The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) / Edition 1

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Overview

Penningroth uncovers an extensive informal economy of property ownership among slaves during the antebellum and post emancipation periods, connecting slaves' economic activity with their social relationships and family and community life. Includes a comparative analysis of slavery and slave property ownership along the Gold Coast in West Africa.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Provides a provocative analysis of African-American property. . . . Breaks new ground and enlivens old debates. . . . Will require historians to rethink their assumptions about the social and economic history of the South and African Americans in the nineteenth century."
Georgia Historical Quarterly

"An important new look at the economic framework of slavery and the transition to freedom."

Historian

What did it mean, Penningroth asks, for people who were property to have property? The answers to this deceptively simple question utterly transform our understanding of the meaning of property in the South, the history of family and community in slavery, and the centrality of African history to American history.(Walter Johnson, New York University, author of Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market)

The Claims of Kinfolk makes a fine, original contribution to comparative nineteenth-century African American history. I'm particularly grateful for Penningroth's economic analysis of slave property in materia as well as cultural and personal terms. He opens up our narrow assumptions about the lives of enslaved and emancipated people, in both the New and Old Worlds. (Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University author of Southern History across the Color Line)

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Dylan C. Penningroth is associate professor of history at Northwestern University. In 2012 he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.

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Read an Excerpt

The Claims of Kinfolk

African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South
By Dylan C. Penningroth

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2003 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2797-5


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. 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 many different ways, and, in practice, the kin incorporation commonly associated with slavery was not automatic. Some slaves became assimilated in their own lifetimes, while for others assimilation came only to their children or grandchildren, and many seemed destined to remain outsiders forever. During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, African states expelled millions of slaves across the Atlantic and Sahara, rather than absorb them. Pompey Bacon was descended from one of those kinless outsiders. Millions of other slaves stayed in Africa and were incorporated into kin groups very slowly, or not at all.

Slavery in Africa knit together claims of ownership with claims of kinship, two of the most mundane yet pervasive realities of everyday life. And though colonialism and independence mostly stamped out slavery, they did not unravel the knot of kinship and property that slavery depended on. Over the past 150 years, people have used a variety of processes to make their claims, including both the formal laws associated with Europeans and the "customary" processes associated with "tribes" and lineage groups. Today, though slavery is gone, rights to resources are still bound up with social relationships, especially relations of kinship. Indeed, in Ghana today, "slave origins" are still used to exclude certain people from family property and other kin-based rights. Such evidence suggests that, if we want to know what slavery and emancipation meant in Africa, the answers may not lie in waves of mass migration or national emergencies but in the small-scale negotiations that went on every day within ordinary households and communities.

This chapter plumbs those small-scale negotiations to investigate emancipation in southern Ghana: how it affected the meaning of property, how it created new definitions for slavery and buried old ones, and how it redefined what it meant to be one of the family. It focuses on cases in the colonial courts (now held in Accra at the National Archives of Ghana) from the 1860s through the 1920s, cases that pitted Akan people trying to make their way out of slavery against the Akan families who owned them. In their testimony about disputed inheritances, trespass, and other property "wrongs," Fantes (an Akan group) revealed a whole landscape of assumptions about property, slavery, and family-a landscape that was rumbling beneath their feet even as they spoke. Fantes thought of slaves simultaneously as economic assets and as junior kin-inferior members of the family. For that reason, the official ending of slavery in 1874 touched off negotiations and even infighting within nearly every household in the country, activity that often centered on property.

Why include the story of Gold Coast emancipation in a book that is mainly about African Americans? After all, the Gold Coast had a very different economy, cultural background, and political structure from Alabama or Georgia. One reason is that the Gold Coast and the American South faced remarkably similar circumstances at about the same time. Both regions had age-old traditions of slavery, which ended only when an outside power came in. Both faced a new regime of formal law, permeated with British legal traditions and administered by men who were outsiders to the region. Never in his life did the judicial assessor at the Cape Coast High Court meet a Southern Claims Commissioner, but both men shared many basic assumptions about property, family, and the role of law in society. Both men, moreover, were part of massive efforts during the mid-1800s to remake the ideas and legal systems of societies they viewed as backward and primitive. From their first days on the job, the two men would have confronted people who thought about property less in terms of individual, exclusive ownership than in terms of social relationships. While formal institutions and law carried weight in these postemancipation struggles, they did so in ways that were decisively shaped by informal understandings and ongoing negotiations. Thus, as ex-slaves sought to widen their claims of ownership, as their old masters scrambled to shore up their traditional powers, and as federal and British colonial officials tried to extend the reach of formal institutions, everyone had to adjust their conceptions of what property was and what slavery had been, and what it had meant to be one of the family.

The second reason for including Gold Coast in this book is to look outside the assumptions and interpretive frameworks of American history. What happened in Africa in these years did not make much difference in the lives of black southerners; many parts of African cultures lived on in the 1870s in the Americas, but those carryovers had arrived at least a hundred years earlier. Instead of suggesting cultural "survivals," beginning our story here, during the "slow death" of slavery in Africa, makes clear the perspectives on family, community, and property that frame this book as a whole. As paradoxical as it seems in the American context, instead of walking away from the institutions that had given force to their bondage-family, property, and tradition-ex-slaves tried to participate more fully in them, and thus reshape those institutions in their own interests. The ending of slavery in Fante helped transform both kinship and property because Akan slavery was rooted in the idea of claiming kin as property.

The towns of Cape Coast and Elmina sat on the southward-facing Atlantic coast of West Africa, in what is now Ghana. Most residents of these towns spoke Fante, one of the Akan languages, and had long-standing cultural and political ties to the rich and powerful empire of Asante, just to the north. In those days, a person coming from offshore would see wide, bright beaches ribboned before a low treeline. If it was near dawn, there would be dozens of long, narrow fishing boats slicing through the heavy surf, each with a crew of paddlers, tools, nets, and its sides painted with the symbols of its asafo company. Inland from the "shrubby" lowlands near the coastal towns, the land turned to forest, dotted with the reddish upturned soil of small farms. Beginning in 1481, the Fante towns also carried on a thriving trade with Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British commercial firms. Like so many nations along the coast of West Africa, the Fante permitted these European firms to build a string of stone forts, or "castles," along the shore. These forts encouraged and protected the business interests of both the Fante and the Europeans; they turned this region of fishing villages into a vital hub for global commerce. For more than four hundred years, the Fante acted as cultural and commercial brokers between their European trading partners on the coast and their sometime allies, the Asante.

The Fante region was a mixing bowl in the 1800s; its people came from many different backgrounds, spoke different languages, and swore allegiance to different sovereigns. Of the 15,000 people who lived in Elmina in 1830, most were free citizens of the Fante states and their slaves, but there was also an Asante community of about a thousand, led by a diplomatic "resident" who was appointed from Kumase, the capital of Asante. City streets thronged with Ga and Ewe people from towns farther east, with Jamaicans, Krus from Liberia, and various Muslim peoples, who the British ignorantly lumped together under the catch-all term "Hausas." A tiny group of white people and people of mixed African and European descent staffed the government buildings and ran businesses in the towns. During Britain's 1873-74 war against the Asante, the Cape Coast fort, only a few miles down the beach from Elmina, housed white British soldiers on its middle floor and black West Indian soldiers below. Missionaries from Switzerland and England began building Christian churches and schools in the 1830s and occasionally got themselves tangled up in quasi-diplomatic mediation between the Asante, the Fante, and the Europeans. Ambitious Fante merchants began sending children to the missionary schools, and by the 1860s a distinct and visible Akan group emerged: western-educated, employed in a burgeoning colonial economy, and intensely connected to the culture and politics of Fante.

Slavery played an important role in the economy of the Fante and Asante regions. Like Natchez, Charleston, and Richmond, these coastal towns of Cape Coast and Elmina contained wealthy groups and many slaves, but the grandees of the Fante region earned their riches as market brokers rather than as plantation owners. In the 1700s the Atlantic slave trade poured incredible wealth through Fante and helped turn Asante into the famous "kingdom of gold" we know today. After Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807, the towns switched to trading raw and manufactured goods such as gold, cloth, and, later, palm oil. The new law said nothing about slavery itself, and so until the late 1800s, much of the new, so-called legitimate commerce among the coastal states, Asante, and the northern states was carried on the heads and shoulders of slave porters. Although in the 1810s and 1820s some Afro-Europeans tried to start large-scale coffee and cotton plantations with as many as two hundred slaves, the Fante region never became a plantation slave society.

Still, slaves and slavery affected nearly every part of Fante society. It is likely that slaves made up a hefty share of the region's population of about 500,000 during the early 1800s, though a much smaller proportion than those of the Caribbean, Brazil, and the Low Country United States. If the experience of its neighbor, Asante, is any indication, the proportion of slaves in the coastal region's population probably swelled between 1810 and 1820. It was in those years that Britain began enforcing a ban on slave trading in the Atlantic, cutting off the stream of slaves out of West Africa.

Instead of working in cotton fields for overseers, Gold Coast slaves were farmers, fishermen, and artisans; others worked as "professional canoemen and carriers, brokers or middlemen, including gold-takers, itinerant traders or peddlers and 'servants' in the European castles and forts." Most slaves in Fante and Asante lived in small units at a family farm or urban business. As in many other regions of precolonial Africa, large numbers of Fante and Asante people from different social classes had slaves. Nobles and commoners, women and men, even slaves relied on slaves to do many different kinds of work. It was not unusual for free men to marry enslaved women, partly because the men could control them and their labor much more than they could control freeborn wives, whose families could protect them. It is likely that free women also benefited from such marriages, because the labor of enslaved "junior wives" released many free wives from working in fields and house, and enabled some free wives to set up as traders. Slaves were part of life for a wide range of people.

Like slaves, property in Fante was enmeshed in networks of social ties. Testimony in cases from the colonial courts suggests that by the mid-1800s, most property in Fante, including slaves, was subject to claims of ownership from many different people. Property could belong either to individuals, to the state, or to lineages. Like black American farmers in the 1900s who doggedly fought to keep "heirs' property" in the family, these lineages could block the sale of land that they considered family property, and anyone who wanted to sell or grant rights usually found it prudent to consult with at least someone from the lineage that owned the land. Even the putative owners of land often did not have an unencumbered right to dispose of it. In one case, a landowner who had allowed a woman to live on his land "sent and asked" her to let another person live on it. Even though the land was his and the woman was merely an occupant at his discretion, she "refused and said she would wait till she was advised by her relations." People tended to be careful about handling land because the right to be consulted was itself an indication of ownership, and some land cases hinged on whether settlers had consulted the correct people. Being a chief or lineage head did not lessen the need to take account of multiple claims on property. For example, one group of people went to court to block the head of their lineage from selling land because it was "family land." "By the custom of the country," they argued in court, "it was necessary to let the family know of it." This family did not necessarily frown on selling the land. Property was not owned communally, and land sales were not unknown in precolonial Gold Coast. Rather, the issue at stake was the family's right to be consulted before any decision was made about its property. Even a family member's ability to give seemingly outright gifts was contingent on his satisfying various competing claims, and the gifts could be changed or even taken back later if some relatives insisted that they should have been consulted and were not. An outsider's perspective is instructive: a Jamaican immigrant who married a woman from Cape Coast found to his chagrin that he did not have exclusive rights over his own house and farm. His mother-in-law claimed it, and, he complained to the court, "it seems as though on that account every member of her family thinks he may do what he likes on the land."

Continues...


Excerpted from The Claims of Kinfolk by Dylan C. Penningroth Copyright © 2003 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Kinship and the Slaves' Economy from Slavery to Freedom 1
Ch. 1 One of the Family? Abolition and Social Claims to Property in the Gold Coast, West Africa, 1868-1930 13
Ch. 2 Slavery's Other Economy 45
Ch. 3 Family and Property in Southern Slavery 79
Ch. 4 In and Out of Court 111
Ch. 5 Remaking Property 131
Ch. 6 Remaking Kinship and Community 163
Conclusion 187
Notes 193
Bibliography 271
Acknowledgments 293
Index 297
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