Fri, 10 Oct 2008 Feature Article

How Adu Boahen Unlocked Ghana's History By Cameron Duodu

How Adu Boahen Unlocked Ghana's History By Cameron Duodu

When the British historian, W. F. Ward, wrote in his 1948 book, History of the Gold Coast that the main ethnic groups of the Gold Coast - among them the Akan, the Akwamu, the Ga, and the Ewe - were relative "newcomers" to the country, and that "there is no nation now dwelling in the Gold Coast which has been in the country longer than the European ... we may [thus] take the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries as the beginning of the Gold Coast history", little did he know that a 16-year-old Ghanaian boy would grow up and comprehensively demolish his work. That boy became a historian of note, a professor called Albert Adu Boahen, who died on 24 May 2006. Cameron Duodu continues his tribute to one of Africa's great historians.

The late Professor Adu Boahen was an irreverent, mischievous individual with an irrepressible sense of humour. His nickname, as I have noted previously, was Kontopiaat, a sobriquet he must have colonised at Mtantsipim School in Cape Coast, Ghana, his alma mater.

Mfantsipim is an elite institution which was an intellectual power house long before its current rival in the intellectual stakes, Achimota School, sprouted its teeth. At these schools, almost everyone has a nick-name, and there is usually a special term that is shorthand for particular characteristics in human beings.

For instance, a teacher who was a real master of the subject he taught, would be known as one who delivered 'conc' stuff (for 'concentrated'), whilst one whose stuff produced yawns in the classroom would be known as a 'dilute' chap.

I never actually asked Adu Boahen what Kontopiaat meant, but from the way he used it, one could deduce that it meant mischievous, rascally, or foolishly funny. If Adu wanted to reproach someone affectionately, for instance, he would say, 'Hey, but you Kontopiaat, why did you go and do such and such a thing?' And he would expect the explanation to be witty enough to make him laugh.

Adu's behaviour on 3 February 1966 - when he gave a talk in London to a joint meeting of the Royal African Society and the Royal Commonwealth Society, under the chairmanship of no less a person than Professor Roland Oliver, the man who had founded the African history section of the institution at which Boahen had pursued his post-graduate studies, London University's School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) - could be classified as a metaphor for unbridled Kontopiaatism.

Whenever someone is giving a lecture attended by his former professor, he usually adopts a deferential tone. In Adu's case, his former professor was not only attending the talk, but actually chairing it. So it might have been assumed that the deference Adu would show to the academic establishment would be so extensive that it would stretch from the meeting place to the very doors of the building.

Ha! Not on your life. Anyone who expected deference from Adu Boahen was in for a shock. He began the lecture by picking out the three books normally regarded as "authoritative" historical works, to which anyone interested in Ghana's history was "always referred": (1) A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti by W. Claridge (first published in 1915); (2) History of the Gold Coast by W. F. Ward (published "in 1948) and (3) Ghana, An Historical Interpretation by J. D. Page (published in 1961). Adu then declared:

"I must start [this lecture] with a confession... [it] is this - that I am going to say a lot of things that may sound highly controversial and probably revolutionary, and there are three main reasons for this. I am going to be controversial because I accept the view ... that 'historical controversy enables us not only to arrive at the truth, but also to keep up the blood circulation in this cold climate'. [Can you hear the Brits laughing uneasily, Ha-ha-hah]?

"The second reason is that my approach to the history of Ghana... is different. Claridge, Ward and Fage looked at the history of Ghana essentially from the outside, and their main concern was the activities of Europeans in Ghana - why and when Europeans came in, what they did and so forth. My colleagues and I [at the history department of the University of Ghana] are now looking at it from the inside, that is, from the African standpoint. For instance, we are now interested not so much in why Europeans began to come to West Africa in the 15th century as in what they found when they did arrive; not only in what they did, but also the effect of this on the social, economic and political and institutions of the Ghanaians; not so much in the growth of British jurisdiction in Ghana as in the reactions of the Ghanaians to this.

"The third reason is that I and my colleagues are now using sources which the earlier historians never used or even had access to. The three historians [Claridge, Ward and Fage] used only published sources, mainly in English, and some oral tradition. Now, besides these, we have been exploring unpublished documentary material not only in English but also in Dutch, Danish and Portuguese... We are also now relying very heavily on Arabic sources written mainly in Northern Ghana by Ghanaians themselves. This particular source, whose richness is now becoming obvious, has been hitherto virtually ignored and it is this neglect that accounts not only for the fact that Northern Ghana has received only scant attention in existing history books but also for the erroneous, but widely held view, that literacy was first introduced to Ghana by European missionaries. In addition to these documentary sources, we are also using evidence provided by such disparate disciplines as archaeology, linguistics, ethnography and even ethno-musicology; all of which had hardly got off the ground in Ghana, even by the time of Fage."

Can you just see Professor Roland Oliver, a close collaborator of Fage's, twitching nervously in his chair as he heard this? Adu Boahen was telling the high and mighty of African Studies in Great Britain that their main source of reading - on Ghana, at any rate - was flawed because the "authoritative" historians who produced those works had been both incompetent and negligent!

What had they been saying, then, and what could be said about it in the light of recent research and approach? It was usual with general historical surveys of countries, [Adu said] to start with a description of the main peoples, when they arrived there, their routes of migration and their linguistic classifications; and Claridge, Ward and Fage had proved no exception.

But Claridge had only "devoted eight pages, out of 1,224, to this subject - a clear indication of the importance he attached to this particular theme", Adu pointed out arcastically. Ward too discussed them, as well as the physical features of Ghana, in only the first 43 pages of his 413-page book, while Fage, for his part, only discussed the theme "in the first four pages and the last ten pages of his book".

Ward stated "dogmatically" in his book that the main ethnic groups of the Gold Coast - among them the Akan, the Akwamu, the Ga, and the Ewe - were relative "newcomers" to the country, and that: " There is no nation now dwelling in the Gold Coast which has been in the country longer than the European." Ward had added that in a real sense, "we may take the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries as the beginning of the Gold Coast history".

Now, this view was identical to what the Boers were propagating in apartheid-ruled South Africa, to the effect that both whites and blacks could lay legitimate claim to the land there, because they had both migrated to South Africa from outside the country, and had fought over land which had, historically, not belonged to either of them! Boahen, of course, challenged this. He wrote:

"Documentary sources, archaeological evidence, linguistic evidence, and oral traditions have cast grave doubts on, if not totally disproved, these views. In the first place ... Portuguese records [show that] there were states existing on the coast of modern Ghana when the Portuguese arrived from the 1470s onwards. In fact, the names of the kings of two of these states, Aguafo or Komenda, and Fetu are mentioned in a letter written by the Governor of Elmina [Castle] dated 18th August 1503! And in a work written in 1505, the author, Pacheco Pereira, describes Axim, the Kingdom of Ahanta, the town of Sama [Shama] in the Kingdom of Jabi [Gyebi], the village of Komenda, the town of Cape Coast and the Kingdom of Asebu.

"In the recently-published Guide to West African History in Portuguese Archives, there are also clear references to gifts being sent to the kings of Akan, Abermus [Akwamus] and Asain [Assin] in the interior, and also [references] to traders from these kingdoms coming to Elmina by 1520. Clearly, then, the first states emerged in the south-western parts of Ghana not in 1550 or 1660, as Ward thinks, but before. But even more illuminating is the evidence being provided by both linguistics and archaeology... The linguists are now absolutely certain thatTwi, Ga and Ewe... [three of the main languages in Ghana] emerged in their present form in situ.

"Using the grotto-chronological method of reckoning, one linguist... working in Ghana has concluded that the Twi-Fante and Guan languages began to split apart and to spread from the Volta belt into the forest belt between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago and that Ga and Ewe also separated from Twi-Fante 3,500 years ago. And this suggests that speakers of these languages must have been living in these areas for at least a thousand years, if not more. I am very much aware that many scholars are exceedingly skeptical about the conclusions arrived at by grotto-chronological analysis, but it appears that archaeological evidence is tending to confirm the conclusions of the linguists that the Twi and Ga peoples have been living in their areas for at least a thousand years.

"From a study of stone axes, pottery and microliths, an archaeologist working in Ghana (Paul Ozanne) has recently concluded that 'Ward's suggestion that 600 years ago, the Accra plain was uninhabited must be ignored; a belt often or six miles wide along the coast has certainly been well-populated for a great deal more than 1,000 years, probably for the most part by the Ga-Adangbe people'. Both he (Ozanne) and another colleague of his, Davies, are convinced that ever since about 3,700 BC, the savanna and forest areas of Ghana have been in continuous occupation."

Now, Adu Boahen had been lecturing at the University of Ghana, Legon, for only seven years when he went to the "temple" of African studies in Britain to deliver this explosive lecture that practically tore into shreds the "historical facts" peddled about Ghana by W. F. Ward, which had constituted the basis of the knowledge of their own country's history, by almost every literate Ghanaian.

You see, Ward's A Short History of The Gold Coast was a prescribed school textbook for decades in Ghana. I am certain that Prof. Roland Oliver was secretly delighted when he heard the young Adu Boahen tearing into his "elders", for teachers take pride in those of their students who are able to "cause a stir" in academic circles.

But tor Adu, it was a dangerous thing to do. For academics are very bitchy creatures, and if you cause them umbrage, they are likely to bear you a life-long grudge which will find expression in the backrooms of publishing houses and over coffee in many a Senior Common Room - the places where books are commissioned and future academic appointments mooted.

Adu Boahen, however, didn't care a fig about these things. If people "bad-mouthed" him to publishers, or reviewers or University Deans, that was their business. As for him, he was indeed a Kontopiaat, and would no doubt have enjoyed enormously any mischief he sowed in the academic circles of the time.

In any case, he had a supreme belief in his own ability. His ambition was to rise to the top of the tree beneath which the young discipline of African history sought to blossom. If in doing so, he had to bury a few reputations, that was too bad.

That was why, brimming with self-confidence, Boahen went on to finish off what amounted to a "hatchet job" on Claridge, Ward and Fage. How had they portrayed the history of Ghana from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 17th?

These historians - particularly Claridge and Fage - saw the history of Ghana during this period as essentially the history of the activities of Europeans in that country. Indeed, an article by Fage on the history of the Gold Coast in the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica began with the rather ominous words: "The first Europeans to come to the Gold Coast were the Portuguese who reached the country in 1471, in the course of their maritime expansion along the coast of West Africa."

Fage also devoted the first 20 pages of the 26 pages of the second chapter of his book to discussing European activities in Ghana. Claridge, too, after dismissing the ethnographical accounts in eight pages, devotes the following 144 pages to the theme of European activities, from those of the Phoenicians to those of the Dutch and the Danes by 1699. Even Ward, who, to his credit, did take a look at the internal political situation in the Gold Coast, did not really analyse the circumstances leading to the emergence of the states that the Europeans found when they came, nor did he discuss the administrative machineries of those states.

Furthermore, though all these historians devoted a great deal of attention to European activities, they paid no attention to the effects of these activities on Ghanaians themselves. One looked in vain through their books for a discussion of the emergence, for instance, of the new African merchant princes, such as John Conny of Ahanta, the brothers John Classen and John Hennequa of Fern and John Cabes of Komenda, all of whom maintained a stranglehold on the trade between the Europeans in the castle and the Ghanaian traders from the inland states.

Nor was one told anything in their books about the new mulatto class (the products of the so-called 'miscegenation' between the European traders and the Ghanaians); of the new wage-earning class of artisans, canoemen, bricklayers, labourers, etc., and of the new class of civil servants or diplomats described as "company messengers" in the English records.

Equally, the political effects of the activities of the Europeans on the coast, namely the relative stagnation (if not the progressive weakening) of the states on the coast, and the steady growth and expansion of those in the interior such as Assin, Twifo, Denkyira, Akwamu and Akyem, were NOT pointed out by the historians, let alone explained.

And there was nothing about what was happening in the area to the north of Adansi and Denkyira, nor much about what was going on in the basin of the Volta. Yet, to the north of the Adansi area, the 16th and early 17th centuries had witnessed the rise or expansion of a number of states within a radius of about 30 miles of modern Kumasi, all having the same social and political institutions and military organisation.

These states included Tofo (sic: Tafo?) Amakom, Ohwim, Asantemanso, Kwaaman, etc - states which were later hammered together into the nucleus of the Asante Empire. The founders of all these pre-Asante states were, as was evident from the matrilineal clans to which they belonged, Akan and not any "state-forming invaders from the north", and the reason for the emergence of all these states in the relatively small area was precisely because that region was not only rich in gold and kola nuts, but it was also where the trade routes from the Timbuctu-Jenne and Hausa-Bornu areas to the northeast and northwest, respectively, terminated.

In the Volta basin, the 16th and 17th centuries saw a rapid expansion of Mamprussi and Dagomba and the evolution of provincial administration. It was towards the end of the 16th century that Gonja was founded near the confluence of the White and Black Volta by a group of Mandes who, according to Goody, had lived in the region of Banda where they had adopted the Guan language.

The 17th century was marked in the north by a bitter struggle tor the control of the basins of the Black and White Volta between Gonja and Dagomba, a struggle which ended in favour of the Gonja.

Commercially, while trade along the northwest route declined following the conquest of Songhai by the Moroccans in the 1590s and the ensuing anarchy in the region of the Niger bend, the trade with the Hausa states became particularly brisk. Socially, this was the period when Islam was consolidated in northern Ghana, and the incorporation of the Muslim estate into the Gonja social and political set-up occurred.

"To me then," Adu Boahen said, "the history of Ghana in the 16th and 17th centuries is not only that of the rise and development of the Atlantic slave trade, the increasing competitive nature of European activities and wars in Ghana with the appearance of the English, the French, the Dutch, the Danes, the Swedes, the erection of a bewildering number offerts and castles, and the balance sheets of these European trading companies.

"It is also - and indeed essentially - that of a purposeful continuation of the processes at work before the arrival of these Europeans, the processes of state formation, of the evolution of political and cultural institutions and of social change. By introducing guns and gunpowder as well as providing a greater economic incentive - and these two account for the expansion of the inland states - the arrival of Europeans merely accelerated these processes already at work. Furthermore, this catalytic effect of the coming of the Europeans was confined essentially to southern Ghana, the area south of the confluence of the rivers Offin and Pra. The peoples and states to the north of these rivers as well as those of the Black and White Volta basins were, by and large, still northern-orientated and still maintained strong commercial contacts especially with the Hausa states and Bornu to the northeast.

"Indeed, no about-face ever occurred at any time in the history of Ghana as a result of the coming of the Europeans, as one historian contends."

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