Saturday, 13 August 2016

Boy-servants at Elmina Castle

Living at Elmina Castle

The Castle of St. George d'Elmina was home to Dutch officials, soldiers, labourers, and servants from 1637 to 1872. In the eighteenth century, the castle also housed the enslaved men and women - a home to them it was certainly not - in the so-called dungeons.

The senior officials had relatively comfortable and spacious rooms, and the director-general had a multi-room appartment. This was were they organised their lives and spent much of their private time.

Elmina Castle, with view of living quarters of the officials in the high building on the left.

Ditto, looking at living quarters.


Officials and servants

The social-economic status of the senior officials was such, that they could maintain some sort of household, including servants. As far as we can establish these servants were always boys of various ages.

The social position of these boy-servants can best be compared to that of high-valued domestic slaves in the households of the African elite in the town of Elmina, next to the castle. Domestic slaves were often considered to be part of the family, could have lots of freedom of movement, and in some cases were able to work independently.

Prof. Akosua Perbi of the University of Ghana is a specialist in the history of indigenous slavery and wrote a book about it: A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana: From the 15th to the 19th Century.

As Natasha Gray states in her review of the book,
 'Perbi argues that slavery in Ghana was rooted in an African understanding of property rights based on kinship and reciprocity rather than individual ownership. Therefore, although slaves could be bought and sold, "the position of a slave in Ghana was 'that of a person in a state of servitude guarded by rights'" (p. 4). Interestingly, she notes that in precolonial Ghana there were five separate terms for different conditions of servitude: servant, pawn, slave, war captive, and slave under capital punishment (p. 3).'

On the legacy of indigenous slavery after abolition in 1874 Perbi gave a lecture that can be found on YouTube.

The historical evidence supports the hypothesis that the boy-servants can best be described as servants in the context of domestic slavery. This set them apart - literally and as a figure of speech - from the enslaved people that were kept imprisoned in the dungeons and slave camps, awaiting their shipment to the Americas and a life on the plantations.

Director-general Jan Pranger and his boy-servant in his quarters in Elmina Castle by Frans van der Mijn, 1742. Coll. Rijksmuseum.

The Dutch seventeenth-century poet and West India company official Focquenbroch wrote in 1678 about his boy-servant of about twelve years old:
' [Being] so kind, polite, and loyal, that I love the boy with all my Heart, and would (if he were a slave) not hesitate to pay a Pound of Gold for him.'
This confirms the idea that the boy-servant was a dependent and placed in a servile position, but not seen as a slave in the narrower sense of the word.

That they had freedom of movement and were staying with their 'masters', sleeping in a section of his accommodation is confirmed by a reference from the Dutch sources, where a West India Company official described how he, reporting to the rooms of fiscal Jan van Rijk, only found his two boy-servants there.

The personal relationship between European officials and their boy-servants, a relationship of mutual responsibility and care, also makes it plausible that many of these boys accompanied their 'masters' to the Netherlands when they returned. Or, alternatively, as evidence suggests, were sent to the Netherlands by themselves, to serve with family members or others.

In the quest for Presto it can be noted that in 1746-1747 fiscal Huibert van Rijk had his servants in the Castle, among whom the boy Accra Doura. He accompanied Van Rijk to the Netherlands and the town of Weesp in 1750, the town in which Presto would settle fifiteen years later. Also in 1746-1747, Presto was staying at Elmina Castle, purportedly in the service of director-general Jacob de Petersen, whom, we have already hypothesised, may well have been Presto's 'benefactor' and the reason he came to the Netherlands.

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