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"No elders were present": commoners and private ownership in Asante, 1807 - 1896

Austin, Gareth (1996) "No elders were present": commoners and private ownership in Asante, 1807 - 1896. Journal of African History, 37 (1). pp. 1-30. ISSN 0021-8537

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Identification Number: 10.1017/S0021853700034770


It has been argued here that the impression, given by most of the existing literature, of near-total state dominance over the economic sources of wealth in the Asante economy during 1807–83 is mistaken. Admittedly, there was a large and often thriving state sector in the export–import trade; the state had a share in the production of marketable goods; chiefs had the largest concentrations of slaves and slave-descendants; and inheritance taxes gave the state a powerful instrument for the appropriation of privately generated wealth. But the accumulation of evidence now suggests that the private sector, too, was a major force in the extra-subsistence economy: an economy which included a lively domestic trade, which has been given too little scholarly attention. It appears that it was possible for ordinary commoners to acquire wealth through both external and internal trade, and through production for both export and domestic markets. The widespread acquisition of slaves by commoners, for incorporation in their households, was both a measure of financial achievement and a critical means for enhancing it in future. Death duties amounted normally to a form of progressive taxation rather than to wholesale expropriation. It is suggested that the private sector is most plausibly seen as comprising a relatively small number of producers and traders prosperous enough to be considered as members of the asikafoxs0254, the wealthy, plus a mass of people supplying export markets on a small unit scale. It seems reasonable to assume that the strong position of commoners within the post-Atlantic slave trade economy of Asante, and their accumulation of slaves and other forms of wealth, involved a relative decline, at least compared to the second half of the eighteenth century, in the chiefs' share of foreign trade and general wealth. Such a shift, and in particular the emergence of small producers and traders as a major element in the export economy, provides support for Hopkins' interpretation of the nineteenth-century commercial transition in West Africa generally. One qualification to Hopkins' analysis is that, while it allowed for the large-scale application of slave labour within the ‘economy of legitimate commerce’ by former exporters of slaves, it did not explicitly envisage the widespread use of small numbers of slaves and pawns by small producers and traders. The shift in the distribution of income had political consequences. The essay argues that it is necessary to revise the argument, put forward by Wilks, about the emergence of a ‘middle-class’ element in the political conflicts of the last years of Asante independence. In particular, the proposition that such a movement developed primarily amongst the members of a monopolistic state trading company is rejected. In any case, it was a mass of commoners, rather than an ‘organized middle class’, that took the decisive role in the uprising that overthrew Mensa Bonsu in 1883. It is suggested that this was the political climax of the ‘adaptive challenge’ presented by the ending of slave exports: a movement of export-producing commoners, poor and rich alike, against the centralizing monarchy's new and punitive measures to raise revenue. The commoners sought not to overthrow chieftaincy but to use its authority to amplify their protests. Finally, it is suggested that the 1883 rising was the start of a pattern of rebellion by export-suppliers, in alliance with chiefs, against what they saw as organized extortion: a pattern that was to recur in the cocoa hold-ups of the 1930s and the National Liberation Movement of the mid-1950s.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 1996 Cambridge University Press
Divisions: LSE
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DT Africa
Date Deposited: 08 Dec 2009 12:45
Last Modified: 20 Jul 2021 00:23

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