Randy J. Sparks takes his title, and one of his book’s two epigraphs, from comments made by Thomas Melville, who was the principal British representative on the west coast — also known as the Gold Coast — of Africa from 1751 until his death in 1756. Referring to an unnamed worker, presumably white, Melville said, “He is a good workman and does very well to repair the forts, but is not fit to go where the Negroes are Masters.” What Melville meant was that in this part of Africa, what is now Ghana, the power of the native African hierarchy was so strong that only whites capable of negotiating with it were competent to be posted there.

The middle of the 18th century was the height of the slave trade, and a coastal settlement known as Annamaboe — now called Anomabu — was at its very epicenter. Few people outside Africa are likely to have heard of it today, but Sparks makes a persuasive case that in its day Annamaboe was “one of the hubs of Atlantic commerce, comparable in size to its Atlantic sister ports Charleston, South Carolina, and Newport, Rhode Island.” He says that its “capable and crafty merchants relied on the exportation of maize and slaves and the importation of European goods to build a wealthy, independent and powerful commercial center.”

It has long been known that some African tribal chieftains and their underlings collaborated with the slave traders, who were chiefly English, French, Dutch and North American, but the assumption has been that they did so for what might be called essentially negative reasons, such as punishing rival tribes or currying favor with whites. With his detailed account of the evolution and eventual dominance of Annamaboe, Sparks turns that assumption on its head. He leaves no doubt that, at least at certain locations on the Gold Coast, native Africans were not merely complicit in the trade, but were active, enthusiastic and decidedly voluntary participants. In particular through his portrait of John Corrantee, “a military commander, a skillful political leader, and a successful trader and diplomat,” Sparks leaves no doubt as to the validity of this argument.

Corrantee, whose name “also appears as Currantee, Corrantrin, Corrantryn, Koranting, and Kurantsi in various European sources, and [whose] African name was Eno Baisee (Ano Bassi) Kurentsi,” was the “caboceer” of the Fante. A caboceer was an “official or chief who served as a political leader, magistrate, and military leader” of the Fante, a Gold Coast ethnic group that for some reason Sparks never fully characterizes but that has been prominent in Africa for centuries. Its chief rival during this period was the Asante people, now known as Ashanti, and many of the slaves shipped out from Annamaboe were Asante captured in warfare.

Corrantee was caboceer at Annamaboe from about 1740 until his death about a quarter-century later, and by any standard he led a remarkable life. Sparks is not exactly a comic writer — he is a professor of history at Tulane University — but his accounts of how Corrantee hornswoggled the allegedly superior white traders and sailors are singularly amusing. A Dutch official “compared Corrantee to Nanni . . . the spider who figures so prominently in trickster tales from the region,” and Sparks agrees, writing that “Corrantee the spider wove a large and complex web designed to ensnare his many rivals and opponents.” Later he writes:

’Where the Negroes Are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade’ by Randy J. Sparks (Harvard Univ.)

“Corrantee’s skillful diplomacy kept both the British and French ensnared in his webs throughout his long life, and he manipulated the European presence on the coast to build his own power base in Annamaboe. Through his skillful diplomacy and military prowess, he played a major role in securing Annamaboe’s place as the primary state in the Fante confederacy and as the major slave-trading depot on the Gold Coast. As historian David Northrup has observed, ‘African slave traders are usually cast in the role of victims . . . naive persons caught up in the vicious machinery of a larger economy they could not begin to comprehend,’ a view that badly misrepresents men like Corrantee. . . . As accomplished international merchants, local rulers, and diplomats, Corrantee and his fellow caboceers should occupy a central place in the historiography of the slave trade. These African merchants were as fully engaged in the Atlantic economy as their European counterparts . . . and deeply engaged in trading networks that extended deep into the African continent and across the Atlantic.”

Corrantee’s British counterpart was Richard Brew (he actually was Irish but worked for the Royal African Company and its successor, the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa), “one of the very few British merchants who settled permanently on the Gold Coast” and who married Corrantee’s daughter. He too was a tough trader and negotiator, but he had an extensive library, read “the most current newspapers and periodicals,” and was able to deal with Corrantee and other Fante leaders with skill and subtlety. Unlike Corrantee, who seems to have viewed the slave trade in purely commercial terms and to have had no moral reservations about it, Brew had at least a glimmer of conscience, writing in 1770: “I am a friend to Liberty and . . . I Mortally hate logs & Chains, tho I live in the Midst of Slaves & Slavery.”

It was nearly four decades after that when Britain finally abolished the slave trade, which did more than anything else to end Annamaboe’s golden age. “The British abolition of the slave trade did not by any means end the traffic,” Sparks writes, “but it did end the system as it existed in the eighteenth century and particularly at its forts on the Gold Coast. Built to protect the slave trade, the forts now became enforcers of the ban against it, and the economies of Cape Coast, Annamaboe, and the other towns surrounding those forts simply collapsed. . . . Understandably, none of this made much sense to the Africans engaged in the slave trade, who were baffled at the sudden about-face. The slave trade might have been outlawed by the British, but not in Africa.”

Though other historians have been working in this direction in recent years, “Where the Negroes Are Masters” is a pathfinding work that surely will have great influence on our understanding of “the largest forced migration in history.” Sparks is a diligent researcher who shows the many ways in which the Fante leadership entrenched its position in the trade. These included sanctioning “country marriages” between “Englishmen and other Europeans” and “African or mulatto women”; sending the sons of prominent leaders to be educated in London or Paris, not merely to improve their skills at dealing with the foreigners but to act as informants or, if you will, spies; and engaging in highly formalized meetings with the British and others in which disagreements were ironed out between equals.

Harvard University Press clearly is offering “Where the Negroes Are Masters” to the trade as opposed to an academic readership, but it could have bent over a bit more to help out the general reader. The apparent assumption that the Fante are common knowledge is incorrect; they should have been explained more clearly than they ever are. There is some unnecessary and irritating repetition: The tale of an African “prince” with which the book opens is repeated, almost verbatim, later on, and “country marriage” is defined twice, again almost verbatim. More careful editing could and should have corrected these shortcomings in what is otherwise an interesting and important book.


An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade

By Randy J. Sparks

Harvard Univ. 309 pp. $29.95