Ama: a story of the Atlantic slave trade

A novel
Manu Herbstein

About 187,000 words

1775. Thekingdom of Asante has conquered its northern neighbor, Dagbon, and exacted anannual tribute of 500 slaves.

Ama is astory of the eponymous heroine who is caught up in the aftermath of theseevents.

Ama passessuccessively through the hands of the Dagomba, the Asante, the Dutch at Elmina,a British slave captain and Brazilian slave traders before ending up on a sugarestate in the Bahian Recôncavo. The point of view is Ama's throughout; yetwhile it is a consistently African point of view, the universality of thestory's basic premise, that the cruelest oppression cannot erase mankind's loveof liberty, transcends the particularities of geography and period.

The principallocations in which the story unfolds are a small hamlet in the savannah, in whatis now the Northern Region of Ghana, the town of Yendi, the royal palace in thecity of Kumase, Elmina Castle, a slave ship, The Love of Liberty and asugar estate in Bahia, Brazil. 

The plot of Amais simple. The protagonist is captured and eventually transported toBrazil.  Ama adopts various strategies in her struggle against thedeprivation of her liberty, striking a balance between, on the one hand, escapeand resistance and, on the other, accommodation to the realities of the power ofher oppressors.

Ama is theprincipal character and the only one present from beginning to end. She isseventeen when the story starts, a simple country girl. Responding to hardexperience, her character and moral strength develop and she becomes wiser andmore resourceful and sophisticated. Prematurely aged at the end of the story,she has lost her eyesight but none of her spirit.

Othercharacters include Abdulai, leader of slave raiders; Itsho, Ama's lover; Ya NaSaa Ziblim*, King of Dagbon; Koranteng Péte*, Asante conqueror of Dagbon andlater regent in the reign of Osei Kwame; Osei Kwadwo* and Osei Kwame*, fourthand fifth Asante kings; Konadu Yaadom*, Asantehemaa (or 'queen mother'); Esi, apawn in the royal palace; Pieter De Bruyn, governor at Elmina, who takes Ama ashis concubine and teaches her English; Hendrik van Schalkwyk, lecherouschaplain; Augusta, Fanti slave trader; Jensen, Danish chief merchant; RichardBrew*, slave trader at Anomabu; David Williams, captain of The Love of Liberty,William Williams, the captain's nephew, later British consul in Salvador;various British seamen; Butcher, ship's doctor; Nana Esi, slave; Tomba, slavefrom the Upper Guinea Coast, later Ama's husband; Josef, Fanti slave and hisYoruba wife, Wono; Olukoya, Yoruba babalorixa; the Senhor, owner of the sugar estate; the Senhora, his wife; Miranda, their daughter; Father Isaac, Catholic chaplain; and Jesus Vasconcellos, the Senhor's successor. (Asterisks indicatehistorical persons.)

The essentialconflict in this story is between Ama and those who would deprive her and herfellow slaves of their liberty. In a broader sense, it is between the slavesand  the world economic order of the time represented by the shadowycapitalists in remote metropolitan centres who were the ultimate beneficiariesof the slave trade and slavery.

There is a great deal of violence in this story. It is not arbitrary violence.Slaves lived their lives under constant threat of brutality. The crisis which gives thestory its initial impetus is the capture of Ama (still known by her birth name,Nandzi) by a Dagomba raiding party, in the course of which Abdulai, its leader,rapes her. The final climax is the dreadful vengeance which Tomba wreaks uponJesus Vasconcellos for what he has done to his wife.

This novel deals frankly with the role whichAfrican rulers and merchants played in the slave trade;  at the same timeit distinguishes between  the function and nature of slavery in Africa andthe chattel slavery of the Europeans.

Ama finds herself at the receiving end of ideologies of slavery practiced byIslam and Christianity. Her own religious beliefs sustain her and her spirituallife is enriched by new forms of African religious experience which sheencounters in Bahia.

In its depiction not only of the slaves but also of the more humane of theiroppressors,  the novel treats with sympathy the difficult  moral choiceswhich face those who challenge the accepted ideologies of their society andtimes. 

Injustice, theoppression of the weak by the strong, did not vanish with the abolition ofslavery.  It is the similar moral choices which confront us in the modernworld which lend this historical novel its contemporary relevance.

These lastparagraphs might suggest that Ama is a political tract. It is nothing ofthe sort. It is a story of real, warm-blooded people, living out their shortlives in difficult times.