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Opinion | Feb 18, 2019

Elitism in the Gold Coast Society - V. L. K. Djokoto

Elitism in the Gold Coast Society - V. L. K. Djokoto

The pen is mightier than the sword but, sometimes, even the camera exceeds the prowess of the pen itself. Preeminent among all photographers, the iconic cultural custodian, James Kobla Bruce-Vanderpuije, at the youthful age of 23, set a revolution in motion-picture when he established the Deo Gratias photography studio in 1922 at the district of Jamestown, Accra.

In hindsight, it is irrefutable that J. K. Bruce-Vanderpuije has an unmatched record for documenting some of the most historic events in the Gold Coast — from covering opulent banquets, with the coxcomb gentlemen and ladies of the era, to aristocrats, statesmen and socialites. But most importantly, his studio captured an era which portrayed a self-conscious unit within society that became the standard-setting society which held influence over the fate of the community.

According to K. A. Busia’s, ‘The Present Situation and Aspirations of Elites in the Gold Coast’, in International Social Science Bulletin, vol. vii, no. 3, there are three main classes of elites in the Gold Coast, namely the traditional aristocratic families; the European or alien rulers, and the educated Africans. The extent of their social influence may depend upon the close personal relations between members of the elite and the rest of the community, and on their readiness to disseminate their acquired social values to other people.

The stronger such bonds, the greater the power of the beau monde to facilitate or thwart new developments and to make new ideas acceptable to the society at large. The recognition of their superiority was not just about their privilege, such as the wealth of the aristocrats or merchants, but was extended to include their intellectual interests, etiquette and fashion — so that they are imitable.

European fashion was important as an outward and visible sign of superiority. The cult of English fashion began in the 1820’s, with encouragement from Sir Charles Macarthy. According to the Report from the Select Committee on the West Coast of Africa (London, 1842). when the Rev. T. B. Freeman visited London twenty years later, ‘he brought many orders from Christian natives to this country, for English articles of dress and furniture, to a very considerable amount’.

In 1868, Dr Africanus Horton remarked that although majority of Fantis dressed traditionally, European fashion had come to be especially associated with ‘those who are educated and those in a high state of social existence’. Clerks employed in government, in particular, were required to attend their offices uniformed in European clothing. According to a Report of Committee on the Clerical Service, enclosed in Dispatch No. 281 of 13 July 1896, from Hodgson to Chamberlain; CO/96/275, this involved extra expense but it came to be regarded as a distinct feature of a new way of life.

Those who could afford to encouraged their wives to dress in Victorian style, especially on Sunday’s; and this had an indirect influence on women’s fashion in other sections of the community. It was in the 1860’s that ’the Kabasrotu, a sort of loose jumper for the upper part of the body’, had been introduced by R. J. Ghartey of Winneba, for use among the women of his household. (E. J. P. Brown, Gold Coast and Ashanti Reader (London, 1929) pp. 165-6.

This fashion spread; but some extreme reformers were not content with the gradual infiltration of European ideas of decency: ‘No woman should be allowed to go through a single street in the country with her breast uncovered!’ wrote an angry young man in 1897. Already, fashion was an important means by which ‘ladies’ anxiously sought to distinguish themselves from their perceived unenlightened peers. As a Weslyan missionary noted, ‘The “lady” wears a European dress, the “woman” only wears a cloth’.

The Ladies Mutual Club, founded in Sekondi in 1904, wrote essays on such topics as ‘The term Lady’, and made an early rule that members who went out in tradition wear should be fined. After a year or two, however, they relented sufficiently on the question of language to allow members to speak Fante ‘at the meetings of the Club once a month, in order to feel at home’ according to the Report of 11th Anniversary of the club in The Gold Coast Nation, 30 Sept. 1915.

The Gold Society in the nineteenth century saw the rise of an affluent group of an educated elite, dependent on non-traditional sources of income, who set patterns of social behaviour in the towns, and exerted a firm political influence upon aristocrats.

In the 1920’s, a growing group of businessmen and traders formed the crux of the emerging middle class. The middle class consisted of relatively small-scale entrepreneurs, traders, and the less exalted ranks of the educated salariat. In the Red Book of West Africa, by A. Macmillan (London, 1920), a page of portraits of ‘some representative businessmen of Accra’ shows the following faultlessly-dressed gentlemen: E. A. Many Plange (Director and Manager, Tropical Traders Ltd.), T. P. Allotey (Managing Director, Gã Trading Co. Ltd), J. M. Abadoo (Managing Director, Smith & Co.), J. Buckman (Land Surveyor and Architect), A. J. Ocansey (General Merchant), S. O. Akiwumi (Produce Merchant) J. Hansen Sackey (Auctioneer), F. R. C. Lutterodt (Government Photographer), Nmai Dsane (Secretary, Kle Merchandise Co.), M. Larye Sowyah (Chairman and Managing Director, Kle Merchandise Director, Larteh Planters’ Union Ltd.). The same book lists twenty-one African trading firms in Accra, but only one each in Sekondi and Kumasi, and shows some of their grandiose buildings.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century many aristocrats anxiously solicited the guidance of educated advisers to help the in their new relations with one another, and with a foreign central Government beyond the boundaries of their own State. When Africans in the Gold Coast received western education and became qualified for employment in the colonial economy, or what is referred to as the Guggisberg economy, they began to encounter increasing instances of discrimination; and the resulting social frustration and antagonism was channelled into a demand for political power, partly as a means of controlling the sources of status and influence.

A barrier was imposed by the growing racial exclusiveness of the European elite, especially in the higher ranks of the civil service, and here the conflict provided strong motivation for nationalist agitation. The participation in modernist-oriented nationalist politics was effectively limited to those with some command of English. Typically, one's conversion from a traditionalist to a Christian, proficiency in the English language and a preference to communicate in the language, imitation of European behaviour, and post-school employment in an urban milieu was a necessary requirement for ascending the social ladder.

Educated Africans, in particular, felt the need for integration with those who shared their common interests and perspectives, and their command of English helped to break down their tribal barriers. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, the elite seem to have attached a great deal of importance to establishing all kinds of exclusive clubs and societies to foster social networking.

In 1859, for example, J. P. Brown with four of his young friends started a private literary club in Cape Coast, the Try Company, which remained active for two or three years, and may have been responsible for the opening of the first Reading Room in 1860. The Anomabu Temperance Society was founded in 1862 by R. J. Ghartey, who had recently visited England with F. C. Grant.

After a year’s activity the members were able to report with pride the establishment of a Temperance hotel, and a Temperance goldsmith’s shop, each with a light outside: ‘the first lamp posts ever erected in the streets of any town in the Gold Coast’. The Philanthropic Society of Cape Coast was formed in 1864 with the very laudable and desirable object of raising public funds, met with less success. For this they blamed the Government and white men who were said to have called their members half-educated and semi-civilised. In 1874 the Rifle Club also met in Cape Coast.

At a tea party in Saltpond in 1886, a debating club was proposed, on the ground that ‘The Government neglect us intellectually, so we must educate ourselves’. The Cape Coast debating society was duly established and organised an event in Winneba, according to The Western Echo, 11 Sept and 7-13 December 1886, ‘that celibacy was advantageous to mankind from an intellectual and religious point of view’ and the Standard of Education. This appealed to only limited and sophisticated circle.

Many of such groups were inspired by ideas of self-advancement and mutual improvement. In 1895, for example, a small-sized study group of youths in Cape Coast was dignified by the title of the Star of Peace Society; this later became the Three Wise Men Society, sporting its own red, white and black colours, with three branches at Anomabu, Saltpong, and Mankessim. (The Gold Coast Aborigines, no. 35, 1899)

Cape Coast also boasted a Young Ladies’ Christian Association, and a City Club — whose secretary in 1897 was the young J. E. K. Aggrey — for ‘social, physical and intellectual advancement. (The Gold Coast Methodist Times, Nov. - Dec. 1897)

In 1873 the Young Men’s Free and Mutual Improvement Society had been born from the growing desire to gain additional knowledge.

The new organisations developed a political slant. The Gold Coast Union Association, launched at Cape Coast in October 1881, with J. F. Amissah as President, was an early straw in the wind.

The élite covered a wide range of educational attainments, income levels, and occupational interests, from the junior clerk employed at an annual salary of £36 ton the self-employed emphasis upon individual wealth and achievement gave some additional status to those at the top; but it would be rash to classify the African society in terms of income received, since this bore little relation to disposable income, which depended also on the financial help available from, or expected by, other relatives.

The individual accumulation of capital, which had been virtually unknown under the traditional system, became possible to an extent, at first in trade; but towards the end of the nineteenth century the increase in the scale of expatriate enterprise undermind the efforts of the small-scale businesses.

Later, however, private practice in the professions (such as the law and medicine) enabled the fortunate few to make capital investment of their surplus income in house-renting, cocoa farming, or cocoa buying. By the 1920’s it was noticeably the wealthier professional minority who took the leaded in the National Congress movement.

The growth in numbers of the educated élite, as a collective unit, built up increasing political power behind nationalist demands. There was indeed a hierarchy status within the élite; but this depended more on educational attainment than on income level as such; and the remarkable vertical mobility of individuals should prevent the assumption that there was any rigid stratification even among the educated. An examination of the correspondence columns of these newspapers shows that an interest in politics and national affairs was not confined to the most highly educated; the illiterate majority, in so far as they became aware of any specific political grievance, increasingly gave what support they could.

Vincent Letsa Kobla Djokoto
Vincent Letsa Kobla Djokoto, © 2019

This author has authored 80 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: VincentLetsaDjokoto

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