“The Christened Mulatresses”: Interracial Marriage in a Slave Trading Town on the Gold Coast

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:20 AM
Chamber Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Pernille Ipsen, University of Wisconsin–Madison
This paper focuses on the history of Ga-Danish marriages – the marriages were called cassare, borrowed from the Portuguese – in the town of Osu (present-day neighborhood in Accra) during the Atlantic slave trade and asks how these families fit into the larger story of Euro-African encounters during the slave trade. More specifically I focus on a few couples from the early 18th Century, when the Danes first settled in Osu, and compare them to a few other couples from the late 18th Century, when the Atlantic slave trade was at its highest. This comparison shows how individual interracial families were shaped by larger structures of Euro-African slave trading and, more broadly, an Atlantic European colonial plantation system, which over the eighteenth century was marked by an ever-stronger insistence on racial difference. My focus is particularly on the Ga women who married Danish men: I argue that Ga women could use their families with Danish men to claim a powerful room for maneuver in the coastal trade.

By comparing couples from early and late in the eighteenth century, the paper shows a trajectory of cultural production that is not obvious when focusing on individual events or decades. The story begins in the early eighteenth century, when Danish men were adopted by Ga families and went “native” in Osu. The women and their families gained access to European trading goods and connections to the Danish trade in return for helping the foreign traders settle and trade on the coast. When it ends, some Ga women had begun settling with their Danish husbands in European style stone-houses, with European furniture and cookware. By then Ga women embodied identities as “the Christened mulatresses” who occupied a particularly powerful place in the racial hierarchy of the Atlantic world.