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Opinions of Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Columnist: Owusu-Ansah, David

Apologizing for Slave Trading

Ghana News Agency report posted on Ghanaweb on 29th November 2006 informed the public of the State dinner that “President John Agyekum Kufuor hosted in honor of the visiting Canadian Governor General and Commander in Chief of Canada, Right Honourable Michaelle Jean.” On that same date, Ghanaweb posted information from a Canadian Press in which Ghanaian officials were reported to have expressed apologies for the national role in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trading. On sensitive topics of this nature, readers’ comments at the Ghanaweb site ranged from agreeing with the NPP government to the ridiculous. Let me take this opportunity to revisit this issue which was addressed some time ago but has been resurrected.

It is interesting to note that sentiments about slavery and the slave trade in the history of the Atlantic is not as academic as the reading of Professor Adu Boahen’s Topics in West African History for exams would make one think. Yes, there was the trade in humans, the Europeans built castles along the coast, and the Europeans “acquired slaves” from the Guinea coast to the New World.

Professor Boahen pointed to the fact that some African rulers supplied prisoners of war to their European trading partners on the coast, but for most Ghanaian students, it was better to think that the Kingdom of Dahomey provided most of the slaves than Akwamu or the kingdom of Asante. But is this topic of slavery not an issue of the past and be forgotten? In a wonderfully research essay, Professor Emmanuel Akyeampong of Harvard University addressed this same question. The article titled “History, Memory, Slave trade and Slavery in Anlo (Ghana)” which was published in the journal Slavery and Abolition, volume 22, Number 1 of December 2002, Dr. Akyeampong observed that while in the Americas (which Canada is a part), Africans of the Diaspora retain their slave history as an important aspect of their identity while those who remained on the African continent prefer to end the discussion. Dr. Akosua Perbi makes it clear in her own work on the History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana that discussion of the institution in the Ghanaian context is very problematic. It is in this context that the debates about the manner our Castles are presented to tourists started in the mid-1990s. Should Castle narrators of the history of the former European establishments tell the story of African participation in the slave acquisition? Should tourist visiting the slave dungeons be guided by lights or should the lights be turned off? It was argued that any mention of African involvement, other then them being victims of greedy European traders, will erase European guilt and undermine the character of Diaspora identities.

I remember the nature of the debate. Professor Kwame Arhin, himself a respected African historian and former Director of the Institute of African Studies was then the chairman of the National Commission on Culture when the conversation became more confrontational. In a Chicago Tribune article, Professor Arhin was quoted as saying that Ghana had the right to present the Castles in a “total” history. As places of trade in gold and of course slaves, these structures were also administrative centers—for Europeans and later for the training of Gold Coast troops, and so on. On the question of apologizing for the trade in slaves, Professor Arhin’s response was one spiced with anger. He referred the interviewer to Akan traditions and agued that when “we see things wrong that our ancestors have done and we want to correct or apologize for, we pour libation.” Since that has been done, there was no need to make any more formal apologies (end of debate!). Certainly, this was not a satisfactory answer but it reflected the frustration engendered by the memory of the human trade across the Atlantic, especially in the age when closer bond between those on the continent and in the Diaspora is being sought.

For others, while this closer relation is not a bad idea, the question that remains to be addressed is about the kind of relationship that needs to be cultivated. I will not go into the debate or the position of the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. We know though that President Kwame Nkrumah’s relations with Dr. W. E. B. DuBois and George Padmore was based not only on agreements on ideological perceptions about colonial rule. There was also that affinity about the common African heritage. Over the years, at the end of the Cold war, and especially during the last days of the South African Apartheid rule, Diaspora African, especially those in the United States of America rededicated their commitment to the continent.

The Rev. Louis Sullivan spear-headed a movement that ultimately contributed to the formation of the African and African-American Association forum at which issues of common interests were discussed. Whether directly an outcome or not, it can be argued that a side products of the “dialogue” between Africans and African-Americans is Ghana’s own Emancipation Day Activities. But pay close attention to this point: that From 17-21 May of the year 1999 Ghana hosted the African/African-American Association summit in Accra, and on 10 August of that same year, Nana Boa Amponsem (Denkyirahene and then President of the Ghana House of Chiefs), made a public and official apology to “Africans and people of African descent for the pre-colonial chiefs and elders’ role in the Trans Atlantic slave trade.” This official apology is inscribed at the Elmina Castle for all to see.

I will not try to speculate on why the Government of Ghana re-apologized to the Canadian Governor General for the role of our ancestors in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Were we only restating a point that we have admitted already? If that is the case, then there are other things that must be done: We should

? Repaint the walls of the Assin-Manso Slave River site and put Black Africans not only as victims of the trade but as participants. Currently, the obvious representations slavers painted on the walls are not representative of the true history.

? What happened to the Slave Route Project? What efforts has the Ministry of Tourism made to encourage Tour Agencies to include this Route as an important educational item?

? Just that we don’t continue to apologize on every single occasion, it will be important that we make one big announcement of our past and slavery to which we can reference ourselves and other in the future. For sure, we are on the right track already with the discussion on the subject of the Right to Return!

David Owusu-Ansah is Professor of History at James Madison University (USA). He is also the author of the Historical Dictionary of Ghana (3rd. Edition, Scarecrow Press, 2005).

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.