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10.10.2008 Feature Article

The Man Who Rescued African History By Cameron Duodu

The Man Who Rescued African History By Cameron Duodu
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"Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none: There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness." When the British don, Hugh Trevor-Roper, wrote this, little did he know that an African colossus, Albert Adu Boahen, would one day rise and make him look quite foolish. Cameron Duodu reports.

Professor Albert Adu Boahen (Emeritus professor of History at the University of Ghana, who died aged 74 on 24 May 2006), was the man who taught me to be careful when dealing with academics. As editor of the Ghana edition of Drum magazine, I had just published a piece on a new interpretation of Ghanaian and African history that was taking place at the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra.

Based on original research into the archaeology and oral history of the West African region, and using Arabic documentary sources as well, this interpretation placed more emphasis on Ghana's relationship with the rest of the world through the northern part of the country, rather than through the south, where the Europeans had come and built their forts.

The man who had collated most of this research into a coherent story, and who therefore got pride of place in my article, was an old friend of mine, a Welshman called Ivor Wilks, who had been extremely kind to me when, as a young reporter, I had stayed with him in Tamale, in Northern Ghana, on my first trip to the north to cover the region for the monthly paper on which I started my journalistic career. New Nation.

I had heard both Wilks and Adu Boahen talk about the new historical concepts at the New Year School held by the University of Ghana, and so, after borrowing extensively from Wilks' The Northern Factor In Asante History, I added a few paragraphs summarising Adu Boahen's views. I thought Boahen would be pleased by this, but when I met him some time afterwards, he snapped at me: "But you only said that I agreed with Wilks!"

Boahen later came to publish a great deal himself, and I think that he and Wilks have, between them, done enough lor African history to earn each of them the Nobel Prize for History (a new Prize that must be created by the Nobel Literary Committee, on my personal recommendation)!

Boahen was one of the first historians to attack head-on the "orthodox" view of West African history then propagated by such British historians as J. D. Fage and Roland Oliver, and, at a more elementary level, by W. F. Ward, author of the notorious A Short History of the Gold Coast (the "war-war" book devoted mostly to British/European military activities against Asante, and on which most of my generation were force-fed in school).

Boahen began to tell us (in his lectures and seminars at the New Year School at Legon, for instance) about things that were relevant to us - the relationships between, say, the Asante Kingdom, then the dominant political power in our area, and its neighbours; the trade routes to the north of Asante that kept it in touch with the outside world before the Europeans approached it from the coast; and how Asante saw itself vis-a-vis the UK and other European powers.

In other words, he was telling us our history as we should see it, and not as seen from the point of view of our European "educators". Where, as in Ward's A Short History of the Gold Coast, Asantes just seemed to do nothing but fight the British and everyone else, for no apparent reason, one could discern reason for Asante actions in Boahen's version of the same story.

Ward had a chapter entitled "West Africa before the whiteman came", which, by and large, taught us that West Africa was just an anarchic area populated by such "brigands" as Samori and Babatu. "Fortunately" for us, the British and other European powers, out of altruism, appeared from nowhere just in time to save us from them and bring peace and civilisation to us. Asante resisted this because it wanted to retain its "barbaric" hold over its empire.

How did Adu Boahen escape the narrow, probably racist, confines that, at the time, seemed to limit the scope of the history lecturers - like J. D. Fage - who reigned at the University of Ghana, Legon, where Boahen had studied?

The attitude of those types of teachers was largely predicated upon the outrageously ignorant and racist dictum by Hugh Trevor-Roper, then Regius professor of Modern History at Oxford University (a man who had never done any serious research in Africa, but who felt confident enough out of sheer intellectual arrogance) to write:

"Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none: There is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness. "

Trevor-Roper's horrendous prejudices were, in turn, based, no doubt, on another British "authority" on knowledge of all sorts, the "philosopher", David Hume, who, in an earlier manifestation of racism, wrote:

"I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the white. There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white."

This was, by and large, how Western "scholarship" regarded Africa, when Adu Boahen, having graduated from Legon in 1956 with a second Class Upper in History (would he have got a First Class if his teachers had been different?) went to study for a doctorate degree at the University of London's School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). He obtained his doctorate in September 1959 and immediately returned home to lecture at the University of Ghana.

Out of his SOAS thesis, which was extraordinary at the time, in that it took account of not only European activities in Africa but what the Africans were doing themselves, came a book entitled, Britain, the Sahara, and the Western Sudan, 1788-1861 (Oxford, at the Clarendon Press 1964).

The stuff Boahen brought back to Ghana was not only extremely relevant but immensely exciting. He was careful, though, to base his descriptions of the African past not on some romantic notions of an imaginary bygone age of greatness and achievement, but on solid research that brought out both Africa's weaknesses as well as its strengths.

Boahen was a full-blown scholar and as such he taught that history was about human beings like ourselves, who were capable of deeds of great courage and perspicacity, but who could also make disastrous mistakes. Boahen, in short, was a historian "in the round". As his research interests grew, he broadened his field of study to take in the whole of West Africa, and then, the entire continent of Africa.

Now, here is an irony: Boahen disagreed with Kwame Nkrumah politically. But their visions converged: Nkrumah's was interested in a continental, political union of African states; Boahen's focus was on an inter-connected, continental history of Africa. Both were true Pan-Africanists, but they diverged in political philosophy at the local, Ghanaian level.

What would have happened if, as contemporaries, they had been of different nationalities, and each had come to the work of the other with the dispassionate objectivity of someone not immediately threatened by the practical effects on himself, of the other's intellectual output?

Here is a quote that posits one of the questions Boahcn tried to answer about African history and which sets out the broad vision in the historical research that impassioned him. It comes from Volume 7 of the UNESCO General History of Africa (the volume of which he was the editor):

"What was the attitude of the Africans themselves to the establishment of colonialism, involving as it did, such a fundamental change in the nature of the relationships that had existed between them and the Europeans over the preceding 300 years? This is a question that has so far not been seriously considered by historians, African or European, but it needs to be answered.

"The answer is quite clear and unequivocal: an overwhelming majority of African authorities were vehemently opposed to this change and expressed their determination to maintain the status quo and above all, to retain their sovereignty and independence, an issue on which virtually all of them were not in any way prepared to compromise.

"This answer can be documented from the very words of the contemporary African leaders themselves. In 1891, when the British offered protection to Prempeh 1 of Asante... he replied: 'I am happy to say...that my kingdom of Asante will never commit itself to any such policy. Asante must remain, as of old... friendly with all white men. I do not write this in a boastful spirit but.... the cause of Asante is progressing... '

"(Similarly,) in 1895, Wobogo, Moro Naba, or King of the Mossi... told the French officer, Captain Destenave:.... I find my country good as it is. I have no need of [the white men]... Consider yourself fortunate that I do not order your head to be cut off. Go away now, and above all, never come back. !"

So much tor the narcissistic myth peddled by European historians, that Africans welcomed European imperialism with open arms as a means of repudiating "barbarism" and embracing "Christian civilisation".

Boahen also demolished the notion that African rulers who came to a working understanding with the European powers were "collaborators", as the European school of historians called them. He thought this term was derogatory and naive - the African rulers were primarily concerned with the survival of their own societies, and so they went into alliance with whoever could help them to achieve their objective, including the European powers who had the most powerful weapons of war.

An example of this that comes readily to mind is that if France and England joined together to fight Germany, their action was given the grand name of entente cordiale, but if the Akyems used British assistance to defend themselves against Asante, then the Akyems were regarded by some as "collaborators" with the British in their wars against Asante.

Boahen was a prolific writer, and the list of books and articles he managed to publish, despite his full life of political activism, could fill this entire page and can best be accessed, if one has a connection to the Worldwide Web, by typing his name into the Google search engine.

It is no strange coincidence that Boahen became Ghana's greatest historian, for history was instilled into his blood at a very early age. He was born at Osiem, in the Eastern Region of Ghana, to a mother of Asante extraction, Maame Kisiwaa (a fish seller) and an Akyem father, Agya Amankwaa (a cocoa buyer). His parents had seven children, of whom Boahen was the third.

Now, the Asantes and the Akyems, immediate neighbours in southern Ghana, are of common descent. But they parted ways about 600 years ago, since when they have been at each other's throats in battles too many to count.

The immediate ancestors of Boahen's mother were from Dwaben, in Asante, and had been driven into exile in Akyem, during the civil war in Asante in 1874. So Boahen's birthplace and its environs were a veritable hotbed of political intrigue and historical disputation. Although his father was an indigenous Akyem, Boahen was actually an Asante, because both the Asante and the Akyem trace their roots through their maternal line.

A few years after he started his education at the Osiem Presbyterian Primary School in 1938, his mother's brother, Agya Kwasi Asare, who lived at Dwaben and was relatively prosperous, came for his nephew and enrolled him at the Asokore Methodist School in 1943. Boahen had to walk eight miles to and from school each day, but this onerous enterprise was rewarded when, in 1947, he gained entrance to one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Ghana, Mfantsipim, in Cape Coast.

Boahen was in his second year at Mfantsipim when history invaded his life. In 1948, the Gold Coast, (as Ghana was known before its independence in 1957), erupted into a series of riots and boycotts against continued British rule.

Six of the country's best-known nationalist leaders -J. B. Danquah, Akuto Addo, William Ofori Atta, Obetsebi Lamptey, Kwame Nkrumah and Ako Adjei - known as 'The Big Six' - were picked up by the British authorities and imprisoned without trial. Mfantsipim students, angry at this show of "gunboat diplomacy", went on strike. Although this could have led to expulsions, Boahen joined the strikers.

These episodes, including those in his adult years encapsulated Boahen's philosophy of life: he seemed to have asked himself what the point of studying history was, if all that knowledge about the brave Osei Tutu, the wise Okomfo Anokye and the heroic Yaa Asantewaa, did not inspire or move one to risk sacrificing oneself in order to liberate the minds of one's people.

The risks Boahen took were not abstract risks either - he was perfectly aware of what harm the defiance of totalitarian regimes could bring upon one's head, for in 1966, he had been chairman of the committee that investigated the gruesome death, at Nsawam prison, in 1965, of Dr J. B. Danquah, the great scholar and politician, who was callously imprisoned without trial by Nkrumah and died after being maltreated in Nsawam prison.

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