Abina and the Important Men: Silence and Voice in a Testimonial of Enslavement

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:40 AM
Clark Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Trevor R. Getz, San Francisco State University
This paper is an interpretation of the testimony of Abina Mansah, a young woman enslaved in the Gold Coast Colony and self-liberated under British law in 1876. It is also an exploration of the ethical, methodological, and philosophical issues surrounding the attempt to "excavate subaltern voices". My interpretation suggests that Mansah was a conscious agent of history-making whose main purpose in bringing her former master to court was to have her voice heard and recorded, but that the language of the court and the cultural understandings of its officers operated to submerge that voice even in recording it. Nevertheless, it is possible to excavate that voice because Mansah consciously constructed her testimony as an appeal to have her experiences "heard" and through several fortuitious circumstances in the recording and preservation of her testimony. However, the paper also warns that this is not the case in most testimonies of former slaves in the Gold Coast records because of the very different motivations of the former slave witnesses and the ways in which these cases came to the court, were recorded, and were preserved. As a result, it suggests serious limitations in the ability of historians' to recover the perspectives of former slaves in these records, with wider implications for other regions and times.