Ama A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade

Ama A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Until the full story of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath becomes firmly

embedded in the curriculum of American schools . . .  until that time

black and white Americans will continue to find it difficult to talk to one another.



Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 

By Manu Herbstein 


Herbstein’s historical “faction” successfully blends extensive and meticulous research with abundant imagination to transport the reader into the violent world of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Ama is as much about the violence of colonialism, patriarchy, female sexuality or gendered reproduction, economic production and the site of imperial contest, racial difference, as it is about resistance. Ama’s journey allows us to read the complexities and contradictions of the time, where all classes, free and slave, women and men, black, white and mulatto are in some way interrelated in a dynamic that results from relations of power. 

Herbstein . . . (re) claims and (re) surfaces a version of the past and this too is an act of resistance, a struggle for the politicization of memory that serves to illuminate and transform the present.


Shereen Essof, African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town, South Africa The Voice of the Turtle, November, 2003.


Ama is a sweeping story of Africans caught up in the Atlantic slave trade. Crafted by Manu Herbstein, a native South African who has been a long-time resident of Ghana, the book is more carefully researched than some more widely acclaimed novels dealing with Africans in the Diaspora.


Christopher R. DeCorse, Syracuse University


This book review chronicles the result of a project on the Atlantic slave trade and reparations in a semester-length History of Africa class for advanced undergraduates.

Ama, who is the eponymous heroine acting among historical characters and events, introduced 13 male and 17 female students from ethnically diverse backgrounds to difficult issues raised in the project. All students agreed: Ama riveted them to the mind and heart of a courageous female slave. She became their sister, their universal family member – we are all Africans; she touched them.

In class discussions and summary/reaction journal entries, students came away shocked and transformed. “Why was I not told about this in public school?” was a refrain. So, by the project’s end Ama had begun a new journey; she had convinced almost all students that reparations is not about whether or not, but rather in what inclusive form.


Kenneth Wilburn, Department of History, East Carolina University


Ama is a story of struggle, resistance and inner strength. Great attention is paid to detail and the descriptions are atmospheric and sensual . . .this is a notable debut which amply deserves its recognition, in particular because of the deep research which underlies the text.


Rayda Jacobs, Rapport 29/06/02


In Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade  (2001), Manu Herbstein sets himself the challenging task of fictionalizing the kind of experiences Equiano spoke of from a personal viewpoint, and as I turned the novel’s 456th page, it is one I felt he had met fully.


Tony Simoes da Silva, University of Exeter, African Review of Books


. . . the story is very well told. As an historian involved in slavery as my speciality, I could identify with so many things in the book. I can see how he researched the historical accounts.


Akosua Perbi, Head of the Department of History, University of Ghana.


I must say that no one book has gone into such elaborate detail to recreate both the process and the experience of slavery such has been done by Manu (Herbstein.) This is why the book is worth careful study.–Kwadzo Senanu, former Professor of English Literature, University of Ghana.


A book written with tremendous moral passion about a monstrous episode in human history.


The Right Reverend Bishop Richard Holloway


A monumental work, epic in scope and design, and clearly the result of extensive research, which has been skillfully woven into an enchanting narrative. This panoramic story, with its vividly realized characters and heroic action, restores the ancient link between history and literature.


Africa Book Centre, London


I read Herbstein’s novel just prior to departing the US for Ghana. The novel is so well written that I actually felt as if I’d been at Elmina castle and travelled the dark African night with Nandzi. Upon entering the castle at Elmina, strangely, I knew my way around. Everything was exactly as pictured in my mind’s eye. I connected with the novel’s protagonist and had a renewed pride in the spirit of my ancestors. It is well worth struggling through the unfamiliar names to discover the familiar in the human spirit that spans the ages.


-Chris Pierson


Avec l‘histoire d‘Ama, toute l‘expérience des Africains du XVIIIè siècle (esclaves ou non) est ainsi personnifiée d‘une manière réaliste est inoubliable. Ce roman explique également très bien les causes et les origines de l‘esclavage, ainsi que les conséquences du commerce triangulaire, qui furent désastreuses pour la population africaine. Je n‘ai trouvé Ama qu‘en version anglaise. Mais le style littéraire est relativement simple ; des lycéens peuvent donc lire ce roman sans grande difficulté, je pense. C‘est en effet un bon complément aux cours d‘histoire.


–Kristel Nana-Mvogo, Afrique Echos


Manu Herbstein’s first novel, Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, is a meticulously researched historical novel that offers a vividly rendered picture of the atrocities of the slave trade.


Tamara Wagner, Fellow, National University of Singapore


An engrossing and powerful story of a woman of courage, intelligence, and strength, AMA is not for children, for the squeamish, or for those who demand political correctness in their history. AMA’s author tries to depict the Atlantic slave trade as it was, making no concession to modern revisionism; readers will look in vain for stereotypes in AMA’s pages. Herbstein does an admirable job of bringing a strange, harsh world to life; AMA is a book that deserves a much larger audience than it will probably get.


India Edghill,

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Ama has been used in an academic environment by Prof. Emmanuel Akyeampong at Harvard in his course on Slavery and the Slave Trade in Africa and the Americas.

Prof. Kenneth Wilburn at the University of East Carolina in courses on Imperialism in Theory and Practice and the History of Africa.

Prof. Heidi Gengenbach in her Boston University CAS Writing Program Seminar in World Literature: WR100 FD Stories of the Atlantic Slave Trade (“Key texts include Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauda Equiano, Fred D’Aquiar’s Feeding the Ghosts, Manu Herbstein’s Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, and Robert Hams’ The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade Course Descriptions

Prof. Martin Klein, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto, Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor of History at Carleton College, will use Ama in a Winter 2004-5 Research Seminar, HIST 395: Comparative Slavery (“. . . will review some of the literature on slavery and the slave trade and will center on two narratives . . . The second is a novel that traces thehistory of a young girl from her enslavement in northern Ghana to Brazil.”) Course Syllabi

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How did I start writing Ama

In 1994 gangs of young Konkomba men were rampaging through Dagomba villages, killing and burning.  No one could explain their behaviour to me. “Oh, the northerners, they are like that,” I was told. I felt ashamed of my own ignorance. In a library I found David Tait’s book The Konkomba of Northern Ghana.  The story it told suggested to me that the roots of the violence might lie deeply embedded  in  past history. The Konkomba were here first, living without kings or chiefs, ruled by elders and priests.

The Dagomba, originally from Lake Chad, arrived on their horses,  conquered the natives and took  their land (that’s really potted history for you.) Asante conquered the Dagomba about 1773 and exacted an annual tribute of slaves.  Every year Dagomba warriors set out to hunt for Konkomba to deliver to Kumase. I asked myself what it must have been like to be a Konkomba girl, so captured. I read everything relevant which I could lay hands on in Accra, much of it published before 1970.  As I did so, I created Ama and she wrote the book for me. Ama is about the Black Atlantic but when I wrote it I hadn’t heard of Paul Gilroy or John Thornton and had only read some earlier work of Paul Lovejoy’s. Ama is an important book (even if I say so myself.)  It tells a story which needs to be told and has hardly ever been told before. It fills in some of the gaps upon which historians are only permitted to speculate.  Even if it were badly written it should merit publication. (So much rubbish rolls off the western presses every day.) 


Yet no U.S. publisher would touch it. Only the revolution in the publishing industry and the commitment and dedication of my former agent, Richard Curtis, now my publisher ( has made it possible for the book to reach the audience which I hope is waiting for it.One potential publisher suggested that Ama might be more marketable if Amas destination were Virginia rather than Brazil. I refused to consider the change. Yet Ama is indeed about the U.S.A. 


Until the full story of the Atlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath becomes firmly embedded in the curriculum of American schools, until it becomes part of the heritage and consciousness and conscience of all citizens, not only those of African descent, until that time black and white Americans will continue to find it difficult to talk to one another.


Manu HerbsteinPost-script. In April 2002, Ama received the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Prize. Princess Anne handed the prize to him at Holyroodhouse Palace in Edinburgh, Scotland. manner.




Manu Herbstein was born in Muizenberg, near Cape Town, 1936. Educated at the University of Cape Town. Civil and structural engineer by profession. His grandparents emigrated to South Africa in the 1890s.  Two from Russia, one a Litvak, her husband a Rumanian, whose name he bears.  All Jewish.  Manu’s father was a lawyer who became a judge, “liberal” in white South African terms, but devastated when he announced his intention to marry a Ghanaian. His wife, Akua, is Asante, an economist by training, entrepreneur by profession.  She runs a furniture factory employing a hundred and has recently branched into real estate  ( Her alma mater, the University of Ghana, awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2000. He left South Africa in 1959 and was in Lagos to see the Union Jack lowered in October 1960 and came to Ghana first in1961. He was in and out during the 60s, Bombay,  Lusaka (where he married) and Scotland; (but in Accra during the coup which overthrew Kwame Nkrumah in 1966.)  He has lived in Accra since 1970 and went back to SA for the first time during de Klerk’s all-white referendum. He and Akua have two sons, Kwame, a civil engineer, working in Johannesburg; Kwamena, economist and computer science graduate.


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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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