Sex work among the pre-colonial Akan

Since I wrote this post on sex work in pre-colonial Igboland, my interest in sex work as it exists (or not) in the history of West African peoples grew immensely. I was especially pleased to come across, Emmanuel Akyeampong’s research on sexuality and prostitution among the Akan of the Gold Coast, looking through the years from 1650-1950. Akyeampong examines prostitution and the politics of sex among the Akan in the pre-colonial era and then goes on to note how this changed with colonialism.

The “public women”
Like Igboland, sex work in the pre-colonial Gold Coast did not involve male pimps. Pre-colonially, there were public women, as Akyeampong refers to them, slaves bought by the political elite of Akan villages and towns that were compelled to provide sexual services for local bachelors. The presence of these public women was well noted by Europeans who lived and travelled among the south-west Akan groups of Esuma, Nzima, Evalue and Ahanta between the 17th and 19th centuries.

The institution of public women was created to cater to the sexual needs of unmarried men. Society clearly recognised their sexuality while simultaneously controlling the sexuality of women, especially married women, public women existed so that bachelors would have no excuses to engage in sexual relations with “free” women thus leading to adultery fines. Akyeampong mentioned the Twi proverb “mmarima ni ho a, mmaa basia yi won ho kyere” (when men are absent, women expose their nudity) to illustrate that the Akan believed female sexuality must always be controlled by male and female elders. Women were expected to fulfil sexual desires in marriage, which was monogamous for them. Fidelity was stressed for women, who were expected to marry though not all did. In my understanding, these Akan societies practised polygamy, and some individuals betrothed their daughters when they were still children, leading to a shortage of unmarried women that the bachelors could “alleviate” their sexual pressures with. Furthermore sex with married women if discovered lead to adultery fines at the least. The public women were essentially the “wives” of all bachelors in a given community, and if a married man was caught soliciting a public woman he would be fined for adultery.

The imbalance in sex ratios caused by polygamy threatened to disrupt relations between young men and the elders who controlled all the land and agricultural production. It was the male elders that also granted land to young men who they deemed fit to be independent, as well as wives. By installing the institution of public women, elders ensured that tensions were reduced with young bachelors while reinforcing existing structures of gerontocracy and patriarchy. Akyeampong argues that public women were actually public servants, as older public women in Assini received pensions from the King.

Public women became pawns in trading relations between Europeans and the Akan, as Europeans would kidnap and hold public women when they had disputes with locals according to Bosman. This would lead to the bachelors petitioning the elders to listen to the Europeans in order to get their public women back. The institution of public women apparently disappeared in the 19th century.

European observers
Olfret Dapper the Dutch physician and author of the book, Description of Africa (1668), visited Axim in the 1660s, when the town had a population of about 500. Dapper wrote about villages maintaing “two or three whores whom they called Abrakees“. Abrakees* were slaves initiated in public by Kabaseros (older, experienced public women) with the use of blood offerings and incantations that instil fear into the woman, convincing her that if she denies any bachelor that approaches her for sexual services, she will die. The Abrakee hands everything she gains from her sex work to the Kabasero and is granted the freedom to take foodstuff from anywhere, whether someone else’s house or in the market, for herself without having to pay. Interestingly Dapper notes that as part of the public initiation someone has to take the Abrakee away to make sure that she is “not a man but a woman”. Public women were indeed public, apart from being initiated in public, they were put on stools and carried on the shoulders of men around the village so that I guess everyone would know who they were. They were also expected to dance and drink in public during initiation, and then sit on a mat positioned near the marketplace wearing beads, clean clothes and lime or chalk decorations on their skin, collecting money from anyone who passed by.

Another Dutchman in Axim, this time in the 1700s wrote that young men would go and ask the elders to purchase a “common whore” for them. According to Willem Bosman merchant with the Dutch West India company, the purchased woman is brought to the marketplace by another woman who acts as her instructor. Part of Bosman’s account of the initiation involves a young boy pretending to have sex with the public woman so as to symbolise her reception of all men who demand her services. Bosman notes that public women lived on the outskirts of the village. Jean Godot who visted Assini a town to the west of Axim and in present-day Ivory Coast in 1701 noted that the king of Assini maintained six public women in every village and town who wore white headwraps to distinguish themselves from other women and lived on the outskirts of towns and villages where they provided sexual services to all bachelors.

Another European who noted and wrote on public women include A. Van der Eb, the General Director of the Dutch West India Company in the Gold Coast in his 1851 memorandum on the customs of the region. He notes that public women were paid in gold-dust, and that the only men who didn’t pay were those who slept with them first after their initiation.

The distinguished women who refused marriage
There is little mention of another kind of sex worker, different from the public women observed by Europeans in pre-colonial Akan societies. One Pieter de Marees in 1602 regarded coastal Akan women as being “prone to whoredom and promiscuity” especially with the Dutchmen, and a Jean Barbot noted that etiguafou were “distinguished from others by their fine appearance and clothing”. Bosman mentioned Elmina, Fetu, Asebu and Fantyn (presumably Fante) women who exchanged sex for a negotiated price. And then there is a Bowdich who in the early 19th century commented on the numerous prostitutes among the Asante stating that no Asante man forces his daughter to marry the man he wants her to, but disowns her if she refuses leading her to resort to sex work in order to support herself.

Yet information on such women is lacking when compared to that available on public women. These women were not slaves and became sex workers after asserting their autonomy.

Legacy of pre-colonial sex work
Akyeampong pays a lot of attention to how sex work changed during colonialism, and the differences between the new “urban prostitution” and the older forms. Colonialism brought about social changes that lead to women seeking independence and material accumulation through sex work as they now had more opportunities to accumulate wealth. They exerted their own will by stepping outside traditional constraints imposed on women, the emphasis on marriage and fidelity for women, the gerontocracy and patriarchy, and the control over sexuality maintained by the elders. Yet the pre-colonial influences remained in the use of ritual by sex workers for spiritual protection, and by the desires of urban sex workers to gain official recognition. (In 1943, an organised group of sex workers living in and around a street in Kumasi, the Baasifuo Community put forward a petition to the Chief Commissioner seeking recognition from the colonial government. They wanted the colonial government to grant their community a license and access to medical attention for a fee). Like public women, sex workers in colonial Gold Coast lived on the boundaries of towns, they also enjoyed freedom from male pimps even though they did sometimes employ men who got them clients on a commission.

In colonial Gold Coast, sex workers controlled their own sexuality and wealth which threatened some men. Sex work came to be seen as connected with women who were wealthy and exercised sexual autonomy, as well as venereal diseases and witchcraft.

*Akyeampong suggests that abrakee is a combination of aba’a, abea (woman) and akyere (a person to be sacrificed) which may explain the religious ritual purification and public display that surrounded the initiation of public women. In fact the initiation of public women bears similarities to those of priestesses, and they both enjoyed sexual agency sanctioned by society unlike other women in Akan society. Priestesses regarded market as a sacred space, and used beads, white clay and cloth in their initiations. They could never marry as they were already married to the deities they worshipped, custom allowed them to have as many lovers as they pleased. Basically a priestess could call upon any man they fancied, and the men would have to respond for fear of the consequences from the deity she worshipped. She would have sex with the man until she grew bored and found a new lover, her lovers lived with her and apparently some priestess had harems containing up to six men. Sometimes these men would follow them when they went out walking.

What I read
Akyeampong Emmanuel, “Sexuality and Prostitution among the Akan of the Gold Coast c. 1650-1950”, Past & Present, No. 156 (Aug., 1997), pp. 144-173

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