A Brief History of The Gambia's Aku
I've always found the history of the Aku, my mother's people, particularly fascinating because it underscores The Gambia's cultural diversity and shines a light on an under-told part of the slave trade.
The Akus (also known as Krios) are a minority Gambian ethnic group that migrated to the Senegambia region from Sierra Leone during the 19th Century. They comprise 2 - 5% of the Gambian population, are primarily Christian, and speak Aku (Krio), a language similar to the English-based Sierra Leonean Krio.
The Aku are a mixture of recently freed slaves who were liberated on the high seas by the British in West Africa and freed slaves returning from the diaspora from such places as the US, the Caribbean and Nova Scotia. Many of the freed slaves were of Yoruba descent, which is why it is common to find Aku with Yoruba names — like many people in my mother's family.
You can also see the direct link to the Aku's Nigerian ancestry through the word ashobie. In Krio, ashobie is a word used to describe group outfits worn on special occasions such as weddings and funerals. Among the Yoruba, who also engage in the practice of ashobie, the word is aso ebi. The pouring of libations to recognize ancestors is another Aku tradition that stems from Yoruba culture.
In March 1807, the British abolished the slave trade, but illegal slave traders continued to smuggle slaves to the British West Indies and other countries. Because of the harsh conditions in the New World plantations, slaves often died, so plantations were in frequent need of new workers. Despite the inherent risk involved, illegal traders who could evade capture by the British navy made a huge profit. During this period, the Royal Navy's West Africa Squadron patrolled the seas liberating around 150,000 enslaved Africans and returning them to Sierra Leone.
Some of the liberated people returned to their hometown of Abeokuta, Nigeria, in Ogun State, a traditional part of Yorubaland. The name Abeokuta means "underneath the rock" or "refuge among rocks" and was used as a place of refuge from slave hunters from Dahomey. There, the Krio returnees became prominent businessmen and traders.
According to Godfrey Mwakikagile, during the 1830s, the British began moving many of the Aku who remained in Sierra Leone to The Gambia. As one of the first African groups to be exposed to a Western education, the Aku had skills the local Gambian tribes did not, giving them a privileged status in the colonial hierarchy. Many Aku have English surnames adopted from the merchants they trained under. In some ways, the relationship between the Aku and other ethnic groups resembled the relationship between Americo-Liberians and other ethnic groups in Liberia where the new arrivals began to dominate local politics. In an ironic twist, the Aku played a pivotal role in pushing for Gambian independence.
Many thanks to my Aunt Dayo Forster, who helped supplement some of the historical details of this blog post.