Sexuality and prostitution among the Akan of the Gold Coast, c. 1650-1950

Sexuality and prostitution among the Akan of the Gold Coast, c. 1650-1950

Emmanuel Akyeampong

Obi mfi bea akyi ntu ne ram

(No one can pull the loin-cloth off a woman without her knowledge)(1)

Prostitution in Africa has been presented as a capitalist, often urban, phenomenon. It portrays the labour opportunities (or lack thereof) that women face in towns, their struggle for individual autonomy and accumulation of wealth, and the significant roles that they play in the social reproduction of male wage labour.(2) Existing studies assume that urbanization promotes the anonymity considered necessary for prostitution, and that urbanization and rapid social change were themselves products of colonialism. Urbanization, industrialization and proletarianization thus provide the socio-economic setting for prostitution.

An article that explores prostitution and the politics of sex in the Gold Coast from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries within the broader framework of gender and power relations presents a picture that contrasts with those of available studies. It underscores the salient fact that urbanization and urbanism pre-dated colonial rule in the Gold Coast. The historical record also points to the occurrence of `prostitution’ in rural, face-to-face communities in the Gold Coast, thus revealing intriguing links between sexuality, political and moral economy. These issues are examined in this article within the broader framework of gender and power relations.

It is striking that early accounts of prostitution in the Gold Coast emphasize its presence among the south-western Akan of the Gold and Ivory Coasts. Although the arguments presented here have wider implications for the southern Gold Coast, the Akan serve as a specific case study.(3) For the purposes of this article, prostitution is defined as the commodification of casual sex. This avoids the imposition of a rigid framework upon the complex gender relations of the southern Gold Coast.(4) It also enables us to hear the voices of the protagonists as they vied to construct and contest sexuality, prostitution, avenues of accumulation and social identity.

A distinguishing feature of prostitution in the Gold Coast is the relative absence of male pimps.(5) Mention can be made of male intermediaries like the `pilot boys’ of Sekondi-Takoradi in the 1940s, but they were more like `brokers’ who brought potential clients to prostitutes for a commission.(6) Their activities peaked during World War II with the presence of foreign sailors and soldiers. But the pilot boys lacked the control that characterizes the relationship between pimps and prostitutes.(7) Instead, prostitutes in the Gold Coast sometimes formed informal associations for mutual support; moreover, they controlled their sexuality and their earnings. Therein lies one important difference between prostitutes and what I refer to as the `public women’ of the pre-colonial Gold Coast. Public women were often female slaves acquired by the political elite of Akan villages and towns, and compelled to provide sexual services for the local bachelors. Their institutionalized role — indeed, their very existence — sheds important light on how perceptions of sexuality informed gender relations. Examining public women alongside prostitutes facilitates a deeper understanding of the permutations of gender relations within the changing political context of the pre-colonial and colonial periods. The apparent disappearance of public women from the late nineteenth century is an important part of the puzzle. Did colonialism exterminate this institution? Or did it just mutate into a more `acceptable’ or less recognizable form? Furthermore, the commodification of casual sex, especially in colonial towns, and the pursuit of wealth by single women, expanded received notions of sexuality and assailed the cultural norms that underpinned gender relations. Thus the implications for marriage must also be considered.



European residents and travellers among the south-west Akan groups of the Esuma, Nzima, Evalue and Ahanta between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries documented the existence of prostitution. Referred to as `whores’ or `prostitutes’, some of these women were, more accurately, conscripted public women coerced into what was definitely a social institution designed to alleviate sexual pressures among unmarried young men. Indeed, Adam Jones has wondered if this was not `institutionalized rape’, and has used `whores’ and `prostitutes’ cautiously in referring to them.(8)

Our main sources on the public women of the pre-colonial era are Olfert Dapper (1668), Willem Bosman (1702), and Jean Godot (1704).(9) Their descriptions are set out in detail, as their accounts are crucial to the analysis of sexuality and political economy. Dapper’s comments related to Axim in the 1660s:

Although the Blacks along this coast and in the interior marry as many

wives as they can maintain, it is customary in Atzijn [Axim] and all the

surrounding areas, as far as the Quaqua Coast, for every village to maintain

two or three whores, whom they call Abrakrees. They are initiated and

confirmed for the conduct of this work by their Kabaseros or headmen

in the presence of a large crowd of people, in the following manner. First

they place these whores, who are certain purchased slaves, with many

foolish and ridiculous ceremonies upon a straw mat and display them.

Then one of the oldest among them, standing up, takes a young hen,

opens its beak with a knife and lets a few drops of blood drip on her

head, shoulders and arms. At the same time, she utters upon it terrible

adjurations, saying that [she?] shall die unless she accept as lover for

three of four kakraven (worth two or three stuivers), notwithstanding the

applicants be of rich means; and this without excluding their own blood

relatives. Everything she gains in this way she must hand to the Kabasero,

and in return she enjoys the liberty of being allowed to take any food,

whether it stands in someone’s house or in the market, for her sustenance,

and nobody may prevent her from doing so, upon a fixed penalty. When

this has happened, one person from the crowd is sent to one side with

her and, upon their return, testifies that she has been found to be not a

man but a woman. Then her companion, namely the other Abrakree or

whore, takes her home; she is washed, and a clean bed-sheet is wrapped

around her. She then sits down on the mat, a bracelet of beads is put on

her arm, and her shoulders, arms and breast are painted with lime or

chalk. Finally this Abrakree is put on a stool and carried by two young

men on their shoulders; they run into the village with much cheering by

those following them, and they greatly enjoy themselves dancing and

drinking palm or bordon wine. On eight consecutive days thereafter she

goes to sit at her appointed place, where all passers-by must give her two

or three kakraven.(10)

It is noteworthy that even the nominal remuneration of the abrakree went to the chief. The institution did not promote the accumulation of wealth through the sale of sex; it represented a public service. However, these public women enjoyed the freedom to take goods or food from homes or the market-place without fear of punishment.

Bosman’s description of public women in Axim, almost four decades later, confirmed Dapper’s earlier account, despite some differences in detail:

When the Mancevos find they want a common whore, they go and petition

the Caboceroes that they will please graciously to buy one for the publick:

upon which they buy a beautiful female slave, or else the Mancevos buy

one themselves. The woman no matter by whom she was bought, is

brought to the publick market-place, accompanied by another already

experienced in that trade, in order to instruct her how she should deport

herself for the future: which being perfectly accomplished, the Novice is

smeared all over with earth, and several offerings offered in order that

she may be happy in her future station and earn much Money. This over,

a little Boy, yet immature for love affairs, makes a feint or representation

of lying with her before all the people both young and old; by which `tis

hinted to her that from this time forwards, she is obliged to receive all

persons indistinguishable who offer themselves to her, not excepting little

boys. Then a little out of the way, a hut is built for her; in which she is

obliged to confine herself for eight or ten days, and lye with every man

who comes thither: After which, she obtains the Honourable name of

Abelecre or Abelecre, signifying a common or public whore; and she has a

dwelling place assigned her near one of her Masters, or in a separated

part of the Village, she being for the remainder of her life obliged to

refuse no man the use of her Body; though he offers never so small a


Bosman added the qualifying information that the Akan `countries of Commany [Komenda], Elmina, Fetu, Saboe [Asebu], Fantyn [Fante?], etc., have none of these whores’.(12) Bosman’s account discusses relations between the young men (mancevos) and the chiefs or elders (caboceroes), two important political constituencies in the Akan omar’ (community or polity).(13) The political and economic significance of these public women in such communities will be explored later.

Godot, writing after a visit in 1701, offered a third significant description of the institutionalized role of public women in Assini, to the west of Axim (present-day Ivory Coast). According to him, the king of Assini maintained six young women in every village and town who gave themselves to bachelors. In addition to these six, the French Governor was also obliged, according to his means, to maintain one or two more. These women went through the towns and villages of Assini and did not risk turning anyone away for fear of severe punishment. In order to be distinguished from other women, they wore a piece of white linen around their heads. They lived on the outskirts of the towns and villages, where they welcomed all bachelors. Married men who were caught patronizing them were heavily fined. It was forbidden for these women to demand anything from their male visitors, although they could accept gifts when offered.(14)

These three descriptions have differences, but they share important themes. All emphasize that these women (abrakree or abelcre) were purchased slaves, outsiders who had no choice in their assigned occupation.(15) Their acquisition and prescribed roles were closely defined by the political establishment, and their services were reserved for the bachelors — a vocal political constituency. Elaborate public ceremonies marked their initiation into their public roles as abrakree or abelcre. And even their token honoraria were beyond their control. Indeed, Godot further mentioned that when they were too old to work, the king of Assini increased their pensions and they were allowed to live the rest of their lives in peace.(16) It is apparent that they were conscripted public servants.



Claude Meillassoux has examined the economic basis of kinship in West Africa, and how social stratification along gerontocratic lines develops in face-to-face communities.(17) In Akan society, male elders controlled land and agricultural production. Labour was drawn from wives, younger kinsmen, slaves and other dependents.(18) Graduation to adulthood was mediated by rural male elders, who decided when obedient young men had reached independence. Then, the elders granted the young men land, secured them wives, and aided them in constructing their separate huts. Ewe and Ga-Adangme societies exhibited the same features.(19 The importance of female economic production and biological reproduction bolstered polygyny, and the accumulation of women became an integral aspect of the ideology of wealth and power in these societies.(20)

In essence, there was unequal access to women, turning them into valuable economic goods. Wealthy men in Akan society invested in the sexuality of women. Writing on the coastal Fante in 1853, Brodie Cruickshank remarked:

It is customary for these [wealthy men] to keep a number of women,

whom they call their wives, among whom are included pawns and

slaves, as well as free women, for whom dowry money has been

paid, and who are in consequence, to be considered the most

legitimate wives. But as far as answering the purpose of establishing

a charge of adultery, the pawns and slaves are as serviceable as

the most legally-married women in Christendom.

Indeed, it is notorious that many of these women are maintained

for the express purpose of ensnaring the unsuspecting with their

blandishments, and carry on their infamous trade with the connivance

of their husbands, who frequently bestow upon them a portion of

the fine of the damages imposed, as a reward for their successful

enterprize, and an encouragement for future infidelity.(21)

In early nineteenth-century Asante, wealthy men arranged child-marriages (oyere akoda), a sure means of entrapping on adultery charges unsuspecting men who even affectionately touched the infant.(22) Indeed, in pre-colonial Asante, there was an impression that no woman was `free’. An Asante proverb stated: mmea se, `wo ho ye fe’ a, ene ka (when the women say (to you) `you are a handsome fellow’, that means you are going into debt).(23)

Different social dynamics in the smaller, less centralized communities of Axim, Assini and Ahanta underpinned the institution of public women. Axim in 1660 probably had a population of about five hundred inhabitants.(24) Polygamy by wealthy male elders in such small communities caused a serious imbalance in sex ratios — more social than statistical — and a potential rupture in social relations between the elders and the young men. The institution of public women pre-empted this and reinforced the status quo, maintaining the structures of gerontocracy and patriarchy.

Though public women were meant to alleviate tensions in domestic, intergenerational politics, they also, ironically, became pawns in Euro-African trading relations, as Bosman reported at the turn of the eighteenth century:

For example, if our factor at Axim has any dispute with his

subordinate negroes, no way will more effectively bring them to

reason than by taking one of these whores into custody, and

confining her in the fort: For as soon as this news reached

the Mancevos ears, they go with flying sails to the Caboceroes,

and earnestly desire them to give the factor satisfaction,

that they may have their whores set at liberty again; urging as a

reason why they request it in such a pressing manner, that during

their imprisonment, those men who have no wives, will be put to the

utmost necessity for a woman, and be prompted to run the danger of

lying with men’s wives.(25)

The bachelors and their `flying sails’ [flags?] may refer to the asafo military companies that were a central force in coastal Akan politics, or the `flying sails’ may describe the haste of the young men.(26) In either case, this is unlike interior Asante, where judicial and coercive instruments facilitated the subordination of young men. The result was that in Asante the young men cohered into a restive and rebellious social group.(27)

Thus, the institution of public women among the south-west Akan served as an important stabilizing force; however, it also presented two problems: it could devalue marriage as a social institution; and spiritual and social crises could result from the sanctioned promiscuity of public women due to the perceived spiritual (and thus volatile) power of sex, menstruation and procreation.(28) As Eugenia Herbert has emphasized, `sexuality is too powerful a force, socially and cosmologically, to leave unregulated’.(29)

The Twi words for promiscuity are revealing: nea edi afra or afuntumfra (that which is jumbled or huddled together).(30) Promiscuity was perceived as something out of place; it was an anomaly. Similarly, the Twi proverb, mmarima ni ho a, mmaa basia yi won ho kyere (when men are absent, women expose their nudity), expresses the Akan conviction that female sexuality must always be controlled, obviously by male and female elders. The proper context for the fulfillment of sexual desires was marriage, and monogamy and fidelity were stressed for women. While the state of being single, asigyafo or ahokwafo, applies to both adult men and women, Akan thought associates this status with men. Men may defer marriage for financial reasons, but adult women are expected to marry. Indeed, for women marriage defines adulthood. Unmarried women were referred to through euphemisms — for example, Nyame ayewa (God’s little wife).(31) An Akan woman who refused to marry rejected the social ordering of the Akan world, which, obviously, was very male-orientated. In the late 1920s and 1930s, chiefs of villages in Sefwi Wiawso and Asante rounded up spinsters, detained them, and insisted that they marry in the shortest possible time.(32)

These contradictions and tensions were resolved through the rituals that surrounded the initiation of public women. The danger of their promiscuity was spiritually neutralized. A woman’s spirit (kra) has great influence on her sexuality and procreation.(33) Indeed, Jones examined the etymology of the label abrakree or abel(e)cre assigned to public women, and commented on the possible combination of aba’a, abea (woman) and akyere (a person to be sacrificed) — in Nzima akyere is akele — making the public women religious sacrifices.(34) This helps to explain the need for the religious rituals that surrounded the institution of public women. Pointing to the obvious ritual significance of — inter alia-the blood sacrifice, the marking with hyire (white clay), the white towel, and the initiate’s position on a straw mat (in Dapper’s account), Jones concluded:

These elements indicate strongly that the “whore” was far from

being close to her European analogue of a demi-mondaine. It is

true that she had no free will in choosing her job and her status

was probably very low. Nonetheless, the “foolish and ridiculous

ceremonies” did not have the purpose of humiliating her or treating

her as an outcast. Rather they served to integrate her and to give

her a recognized position or new status within the community. For

that reason she had to be ritually purified (through the chicken’s

blood that dripped on her head and body, through the washing of her

body and marking of it with white clay) and subsequently displayed

in public and celebrated.(35)

In addition, Jones perceptively highlighted the parallels between the rites initiating the public women and puberty rites and the installation of chiefs.(36) Still, it is also apparent that these rituals were supposed to frighten the public women into accepting their unpalatable functions. As Claire Robertson pointed out in her study of post-proclamation slavery in the Ga town of Accra, owners sometimes `invoked fetish to keep their slaves with them’.(37) But what Jones did not mention, which is important for our purposes, are the parallels between the initiation of public women and marriage rites among the Akan.

In fact, there are marked similarities between the initiation rites of the public women and that of indigenous priestesses. The graduation ceremony of priestesses of the Akonnedi shrine in Larteh underscores the importance of the market as ritual space, and the significance of beads, hyire (white clay) and white cloth in bodily adornment.(38) Also significant is the fact that for Akan priestesses, as A. B. Ellis has highlighted, priesthood and promiscuity were closely intertwined.

Priests marry like any other members of the community and

purchase wives; but priestesses are never married, nor can any

“head money” be paid for a priestess. The reason appears to be

that a priestess belongs to the god she serves, and therefore

cannot become the property of a man, as would be the case if she

married one. This prohibition extends to marriage only, and a

priestess is not debarred from sexual commerce.

Priestesses are ordinarily the most licentious, and custom allows

them to gratify their passions with any man who may chance to take

their fancy. A priestess who is favourably impressed by a man sends

for him to her house, and this command he is sure to obey, through

fear of the consequences of exciting her anger. She then tells him

that the god she serves has directed her to love him, and the man

thereupon lives with her until she grows tired of him, or a new

object takes her fancy. Some priestesses have as many as half-a-dozen

men in train at one time, and may, on great occasions, be seen walking

in state, followed by them.(39)

It is a reflection of the creativity of the Akan chiefdom or state, that the sexual politics that pervaded the relations of elders and juniors could be resolved through an institution of public women, an institution legitimated and rendered unassailable through its parallels with the practices of priesthood.

A. Van der Eb, the General Director of the Dutch West India Company in the Gold Coast, actually described public women in Ahanta as `fetish women’ in his 1851 memorandum on the customs of this region. They were slaves bought by wealthy men and women and given as gifts to the public. His description of their initiation emphasizes its religious overtones and parallels with marriage rites. These slaves, as soon as they reached marriageable age, were initiated by the priests and priestesses. They were made available to every man for the payment of a small amount in gold-dust, except for the men who first slept with them after the initiation. These men were obliged to pay a larger sum which was used for the purchase of new girls for the profession. Of this fee, part was given to the male or female owners.(40)

The comparison between tiri ka (the debt paid off by a groom on behalf of his bride’s family in an Akan marriage) or dwa tiri (the dowry given to the married woman herself as capital in trading) and the larger sum paid by the man who first slept with a public woman is revealing.(41) In a sense, the public woman was the `wife’ of the bachelors of the community.(42) Godot mentioned that a married man who slept with one of the public women in Assini was subjected to a heavy fine. This fine could be seen as the equivalent of ayefere sika (the fine for adultery) for sleeping with the bachelors’ `wife’. The initiation rites of public women encapsulated in a distilled form the rites of nubility, marriage and priesthood. Nubility and marriage rites granted a woman access to sexual intercourse. Akan priestesses were `married’ to the deity and could not be taken or owned by a man. But they were granted sexual licence and could proposition any bachelor they found attractive. The spiritual and social contradictions inherent in the functions of public women were thus resolved through their initiation ceremonies.

The various accounts of public women also differ in important respects. They could be purchased by chiefs, European governors, wealthy men and women, or bachelors. They lived near their masters’ dwellings or on the outskirts of towns. It is unclear whether they were the outright possessions of the bachelors or if they just had usufructuary rights. But social institutions, even among people with a shared culture like the south-western Akan, do not replicate themselves exactly. It is possible that the variant forms of public women among the Esuma, Evalue, Nzima and Ahanta were derived from the same practice but developed along unique historical lines.

Aside from these institutionalized public women, European observers also documented the presence of prostitutes in precolonial Akan societies. Pieter de Marees (1602) believed coastal Akan women to be prone to `whoredom’, and especially promiscuous where Dutchmen were concerned.(43) Jean Barbot described etiguafou (prostitutes) as `distinguished from the others by their fine appearance and their clothing’.(44) Bosman also mentioned Elmina, Fetu, Asebu and Fantyn (Fame?) women who dispensed sexual favours for a negotiated price.(45) Bowdich commented on early nineteenth-century Asante practices:

Prostitutes are numerous and countenanced. No Ashantee forces his

daughter to become the wife of the man he wishes, but he instantly

disclaims her support and protection on her refusal, and would persecute

the mother if she afforded it; thus abandoned, they would have no resource

but prostitution.(46)

We lack information on such women to compare them with public women. But they were not slaves; they were insiders with kinship ties who had been forced into prostitution because they asserted their autonomy. A less publicized view of female control over their sexuality existed in the pre-colonial Gold Coast, as asserted by the Twi proverb that opened this article: obi mfi bea akyi ntu ne tam (no one can pull the loin-cloth off a woman without her knowledge).(47) As colonialism, the proliferation of towns and the extension of the market economy changed power relations, demography and the economy of the Gold Coast, women found more spaces within the emerging social order to assert their autonomy, to accumulate wealth on their own, and to define marriage and what they expected of it. Prostitution was one of several options available to migrant women in towns. Urban prostitutes in the colonial Gold Coast definitely differed from the abrakree or abelcre of the south-west Akan, but striking parallels in their modus operandi suggest that we need to look for continuities in the cultural norms that underpinned gender relations and examine the role of the state as a mediator.



Studies of prostitution in colonial and post-colonial Africa agree that prostitutes were often outsiders with no kinship ties in the communities where they practiced their profession.(48) The expansion of commerce and industry within the colonial economy attracted male migrant labour and increased the presence of Europeans in towns. Although the colonial urban economy was essentially a male economy, the unwillingness of the colonial state and capital to provide for the social reproduction of their labour force, and the sexual imbalance in working-class towns, created economic opportunities for women in the interstices of the colonial system. Elderly informants in the railway town of Sekondi noted of the early twentieth century: `Some of these [male] migrants didn’t even have rooms, so they spent the night with prostitutes then went to work the next day’.(49) In the Gold Coast census of 1901, Sekondi had a male population of 3,469 and a female population of 626, a ratio of five men to one woman.(50)

Kenneth Little has pointed out that one of the `main ways in which women subsist in town is by rendering sexual services’.(51) Indeed, this was an important initial strategy for newly arrived women. The sale of sexual services could secure migrant women their first, temporary place of residence. Unlike the sale of foodstuffs or liquor, prostitution did not necessarily require start-up capital. Eventually, the prostitute could move to her own residence. The need for security and social networks encouraged prostitutes, often from the same ethnic group, to settle close together.(52) This encouraged the construction of ethnic sexual stereotypes by other ethnic groups, as well as conscious attempts at self-definition within ethnic groups and a contest over the meaning of prostitution and the control of sexuality. Gradually these perceptions would influence marriage and other gender relations in towns.

In 1925, Kadri English, headman of the Hausa community in Ussher Town, in the centre of the colonial capital of Accra, wrote to the District Commissioner of Accra concerning his uneasiness about the increase in prostitution among Hausa women. It was an important opportunity for him to express his definition of Hausa social identity:

As you are aware Sir, chastity is essential in Mohammadanism especially

among women; prostitution is a thing outside our creed — good Hausa

women who were living good lives in Northern Nigeria change for the

worse on arrival on the Gold Coast colony in which evil influences are

somewhat paramount.

He wisely linked his petition to colonial concerns about health and finances:

Venereal disease is too common among my people and unless a law is

enacted by you or the authorities enforcing the repatriation of all Hausa

women without husbands to their homes, immorality will be on the

ascendant and indubitably defy the praise-worthy endeavours of the

Health Officers.(53)

The prominence of Muslim prostitutes in Nairobi and among Hausa communities in southern Nigeria contradicts Kadri’s assertion that prostitution was alien to Muslim Hausa women and that it was a result of the `evil influences’ of the Gold Coast.(54) Indeed, in Nairobi, prostitutes converted to Islam and underwent training in Islamic decorum as a trade strategy. While it must be emphasized that Islam does not condone prostitution, it is likely that Kadri found it difficult to accept the assertiveness of these Hausa women and was embroiled in conflict with them. He sought the colonial government as an ally in this conflict. In addition, newspaper reports that categorized prostitutes as mostly from Nigeria may have spurred his action.(55) The preponderance of Krobo prostitutes in colonial and post-colonial Asante also encouraged the folk tradition that Okomfo Anokye, an indigenous priest instrumental in the founding of the Asante nation and state, had cursed Krobo women with prostitution.(56)

K. A. Busia’s social survey of Sekondi-Takoradi in the late 1940s revealed 127 known prostitutes, only 9 of whom were from the indigenous Ahanta ethnic group.(57) The establishment of a railway head at Sekondi in 1898 and a deep water harbour at Takoradi in 1928 transformed these tiny Ahanta villages into the bustling, multi-ethnic, working-class city of Sekondi-Takoradi. Here, prostitutes found an important niche. They came principally from Cape Coast and Axim, with a significant contribution coming from Nigeria and Liberia. Ione Acquah’s survey of prostitutes in the centre of Accra in August 1954 revealed a different ethnic mix. Acquah counted 213 prostitutes, and conducted interviews with 70, all of whom were from migrant tribes. Of these, most were Ewes (56); there were only 3 Adangme, 5 Guans and 6 from French Dahomey.(58) Acquah assigned economic pressure, social isolation and the anonymity afforded by the large towns as causes for the proliferation of prostitution and `lapses in traditional standards of morality’.(59) Like Acquah, Busia saw prostitution as evidence of the collapse of sexual morality and highlighted economic pressures and social isolation as the key factors in this transformation.(60)



Acquah and Busia assumed that prostitution was a novel, urban phenomenon that reflected the collapse of the traditional moral order with the advent of colonial capitalism. From the evidence in this article, this was obviously an erroneous impression. What was new about urban prostitution in the colonial Gold Coast, though, was its explicit connection to independent, material accumulation among women. What men and other women found fascinating and horrifying about this development was that the women who were prostitutes had voluntarily stepped outside the traditional social and spatial constraints imposed on women to facilitate accumulation. It is clear from Anita Mensah’s account of prostitution in Sekondi-Takoradi in the 1930s and 1940s that new images — of autonomy, acquisitiveness and even a touch of glamour — had influenced old perceptions of prostitution:

By then, Kru people [from Liberia] were the dominant group in Takoradi.

The other growing area was Nkontompo in Sekondi. There many women

resided. The men who worked at Takoradi lived in compounds, for

example the present New Takoradi, and when they wanted women came

down from the compound at New Takoradi to Nkontompo in Sekondi.

So the nickname `Nkontompo Headquarters’ emerged. Many single

women lived there. In this period, some of the young men who visited

Nkontompo would fall in love, and ask the women to quit the business

of prostitution and come to join them at New Takoradi as wives. I saw

this happening myself. It came to a time that Kru women took over


It is unclear how a neighbourhood in Sekondi acquired the name Nkontompo, but nkontompo in Twi refers to `deceit’ or `falsehood’, and the sexual conduct of freelance, single women may have bequeathed the title of `Nkontompo’ to their residential area. Inhabitants of Sekondi-Takoradi were fascinated with them:

They were mostly Fante women from Cape Coast. They were not [indigenous]

Ahantas. Only Auntie Lamle was from Dixcove [Nzima]. Auntie

Lamle became almost a role model for wayward women. Many young

women became attracted to the business. If you were not properly trained

as a young girl, you could easily join the Nkontompo women. Later, the

Nkontompo women moved to a hotel at Cassava Farm [Takoradi] called

`Columbia Hotel’ in the mid-1940s. Many women hired rooms in that

neighbourhood. Then, the colonial government was very strict on prostitution.

If they caught you as a `harlot woman’, they took you to court. If

you couldn’t pay the fine, you were even jailed. The prostitutes realized

that it was because they had concentrated in a particular area that the

colonial police easily picked them up. They began to disperse from the

Cassava Farm area to other places. That very ‘Columbia’ area, women

from Ho [Volta region] came to settle as prostitutes. A Nigerian called

Geoffrey also established a hotel where prostitutes were based. That is

how women ended up in Takoradi.(62)

Mensah’s account confirmed that most prostitutes were outsiders, but also that they were beginning to attract indigenous women through their independence and their glamourous lifestyle. Even more importantly, in male-dominated, working-class centres like Sekondi-Takoradi, prostitutes were considered eligible marriage partners.

The absence of social barriers between `prostitutes’ and `respectable women’ in working-class leisure activities in Sekondi-Takoradi facilitated the exchange of beliefs and mannerisms. Social life in Takoradi in the 1930s and 1940s revolved around spots like Columbia Hotel, famous for its dances. The `Liberian Bar’, owned by a Liberian in Takoradi, was another active social spot in the 1930s and 1940s. Krus were excellent drummers and guitar players, and they had a first-rate brass band in Takoradi, the `Taboo Brass Band’. As prostitutes and nonprostitutes patronized these places, mannerisms were exchanged. The ability to chew gum and make it snap was introduced into Sekondi-Takoradi by Kru women, but it expanded to become the badge of female nonchalance. With their social drinking at popular bars and their fashionable clothing, Kru and Nigerian women became the pace-setters where female autonomy was concerned.(63)

Central to the alluring image of prostitution in urban Gold Coast was the fact that these women were accumulating wealth for themselves.(64) It needs to be pointed out that not all prostitutes became wealthy. Some returned to villages without any money, their health impaired by venereal diseases. However, Acquah discovered in her interviews with prostitutes that none of them earned less than 10 [pounds sterling] a month, and some earned as much as 30 [pounds sterling]. They charged an average of 2s. for sexual intercourse, and from 4s. to 1 [pounds sterling] for a full night.(65) From the standard charge of 2s., prostitutes in Ghana earned the epithet of `two-two’ women.(66)

In terms of accumulation and wealth, prostitution had definitely expanded the material horizon of women:

Twenty-two owned houses. Their values ranged from 40 [pounds sterling] to

900 [pounds sterling].

Twenty-two had one sewing machine each and two others had two. Only

one prostitute had any savings. She had 25 [pounds sterling] deposited in

the Post Office Savings Bank.

The results show that these prostitutes were comfortably placed and

compared favourably with men in other fields. They spoke openly of their

activities and seemed to suffer little, if any, disapprobation in town.(67)

Perhaps more revealing of popular perceptions of this new mode of accumulation were the names that people in Sekondi-Takoradi assigned to prostitutes. The older group of prostitutes, constituted mostly of Krus and Ibos, were called `WAC’ after the United African Company, an old expatriate company that dominated the commercial life of the Gold Coast.(68) The new and younger group of prostitutes were named `Leventis’ after the expatriate company A. G. Leventis.(69) It is significant that these companies controlled the commercial life of Sekondi-Takoradi. The UAC were led by a Cape Coast woman called Akwele and the Leventis by the Nzima woman, Lamle.(70)

Notwithstanding these definite changes in the nature of urban prostitution in the colonial Gold Coast, there were also interesting continuities from the pre-colonial era in the spatial location of prostitutes, the use of ritual and the perceived need for spiritual protection, and the desire of prostitutes for official affiliation or recognition. From the descriptions of public women in the precolonial Gold Coast, it appears that they often lived on the outskirts of villages and towns. They occupied distinct, separate spaces from the local inhabitants of a community. Prostitutes in the colonial Gold Coast, likewise, lived on the boundaries of towns. Elderly informants have confirmed this for Sekondi.(71) Areas like Nkontompo were on the outskirts of town, but prostitutes who married workers in Sekondi-Takoradi were incorporated spatially and socially, resolving their liminality. Krobo prostitutes in Obnasi lived at Tutuka, away from the town centre.(72) Although prostitutes in Kumasi, the capital of Asante, now live in the town centre of Adum, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Adum used to be on the border of Kumasi proper.(73)

Religious ritual remained important in the lives of prostitutes, especially when they sought social reintegration into their old communities. Acquah was informed of this by prostitutes operating in Accra:

If they visited their relatives in the rural areas, however, they might be

expected to `purify’ themselves before they were able to be accepted back

fully into the village life. One stated that she had to provide a sheep and

rum for the performance of some rites each time she visited her village

before she was allowed by the chief and the fetish priest to participate in

public functions and celebrations. This reveals that prostitution constitutes

an infraction of custom and is still severely frowned upon in the rural

areas, even though in the large towns it is generally accepted as one of

the ways women have of earning a living.(74)

The purification of prostitutes before they were reincorporated into their old communities was particularly designed to neutralize the malevolent spiritual forces that might follow them into the village as a result of their numerous sexual contacts with strangers. Some prostitutes sought spiritual protection from rural shrines before they departed for the city to practice their profession. Margaret Field encountered this during her field-work at the shrine of Mframaso in Brong Ahafo in 1956-7:

One modest-mannered but quietly business-like woman who said she was

a prostitute in Kumasi and asked for success in her work. As she was not

married, approval was readily given to her enterprise. When I sought to

know the general climate of opinion concerning this, I was told

matter-of-factly, `It is her work. When a man has to stay in a town like

Kumasi one of the things he may need is a woman. Also travellers need

somewhere to stay the night’.(75)

The irony is that male sexual needs, as opposed to female sexual needs, have always been recognized in Akan society. Public women and prostitutes met this acknowledged need.

Public women were acquired, sanctioned and regulated by the political establishment in a community, whereas prostitutes in the colonial and post-colonial era had asserted their independence. But the need for political recognition remained important for prostitutes in the colonial Gold Coast, as the following example from Kumasi illustrates. In 1943, the District Commissioner for Kumasi forwarded a petition to the Chief Commissioner for Asante from Ataa Baasi, headwoman of the `Baasifuo Community’, an organized band of prostitutes living in and around Odum street in Kumasi. The group sought recognition from the colonial government:

After the [restoration of the] Ashanti Confederacy [1935], we did not

hide ourselves. We appeared before Nana Asantehemaa [the queen

mother], and Otumfuo, Osaagyefuo, Asantehene [king of Asante] in

Kumasi, and introduced ourselves to him and explain[ed] to him our

unity with our aim to substantiate to him Otumfuo, Asantehene, that our

acts and doings in the City of Kumasi, are not of the same scale as that

of the Corner-Side women [ambulant prostitutes]. Otumfuo, Asantehene,

having accepted us, handed [us] over to one of his chiefs called Oheneba

Bempah-Worakosehene of Kumasi. Oheneba Bempah had since then

becomes (sic) our chief patron.(76)

Although the Asantehene acknowledged the presence of the community in Kumasi, he gave it no legal recognition. Hence the petition to the colonial government. This was not necessarily a futile gesture. French colonial rule in Congo Brazzaville sanctioned the activities of prostitutes and even established official brothels during World War II to cater for the sexual needs of soldiers.(77) The Baasifuo Community wanted the colonial government to grant it a license and access to medical attention for a fee. It justified its relevance in very familiar terms: it would deal only with natives (not Europeans) and charge very moderate rates; it would maintain strict supervision over its prostitutes’ health; its members would reject any and all marriage proposals; and finally, its presence would be beneficial to old and young bachelors. The government declined the request. The arguments advanced by the community resonate, however, with the philosophy that underpinned the institution of public women among the south-west Akan in the pre-colonial era. The Baasifuo Community was advocating its case based on old Akan cultural norms that regulated gender relations–men had acknowledged sexual needs.

There is the possibility that the categories of public women and prostitutes had become conflated in colonial Asante. The important role of the Akan state in mediating sexuality and gender relations cannot be ignored. The timing of the Baasifuo’s request is instructive.(78) Prempeh, king of Asante, and his principal chiefs had been deported to the Seychelles when Asante was colonized by the British in 1896. He was allowed to return to Asante in 1924 as a private citizen. He was subsequently made king of Kumasi in 1926, and his successor, Prempeh II, was installed as Asantehene in 1935, when the Asante confederacy was restored. It is significant that in the power vacuum between 1896 and 1935 there is no record of prostitutes seeking such official recognition. When the British government restored the Asante confederacy in 1935, an obvious shadow of its former self, the Asantehene sought to extend his jurisdiction through symbolic acts meaningful to residents of the Gold Coast. In that very year, wives of nhenkwaa (servants) of the Asantehene in different parts of what had been the old Asante empire claimed that they had been seduced by local men. District Commissioner A. F. L. Wilkinson of Wiawso commented on developments in Wiawso: `It seems obvious that the wives of the Asantehene’s Nhinkwas are distributed round the country and that whenever one of them is “seduced” 16 [pounds sterling] is claimed and goes to form part of the Asantehene’s revenue’.(79) The colonial government’s investigation revealed that the Asantehene’s messengers had also been active in Adjumaku (Central Province), Oda (Central Province), Mpraeso (Eastern Province), and Pepease (Ashanti) collecting adultery fines.(80) Wilkinson believed this was about revenue, but sexual politics was also the key to status and power politics within Asante, and to the territorial definition of Asante.(81) The limits of Asante territory were reflected in the geographical extent to which the Asantehene could demand money for adultery. Recognizing the spirit of past times in the activities of the Asantehene, the Baasifuo Community in Kumasi, `talking the talk’, presented itself for the Asantehene’s official approval. It certainly fit into the social structure of the old Akan state. The Asantehene entrusted it to the care of a sub-chief.

The irony of the situation lies in the fact that the Baasifuo Community had turned cultural norms that recognized male sexual needs and denied the existence of similar needs among females to the service of female accumulation. It was a subtle play on female dependence in an era when they were probably anything but dependent. Women had long been aware of the intimate connection between political patronage and wealth in Akan society.(82) The Baasi Community presented what was definitely a radically altered version of the institution of public women for official approval. In the 1950s, Ataa Baasi joined the commoners’ party, the Convention People’s Party, in the nationalist struggle for independence.(83) Maybe renewed political recognition for institutions such as hers would come with an independent African government.



Colonialism, by weakening the political authority of chiefs and male elders, especially their ability to impose coercive sanctions, acted inadvertently as an important catalyst in the restructuring of gender relations. In addition, the colonial cash economy generated new economic opportunities for rural and urban women. Female accumulation reinforced the desire of women to assert their autonomy and to define their expectations in marriage. Yet colonial rule, especially with the introduction of indirect rule, was supposed to facilitate the subordination of women in the domestic realm.(84) But the structure of colonial rule presented women with avenues for negotiating autonomy. The dual legal structure of British and customary law courts was important as it enabled women to strategically manipulate the law in their favour.(85) How these economic and legal opportunities in the colonial Gold Coast intersected with changing notions of sexuality–especially through prostitution and leisure activities among migrants in towns–to reshape female expectations in marriage is a promising line of inquiry. The interwar period was, in particular, an era of active social exchange between urban and rural areas.(86)

The exploitation of female labour was crucial in the economic transformation that underpinned the rise of the Gold Coast as the world’s leading producer of cocoa by 1918. In their various capacities as pawns–as wives, daughters and nieces–women provided unpaid agricultural labour on cocoa farms and served as porters in carrying cocoa bags from interior farms to coastal merchants.(87) From being exploited, unpaid labour, women–even in the rural areas where indirect rule had re-empowered male elders–gradually found openings in the colonial economy and asserted their autonomy through establishing their own cocoa and food farms. Rural women increasingly withdrew their labour from exploitative husbands and uncles. Sexuality, marital obligations and the concept of family in matrilineal Akan societies, became fiercely contested.(88)

Whether rural-urban contacts and the sexual autonomy of migrant women in towns, including prostitutes, contributed to the radicalization of rural women (for example, through their trips to coastal towns as porters) in their relations with men has not been explored. In the Obubra Division of the Cross River Basin in Nigeria, young women from the village of Efut fled `into prostitution when they were asked to engage in palm production’.(89) For rural Atu women on the Kenyan coast, prostitution and marriage existed in a dialectical relationship. The relative proximity of the town of Mombasa, and a tradition of Atu prostitution in Mombasa, enabled some women to reject unsatisfactory marital situations. But this female empowerment had an adverse effect on marriage, for it made the institution fragile.(90) Abner Cohen pointed out in his study of Hausa migrants in Ibadan: `through frequent divorce, many women oscillate between prostitution and wifehood a number of times in their marriage career’.(91) Prostitution presented an escape route from the exploitation of female labour through marriage. The rhetoric of rural male elders, in describing the assertiveness of women in the colonial Gold Coast, confirmed that they had made the connection between prostitution, female accumulation and marital instability. In the early 1930s, in what was perceived to be a period of acute social chaos and decay, several Asante chiefs ordered the arrest of all unmarried women over the age of fifteen. They were to be released if they agreed to marry a man in the village–obviously with the man’s consent: `This chaos, often articulated in the language of moral crisis, in terms that spoke of women’s uncontrollability, of prostitution and venereal disease, was, more than anything, about shifting power relationships. It was chaos engendered by cash and cocoa, by trade and transformation’.(92)

`Prostitution’ had become a label men deployed against female assertiveness. Akan culture defined marriage and motherhood as the ultimate goal for women. Male hegemony was threatened when women opted out of marriage. Jean Allman’s interviews with some of the female victims in these seizures confirmed the economic basis of this gender conflict: men had become miserly and lazy, yet keen to exploit female labour. Marriage had become unattractive, divorces frequent.

But this is not to trivialize the widespread concerns about prostitution and venereal disease in the colonial Gold Coast, especially from the 1920s. Even the interior, predominantly rural, state of Sefwi Wiawso — in the wake of mechanized mining, road construction and cocoa production — was transformed into a bustling hive of economic and social activity in the 1920s and 1930s. Incidence of venereal disease increased phenomenally, and prostitutes were blamed for this development. Penelope Roberts has summed up the situation:

The introduction of cocoa had provoked new conflicts between spouses

leading to `wife-stealing’ and desertion by wives. The crisis in the rural

economy coincided with an upsurge of opportunities for trade for some

women. The association between trade and prostitution and the spread of

venereal disease were seen as results of these conflicts.(93)

Crucial in this gender crisis in Sefwi Wiawso was, again, the struggle to control female labour through the institution of marriage, which had little material return for wives. The colonial economy generated different types of economic opportunities for men and women, which fed into the existing division of labour by sex and the separate property interests of spouses.(94) Female accumulation strengthened female sexual autonomy, enabling women to prune the male dominated institution of marriage. Not coincidentally, female accumulation, female sexual autonomy, prostitution, venereal disease and witchcraft were seen to be connected. Successful female traders were often accused of witchcraft and the epithet `WAC’ came to embrace not only prostitutes involved in accumulation, but also traders suspected of witchcraft.(95) The early twentieth century with its rapid socio-economic change, and the concomitant gender `crisis’, supported the numerous anti-witchcraft cults that proliferated in the Gold Coast.(96) The crisis was grave: the cultural norms that underpinned gender relations were under siege.

Akan, Ga-Adangme and Ewe cultures viewed wealth and power as male prerogatives.(97) Two Twi proverbs underscore this belief: obaa yen guan a, obarima na oton (when a woman rears a sheep, it is the man that sells it); and obaa twa bommaa a, etweri barima dan mu (even if a woman possesses a talking-drum [the privilege of chiefs], she keeps it in a room belonging to a man). Women themselves were viewed by men as a form of wealth, and their sexuality and economic potential were subordinated to men. Women were compelled to pursue motherhood and accumulation within marriage. But the Twi saying, baabi ye sum na wode sika pe ho a, eho tew (if money is scattered in a dark place, the place brightens up), appealed to both men and women. It was only the lack of economic opportunities that made women quiescent in their subordination to men. Children, in and out of wedlock, were coveted in Akan and Ga culture. Men usually `outdoored’ their children, even if they did not marry the mothers or the woman’s relatives claimed and named the child.(98) It was the ritual of naming that made a child a social person. Women in the colonial Gold Coast now claimed sexual autonomy, acquired wealth, and had children outside marriage. For some Gold Coast women, property offered firmer security than marriage. They would have identified with the remark of a Kenyan ax-prostitute: `My house is my husband’.(99)

Marriage and prostitution were not mutually exclusive. In Kumasi in 1943, Asatu, married to a soldier on active duty, was arrested on prostitution charges and fined 5 [pounds sterling] or one month with hard labour.(100) In the face of the possible argument that these were women with weak moral fibre, it is instructive to note that even women who had had active contact with missionaries and had attended strict mission schools, such as Mmofraturo in colonial Kumasi, considered this the age of female independence and sexual autonomy. One such product of Mmofraturo was Ama Dapah who was removed from the school by her mother who believed that `if you kept going to school you would be unable to have children’. Her story was recorded by Jean Allman:

Ama eventually had her first child, but did not marry the father. Nor did

she marry, according to Asante custom or by colonial ordinance, the fathers

of her other twelve children . . . Ama claims that she preferred this

arrangement because of the flexibility it gave her: `if you kicked me, I

would just leave you! That’s it . . . If they weren’t good, I just left’.

Ama Dapah supported her children, including paying their school fees,

through her work as a trader. She always lived in her family house and her

mother looked after the children when she was out. She never lived with any

of her `husbands’.(101)

The colonial Gold Coast witnessed an important social and cultural revolution in gender relations. Central to this revolution was the construction and contestation of female sexuality. `Prostitution’, as a trope that described female assertiveness, female accumulation, and the sale of sexual and domestic services, was crucial in this transformation.



Public women certainly differed from prostitutes in their pre-colonial and colonial manifestations. But they fit into a political and moral economy that was indigenous. What was unique about prostitution in the colonial Gold Coast was that prostitutes asserted their autonomy and their control over their own sexuality, and independently accumulated wealth. They were an aberration from the indigenous political and moral economy. They broadened the horizons of women and men in the conceptualization of promiscuity. By moving sexuality out of marriage they became social revolutionaries. It is not coincidental that the Twi words for prostitute and adulteress are synonymous: obeaguaman; owareseefo.

Slaves and prostitutes were outsiders in the communities in which they lived. Their social marginality, as Robertson has argued in respect to slavery, `might bring the freedom of society’s indifference’.(102) Their sexual promiscuity could be ignored. Just as slaves in pre-colonial African communities worked alongside their owners and shared a similar quality of life, so did the social interaction of prostitutes and other women, especially in colonial towns like Sekondi, blur social distinctions.(103) Female accumulation brought women greater autonomy. The expanding opportunities for women in the colonial cash economy overlapped with changing perceptions of sexuality and sexual autonomy to reconfigure female expectations in marriage. Prostitution was not directly responsible for this change, but it formed part of the broader social context. Prostitutes not only acquired wealth through their profession, but it did not exclude childbirth and parenting. Even marriage was not precluded; it represented only one option for the prostitute. In many ways, prostitutes served as a model of independent female accumulators who had children and chose their mates.

As economic opportunities for women expanded with the end of colonial rule, so did female autonomy in gender relations. R. S. Rattray has enumerated six forms of marriage in pre-colonial Asante, including mpena awadie, in which lovers lived together and could have children without performing the necessary customary rites.(104) In independent Ghana, Dorothy Vellenga found names for twenty-four forms of heterosexual relations among the Akan.(105) In contemporary Ghana, some young women prefer to enter sexual relations with older men, `sugar daddies’, with the explicit goal of accumulating wealth. These women are often students and professionals such as teachers, secretaries and receptionists. Many found marriage, as culturally defined, unattractive.(106)

In the history of gender relations in the Gold Coast and contemporary Ghana, women have been compelled to express their sexuality and pursue wealth and autonomy within the confines of marriage. Ruptures have occurred along fault lines, when changing political, economic and social conditions have provided women with opportunities to step outside marriage in their definition of self. Public women and prostitutes represent junctures along the fault lines of gender relations. Public women were disempowered by being deprived of their sexual autonomy; prostitutes empowered themselves by asserting their control over their sexuality. That they acquired wealth in the process was also not novel in traditional Akan society. It is a more fruitful line of inquiry to examine prostitution as a contested sphere in gender relations than to view it as merely an example of female social deviance. (*) This article was first presented as a paper at the African Studies Association Meeting in Orlando in November 1995. The author is indebted to David Owusu Ansah, Adam Jones, Jean Allman, Thomas Dutoit, E. Ofori-Akyea and Emmanuel Gymimah-Boadi for their invaluable comments.

(1) Twi proverb.

(2) For a good introduction to the literature on prostitution, see Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago, 1990), ch. 1. White’s work is an in-depth treatment of prostitution as a form of female labour in colonial Nairobi. It examines the commodification of domestic services (including, but not limited to, sex), the roles of prostitutes in the social reproduction of migrant male wage-labour, class formation, and accumulation among different types of prostitutes. For other significant contributions, see Janet M. Bujra, `Women “Entrepreneurs” of Early Nairobi’, Canadian Jl African Studies, ix (1975); Janet M. Bujra, `Production, Property, Prostitution: “Sexual Politics” in Atu’, Cahiers d’etudes africaines, lxv (1977); Benedict B. B. Naanen, `”Itinerant Gold Mines”: Prostitution in the Cross River Basin of Nigeria, 1930-1950′, African Studies Rev., xxxiv (1991). Also, discussion of prostitution is scattered in several studies of social formation in urban Africa. Relevant works include Abner Cohen, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A Study of Hausa Migrants in Yoruba Towns (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969); Kenneth Little, African Women in Tozons (Cambridge, 1973); John Iliffe, The African Poor: A History (Cambridge, 1987).

(3) This essay focuses on the Akan, although references are made to other southern peoples in the Gold Coast, especially the Ga-Adangme and the Ewe. The Akan constitute the largest ethnic group in present-day Ghana. The Ga inhabit Accra (the current capital of Ghana) and its environs. The Adangme live to the north and east of the Ga. The Ewe are located further east of the Adangme. Unlike the matrilineal Akan, the Ga-Adangme and Ewe are patrilineal. The Akan also possessed a more elaborate political culture, and Akanland was the site of active state formation between 1650 and 1750. These societies, however share important commonalities in their cultures and histories that promote an analysis of southern Gold Coast societies as if they were part of a single world. See Emmanuel Akyeampong, Drink, Power and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, c. 1800 to Recent Times (Portsmouth, 1996), ch. 2.

(4) `Gifts’ and `rewards’ are prominent features in gender relations in the southern Gold Coast. Even among the matrilineal Akan, women speak figuratively of their children, as if they belong to the fathers, and of childbirth as a service that women provide for men. In songs that were sung during nubility rites (bragoro) in Asante, domesticity and reward were linked, and men were even expected to reward women after sexual intercourse: Peter Sarpong, Girls’ Nubility Rites in Ashanti (Tema, 1977), 24-5.

(5) White, Comforts of Home, 1, also comments on the absence of pimps in Kenya.

(6) K. A. Busia, Report on a Social Survey of Sekondi-Takoradi (London, 1950), 108.

(7) This element of coercion is acknowledged in the criminal code of the Gold Coast under `procuration’: Laws of the Gold Coast Colony (Accra, 1920), i, bk III, pt 7, sect. 185: National Archives of Ghana (henceforth NAG) (Accra), ADM 4/1/118.

(8) Adam Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung? Zur Mehrdeutigkeit europaischer Quellen uber die Kuste Westafrikas zwischen 1660 und 1860′, in Adam Jones (ed.), Aussereuropaische Frauengeschichte: Probleme der Forschung (Pfaffenweiler, 1990).

(9) Olfert Dapper, Naukeurige beschrijvinge der afrikaensche gewesten, 2nd edn (Amsterdam, 1676); W. Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, Divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory Coasts (London, 1705); Jean Godot, `Voyages de Jean Godot’ (Paris, 1704): Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS francais 13,380-1. I am grateful to Adam Jones for translating the relevant sections of Dapper on my behalf. Godot’s description is paraphrased from Adam Jones’s article on prostitution in pre-colonial Gold Coast: Adam Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung?’. The citations from Bosman are from the 1705 English translation, with the necessary corrections from Albert van Dantzig’s textual comparison of the Dutch and English versions. This appeared in several instalments in History in Africa from 1975. The sections relevant to this essay are from Albert van Dantzig, `English Bosman and Dutch Bosman: A Comparison of Texts-IV’, Hist. in Africa, v (1978).

(10) Dapper, Naukeurige beschrijvinge der afrikaensche gewesten, 106.

(11) Bosman, New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, 212; van Dantzig, `English Bosman and Dutch Bosman’, 230.

(12) Ibid, 214.

(13) That these terms held similar meanings in nineteenth-century Fante society is confirmed in John Mensah Sarbah, Fanti Customary Laws (London, 1897), 10; J. E. Casely-Hayford, Gold Coast Native Institutions (London, 1903), 33. But it is acknowledged that the meaning of these terms may have changed over time and space. (14) Godot, `Voyages de Jean Godot’, 278-89, cited in Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung?’, 131-2.

(15) Slaves were emancipated when the Gold Coast was declared a British colony in 1874. Emancipation was extended to Asante when it was formally brought under British rule from 1901.

(16) Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung?’, 132.

(17) Claude Meillassoux, `The Social Organization of the Peasantry: The Economic Basis of Kinship’, Fl Peasant Studies, i (1973-4), 81-90.

(18) See, for example, Ivor Wilks, Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante (Athens, Ohio, 1993), chs. 1-3; and his response to A. Norman Klein, `Slavery and Akan Origins’, Ethnohistory, xli (1994); Ivor Wilks, `”Slavery and Akan Origins?” A Reply’, Ethnohistory, xli (1994).

(19) G. K. Nukunya, Kinship and Marriage among the Anlo Ewe (London, 1969), 40; Hugo Huber, The Krobo: Traditional Social and Religious Life of a West African People (St Augustin, 1963), 24.

(20) See, for example, T. C. McCaskie, `State and Society, Marriage and Adultery: Some Considerations towards a Social History of Pre-Colonial Asante’, Fl African Hist., xxii (1981).

(21) Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa, 2 vols. (London, 1853), i, 325-6; J. Dupuis, Journal of a Residence in Ashantee, 2nd edn (London, 1966), 37.

(22) T. E. Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, 3rd edn (London, 1966), 302. Adultery was deemed liberally in Asante society and included even touching someone’s wife. But it was not uncommon for Asante men to be affectionate towards children. Such unsuspecting men were brought up on adultery charges when they touched an oyere akoda.

(23) R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Proverbs (Oxford, 1916), 133.

(24) Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung?’, 126, 137.

(25) Bosman, New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, 213.

(26) Although the origins and early history of the asafo are still unclear, the institution had become recognizable by the mid-seventeenth century and had perceptible European influences. On the asafo institution, see Ansu Datta, `The Fante Asafo: A Re-Examination’, Africa, xiii (1972); I. Chukwukere, `Perspectives on the Asafo Institution in Southern Ghana’, Fl African Studies, vii (1980); George N. Preston, `Perseus and Medusa in Africa: Military Art in Fanteland, 1834-1972′, African Arts, viii (1975), 36-7.

(27) Jean M. Allman, The Quills of the Porcupine: Asante Nationalism in an Emergent Ghana (Madison, 1993), ch. 2.

(28) See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London, 1966); Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb (eds.), Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation (Berkeley, 1988). For the Asante context, see Emmanuel Akyeampong and Pashington Obeng, `Spirituality, Gender, and Power in Asante History’, Internat. 71 African Hist. Studies, xxviii (1995).

(29) Eugenia W. Herbert, Iron Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformations in African Societies (Bloomington, i993), 227.

(30) J. G. Christaller, A Dictionary of the Asante and Fante Language called Tshi (Chwee, Twi) (Baser, 1881).

(31) Sarpong, Girls’ Nubility Rites in Ashanti, 16.

(32) Penelope A. Roberts, `The State and the Regulation of Marriage: Sefwi Wiawso (Ghana), 1900-1940′, in Haleh Afshar (ed.), Women, State and Ideology: Studies from Africa and Asia (London, 1987); Jean M. Allman, `Rounding Up Spinsters: Gender Chaos and Unmarried Women in Colonial Asante’, Fl African Hist., xxxvii (1996).

(33) Sarpong, Girls’ Nubility Rites in Ashanti, 18.

(34) Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung?’, 129.

(35) Ibid., 137.

(36) On puberty rites, see R. S. Rattray, Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford, 1927), ch. 7; Sarpong, Girls’ Nubility Rites in Ashanti. On the installation rites of chiefs, see R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution (Oxford, 1929).

(37) Claire C. Robertson, `Post-Proclamation Slavery m Accra: A Female Affair?’, in Claire C. Robertson and Martin A. Klein (eds.), Women and Slavery in Africa (Madison, 1983), 222, 228; see also G. K. Nukunya’s appendix to Robertson’s contribution on Anlo-Ewe slavery (243-4).

(38) Kofi Asare Opoku, West African Traditional Religion (Jurong, 1978), 75-90.

(39) A. B. Ellis, The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa (London, 1887), 121-2. (40) As cited in Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung?’, 133.

(41) See Emmanuel Akyeampong, `Alcohol, Social Conflict and the Struggle for Power in Urban Ghana, 1919 to Recent Times’ (Univ. of Virginia Ph.D. thesis, 1993), ch. 2; Rattray, Religion and Art in Ashanti, 78; Takyiwah Manuh, `Changes in Marriage and Funeral Exchanges among the Asante: A Case Study from Kona, Afigya-Kwabre’, in Jane Guyer (ed.), Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities (Portsmouth, 1995).

(42) Jones, `Prostitution, Polyandrie oder Vergewaltigung?’, raises this possibility when he compared the institution on the Gold Coast with parallels in Whydah and Dahomey.

(43) Pieter de Marees, Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea, trans. and ed. Albert van Dantzig and Adam Jones (Oxford, 1987), ch. 7.

(44) Jean Barbot, Barbot on Guinea: The Writings of Jean Barbot on West Africa, 1678-1712, ed. P. E. H. Hair, Adam Jones and Robin Law, 2 vols. (London, 1992), ii, 495.

(45) Bosrnan, New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, 214.

(46) Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, 303.

(47) Rattray, Ashanti Proverbs, 132.

(48) Busia Social Survey of Sekondi-Takoradi, ch. 8; Ione Acquah, Accra Survey (London, 1958), 72 4; Martin Chibuzo Nwosu, `Prospect of Curbing the Spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Aids through Settled Prostitutes’ (Univ. of Ghana B.A. thesis, 1989), Little, African Women in Towns, White, Comforts of Home.

(49) Interview with Laurence Cudjoe, J. K. Annan, Arhu, and Joseph Kofi Ackon, Sekondi, 27 May 1992.

(50) Census of the Population, 1901 (Accra, 1901), 53; NAG (Accra), ADM 5/2/2.

(51) Little, African Women in Towns, 40. See also Beverly Grier, `Pawns, Porters, and Petty Traders: Women in the Transition to Cash Crop Agriculture in Colonial Ghana’, Signs, xvii (1992), 322.

(52) On Nigerian prostitutes in the colonial Gold Coast, see Naanen, `Itinerant Gold Mines’.

(53) Kadri English, Hausa tribal ruler, to District Commissioner of Accra, [Ussher Town (Accra)], 13 May 1925: NAG (Accra), ADM 11/1/922, no. 35.

(54) Bujra, `Women “Entrepreneurs” of Early Nairobi’, 226-30; White, Comforts of Home; Cohen, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa, ch. 2.

(55) Cf. Gold Coast Times, 29 Aug. 1925; Naanen, `Itinerant Gold Mines’, 60-1, points out that the Gold Coast was a popular destination for prostitutes from Nigeria.

(56) Personal communication from Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, 5 Nov. 1995. On Krobo prostitutes in Obuasi, see Nwosu, `Prospect of Curbing the Spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases’.

(57) Busia, Social Survey of Sekondi-Takoradi, 107-8.

(58) Acquah, Accra Survey, 73.

(59) Ibid.

(60) Busia, Social Survey of Sekondi-Takoradi, 107-8.

(61) Interview with Anita Mensah, Takoradi, 16 Aug. 1994.

(62) Ibid.

(63) Interview with Laurence Cudjoe, J. K. Annan, Arhu, and Joseph Kofi Ackon, Sekondi 27 May 1992.

(64) Bujra, `Women “Entrepreneurs” of Early Nairobi’, 232, points out that in 1943 almost half the number of houses in Pumwani, Nairobi’s oldest existing African settlement, were owned by women who had accumulated wealth through prostitution and beer sales. Women in rural Atu, a coastal village in northern Kenya, invested their wealth in houses, gold ornaments and public feasts: Bujra, `Sexual Politics in Atu’, 15. But prostitution and accumulation were not necessarily correlated. Hausa prostitutes in the Sabo quarter of Ibadan gained autonomy rather than wealth: Cohen, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa, 66-7.

(65) Acquah, Accra Survey, 73.

(66) Cf. David Brokensha, Social Change at Larteh, Ghana (Oxford, 1966), 140.

(67) Acquah, Accra Survey, 74.

(68) The United African Company was formed in 1929 from the merger of the African Association, the Eastern Company and the Niger Company. All of these firms had been active in Gold Coast commerce for years. On the history of the United Africa Company, see Frederick Pedler, The Lion and the Unicorn in Africa: A History of the Origins of the United Africa Company, 1787-1931 (London, 1974).

(69) A. G. Leventis was a Cypriot trading firm. It disassociated itself from the oligopolistic activities of British firms like the UAC, and its shops, significantly, were spared by looters during the famous riots of February 1948: Dennis Austin, Politics in Ghana, 1946-1960 (London, 1964), 71.

(70) Interview with Laurence Cudjoe, et al., Sekondi, 27 May 1992.

(71) Interview with Opanin Kofi Twi, Opanin Kweku Makuronka, Opanin Kwabena Nketsia and Egya Ekow Baidoo, Sekondi, 20 May 1992. (72) Nwosu, `Prospect of Curbing the Spread of Sexually Transmitted Diseases’.

(73) See the papers and maps from the `Symposium on the City of Kumasi’, Research Rev. Suppl., v (1993); interview and tour of `historic’ Kumasi with Albert Mawere Poku, 20 Aug. 1994.

(74) Acquah, Accra Survey, 74.

(75) M. J. Field, Search for Security: An Ethno-Psychiatric Study of Rural Ghana (Evanston, 1960), 123. (76) `Petition from Ataa Baasi, Headwoman of the Baasi-women or Community in Kumasi, for herself and about 30 other women company’, Kumasi, 1943: NAG (Kumasi), item 2,339.

(77) Phyllis M. Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge, 1995), 139-40.

(78) The following argument owes much to an insightful discussion with Jean Allman.

(79) District Commissioner A. F. L. Wilkinson to A. C. Duncan-Johnstone Commissioner of Western Province, 30 July 1935: Rhodes House, Oxford, MSS Afr. S.713 (Wilkinson Papers).

(80) Memorandum, District Commissioner’s clerk, 30 July 1935: ibid.

(81) Jean M. Allman, `Adultery and the State: Gender, Class and Power in Asante, 1800-1950′ (paper presented at Harvard University, Mar. 1996).

(82) See T. C. McCaskie, `Accumulation, Wealth and Belief in Asante History: I, To the Close of the Nineteenth Century’, Africa, liii (1983); T. C. McCaskie, `Accumulation, Wealth and Belief in Assute History: II, The Twentieth Century’, Africa, lvi (1986).

(83) See Ashanti Pioneer, 27 Apr. 1955. Unfortunately, Atsa Baasi had passed away by the time I began fieldwork in Ghana in 1992. The information on her in the nationalist press is very sketchy.

(84) See Jean Allman, `Making Mothers: Missionaries, Medical Officers and Women’s Work in Colonial Asante, 1924-1945′, History Workshop II, no. 38 (Autumn 1994); Grier, `Pawns, Porters, and Petty Traders’.

(85) Roger Gocking, `Competing Systems of Inheritance before the British Courts of the Gold Coast’, Internat. Jl African Hist. Studies, xxiii (1990); also his `British Justice and the Native Tribunals of the Southern Gold Coast Colony’, Jl African Hist., xxxiv (1993).

(86) See, for example, Emmanuel Akyeampong, `What’s in a Drink? Class Struggle, Popular Culture and the Politics of Akpeteshie (Locad Gin) in Ghana, 1930-1967′, Jl African Hist., xxxvii (1996); Gareth Austin, `Capitalists and Chiefs m the Cocoa HoldUps in South Asante, 1927-1938′, Internat. Jl African Hist. Studies, xxi (1988); Jarle Simensen, `Nationalism from Below: The Akyem Abnakwa Example’, Communications from the Basel Africa Bibliography, xii (1975).

(87) Gareth Austin, `Human Pawning in Asante, 1800-1950: Markets and Coercion, Gender and Cocoa’, in Toyin Falola and Paul E. Lovejoy (eds.), Pawnship in Africa: Debt Bondage in Historical Perspective (Boulder, 1994); Grier, `Pawns, Porters, and Petty Traders’.

(88) See esp. Jean Allman, `Of “Spinsters”, “Concubines” and “Wicked Women”: Reflections on Gender and Social Change in Colonial Asante’, Gender and History, xxx (1991); see also her `Fathering, Mothering and Making Sense of Ntamoba: Reflections on the Economy of Child-Rearing in Colonial Asante’ (paper presented at the African Studies Association Meeting, Orlando, 1995); also her `Rounding Up Spinsters’.

(89) Naanen, `Itinerant Gold Mines’, 64.

(90) Bujra, `Sexual Politics in Atu’, 31.

(91) Cohen, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa, 51.

(92) Allman, `Rounding Up Spinsters’, 198. On the language of stereotype and public morality in gender relations, see Villia Jefremovas, `Loose Women, Virtuous Wives, and Timid Virgins: Gender and the Control of Resources in Rwanda’, Canadian Jl African Studies, xxv (1991). This discourse is in reality a contest over labour, resources and surplus.

(93) Roberts, `State and the Regulation of Marriage’, 57.

(94) Trading in Ghana, especially in foodstuffs, has been a female affair and an avenue for independence and economic self-sufficiency: Deborah Pellow, Women in Accra: Options for Autonomy (Algonac, 1977); Claire C. Robertson, Sharing the Same Bowl: A Socioeconomic History of Women and Class in Accra, Ghana (Bloomington, 1984); Gracia Clark, Onions are my Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women (Chicago, 1994).

(95) Brokensha, Social Change at Larteh, 146-9.

(96) Field, Search for Security; T. C. McCaskie, `Anti-Witchcraft Cults in Asante: An Essay in the Social History of an African People’, Hist. in Africa, viii (1981).

(97) See, for examples, M. E. Kropp Dakubu, `Creating Unity: The Context of Speaking Prose and Poetry in Ga’, Anthropos, xlxxvi, (1987), 519; McCaskie, `State and Society, Marriage and Adultery’.

(98) T. C. McCaskie, `Konnurokusem: Kinship and Family in the History of the Oyoko Kokoo Dynasty of Kumase’, Jl African Hist., xxxvi, 3 (1995), 377; Robertson, `Post-Proclamation Slavery in Accra’, 236.

(99) Bujra, `Women “Entrepreneurs” of Early Nairobi’, 224.

(100) Superintendent of Police (Ashanti) to Chief Commissioner of Ashanti, Kumasi, 27 Aug. 1943: NAG (Kumasi), `Prostitution’, item 2,339. (101) Allman, `Making Mothers’, 37.

(102) Robertson, `Post-Emancipation Slavery in Accra’, 241.

(103) See, in general, the essays in Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff (eds.), Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison, 1977).

(104) Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution, 23-30.

(105) Dorothy Dee Vellenga, `Who is a Wife? Legal Expressions of Heterosexual Conflicts in Ghana’, in Christine Oppong (ed.), Female and Male in West Africa (London, 1983), 145.

(106) See Carmel Dinan, `Sugar Daddies and Gold-Diggers: The White-Collar Single Women in Accra’, ibid.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Oxford University Press

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group