“These poor girls”

By Nodjimadji Stringfellow

Travelers often documented early encounters between Africans and Europeans through images, oral accounts and literary descriptions of African people and their customs, which then spread through Europe. These resources were fundamental in creating a shared European understanding of the superiority of Western civilized society in comparison to the backwards African lifestyle. Such accounts show the importance of understanding who has a monopoly on producing knowledge of different cultures and peoples and how this could obscure the lived reality in these communities. William Hutton’s A voyage to Africa: including a narrative of an embassy to one of the interior kingdoms, in the year 1820; with remarks on the course and termination of the Niger, and other principal rivers in that country is a representative example of such an account in which Hutton distorts the experiences of African girls in order to further consolidate the superiority of Western ways over African customs. Through his description, Hutton offers a British colonial perspective on precolonial interracial relationships between European men and African women in the Gold Coast by reducing their diverse experiences solely to coerced marriages in order to separate shameful European men who embraced African customs from the civilized ones.

In his book, Hutton retraces his experience in the Gold Coast drawing from 11 years of observation and political involvement. As he describes different customs and practices, he briefly touches on the phenomenon of interracial concubinage between European men and African women. In this particular observation, Hutton frowns upon the European men who partake in polygamous relationships and obtain “poor [African] girls” from their mothers by providing items such as tabacco, liquor and cloth.[1] Through this description, Hutton reveals an important component that shaped the experiences of African girls in the precolonial Gold Coast: interracial relationships with European men. However, his word choice, his political standing and the social context at the time reveal the different ways in which these relationships were perceived and their impact on the girls’ lives.

In his description of interracial concubinage, Hutton clearly expresses his disapproval of polygamy as a practice and particularly of the European men who “degrade themselves by keeping two or three women at a time”.[2] The use of the word “degrade” implies a lowering of the European men’s status due to their polygamous relationships. This idea of downward mobility establishes a hierarchy in which Hutton and Western customs are placed above that of Africans. Additionally, Hutton also places a sense of blame on these men as they are the ones to degrade themselves, inferring that they should know better than to partake in uncivilized African practices. As explained by Jennifer Morgan in her book Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery, European travelers generally saw socio-sexual deviance as a lack of civility. Indeed, “deviant sexual behavior reflected the breakdown of natural laws – the absence of shame, the inability to identify lines of heredity and descent”.[3] This logic is echoed in Hutton’s moral judgment of the European men who crossed the line by giving in to sexual deviance.

Despite Hutton’s disapproval, interracial relationships in the pre-colonial Gold Coast were in fact widely common and publicly legitimate as Carina Ray explains in her book Crossing the Color Line: Race, Sex, and the Contested Politics of Colonialism in Ghana. Ray goes as far as to call this phenomenon an “iconic feature of the coast’s precolonial history”.[4] As the consul for the kingdom of Ashantee (Ghana), Hutton’s different stance on the matter could be attributed to his position as a governmental figure making him more likely to embrace early British colonial ideology that would later be enforced with the establishment of the colonial British regime in the Gold Coast in 1874.

Interracial marriages were more than just publicly recognized: they constituted a sexual economy allowing for the consolidation of Afro-European economic and political relations. Not only did they reflect the integration of European men in the social-cultural environment of the Gold Coast but they also enabled African women to make entrepreneurial niches for themselves. Although Ray presents these intermarriages through a positive lens it is important, as she points out, to not overlook other types of encounters such as rape and sexual exploitation as part of the history of these relationships as well.[5] Hutton however goes in the opposite direction by presenting coerced marriages as the default model of interracial experiences and places African girls solely as victims of these practices. Moreover, he reaffirms their victimhood by shaming the girls’ mothers for complying with the European men’s desires and accepting the items. Once again Hutton is using European customs and values of motherhood and decency as the basis for his moral judgment. Although his observations remain an informational account of the experiences of some African girls they offer an incomplete picture of their relationships and obscure their agency and that of their families. This depiction allows Hutton to further shame the European men involved for taking advantage of these “poor girls” by using their mothers.

Hutton’s overall reasoning displays the British colonial mindset regarding interracial relationships. Indeed, with the establishment of colonial rule about 54 years after Hutton’s stay, there was a drastic shift away from the popularity and acceptance of interracial relations. The sexual economy attached to such relations was no longer of use to the British who now imposed their regime rather than negotiated their presence. Europeans also distanced themselves from customary practices that they once embraced, looking down on the idea of integration. The colonial British regime instated punitive consequences for the European men who would still engage in these relationships – leading to secretive and fewer relationships. Although Hutton’s moral objection of these practices is aligned with colonial discourses, not everyone embraced this change. Some Europeans were still willing to pursue these relationships despite the obstacles put in place by the British regime. Additionally, Gold Coasters occasionally expressed nostalgic feelings for times when these interracial marriages were common and accepted. This sentiment “highlights ways in which they remembered precolonial interracial sexual relationship in ways that emphasizes their honor and respectability”.[6] Thus, Hutton’s colonial perspective overlooks the opinion of local communities regarding this practice and instead focuses on demonizing and shaming the men who have abandoned his British colonial ideals of civilization. Through his presentation of these men as a group of irresponsible Europeans having gone astray, Hutton attempts to pave way for Britain to assert control over these deviant white men through a colonial project.

[1] William Hutton, A Voyage to Africa: Including a Narrative of an Embassy to One of the Interior Kingdoms, In the Year 1820; with Remarks On the Course and Termination of the Niger, and Other Principal Rivers In That Country, 89-90, 1821, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

[2] Ibid

[3] Jennifer Morgan, Early American Studies: Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 16-17.

[4] Carina Ray, Crossing the Color Line: Race, Sex, and the Contested Politics of Colonialism in Ghana (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015), 3.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ray, Crossing the Color Line), 4.