West Africa, 1300 – 1800AD

West Africa, 1300 — 1800AD

From the 14th through the 18th century, three smaller political states emerged in the forests along the coast of Africa below the Songhai Empire. The uppermost groups of states were the Gonja or Volta Kingdoms, located around the Volta River and the confluence of the Niger, on what was called the Windward Coast, now Sierra Leone and Liberia. Most of the people in the upper region of the Windward Coast belonged to a common language group, called Gur by linguists. They also held common religious beliefs and a common system of land ownership. They lived in decentralized societies where political power resided in associations of men and women.

Below the Volta lay the Asante Empire in the southeastern geographical area of the contemporary nations of Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and modern Ghana. By the 15th century the Akan peoples, who included the Baule, and Twi-speaking Asante, reached dominance in the central region. Akan culture had a highly evolved political system. One hundred years or more before the rise of democracy in North America, the Asante governed themselves through a constitution and assembly. Commercially the Asante-dominated region straddled the African trade routes that carried ivory, gold and grain. As a result, Europeans called various parts of the region the Ivory Coast, Grain Coast and Gold Coast. The transatlantic slave trade was fed by the emergence of these Volta Kingdoms and the Asante Empire. During the 17th and early 18th centuries African people called from these regions were predominately among those enslaved in the British North American mainland colonies (Boahen 1966).

Just below the Gold Coast lay the Bights of Benin and Biafra. Oral history and findings in archeological excavation attest that Yoruba people have been the dominate group on the west bank of the Niger River as far as their historical memory extends and even further into the past. The 12th century found the Yoruba people beginning to coalesce into a number of territorial city-states of which Ife, Oyo, and Benin dominated. Old loyalties to the clan or lineage were subordinated to allegiance to a king or oni. The Oni was chosen on a rotating basis by the clans. Below him was an elected state hierarchy that depended on broad support from the community. The people were subsistence farmers, artisans, and long distance traders in cloth, kola nuts, palm oil, and copper. Trade and the acquisition of horses were factors in the emergence of Oyo as the dominant political power among the Yoruba states by late 14th and early 15th century (Boahen 1966).

Dahomey, or Benin, created by the Fon ruling dynasty, came to dominance in the 17th century and was a contemporary of the Asante Empire. As early as the 17th century the Oyo kingdom had an unwritten constitution with a system of political checks and balances. Dahomey, located in Southern Nigeria, east of Yorubaland and west of the Niger River also claimed to have obtained kingship from the Yoruba city of Ife. Oyo and Ife not only shared a common cultural history but also shared many other cultural characteristics, such as religious pantheons, patrilineal descent groups, urbanized settlement patterns, and a high level of artistic achievement by artisans, particularly in ivory, wood, brass and bronze sculpture.

Relatively few Yoruba and Fon people, the two principal ethnic groups in the Oyo kingdoms, were enslaved in North America. Most were carried to Santa Domingo (Haiti) and Brazil. During and after the Haitian Revolution, some of the Fon people who were enslaved in Haiti immigrated voluntarily or involuntarily to New Orleans (Hall 1992).

The Ibo people, the third principal group found around the Bight of Biafra in the southeastern part of the region, predominated among those enslaved in the Chesapeake region during the late 17th and early 18th century. Later in the 18th century Africans, whom the Europeans called the “Congos,” i.e. Kongos, and “Angolas,” predominated among those enslaved in Virginia and the Low Country plantations of colonial South Carolina (Curtin, 1969; Morgan 1998:63; Eltis et al 2002). (3)