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The African Family in World History: The Case of Colonial Asante

Candice Goucher
Washington State University Vancouver


      The increasingly thematic approaches to teaching world history are opening doors to the fuller incorporation of scholarship on the African past.1 This article relates some of the complexities offered by recent scholarship on the African family and suggests their rich potential for world history teaching. In contrast to the vast global expanses of world history, the family reflects the most local of historical experiences. In the domestic realms of family and household, the Asante peoples (in what today is the West African nation state of Ghana) negotiated the changes wrought by larger forces of migration, urbanization, the rise and fall of states and empires, globalization of slavery, industrialization, colonialism, and the spread of religions. Colonial Asante provides an example of how women in particular created continuities across the dynamic institutions of their individual lifetimes.

The Global Setting

      The exploitation of gold sources in West Africa attracted the attention of African states to the north of Asante and provoked Islamic and European merchants who also found the purchase of slaves to be a lucrative and expanding venture through the eighteenth century. Many of the local social and political systems in the so-called Gold Coast were characterized by complex hierarchies, including institutions of slavery. Expanding states like Asante negotiated technology and trade through the sale of war captives who were commonly enslaved and sometimes exported. The slave trade (and subsequently slavery itself) was eventually abolished in West Africa in the course of a century beginning in the early 1800s. For the British and French territories of what today are Ghana and Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire), the imposition of colonial rule also brought an end locally to the legal status of slave, but it would be several generations before the impact of slavery disappeared into the silence of selective forgetting.

      Not until 1896 was Ghana's Asante region formally incorporated into Britain's empire. Resistance to the imposition of colonial rule was mounted; a war was fought and lost in 1900. The following year Asante was declared a Crown Colony. Similarly, French authorities declared their claims on the adjacent territories in 1893 which were slowly expanded northwards. The African resistance to colonial rule was not surprising. The resistance to the French was best characterized by the African leader known as Samori Ture who defeated the heavy artillery of the French several times in the 1880s and 1890s. The Akan people of Ghana have created some of West Africa's most powerful forest states and empires, beginning around the fourteenth century and culminating in the Asante Empire in the late seventeenth century. What colonialism meant to the colonized of the former Asante empire has only recently been the subject of historians' interests. Key to viewing the history of colonialism from the perspective of the African family has been the use of oral traditions.

The Local Story

     One of the pitfalls of teaching about the globalization of slavery and colonial exploitation is fielding the reactions to over-simplistic stories of Africans as victims. This is sometimes best accomplished by a focus on African daily life at the level of family rather than through the political economy of empire. Jean Allman's and Victoria Tashjian's fine book: "I Will Not Eat Stone:" A Women's History of Colonial Asante (2000) recasts the colonial past as the site of constant domestic struggles of men and women to gain advantages from shifting terrains. Especially important were the ways in which women as both producers and reproducers gained agency and empowerment. Probably the most important institution in an Asante woman's life was not the state but the family.

     Central to Akan historical and personal identity was the matrilineal structure of society centered on the abusua (a term which refers to family or matrilineage as well as clan). Matrilineal descent in Akan society indicates the pattern by which Akan men and women marked their place in the continuum of ancestors by reference to the female side of the family. Matrilineages carried no special implications for the distribution of political power which as elsewhere in large-scale states worked in favor of men.

      The Akan concern with fertility and bearing children was a recognition of the importance of the abusua in acquiring individual and community identity. Individuals had recognized rights only through their positions within an abusua. Without the protection afforded to members, they were considered without ancestors and even without sexual identity. The uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in the lack of ancestry and status are best exemplified by the fact that enemies captured by the expanding Akan state became permanent slaves unless they were integrated into an abusua through adoption. During the expansion of the Asante state from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, neither women nor children gained position or power. Some historians have noted that the emphasis on warfare resulted in men gaining status, and the increased numbers of slaves available to perform household tasks generally devalued women's labor and diminished their influence even further.

      Oral traditions illustrate the high status and importance associated with motherhood in matrilineal societies, even those in which women are politically subordinated. Children had relatively few rights since knowledge and power that were considered to be the basis of rights were thought to accumulate with age. Still, children were accorded respect because they were believed to be the reincarnation of ancestors. Children reflected spiritual harmony, ideals of individual beauty, and the well-being of the family order.

      The extent to which such a unit as the household-family was mediated by the Akan state or local political authority varied according to the status of its members. Typically, interference in the creation of marriage alliances allowed a patriarchy to control the labor of women and their children and thus the accumulation of any household surplus. Even when wealth was inherited through the female line, most women were excluded from most political offices. Exceptions were made for elite Akan women who were beyond their childbearing years. The female office of queen mother was secondary to that of the king, but she was omnipresent and the final arbiter in the ascension of the new head of state. Women acted as priestesses and even diplomats who made significant contributions to statecraft and foreign policy.

World History and the Individual African

      My own research on the family history of a remarkable enslaved woman called Nienna in colonial Asante has illustrated something of the complexity of identity and status within the family then and ever since.2 Slaves in Asante were an inherited class, mostly originating through wars of conquest. The adoption of female slaves by an abusua could be undertaken in a variety of ways. Nienna's story illustrates the manner in which marriage by an inherited slave following the death of her husband helped legitimize the subsequent descendants' belonging to an abusua (in this case, Atoase). Nienna was born into the royal family of Bona in territory claimed by French authorities in the final decade(s) of slavery. She was captured as a slave sometime around the 1880s.

      The family's story relates that the young Nienna was walking in the town in front of her guardian when she was kidnapped and taken to Sunyani, a town across the border in the Gold Coast. As a member of the Bona royal household, she would not often have been seen outside the royal compound. The veil she was wearing that day was inherited by her great grandson Kwaku Mensah (b.1931), who first learned of his Bona roots in his forties when he was given the veil and told by his mother that "this was the veil that your grandmother wore when they captured her in the Samori wars." According to Kwaku's mother, Nienna's guardian was summarily executed because of his failure to save her from capture. Brought back to the town of Sunyani in Asante territory, Nienna was married to Osei Yaw with whom she had four children. When Osei Yaw died, Nienna was inherited by a nephew, Kwadwo Mpra, who elected to marry her and with whom she bore four more children including Kwaku Mensah's mother Akua Broneh (c.1909-1975). The Chief of Bona had earlier sent delegations to Sunyani on two occasions in 1974 asking to meet the Cote d'Ivoire family of Akua Broneh, Nienna's daughter and Kwaku's mother.

      While there is no record of travel or direct contact between the Sunyani (in Asante, situated in British territory) descendants of Nienna and their Ivory Coast relatives, some communication must have taken place for the threads of relation to remain unbroken. Unlike the enslaved Africans transported across the vast Atlantic, the captives of the Asante state played a larger role in maintaining transcolonial and now transnational connections. Yet the problem of their invisibility in the state traditions continues to plague the recasting of local history into more global narratives of colonialism.

     Since family traditions are most carefully handed down as part of the intangible inheritance of the matrilineality, it is not surprising that Kwaku Mensah learned about his maternal grandmother's slave status later in his adult life. It is likely that Nienna's marriage to her husband's nephew protected not only her own story but also the inheritance of the family. Importantly, there were no daughters in the family and so it was perceived to be crucial to incorporate the slave Nienna as an abusua member. Later colonial court records indicate that by the 1930s, a number of widows and their children made successful claims to inherit a share of property including cocoa farms. The native courts, established in 1924, became potential advocates of women's rights while serving the interests of the colony. Incidental to the state's concerns were the gains in the security of their wealth and status made by Asante women " even former slaves. Thus the struggle to maintain economic independence characterized even the life of a slave as well as the women who followed in her abusua. Neither colonial rule nor capitalism was a certain outcome of the British presence at the turn of the century.

Resources for Teaching about the African Family

     The monograph on African history most frequently mentioned in World History circles is Donald Wright's The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (1997). Wright's book presents a regionally focused study of the Mandinka kingdom of Niumi and considers the gradual incorporation of the kingdom into the larger global economic system as viewed through the lens of oral traditions and written sources. As powerful as this volume can be for incorporating Africa into the world history classroom, its focus on political and economic history lacks a gendered perspective. For the intersection of gender, African history, and world history; several other resources (including Allman's and Tashjian's book mentioned earlier) are extremely useful.

      Patricia Romero's edited collection Life Histories of African Women contains the life histories of seven African women in a slim and highly readable volume. The women's lives reflect a great variety of personal struggles and domestic negotiations in the context of global forces. Especially interesting for classroom use is the spectrum of ways in which the reader "hears" the historical voices of African women " from their own transcribed words to the interpretations and analysis of scholars. Most of the women lived in the twentieth century; but one, Akyaawa Yikwan, an Asante queen mother, lived in the nineteenth century and is known through both written documents and oral traditions.

      An excellent view of the dynamics of the mid-twentieth century colonial family in Ghana is gained from the immensely popular film throughout English-speaking Africa, Love Brewed in the African Pot (1981). The film was Kwaw P. Ansah's first feature-length film, an entertaining combination of satire, comedy, and melodrama that turned an African love story into an exploration of the tensions within the African colonial family as it was undergoing dramatic change. The clash between local traditions and British influence in colonial Ghana is presented in the choice of a family's educated daughter to marry an uneducated automobile mechanic. Not only did "love collide with social class," but the inner family decisions reflected the changing context of colonialism and a modern economy that promoted the individual's interests over the collective interests of the abusua.

      The plot of Love Brewed was also inspired by the rise of a middle-class culture of educated elites whom the director felt had betrayed their heritage. The film views the intersection of gender and class issues against the backdrop of a rapidly changing landscape of oppression. The film's title image of a pot was a sly reference to a Hollywood film Sanders of the River (1935)3 about colonial West Africa, in which stereotypical and racist images of Africans appeared in the form of cannibals around a cauldron. In the storyline of Love Brewed, the main character Aba Appiah, born to the "high life," falls in love with Joe Quansah, son of a fisherman. Her father is retired colonial civil servant Kofi Appiah, himself a fisherman's son. He has other hopes for his daughter and accepts the approach by a prominent family's lawyer son whose advances Aba rejects with calamitous results. The predictable conflict does yield unexpected consequences for the young couple, but above all it illustrates what historians are only now beginning to realize " that the family itself was the site of the most significant decisions about recasting the Asante in the modern world and holds the key for understanding the deepest meanings of the colonial experience. Ironically, the film that won awards on three continents (Burkina Faso, France, and India) was financed privately using Mr. Ansah's father-in-law's house as collateral. The film will soon be available on DVD from Mr. Ansah through TV Africa in Accra.


     A Ghanaian proverb reminds us that "ancient things remain in the ears." States have sought to regulate both the productive and reproductive roles of women. In the world of colonial Asante, the role of the state cannot be understood without also understanding its attempts to subvert local practices through colonial laws and policy and through the native courts . Like other states, these structures tried to extend their control to the intimate domain of sexuality, social reproduction, and economic production at the core of family life. In turn, individual men and women negotiated their positions through myriad complex decisions at the most local and intimate of locations: the family and domestic household. Aiming the thematic focus of world history on the level of family and household is a reminder of the continuing roles of human agency in determining family and household, even amidst the global realities of the post-colonial world. Individual negotiations combined with the dramatically changing material conditions of the modern world to contribute to transforming both Africa's landscape and the shape of world history.


Jean Allman and Victoria Tashjian, "I Will Not Eat Stone:" A Women's History of Colonial Asante (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann: 2000)

Candice L.Goucher, Charles A. LeGuin, and Linda A. Walton, In the Balance: Themes in Global History (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

Candice Goucher and Linda Walton, World History: Thematic Paths from Past to Present (London: Routledge, 2007) Forthcoming.

Christine Oppong, Female and Male in West Africa (Harper Collins, 1983).

Jonathan T. Reynolds and Erik Gilbert Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present (Prentice Hall, 2004).

Claire Robertson, Sharing the Same Bowl: A Socioeconomic History of Women and Class in Accra, Ghana (London: 1984).

Patricia Romero, ed., Life Histories of African Women (London: Ashfield Press, 1988).

Donald Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2004).

Internet Resources

Bridging World History (Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting) can be accessed at See especially Unit 13 "Family and Household" and use the World History Traveler interactivity features to explore the thematic pathway topics of "African Colonialism" and "Slavery."

Biographical Note: Candice Goucher is Professor of History at Washington State University, Vancouver (USA). She is co-lead scholar with Linda Walton on the multimedia project Bridging World History and co-author of World History: Journeys From Past to Present,  forthcoming from Routledge (London: 2007).



1 The thematic approach is most fully embraced in the co-authored volume (with Dr. Linda Walton) World History: Thematic Paths (London: Routledge, Forthcoming 2008); Chapter 5 examines the theme of family and household in world history. The volume emphasizes the fuller integration of Africa, Asia, and the Americas into a world history narrative. The same authors (Goucher and Walton) were lead scholars on the Bridging World History multimedia project (see Unit 13 Family and Household).

2 Unpublished interviews with Kwaku Mensah, Portland, Oregon, January 26, 2007 and February 7, 2007.

3 Zoltan Korda's film was part of a series of films that explored the colonial experience. The film views colonial rule through the eyes of a patriarchal system, in which the District Officer is a "father" and Africans are "children." It starred Paul Robeson, who later disowned the film after scenes of cannibalism were edited into the film's dramatically revised script. Jomo Kenyatta (the future president of Kenya) appears as an extra.






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