good
use of colonial court records in her study of slavery in the vicinity of the
British Gold Coast forts for the period from about 1840, but her work
appeared before the full development of the revisionist perspective; accordingly, she tended to accept the view of some contemporary European
observers that "domestic slavery" on the coast constituted no more than
a "light form of servitude," thereby implying a greater continuity in the
character of coastal slavery with the period prior to the abolition of the
transatlantic slave trade than now seems warranted (I978: 30).
The Elmina Afro-Europeans as a Case Study
An examination of the evidence regarding the institution of slavery in
Elmina might therefore serve as a useful basis for substantiation or critique of the revisionist thesis, and specifically of McSheffrey's assertion of
the "increasingly oppressive" character of Gold Coast slavery during the
nineteenth century. What follows is an analysis based on an examination
of the available Dutch sources. However, several caveats must be entered.
First, the evidence from the Dutch records deals overwhelmingly with
Afro-European slave masters and only infrequently with the institution as
practiced among the larger indigenous population at Elmina. Even then
the documentation of Afro-European slaveholding is not as complete as
one would like. Much of the data used here derives from wills recorded
by the Dutch on behalf of prominent Afro-European merchants, from
estate inventories made by Dutch officials following the death of such merchants, and from the court records of criminalproceedings involving AfroEuropeans and their slaves. It is important to note that not all tapoeyers,
or even all vrijburgers,left written wills, had their estates handled according to Dutch law, or brought their legal problems before the court in the
Dutch fort; the record is therefore admittedly fragmentarythough at the
same time unusual in its richness for precolonial sub-SaharanAfrica. One
might further question the extent to which the practices and experiences
of the Afro-Europeans who appear in the records were representative of
those of the Elmina population at large. This is a more serious question,
and one deserving of some consideration.
In the first place, given their relatively small numbers in Elmina5 and
given that the means of coercion were not in their hands but in those of
the indigenous authorities (and, to a lesser extent, the Dutch), it may be
argued that the Elmina Afro-Europeanswere hardly in a position to construct a system of slavery that was radically different in character from
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Afro-EuropeanSlaveownersof Elmina
that which existed in or was sanctionedby the largercommunity.Second, the evidenceindicatesthat thoughsome Afro-Europeans
vrijburgers)clearlyaspiredin the early nineteenthcenturyto the status
of the Europeans(indeedeven thoughtof themselvesas "white"),6they
were all closely linkedby marriageand blood ties to the largercommunity of Elmina (cf. Reynolds I974b: z56) and so were subjectto constraintson their behaviorfrom that quarter.7
In fact, the entiregroupof
tapoeyerswere to a remarkableextent sociallyand politicallyintegrated
into Elminasociety;they constituteda distinctasafo "company"(the socalled akrampafo)in Elmina'ssociopoliticalstructureand occupiedtheir
own "quarter"of the town, as did other asafo companies(see, e.g., de
Marree I817-I8,
z: 5I-52;
Feinberg 1969: 64-I10;
Baesjou 1979: 50).
At the same time, the extent to which the Afro-Europeans
were on the
"fringe"of Elminasocietyand saw themselvesas a distinctsocial grouping with their own economicinterestsallows one to argue that if any
group of Elminaslaveholderswere to attemptto innovatein social and
economic relationsin responseto new global economicconstraintsand
opportunities,it would likelybe this group(cf. Kaplow1978: 23). In this
sense the characterof Afro-Europeanslaveryin the nineteenthcentury
arguablyconstitutesa kind of "control"with regardto Elminaslavery
With these considerationsin mindwe can now moveto an examination of the evidenceregardingAfro-European
slaveholdingin Elmina.
Extentof Slaveholding
werelargeslaveholdersby anymeavrijburgers
sure. The estate inventoryof CarelRuhledrawnup followinghis death
on December27, I8I8, includedthe namesof 205 slaves he owned at
death, in additionto severalbuildingswithinandnearElmina,a housein
the westerncoastaltown of Butri(the birthplaceof Ruhle'smother),two
parcelsof land locateda few hours'walk fromthe town, and a long list
of personaleffects.9Ruhlemay have representedsomethingof an upper
limit on the size of slaveestates;of all of the estateinventoriesthat I have
examinedhis was the largest.But I haveso far been unableto locate the
inventoryof the estateof the influentialvrijburgerC. H. Bartels,whose
wealth at his death in I850 was legendaryon the coast and included
?6,ooo in "Exchequerbills"on depositwith Messrs.Forsterand Smith
of London.10
A contemporaryof CarelRuhle's,the famousJan Nieser (see Lever
1970), was also reputedto be a largeslaveholderin the yearsbeforethe
arrivalof Dutch Governor-General
H. W. Daendelsin i816. As late as
1817Nieser'sslaveforcewas formidableenoughto hold off Ruhle'sin an
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LarryW. Yarak
armed clash.11But Nieser eventually ran afoul of the prodigious Daendels,
was at one point imprisoned on the orders of the Dutch governor, and saw
his fortune dwindle. When Nieser died in 18z2 an inventory of his estate
counted no slaves at all, though oddly enough it did include two buildings
at Elmina which were described as having facilities for the lodging of
slaves, a cattle pen, and a "plantation" (plantaadje)named Werk en Rust
(Work and Repose) on which were planted cotton and fruit trees.12
Carel Ruhle's brother Jacob, who since i80o had established residence in Holland, died there in I829. His Elmina estate included 12z
slaves, all of whom lived at his "family house," named Buitenrust,13
located in the "new" area north of Elmina across the Benya lagoon.14
An indeterminate number of his slaves appear, however, to have been inherited or otherwise taken over from Carel. When Jacob van Dijk, the
"mayor" (burgemeester) of the Afro-European asafo company, died late
in the same year, he left a more modest estate of 21 slaves and ii pawns.s1
The former Dutch employee and envoy to Kumase Jacob Simons died
in 1844 and left an estate that included 75 slaves who resided both in
Simons's house in Elmina and at his "plantation"called Assabum located
a short march from Elmina.16That Simons was an especially successful
merchant is testified by the fact that George Maclean, chief officer of the
English forts, and several other "prominent English gentlemen" on the
coast attended his funeral. Finally Jacob Huydecoper, son of Willem, who
had acted as Daendels's envoy to Kumase in 1817, died a year after Simons
and left a similarly sizable estate: a total of 47 slaves, divided between a
house in suburban Elmina and a "plantation"in the Elmina hinterland.17
Yet it is striking to note the number of prominent Elmina AfroEuropeans whose estates included no slaves at all.'8 It is difficult to be
certain that such estates were not the result of some last-minute selling
off of slave property when, as the quaint Dutch phrase had it, "the certainty of death" loomed. I have seen no direct evidence which suggests
that such a course of action might work to the advantage of a dying vrijburger-perhaps in assuring the transmission of property to the heirs of
choice-yet it remains a possible explanation, and one that demands further examination. Whatever the case, when Willem Huydecoper, Jacob's
father, died in I826 (at age 37) he left many personal effects and a house
in the town but no slaves.19Huydecoper left sizable debts that reduced
the final value of his estate to such a state that one of his sons was taken
in as a charity case by the Dutch governor.20Reference has already been
made to the apparently slaveless estate of Jan Nieser upon his decease.
The tapoeyer Pieter Welzing at his death in 1834 left to his six children
a house in the "new" area of Elmina and a large amount of gold (783/8
ounces, the equivalent at this time of at least 39 adult male slaves in good
health)-but no slaves.21It is noteworthy in this context that the estates
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Afro-EuropeanSlaveownersof Elmina
of vrijburgers which did include slaves also frequently included a large
amount of gold.22This evidence casts doubt on the claim by some historians that the Afro-European traders of the nineteenth century preferred to
lock up their wealth in slaves rather than in currency (Kaplow 1978: 30;
McSheffrey I983: 357).
Somewhat fragmentary evidence from Afro-European estate inventories also provides interesting data with regard to sex ratios in coastal
slavery. Here too there are problems of interpretation. The available evidence shows that male slaves clearly predominated. Of Carel Ruhle's zo5
slaves, I39 were adult males, 49 were adult females, 6 were boys, and
ii were girls.23Jacob Ruhle's estate counted 54 adult males, 23 females,
17 small children (no sex given), II girls, and 4 boys.24Jacob van Dijk
possessed at his death 9 men, z boys, and 8 women; of his 11 pawns, 7
were male.25The estates of Jacob Huydecoper and Jacob Simons showed a
similar preponderance of male slaves. What is difficult to argue is whether
this pattern also applies to gender ratios among the Elmina slaves at large.
This is a matter of some interest. It has recently been argued that within
Africa, female slaves were the most highly desired and in consequence
probably constituted the "majority" of African slaves (Robertson and
Klein 1983: 3). This was clearly not the case among slaves of the Elmina
Afro-Europeans, but they may have been exceptional in this regard within
Elmina society; the male slaveowners appear to have been less interested
in marrying their female slaves in order to produce dependent offspring
than they were in using marriageas a strategic device to establish kin links
with prominent indigenous families in the town. To take but one example, Jacob Simons was married to the sister of Takyi Mensa, a wealthy
trader and prominent officeholder in the indigenous political hierarchy of
Elmina.26Though the evidence is far from definitive, there are few indications of a propensity toward polygyny among the Elmina Afro-Europeans.
There is also some incomplete evidence regarding the movement of
slave prices. Apparently a nadir in slave prices was reached in the late
I8zos. Following the death of Jacob Ruhle in I829, Dutch officials gave
the market value of 96 of his slaves as 2,I40 Dutch guilders (abbrev.f; f4o
equaled one ounce of gold or ?4 in the nineteenth century); the maximum
value for any one slave was given as f4o. This contrasts with the fIoo
(or 2'z oz. of gold) that Dutch agents at Kumase were authorized to pay
for slaves to serve as "recruits"in the Netherlands East Indies army less
than ten years later.27In an assessment of Jacob Huydecoper's estate done
in 1845 the maximum value for a slave was given as f8o.28 These data
accord well with the current research on West African slave prices which
suggests that following the abolition of the overseas slave trade there was
a dramatic drop in the market price of slaves (see, e.g., Lovejoy 1983:
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LarryW. Yarak
Slave Use
There is unanimity and continuity in the available Dutch documentation that a major use of slaves throughout the period under review was
as skilled artisans or laborers. Early in the century the British merchant
Meredith observed, "There are . . . some respectable mulattoes here [in
Elmina], who support a number of slaves, acquainted with the duties of
a carpenter, a mason, and a blacksmith" (Meredith 181z: 88). Those who
recorded the estate of Carel Ruhle in 1818 took the trouble to note the
occupations of each male slave: there were 17 carpenters, 13 bricklayers,
4 smiths, 4 coopers, 4 "stonebreakers" (steenbrekers), zi canoemen, 4
shepherds, z cowherders (Ruhle's estate included 30 head of stock), 3
cooks, and i6 "house servants" (huisjongens). In addition 33 slaves were
listed as "garden slaves," that is, those responsible for maintaining Ruhle's
"garden" (tuin) outside of Elmina. Of the 47 adult women slaves listed,
only 2 were given an occupation: "house servants."29Similarly, of the 40
adult male slaves listed in Jacob Simons's estate of 1845, 23 were skilled
workmen such as carpenters, bricklayers, coopers, or smiths.30It seems
that the slaveowners not only employed such slaves for work on their
own projects but also hired them out to others (cf. Kaplow I978: z9).
The terms of such arrangementsare as yet obscure; what portion of the
master's remuneration, if any, was given to the slave is unclear.
It is interesting to note that the Dutch coastal administration had long
owned slaves which it trained in various artisan occupations (Feinberg
I969: 36-39). An i8zo court case involving one such slave, Kwasi Mensa,
indicates that the slaves were ranked by their training, the highest being
carpenter and the lowest being common soldier.31The Dutch trained such
slaves for the maintenance of their forts on the coast. The Afro-Europeans
presumably used their own slaves to maintain their buildings and warehouses and to build in the new suburb of Elmina across the Benya,32and
perhaps they also ranked their slaves by offering some the opportunity
to acquire a skill. Both the Dutch and the wealthy vrijburgersput their
skilled slaves at the disposal of the Asantehene for the construction and
maintenance of his "stone house" (aban) in Kumase.33Like the Dutch the
vrijburgers could also arm their slaves for use as a personal militia, an
instance of which was alluded to above.
Perhaps the most interesting use of slaves, however, was on the "gardens" or "plantations" located in the hinterland of Elmina that several
vrijburgers are recorded as operating throughout the nineteenth century.
Carel Ruhle's "garden slaves" noted above labored on his two "gardens":
one located in the immediate vicinity of Elmina, adjacent to the hill on
which stood the second Dutch fort at Elmina, St. Jago; and another described as "some agricultural fields [located] around and on the Duapim
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Afro-EuropeanSlaveownersof Elmina
Hill, near the village [of] Amoanda, about two hours from Elmina."34
"Amoanda" is readily recognizable on modern Survey of Ghana maps
as Amoana, which lies about seven kilometers north of Elmina. It is not
clear what Ruhle raised on this land, but some idea of the opportunities
open to enterprising vrijburgers is provided by testimony recorded in a
murder case tried in the Dutch fort in i82z. The case involved a plot by
several slaves to kill their mistress, Carolina Huydecoper, a wealthy AfroEuropean woman.35Huydecoper made an extended deposition before the
Dutch court regarding how she came to acquire her slaves and to what
use she put them.
Following the death of Carel Ruhle in i8i8, his brother Jacob informed Huydecoper from Amsterdam that she should help him to administer his affairs on the Gold Coast. Since Carel's estate was in debt
to Jacob, the latter agreed to take ownership of some of Carel's slaves
in lieu of cash payment. Jacob then authorized his children on the coast
to take possession of his Elmina slaves, requiring only that they make
him a onetime payment. Carolina reported that by this means she came
into possession of six male slaves from Diapem, four of whose names
suggest a non-Akan origin (hence nnonkofo, s. odonko: non-Akan slave).
She then related that she returned them to Diapem (whether on lands
that she owned there herself or which belonged to Carel Ruhle's estate is
unclear). Initially she had them plant plantains and cotton. But she also
allowed her slaves to grow maize and yams for their own consumption,
for which she granted them three days in the week to work on their own
plots. She appointed one of the slaves as overseer, but when she found
that they were not properly tending to her crops, she first obtained more
labor in the form of pawns and then employed a tapoeyer to assume the
duties of overseer. Faced in the last year with a severe decline in trade
with the interior at Elmina due to the outbreak of hostilities between the
British and Asante, she attempted to quicken the pace of labor on her
plantation, extending the area of cotton and now coffee cultivation in
order, as she stated, to "earn a [decent] living" for herself and her "two
unhappy daughters."In the end, however, Carolina only elicited resistance
-in the form of a conspiracy to kill her-on the part of her slaves as she
attempted to regiment their labor more strictly and thereby increase their
Unfortunately, no other document I have examined provides such detailed information on the use to which the vrijburgersput their slaves. The
estates of nearly all those who owned slaves also included a portion of
land in the interior of Elmina frequently described as a "plantation."Thus
reference has already been made above to Simons's "Assabum"plantation
and to that owned by Jacob Huydecoper (nephew of Carolina), which
was said to be located a half-hour's march from Elmina. The observation
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Larry W. Yarak
of J. Duncan cited at the beginning of this article indicates that there were
other such "gardens" operated by Elmina vrijburgersduring the I84os in
addition to those of Simons and Huydecoper. But it is unknown whether
they encountered problems similar to those that Carolina Huydecoper
clearly faced in the i8zos of extracting disciplined labor from the slaves.
In this context it is perhaps relevant to note that both Simons's and Huydecoper's estate inventories indicate the continuing importance of artisan
slaves in the I84os. If plantation slavery had become profitable by this
time it was apparently not so profitable as to induce the vrijburgers to
employ a majority of their slaves in it.
Master-Slave Relations
The case of Carolina Huydecoper suggests that there were accepted norms
of slave treatment in Elmina society, norms that the slaves were aware of
and sought scrupulously to maintain. In addition to resisting her efforts
to impose a more regimented form of labor, the two who plotted against
her also testified of their indignation at her threats to take away the slave
women that she had given to them as wives. When the wives of the two
conspirators on one occasion came to Elmina carrying firewood to their
mistress, she refused to allow them to return to Diapem; their slave husbands immediately came to Elmina to find out what was the matter. Huydecoper then released the women and sent all the slaves back to Diapem
with a warning that they should work, but the slaves' resentment of her
actions was clear: the tapoeyer overseer reported that one of them said,
"the Dutch [sic] woman did not buy me, Carel Ruhle did; I recognize no
other master and so I won't work any longer." The implication seems to
be that once established, slave marriages ought not to be tampered with
lightly by slave masters.
This and other sources indicate a multiplicity of slave rights or privileges, some of which clearly distinguish Afro-Europeanslavery in Elmina
from that practiced in the New World. For example, there appears to have
been a widespread possession of guns among males in Elmina society (de
Marree 1817-18, z: 267), and the indications are that the slaves were no
exceptions. The slave of the wealthy Elmina merchant and officeholder
Kuman Badu (himself not a tapoeyer) was found guilty of stealing 47
ounces of his master's gold and forcibly abducting his slave wife and a
young boy, using his own gun, in an effort to flee to the place of his birth
near Apam, in the east-central Gold Coast. The slave, Kwasi Ako, stated
that he was a "trusted" slave of his master, having access to his master's keys (Elmina merchants usually kept their gold locked up in wooden
chests in their bedrooms). The Dutch court was not in the least surprised
that Kwasi Ako owned a gun but rather made much of the fact that as
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Afro-EuropeanSlaveownersof Elmina
he fled his gun was loaded;this was not customarypracticeandindicated
that Kwasi Ako had forced his wife and the young boy to accompany
An equallyinterestingaspectof master-slaverelationsconcernsthe
ability of slaves to bring legal cases against their masters.38Thus one
"Beni"(Benin?)Akuaaccusedherowners-the "family"of the vrijburger
Jan Adam-of havingsold her son into the interiorand then of having
seized the money that had been gatheredto buy him back. Remarkably,
the case was heardby the Dutch governorand the Elminatown authorities. Adam'sfamilywas foundinnocent,but as the ownersof Beni Akua,
they were liable for all courtcosts. Indeed,Adamassertedthat in many
other instanceshis troublesomeslaveandherchildrenhad cost his family
money in such fees and in debts that she or her childrenhad contracted
and for which he was liable; he quoted the sum of
oz. of gold. The
solution to these endlessdifficulties?Jan Adam'sfamily,"justifiablyoutraged"by her false accusationand "aggrievedby [her] slanderousand
ungratefulbehavior,"publiclydeclaredthat Beni Akua and her children
should be grantedtheir freedom,therebyrelievingthe family from any
right to or responsibility for the actions of these people.39
In a somewhat similar case, though one not involving an Elmina
tapoeyer, a rather more interesting slave right was involved. The case of
one "Tannie Borroe" was brought before the Dutch authorities at Elmina
by the "family" that owned him. They were asked to incarceratehim until
the family could make arrangements for his sale into the interior. Like
Beni Akua, he was a troublemaker.His owners declared that Borroe had
demanded that he be paid gold, given a wife, or sold to another master,
or else he would "swear oaths, run up debts and seek disputes" which
would ultimately burden his owners. The reason for Borroe's discontent
was as intriguing as his threat. The head of the slaveowning family, one
"Amfam," had recently died, leaving no male heir. In this situation, "according to local custom [Amfam] should be succeeded [as family head]
by the eldest slave" (cf. Allott I966: I83; Rattray I929: 41-42;
family, but
the unnamed slave-successor had also died, and Tannie Borroe felt it was
his turn to succeed to his former master's place. Tannie Borroe had even
taken up already with one of his former master's wives, but the family
felt that he was too junior and had little right to succeed to the family
headship, though the election had not yet taken place. In the end the
Dutch complied with the family's request, even though Tannie Borroe had
committed no crime; he threatened "public order."40
Several of the cases mentioned emphasize the "family" nature of slave
ownership on the nineteenth-centuryGold Coast. This ran contrary to the
more individualistic notions of property embraced by the Europeans and
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LarryW. Yarak
vrijburgers. Similarly, a final case shows that Elmina slaves resisted the
efforts to regard them as heritable individual private property.41Following
the death of Jacob Ruhle in I829, Dutch officials visited the Ruhle family
house at Buitenrust in an effort to divide up the estate among Jacob's
stipulated heirs. In a notarized document prepared for the executors of
Jacob's estate in the Netherlands, the coastal Dutch authorities reported
that "the slaves resisted en masse any division or separation among them,
declaring themselves to belong to the house Buitenrust, subject to and
at the disposal of the children of their master, but with the understanding that they should be regarded as the indivisible . . . property of the
aforementioned house Buitenrust." Interestingly, the Dutch officials recommended that the desire of the slaves be respected, for though the authorities might physically force a division of the slaves according to the
wishes of the deceased, yet this would disturb the "public order" and
would in the end only lead the slaves to flee their new masters, which they
could do "with impunity."Further,they noted that the effort to divide up
the Ruhle slaves was "judged by the Negroes of the coast [to be] contrary
to local custom." In a sense, with the passing of Jacob Ruhle, the slaves
had become "family" property and thus subject to a different set of laws
than were self-acquired slaves (cf. Allott 1966: 184; Fortes I969: I7I;
Rattray I9z9: 330-39; Sarbah I904: 6I).42The indivisibility of the Ruhle
slaves was reaffirmed in a notarized act of 1843 following the death of
one Jacob Ruhle's heirs.43
The evidence on Afro-Europeanslavery in nineteenth-centuryElmina substantiates in part the revisionist view of the character of slavery on the
West African coast. The Afro-Europeans of Elmina appear to have responded to the dramatic decline in the price of slaves that followed abolition of the overseas slave market to acquire in some cases large numbers
of slaves. And they attempted to use them to produce the commoditiessuch as cotton and coffee-then in growing demand on the world market. But one should not conclude that there was a wholesale shift into a
slave plantation-based economy, similar to that which existed in the rural
areas of the antebellum United States South and Brazil. In the first place,
slavery was but one form of involuntary servitude in the Elmina social
order; the slave did not stand in sharp contrast to the free person. Second,
significant numbers of slaves were employed by their masters as skilled
laborers in Elmina town; this may indeed have been one factor inhibiting
the full emergence of a plantation agrarianeconomy. Third, Elmina slaves
in at least one well-documented instance resisted an attempt to impose
plantation-style labor discipline on them. The failure of virtually all efforts
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Afro-EuropeanSlaveownersof Elmina
-European and vrijburger-to build a plantation economy on the coast
and the frequently heard lament that large-scale commercial agriculture
ventures on the Gold Coast were impossible because of intractable labor
problems (the "natives" were "lazy" and given to "idleness") suggest that
this resistance was successful (Reynolds i974a: 66-69). Fourth, the notion of individual property rights in slaves found only partial acceptance
in Elmina society. And finally, the kinds of individual rights and privileges
accorded to and defended by the slaves of Afro-European slave masters
-such as succession to the position of the master-cloud any attempt to
equate Elmina slavery with that of the New World.
Nevertheless, comparative analysis is possible and indeed heuristic.
There were important similarities between the institution of slavery at
Elmina and that of the U.S. antebellum South. Some of the more recent
surveys of U.S. slavery (e.g., Blassingame 1979; Genovese 1974; Gutman
1976) demonstrate the American slaves' and slave masters' adherence to
accepted norms of treatment, of the slaves' access to courts of law, and
of the slaves' resistance to oppression when the opportunity presented
itself. Some American slaves in urban areas did acquire skilled trades. On
the evidence now available, American slavery appears not to have created "Sambo" as the dominant slave personality, contrary to the argument
made some years ago by Stanley Elkins (Elkins I959; Blassingame I979:
249-50; Levine 1977). Consequently, it would be inappropriateto search
for any such slave personality in a Gold Coast setting, where at least the
ideology if not the full reality of slave assimilation prevailed (see, e.g., Sarbah 1904: io8). Situated in a social and cultural environment considerably
different from that of the New World, faced with the resistance of their
slaves, and-perhaps most importantly-having little means of political
or military compulsion at their disposal, the Afro-European slaveholders
of Elmina constructed the slave system that they could. It should surprise
no one that this system shared some characteristicswith other systems of
slavery, yet differed profoundly in other respects (cf. Patterson I982).
There is little evidence in the Elmina record to support McSheffrey's
argument that a "new," more "oppressive" form of slavery emerged on
the Gold Coast during the nineteenth century. In the first place, it would
have been preferable for McSheffrey to define his notion of "oppression"
with greater precision; Genovese (1969) showed some time ago that the
comparative study of the "treatment" of slaves is fraught with conceptual difficulty. We need to know more about the vicissitudes of the Gold
Coast economy in the nineteenth century, but it seems likely on the evidence currently available that the Gold Coast's slaves-like its citizensbenefited in their material conditions from the favorable terms of trade
which characterized the expanding commerce with Europe in the first
half of the nineteenth century (Hopkins I973: I31-33; Wilks I979: 24).
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Larry W. Yarak
If in the same time frame the opportunity for slave assimilation lessened,
as McSheffrey (1983: 364) suggests (with little supporting evidence), it
would clearly be misleading to conclude unambiguously that the slaves'
lot worsened. Second, one might question the apparent logic of McSheffrey's argument, which proceeds from the unexceptionable observation
that with the 1874 British decree abolishing slavery on the coast many
slaves (and pawns) gladly took advantage of this opportunity to liberate
themselves from obligations to their masters. Is it really necessary to posit
an "increasingly oppressive" slavery in order to explain this response?
From the evidence presented here it is clear that as early as the i8zosand no doubt much earlier-Gold Coast slavery was oppressive enough
for slaves to resist their masters' efforts to alter unilaterally the terms of
their relationship or simply to flee bondage when the opportunity presented itself. But then this is no more than one would expect: slavery has
always been resisted by the enslaved; it is only the forms of resistance
(and accommodation) that have changed from one historical setting to
This paperrepresentsa preliminaryassessmentof datagatheredas partof a larger
researchprojectinvestigatingElminasocial historyin the nineteenthand twentieth centuries.An earlierversionwas readat the 1985AfricanStudiesAssociation
meeting held in New Orleans.I wish to thank the membersof the panel, and
especiallySandraGreene,for usefulcriticismandcomment.I am also gratefulto
my colleaguesin the HistoryDepartmentat TexasA&M University,andparticuseminar.Any
larlyto Dale Knobel,who respondedto the paperin a departmental
deficienciesthat remainare,of course,my own.
I The main Dutch fort at Elminalay adjacentto the indigenoustown, known
in the local languageas Edena.The fort was originallyconstructedby the
Portuguese in 1482. In 1637 the Dutch took it by force and occupied it as their
headquarterson the Gold Coast until 1872, when all the Netherlands'Gold
Coast forts were cededto GreatBritain.Foran introductionto the complex
historicalrelationshipbetweenthe Dutchauthoritiesin the fortat Elminaand
the indigenous inhabitants see Feinberg 1969, 1979; Baesjou 1979; and Yarak
Tapoeyerwas the moreinclusiveterm,denotingall personson the coast who
were of mixed descent.The distinctionbetweenvrijburgerand tapoeyerwas
one of law, status, and property:on the one hand, by definitionvrijburgers
had directrecourseto Dutch law at Elmina,while the majorityof tapoeyers
did not; on the otherhand,to achievethe statusof vrijburgera tapoeyerhad
to accumulatesufficientwealththroughtradeto be a personof independent
means.Thus,like the othercommunitiesat Elmina,the Afro-European
was internallydifferentiated.Many tapoeyerswere employedby the Dutch
or by the vrijburgersin subordinatecapacities.For a briefdescriptionof the
variouscommunitiesat Elminain the earlynineteenthcentury,see Yarak1986.
3 In the nineteenthcenturythe Dutchneitherclaimednor exercisedfull "colo2
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Afro-European Slaveowners of Elmina
nial"authorityoverthe indigenousinhabitantsof Elmina;theyreferredto their
establishmentson the WestAfricancoast as their"possessions"(bezittingen).
Yet the Dutch officialson the coast often saw themselvesas "protectors"of
Elmina, even though their ability to protectthe populaceor impose their
will was severelyrestricted.The relationshipwas a complexone, yet it was
colonialrulein Africa.
4 The institutionof pawningwas of greatantiquityon the Gold Coast. It involvedthe handingoverof a personor thing,underspecificregulations,by a
debtorto a creditoras a formof collateralfor the durationof a loan. Though
when it involvedpersonsthe institutionwas open to abuse,particularlyin
the nineteenthcentury,this form of "debtservitude"differedfrom slavery
in several important respects, at least in theory: foreclosure was difficult, the
person pawned could not be sold, and the person was returned to his or her
kin upon liquidation of the debt; see Allott 1966: 150, 154, 170-73; Klein
1981: 152; Rattray 1929: 47-55; Sarbah I904: 82-84; and cf. Patterson 1982:
Nevertheless, the distinctions between slavery and pawnage deserve
much further research.
5 The precise numbers are as yet undetermined, but they cannot have exceeded
three thousand.
6 See Yarak forthcoming, entry for February 12, I832. Cf. Kaplow 1978: 30.
7 Not surprisingly, given Dutch and British racial discrimination, there is some
evidence that by the middle of the century these Afro-Europeans saw themselves as constituting a distinct class with a distinct identity and role in Gold
Coast society, but further consideration of this matter is beyond the scope of
this paper.
8 At least one incident provides direct support for this contention: the aborted
effort on the part of the Dutch authorities to divide the estate of Jacob Ruhle
among his designated heirs in I829; see below, "Master-SlaveRelations."
9 Algemeen Rijksarchief (Dutch National Archives), The Hague (hereafter
ARA), Archief van de Nederlandsche Bezittingen ter Kuste van Guinea
(hereafter NBKG) 982: Notarial Acts of December z9-31,
2-5, I819.
io ARA, NBKG 987: Notarial Act dd. April 7, 1843.
I818, and January
11 ARA, NBKG 350: Elmina Journal, Appendix: Complaint by Carel, Jacob [Jr.]
and Abraham Ruhle dd. Elmina, November 24, I817.
12 ARA, NBKG 983: Notarial Acts dd. March I5, i6, 18-20,
and April 3, 1822.
13 There is today in Elmina a street under this same name that runs next to the
site of the old Ruhle property.
14 ARA, NBKG 984: Notarial Acts dd. September 25 and 29, I829.
I5 ARA, NBKG 984: Notarial Act dd. October 31, 1929.
i6 ARA, NBKG 987: Notarial Acts dd. January 3I and February z, 3, 5, 7, and
10, I844.
17 ARA, NBKG 987: Notarial Acts dd. March 6-8, I845.
18 Half of the estate inventories examined had no slaves.
19 ARA, NBKG 984: Notarial Act dd. February 24, 1826.
zo ARA, NBKG 355: Elmina Journal, entry for March 17, 1827.
zi ARA, NBKG 986: Notarial Act dd. July 5, I834.
E.g., the estate of Jacob van Dijk listed 449/16 ounces of gold in addition to I9
slaves and ii pawns; Simons's estate included no less than 400 ounces of gold
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Larry W. Yarak
ARA, NBKG 982: Notarial Acts dd. December 29-31,
I818, and January 2-5,
ARA, NBKG 984: Notarial Acts dd. September z5 and 29, 1829.
25 ARA, NBKG 984: Notarial Act dd. October 31, 1829.
z6 He was a member of the Elmina king's special advisory council, the besonfo.
ARA, Archief van het Ministerie van Kolonien 1814-49 (hereafterMK) 3962:
Elmina Journal, entry for October 27, i829; ARA, MK 4019: Minutes of the
Colonial Council dd. Elmina, Februaryzo, I849.
27 ARA, MK 4005: Lans to Minister dd. Elmina, January9, I836. This difference
may also reflect some price differential between the coast and the interior.
z8 ARA, NBKG 987: Notarial Acts dd. March 6-8, I845.
29 ARA, NBKG 982: Notarial Acts dd. December 29-31, 1818, and January 2-5,
30 ARA, NBKG 987: Notarial Acts dd. January 31 and February 2, 3, 5, 7, and
31 ARA, NBKG 799: Minutes of Council dd. Elmina, June 24, i8zo.
32 For example, the following were granted permission by the Dutch Council to
construct buildings in that area in 1846: Elizabeth and Betsy Welzing (children of Pieter), Anna Ruhle (granddaughterof Jacob), Manus Ulzen (apparently another tapoeyer-Ulzen was the name of an eighteenth-century Dutch
Director-General), Kwamena Mensa Smith, and Ato "Jan Pot" (the last two
unidentified). ARA, MK 3979: Minutes of Council dd. Elmina, November 24,
33 ARA, MK 3983: Minutes of Council dd. March 23, i820. Jacob Ruhle and
Jan Nieser provided "workmen" to the Asantehene, and the Dutch provided a
carpenter, a bricklayer,and a "stonebreaker,"in addition to providing training
to two Asantes whom the king had sent for this purpose to Elmina.
34 ARA, NBKG 982: Notarial Acts dd. December 29-31, I818, and January 2-5,
35 She was a sister of Willem Huydecoper and widow of Matthys Ruhle, who
was a son of Jacob Ruhle referred to above.
36 ARA, NBKG 800: Council Minutes dd. Elmina, July 23, 1821, which includes
her memo to the Council dd. July I5, i8z1.
37 ARA, NBKG 804: Minutes of Council dd. August z6, i8z6.
38 Cf. the testimony of F. Swanzy on this point, given before the 1842 Select Committee on the West Coast of Africa of the British House of Commons, British
Parliamentary Papers, C. 55I-XI (1842), Minutes of Evidence, 29; Rattray
I929: 41.
39 ARA, NBKG 984: Notarial Act dd. November io, 1829.
40 ARA, NBKG 806: Minutes of Council dd. Elmina, May 13, 1830.
41 ARA, NBKG 984: Notarial Act dd. October i, I829.
42 See also ARA, NBKG 394: van der Eb to Minister dd. Elmina, May zo, I851,
enclosure: "Report on Native Laws and Customs in Dutch Territory on the
Coast of Guinea."
43 ARA, NBKG 987: Notarial Act dd. June 6, I843.
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