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John Kabes of Komenda: An Early African Entrepreneur and State Builder

  • David Henige (a1)

The flowering of the Atlantic trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries caused many of the West African societies of the near hinterland to orient themselves increasingly toward the coast. This new focus created new geopolitical conformations. Given the nature of the stimulus, trade and politics went hand in hand and entrepreneurial ability could reap political rewards. These possibilities were greatest along the Gold Coast and in the Niger delta where the actual European presence was small in relation to the extent of the trade.

Such a trader cum political leader was John Kabes who, in a career spanning nearly forty years, established the paramount stool of Komenda, hitherto part of the inland state of Eguafo. Kabes began as a trader for the English (and sometimes for the Dutch) and gradually achieved political status which, however it may have been acquired, proved to be lasting because it was acceptable to existing political mores.

Such of Kabes's activities as are known suggest that his success sprang from his ability to wring advantage from the new exigencies of the time and place in ways which enabled him to acquire legitimacy as well as wealth and influence. Although Kabes's career is uniquely documented there is no reason to suppose that it was particularly unusual in its other facets. On this argument it can suggest ways in which other West African trade-derived polities, particularly in the Niger delta, may have coalesced.

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1 Edward Searle, Komenda, to CCC, 14 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1402. Unless otherwise indicated, all letters cited here originated from Komenda. The numbering of the letters in the Rawlinson collection conforms to a guide prepared in 1972, copies of which are located in the Bodleian Library and several other institutions.

2 I concentrate here on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for three reasons. First, it was the time in which John Kabes flourished. Second, the earlier period was not characterized by frequent socio-economic contact, was monopolized by the Portuguese, and is deficient in documentation. Finally, to include the nineteenth century, with the shift to legitimate commerce and its ramifications (particularly the markedly increased capacity and propensity of the Europeans to interfere, whether with gunboats or Bibles) would invalidate much of the analogy.

3 There is debate about the role and composition of the grumetes and about the various meanings of the term in the literature of the period. See especially Nardin J., ‘Recherche sur les “gourmets” d'Afrique occidentale’, Revue française d'histoire d'outre-mer, liii (1966), 215–44; Rodney Walter, A history of the Upper Guinea coast, 1545–1800 (Oxford, 1966), 77. 202; Boulègue Jean, Les Luso-Africains de Sénégambie (Dakar, 1972), 1114; Curtin Philip D., Economic change in pre-colonial Africa: Senegambia in the era of the slave trade (2 vols.: Madison, 1975), I, 95–7. For the lançados the most detailed treatment is da Silva M., ‘Subsídios para o estudo dos lançados na Guiné’, Boletim Cultural da Guiné Portuguesa, xxv (1970), 2540, 217–32, 397–420, 513–60.

4 Nardin, ‘Recherche,’ 234–5.

5 Rodney, Upper Guinea, 215 speaks of the grumetes as ‘completely detribalized’ — perhaps too severe a description.

6 For the Caulkers see Scotland D. W., ‘Notes on the Banana Islands, A.D. 1462–1846’, Sierra Leone Studies, n.s. xi (1958), 149–60; Fyfe Christopher, A history of Sierra Leone, (London, 1962), 10, 81, 248–50; Caulker Patrick, ‘The autochthonous people, British colonial policies, and the Creoles in Sierra Leone’, Ph.D. Thesis, Temple University, 1976.

7 Depending on how one defines ‘class’ it may be possible to argue that the grumetes did not constitute one, but I can envisage no definition of the term which would encompass the coastal middlemen traders of the Gold Coast. Hence I would disagree with Daaku K. Y.'s description of them as ‘a new class’ in chapter V of his Trade and politics on the Gold Coast, 1600–1720 (Oxford, 1970). For the Akani (ethnic group, social class, trading diaspora?) see Boahen A. A., ‘Arcany or Accany or Arcania and the accounts of the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans' records’, Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, xiv (1974), 105–12; Kea R. A., ‘Trade, state formation, and warfare on the Gold Coast, 1600–1826’, Ph.D. Thesis, University of London, 1974, 88155.

8 See Horton Robin, ‘From fishing village to city-state: a social history of New Calabar’, in Douglas Mary and Kaberry Phyllis, eds., Man in Africa, (Garden City, 1971), 3858. Several scholars, most notably E. J. Alagoa, have posited pre-contact dates for the establishment of several of the most important Niger delta states and argue that they only became more complex in response to the trade. Discussion of this point is deferred to the conclusion of this paper.

9 See instance, Lever J. T., ‘Mulatto influence on the Gold Coast in the early nineteenth century’, African Historical Studies, iii (1970), 253–61. None of the important Cape Coast leaders, e.g., Edward Barter, Thomas Awishee, or Cudjoe Caboceer, have yet received extended attention.

10 For purposes of this paper ‘Komenda’ refers to the town of that name on the coast (which was variously named by the Fante, Portuguese, Dutch, and English) while ‘Eguafo’ refers to the state then usually called ‘Grand Commany’, to which the town then belonged.

11 Bosman Willem, A new and accurate description of the coast of Guinea, (London, 1705). 30–1. For the personal relations between Kabes and Bosman see below, pp. 16–7. The only other detailed source for Kabes so far utilized by historians is the diary of Baillie William, agent at Komenda from 1714 to 1716, T70/1464, PRO.

12 E.g., Claridge W. W., A history of the Gold Coast and Ashanti (2 vols.: London, 1915), I, 146–7.

13 Daaku, Trade and politics, 115–27.

14 I refer here to the correspondence in Rawlinson C.745–7, Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the James Phipps papers in the Public Record Office, Chancery Masters Exhibits, C113/261–95.

15 Daaku, Trade and politics, 115; Harper C. H., Report of Commission of Enquiry … into the relationship of the stools of Nkusukum and Commendak (Gold Coast. Sessional Paper #5 of 1917/18), 25; editorial notes to 1967 reprint of Bosman, Description, 514.

16 In 1702 the Director-General at Elmina spoke of Kabes as ‘nephew to the Great Mercador Aban’ of Elmina: William de la Palma to X, 26 June 1702, WIC 198. The English agent at Komenda noted that Kabes had a ‘cozen’ in Dutch service: William Cross to CCC, 18 Mar. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #830. See also pp. 6, n. 23.

17 Cross to CCC, 18 Mar. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #830; similarly, Cross to CCC, 14 Sept. 1686, Rawlinson C.746, #1013.

18 The first mention of this John Cabessa seems to be in 1663 when he was called ‘the Captain of the Hill’ in Kormantin and was firmly engaged in the English interest there, so much so that in a skirmish with the townspeople he was wounded in the head. Thomas Davies et al., Kormantin, to East India Company, London, 4 Mar. 1665, Original Correspondence, E/3/27, fos. 194v-195, India Office Records, London.

19 Great Britain. Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series: America and the West Indies, 1661–1668, (London, 1880), 294. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally some later Komenda traditions associated Commeh, who they thought had founded the town, with Kormantin. See Henige D., “The problem of feedback in oral tradition: four examples from the Fame coastland’, J. Afr. Hist., xiv (1973), 229–30.

20 The name Kabes and its variants was presumably of Portuguese origin (‘cabeça’ meaning ‘corporal’ and the like) but in this instance at least it seems to have become somewhat of a family name. There is no evidence that Kabes was either Christian or educated. The few letters in the Rawlinson correspondence from him seem to have been written for him by someone at Komenda fort.

21 Compare, for example, the terms of the agreement of 1686 with the actions of the Eguafo rulers in 1714, below, pp. 16–17.

22 Komenda Diary sub 29 May 1716, T70/1464, PRO.

23 Tando had fled to Elmina from Komenda in 1714 when he was described as a ‘nephew’ of Kabes. The Dutch alleged that Tando had been born at Komenda: Elmina Journal sub 27 Dec. 1714, WIC 124. I owe this reference to Albert van Dantzig.

24 Phipps et al. to RAC, 2 July 1722, C113/274, 240–241v. The Dutch also feared disorders and their Agent at Fort Vredenburg ‘urgently’ requested powder: Elmina Journal, 23 June 1722, Furley Collection, Balme Library, University of Ghana, 1715–30, 1718–23, pp. 223. The details of this succession are discussed below, pp. 13–4.

25 For French activities see Wiltgen R. M., Gold Coast mission history, 1471–1880 (Techny, Ill., 1956), 4254, 59–60, 64–6, and sources cited there; Villault de Bellefond Nicolas, Relation des costes d'Afrique appélés Guinée (Paris, 1669), 191–3; Roussier Paul, ed., L'établissement d'lssiny, 1687–1702 (Paris, 1935), x–xviii. For a recapitulation of the Dutch and English activities see Daaku, Trade and Politics, 7880, and van Dantzig A. and Priddy B., A short history of the forts and castles of Ghana (Accra, 1971), 10.

26 See, for instance, Lionel Staveley, Kormantin, to East India Company, 1 May 1658, Original Correspondence, E/3/25, #2648, India Office Records, London.

27 Bosman, Description, 2930; undated memorandum of Dalby Thomas [?], C113/291, 24–24v, PRO. See also van Dantzig A., ‘English Bosman and Dutch Bosman: a comparison of texts’, History in Africa, ii (1975), 214, n. 26.

28 James Nightingale to CCC, 16 Nov. 1681, Rawlinson C.745, #125; same to same, 19 Jan. 1682, Rawlinson C.745, #223.

29 Daaku, Trade and politics, 118–23.

30 Undated and unsigned treatise (probably Dalby Thomas, c. 1708), C113/274, 272. Some of Kabes's activities as a supplier as discussed in Daaku, Trade and politics, 120–2.

31 Patrick Edward to CCC, 19 Nov. 1717, 3 Dec. 1717, C113/275, 126, 127. Sometimes, though, corn was shipped from Cape Coast to Komenda: e.g., Thomas to RAC, 25 Apr. 1707, in Davenant, Writings, 5: 218.

32 Komenda Diary sub 21 June 1715, 28 June 1715, 23 July 1715, T/70/1464, PRO.

33 William Ronan to CCC, 30 Nov. 1691, Rawlinson C.747, #2788. Ronan was one of the Chief Agents at Cape Coast, sent down to supervise the intended re-establishment.

34 Ronan to CCC, 30 Nov., 2 Dec. 1691, Rawlinson C.747, #2789, 2790. The attempt was abandoned immediately after the last letter.

35 Thomas Willson to CCC, 1 Dec. 1694, Rawlinson C.747, #3046; Edward Searle to CCC, 8 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1395; same to same, 15 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1406. For Kabes's instrumental help in building the factory in 1686 see Cross to CCC, 8 Dec. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1107.

36 For such payments see below, pp. 10.

37 Du Casse's account in Roussier, L'établissement, 1626; Daaku, Trade and politics 80–1.

38 Cross to CCC, 26 Mar. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #835.

39 That is, to Apr. of 1688, after which there are no more letters until Nov. of 1691.

40 See below, pp. 15–16. Perhaps Kabes realized that the English felt a greater need to remain at Komenda than did the Dutch, already established at both Elmina and Shama. Still, there is ample evidence that the Dutch courted Kabes assiduously.

41 Dalby Thomas opined that Komenda was ‘like to be the best [point of trade] on the coast’ and the Mareen of Eguafo, the official designated to deal with the Europeans on commercial matters, had gone to reside there. Thomas to RAC, 1 Aug. 1706, T70/5,. 17v-18. See also Daaku, Trade and politics, 116–8.

42 Komenda Diary sub 29 May 1715, 11 Aug. 1715, T70/1464, PRO.

43 Bennett Thomas, CCC, to RAC, 3 Jan. 1717, T70/6, 45. Bennett complained that Kabes was ‘never punished for clandestine trading while Commenda was held on the Company's account but has been since it was on the Chief's [Bleau's] account’: Ibid. 47. Details of Bleau's and Baillie's arrangement are not available but presumably they differed little from the terms under which Bennett held Accra at about the same time. For these see C113/292, 16–16v. We do have the instructions given to Edward Patrick, Baillie's successor at Komenda, dd. 15 June 1716. C115/261, PRO.

44 John Rootsey to CCC, 6 Apr. 1697, Rawlinson C.746, #1947; Komenda Diary sub 23 Feb. 1715, 29 Mar. 1715, 10 May 1715, T70/1464, PRO.

45 E.g., see Cross to CCC, 14 July 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #930; Samuel Chambers to CCC, 5 July 1687, Rawlinson C.747, #2302; Robert Elwes to CCC, 25 Aug. 1687, Rawlinson C.747, #2355; Searle to CCC, 13 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1395; Gerrard Gore to CCC, 7 July 1698, Rawlinson C.747, #3790.

46 For some indication of the variety of goods stocked by the Royal African Company see Davies K. G., The Royal African Company, (London, 1957), 170–9, 350–7, and Johnson M., ‘The Ounce in eighteenth-century west African trade’, J. Afr. Hist., vii (1966), 197214. Neither of these discusses the varying demand from place to place on the coast.

47 If anything, the local correspondence suggests that Dutch-made goods, especially Flemish sayes and brass pans (which were lighter in weight than those manufactured in England) were in greater demand than comparable English goods.

48 Clearly price was an important factor, but quality and utility also mattered. We know that price levels were negotiable (and negotiated); so too, we must assume, were these non-price factors but since any such accommodations would not appear in the account books, there is no useful way to measure them.

49 Barbot Jean, ‘Journal du voyage de Guinée, Cayenne et Illes Antilles de l'Ameréque, Aos 1678 et 1679’, British Museum, Add. 28788.

50 E.g., Bosman, Description, 27; Barbot, A description of the coasts of North and South-Guinea, (London, 1732), 154; de Bellefond Villault, Relation, 191–2; Du Casse in Roussier, L'établissement, 10, 33. Dapper, Ogilby and other compilations naturally reflect this as well.

51 For instance, the ground rent for Komenda fort was paid to the Head Caboceer of Komenda rather than to the agent of the Eguafo ruler after the 1730s. T70/411, 23v; T70/417, 10, PRO.

52 What part he did play will be discussed in the next section.

53 Cross to CCC, 8 Dec. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1107.

54 This judgment is based on numerous letters in the Rawlinson series from 1685 to 1688 and 1694 to 1696.

55 T70/1463 sub 26 Feb., 28 Feb., 14 Mar., 16 Mar., 20 Mar. 1704. The English seemed to feel (and, in the event, correctly) that the Eguafo ruler would be more amenable to their threats than Kabes. Pace Daaku, Trade and politics, 122, there is no evidence that Kabes played any part in persuading the Eguafo ruler to disavow his sale of the hill to the Dutch.

56 Komenda Diary sub 24 Nov. 1714, T70/1464, PRO.

57 Searle to CCC, 23 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1419; same to same, 3 Mar. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1431.

58 Howsley Freeman to CCC, 21 May 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1511- More on Kabes and the Adorns is in Gerrard Gore to CCC, 8 Feb. 1700, in Davenant, Writings, 5: 205–6. In these cases the distinction between panyarring as a kind of personal, civil action and warfare as a public, military action is not always clear. That is, Kabes may merely have been panyarring in some of the instances cited.

59 Thomas Willson to CCC, 30 Nov. 1694, Rawlinson C. 747, #3045; Searle to CCC, 8 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1395.

60 Gore to CCC, 21 June 1698, Rawlinson C.747, #3778.

61 Komenda Diary sub 4 Nov. 1714, 10 May 1715, 16 July 1715, 15 Aug. 1815 T70/1464; Williams William to CCC, 17 Jan. 1718, C113/275, 131; Phipps et al. to RAC, 2 July 1722, C113/274, 240v.

62 Resolution of Elmina Council dd. 8 Apr. 1717, WIC 124.

63 Phipps et al. to RAC, 2 July 1722, C113/274, 240–241v See above, pp. 6.

64 Ibid.; Valckenier, Elmina, to Tinker, CCC, 5 Feb. 1724, NBKG 91, FC 1715–30, 1724–6, pp. 110. Remember that Kabes had a son named Aq[g]ua who might, in the course of succeeding his father, have come to be known as ‘Ahenaqua’. Elsewhere he was called the ‘descendant’ of Kabes: Elmina Journal sub 13 Feb. 1723, FC1715–50, 1718–23, pp. 263.

65 Husband and Chalmers, CCC, to Elmina, 24 Nov. 1743, FC1731–57, 1740–6, pp. 188.

66 T70/1063 sub 28 Oct. 1793; T70/1069 sub 4 Jan. 1796; various entries in T70/1121, T70/1122, T70/1123; Watts Martin to CCC, 9 May 1779, UAC International, London.

67 A point noted by Daaku, Trade and politics, 115.

68 Robert Elwes to CCC, 24 Oct. 1687, Rawlinson C.747, #2337; same to same, 12 Aug. 1687, Rawlinson C.747, #2342.

69 Cross to CCC, 24 Oct. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1047.

70 Freeman to CCC, 20 Aug. 1698, Rawlinson C.747, #3828. Gore remained with the RAC and eventually rose to be the senior of the three Chief Agents at Cape Coast, dying there in 1717: Phipps and Bleau to RAC, 6 Feb. 1717, T70/6, 48, PRO.

71 Gore, Phipps, and Bleau, CCC, to RAC, 23 Mar. 1715, T7O/6, s; Francia Anthony, CCC, to RAC, 11 Mar. 1715, T70/6, 9. Francia thought this a pretext to replace him with Baillie, ‘a friend of Mr Bleau'’ who held Komenda on his own account. In this he was probably at least partly right, but the Agents' argument, whether or not specious, suggests the attitude of the RAC toward placating Kabes. For a full account of Francia's alleged activities see unsigned [but probably Thomas Bennett] Report dd. 21 Jan. 1716, 0113/294, 20–7, PRO. Another account noted that Kabes had reported Francia's illegal activities to the authorities at Cape Coast: ‘Papers relating to a Portuguese ship run on shore at Accra, [December], 1715’, C113/291, 3. PRO.

72 As far as I know, there is no information as to whether the agents sent to Komenda were first evaluated for a capacity to exist in harmony with Kabes; apparently, they were not. The Agents at Cape Coast Castle could, if occasion demanded, serve as a convenient counterpoise to their representative at Komenda who served as a ‘lightning rod’. This occurred several times in addition to the three instances of replacement.

73 Cross to CCC, 30 July 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #957; same to same, 20 Nov. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1082; Willson to CCC, 1 Dec. 1694, Rawlinson C.747, #3046; Searle to CCC, 8 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1395.

74 To judge, that is, from the comments in Elwes to CCC, 15 Jan. 1688, Rawlinson C.747, #2558.

75 William Ronan to CCC, 30 Nov. 1691, Rawlinson C.747, #3788; same to same, 30 Nov. 1691, Rawlinson C.747, #3789.

76 Ronan to CCC, 2 Dec. 1691, Rawlinson C.747, #2790. According to Ronan: ‘We must make a country voyage of it’.

77 Searle to CCC, 8 Feb. 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1395. According to Bosnian, Description, 31, Kabes ‘invited’ the English, but this is not corroborated by the Komenda correspondence. Bosman's chronology is weak here, for he seems to place the ‘invitation’ after an event which is to be dated later in 1695.

78 Pearson Josiah, Anamabu, to RAC, 23 Mar. 1704, T70/5, 9, PRO. Daaku, Trade and politics, 118–9, discusses this episode. The Phipps papers, especially C113/280, offer much comment on the perversities of Thomas's behaviour.

79 Cross to CCC, 14 Sept. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1013. Du Casse ascribed the panyarring to Kabes's friendly treatment of the French in 1685. Roussier, L'établissement, 16–7.

80 Nikolaas Sweerts, Elmina, to CCC, 21 Sept. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1017.

81 Cross to CCC, 25 Sept. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1025; same to same, 24 Oct. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #1047.

82 By his own account Bosman was in charge of Fort Vredenburg sometime in 1695 when it was attacked by the West India Company's ‘enemies’: Description, 27–8. This must have been the attack on the Dutch fort (‘they plied them pretty thick until 1 in the morning’) described by Searle in his letter of 2 Mar. 1695, Rawlinson, C.746, #1431. Bosman also described a skirmish with Kabes: Description, 30–1. See also De la Palma to X, 26 June 1702, WIC 98, who wrote that Kabes refused to come to Elmina ‘as a result of his fear of William Bosman who, on the orders of Director-General [Jan] Staphorst [who held office from 1694 to 1696] had the design of shooting him with a pistol’.

83 Freeman to CCC, 26 June 1695, Rawlinson C.746, #1544.

84 Cross to CCC, 26 Mar. 1686, Rawlinson C.745, #835. Cf. the account of Du Casse in Roussier, L'établissement, 16.

85 Du Casse in ibid., 23. The context does not suggest that the goods had been entrusted to Kabes during the French reconnoitering expedition in 1686.

86 Alagoa E. J., A history of the Niger delta, (Ibadan, 1972), 138–53; Jones G. I., The trading states of the Oil Rivers, (London, 1963), 133–4; Latham A. J. H., Old Calabar, 1600–1891, (Oxford, 1973), 11–3, 36–7, 45–6.

87 Alagoa, ‘Long distance trade and states in the Niger delta’, J. Afr. Hist., xi (1970), 317–29; idem, History, 134, 138–9, 144, 149–50, 152–3, 158–9; Isichei Elizabeth, The Ibo people and the Europeans, (London, 1973), 32.

88 Ogedengbe K. O., ‘Aboh chronology’, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Philadelphia, 1972, where a date of c. 1680 is suggested; In Onitsha the first historical (i.e., non-mythicized) ruler seems to be Chima in the fourth generation before the oba ruling in 1832: Henderson Richard N., The king in every man (New Haven, 1972), 447–8.

89 For much of Kabes's career and for most of the period of English activity on the Gold Coast before the nineteenth century we must depend on tertiary reports—abstracts made in London of syntheses from the outforts prepared by the Agents at Cape Coast Castle. To appreciate the problem we might compare the three-word abstract (‘John Cabess dead’) in T70/7, 34, with the more than 400-word description of his death and obsequies in C113/274, 240–241v. This renders it somewhat hazardous to venture statements such as ‘all these [untoward] incidents [between Kabes and the English] occurred between 1714 and 1716 when the tactless Baillie was posted to Komenda’: Daaku, Trade and politics, 127. We now know differently.

* I would like to thank Albert van Dantzig and Joseph Lauer for commenting on various parts of previous drafts of this paper. I have used the following abbreviations: CCC, Cape Coast Castle; RAC, Royal African Company; PRO, Public Record Office, London.

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