The question of 'why' and 'how' Europe came to dominate Africa under a colonial model has, in the past, been subjected to a variety of debates. Recently, the focus of this discourse has shifted from Europe to Africa, and from the general to the specific.
These shifts have created a useful place for case studies of partition and pacification, in which the relationships between Europeans and Africans can be seen to play a large role in shaping the imposition of colonialism. Such studies bring to light a series of previously largely invisible actors in the persons of indigenous elites and various middlemen.
Perhaps one of the most compelling stories of this type to emerge from my own research surrounds the gradual subjugation of the independent Akan polity of Akyem Abuakwa to the British Gold Coast administration in a process which highlights the roles not only of the British and Akyem political figures, but also a host of middlemen. It is the actions of these groups that largely drive the changing relationship between the British administrators and the Paramount Chief of Akyem Abuakwa during this period - Okyenhene Amoako Atta I.
Akyem Abuakwa was an independent polity occupying roughly its current position by about 1630. As a clan, its founders had migrated from the present-day region of Adanse to escape the growing pressure of neighbouring expansionist states. The resulting polity, as it underwent a transition from the politics of migration to the politics of settlement, encompassed a diversity of identities other than that of the ruling Asona clan. Not only non-Akyem Akan groups, but ethnic minorities such as Ga and Ewe-speaking farmers became attached to the state, especially after the Akyem victory over Akwamu in 1730, in which Akyem Abuakwa absorbed a number of separate Akwamu settlements. Throughout Akyem history, the position of outsiders and their loyalty to the state would be somewhat ambiguous.
Neverthless, a sense of Okyemfo, or the 'Akyem people', was, as Richard Rathbone has ably demonstrated, building throughout the nineteenth century. By the accession of Amoako Atta to the stool in 1867, the state was bound together by a political and spiritual authority which resided chiefly in the person of the Okyenhene and in the major state rituals at which local rulers "reaffirmed their allegiance to Akyem Abuakwa's royal" at the capital of Kyebi.
The state's convoluted history of migration and conflict built a complex and rather unique system of support for the Okyenhene. The constant threat of invasion by the Asante, and the accompanying threat of disloyalty from non-Akyem populations, led in the mid-eighteenth century to the formation of a national asafo, or ready-force, called the amantoomiensa, composed of the militias of the eight villages closest to the state capital of Kyebi.
Socially, the amantoomiensa formed a conservative and loyal corps upon which the Okyenhene could call in times of need. Within the power structure, the leaders of this militia took their place alongside the five division-heads of the various provinces of the state and the Ankobea, or executive council of the court and royal family. Politically, the amantoomiensa claimed to speak for the citizenry of the state and thus assumed control of a number of important rituals.
Together, the three institutions of government assisted the Okyenhene in his exercise of power over the realm. Each also played an important role in religious and customary practices. Although his authority was also circumscribed by these bodies, the Okyenhene must have been highly aware that his religious, judicial, and political power, as well as his economic well- being, was dependent upon these various bodies, and as such one of Amoako Atta's principal and continuing tasks was to retain their loyalty.
The British administration's acceptance of Akyem sovereignty was by no means compromised by the Asante war of 1873-1874. Despite having taken control of Dutch establishments on the coast in 1872, thereby eliminating their last European rival and inadvertently provoking a war with Asante, the British had no interest in undertaking an expansion into the interior. Instead, policy following the establishment of the Gold Coast Protectorate in 1874 was clearly aimed at keeping trade flowing from the interior while maintaining a low cost of administration. This is reflected not only in the Acts of Protectorate, but in the implementation of the Indian Model of slave emancipation which eliminated the need for expensive enforcement actions. As late as 1888(?), the Chief Justice of the Gold Coast would express the opinion that the limits of the colony ranged no further than a limited number of coastal settlements.
In the wake of the declaration of the Protectorate, interior states such as Akyem Abuakwa were seen not only as allies in the continuing conflict against Asante, but as potentially profitable trading partners, and there was little motivation at this early date for the political and economic disruption which inevitably accompanied colonial conquest. Such disruption, coupled with the expense of an invasion, would have defeated the fragile but fundamental economic equation which kept the British investment on the Gold Coast profitable. The result was an arrangement which foreshadowed the policies of indirect rule of later years, and one in which the interior states remained fundamentally independent.
From their perspective, the Akyem saw the British as allies in their age long war with the Asante, and after the battle of Akantamansu in 1826 were "predisposed... towards a British connection." They were one of the few allied states to pay the British poll tax faithfully in the 1850s, and were firm allies in the Asante war of 1873-1874.
The Basel Missionary Society, really the third principal actor in this story, had been invited onto the Gold Coast by the Danish administrator of Accra in 1826, the first missionaries arriving two years later. Almost immediately, the BMS expanded beyond the ostensibly 'Europeanized' coastal zone into the interior, establishing congregations first in Krobo and Akuapem, and in 1852 in Akyem Abuakwa.
Robert Addo-Fening has shown that the BMS missionaries were initially welcomed by then- Okyenhene Atta Panin (1835-1859), and enjoyed good relations with his successor Atta Obuom (1859-1867). Nor did the felicity of the relationship seem likely to change under Amoako Atta, who had attended the Kyebi Mission school and who, shortly after his accession, reputedly denied a request by an indigenous cleric to close the Christian school down.
Amoako Atta appreciated the church's role in educating his subjects, and so long as they recruited only the outcasts of society - common slaves, the elderly and infirm, and immigrants - he saw them as no threat. A congregation of such individuals, however, was unlikely to catch the imagination of the community as a whole, and by 1868 the missionaries were frustrated at their lack of progress.
According to Addo-Fening, at this time the mission made a conscious decision to begin recruiting royal slaves as well as members of the court. To Atta, this represented a clear breach of his unwritten agreement with the mission. The religious conversion of officials threatened their loyalty, so intrinsic to the coherence of the state, as well as removing them from their ritual roles. Equally importantly, for resolution of these early conflicts the mission turned to the British authorities, threatening at one point to haul the Okyenhene before the Governor thus questioning the Okyenehene's judicial authority, and in another case to report the amantoomiensa leadership to the administration. Indeed, it quickly became clear that this body were Atta's greatest supporters in the struggle against the missionaries.
The struggle intensified following the establishment of the Protectorate in 1874, centering upon the complex issue of the emancipation of the Protectorate's slaves. The Basel missionaries had long had a policy of opposing slavery, and had independently introduced a policy in 1863 which forced their congregation to allowed their slaves to purchase their freedom, as well as rejecting several important slave-owning converts. On the other hand, the British administration on the coast was less than zealous about publicizing the emancipation edicts, which in any case made no provision enforcement. For the Okyenehene and his principal chiefs, the lack of enforcement was fortuitous, as much of their capital, power, and status were tied up in their ownership of slave.
While not immediately causing a major economic or social transformation for the Gold Coast generally the emancipation edicts have been posited as having a significant impact on Akyem Abuakwa. Most significantly, Gerald McSheffrey argued in 1983 that there were mass self- liberation by slaves in Akyem generally and Kyebi specifically in 1874-5.
McSheffrey's arguments are based largely on Basel Missionary sources which point to at least "100 slaves" leaving their masters in Kyebi in early 1875, and the principal author of these reports is an African Reverend named David Asante. Asante was related to the royal family of neighbouring Akuapem, and thus by consanguine links to Atta himself. Yet Asante had, upon his appointment to the Kyebi station in 1874, immediately antagonized the Okyenhene. Not only did he "g[i]ve wide publicity to the Slave Emancipation ordinances", but apparently concentrated on encouraging royal slaves to leave Atta's service and even succeeded, by 1876, in baptizing several royal retainers.
There were several levels to Asante's motivation in embarrassing the king. In the first place, his father had been killed during a civil conflict in Akuapem, and Asante clearly harboured a grudge against the extended Akuapem-Akyem royal family. On a political level, however, Peter Haenger has successfully demonstrated that Asante understood more clearly than his European coreligionists that religion and political power went hand-in-hand in Akyem Abuakwa. Asante therefore saw the undermining of Atta's authority as the solution to the missionary's recruitment problems, and subsequently set himself up as a patron of Christians and royal slaves. In order to gain resources for this struggle, Asante and his fellow field missionaries thus bombarded their headquarters in Basel with reports of massive slave exoduses in Akyem Abuakwa.
However, these reports seem to be simple propaganda. There is strikingly little evidence that Akyem's slave population liberated themselves, although this will always be something of an open question since the British administration lacked a District Commissioner in the area. Still, Governor Strahan was able to report, in March 1875, that emancipation had not disturbed "public tranquility."
The absence of a DC in Akyem Abuakwa, and the lack of British sources of the interior at this time in general, is indicative of the the administration's policy of consciously limited their interference outside of the coastal zone. After the expense of the 1873-1874 war, colonial pursestrings were closely guarded, and the British had little motivation for intervening in events in the interior.
The conflict between David Asante and Atta would in the long run lead, however, change this policy, weakening Akyem Abuakwan sovereignty. After enduring several years of goading, on 20 September 1877 the Okyenhene exiled Asante from Akyem Abuakwa. Asante refused to leave, and two nights later a combined party of 'yougmen' and 'palace servants' led by the chief of Osenase town marched to the mission house to expel him. In the ensuing melee, the wife of a white missionary was, depending on whom you believe, either 'flogged' or 'touched'. David Asante, fleeing the scene, thus lodged a complaint with Governor Freeling in Accra against the Okyenhene for 'unlawful banishment' and against several other individuals for assault. As a result, Freeling summoned both the missionary party and the Okyenhene to appear before him.
At this point, Atta had every right to refuse the Governor's summons. The colonial administration had no legal basis for jurisdiction in Akyem Abuakwa, nor would they until the extension of the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance in 1899. Nevertheless, Atta made the tactical mistake of submitting himself to Freeling's authority, and traveled to Accra.
At first, he seemed vindicated. In an exceptionally long hearing, Justice David Chalmers dismissed the charges against the Okyenhene and blasted David Asante for provoking the September riot. Governor Freeling followed up this opinion with a letter to the missionary society's regional headquarters stating that if Asante returned to Kyebi, Atta would have the right to deal with him as he saw fit.
On the other hand, three of Asante's courtiers were found guilty and were all sentenced to 60 days hard labor. More importantly, by submitting himself to the Governor's authority, Atta had created a dangerous precedent.
Overconfident of the administration's support, Atta parlayed his court victory into a series of harassments of Christian communities within Akyem Abuakwa in 1878 and 1879. However, the administration's attitude towards Atta was changing. The major issue here was not the internal question of slavery, which might be safely ignored, but instead Atta's provocation of the Asante state. To the people of Akyem Abuakwa, the 1873-1874 war had been but one chapter in an age-old conflict. In 1875 and 1879 Atta had threatened to invade Asante, and in 1877 he refused to cooperate with Freeling's orders not to arm refugees fleeing Asante. Freeling and his successor Ussher, on the other hand, saw the Asante issue as at least temporarily closed, and Atta's brinksmanship as threatening the peace and prosperity of the Protectorate.
Thus it was these actions that earned forced the administration to take steps to remove Atta from power. However, while the motivation behind the subsequent actions was purely political, the stratagem was rather more insidious. It appears that Governor Ussher actively persuaded a missionary named Buck to explore evidence, between July and October 1879, that Atta was actively engaged in trading slaves.
Such accusations, it now appears, were a frequently used tool in the British arsenal of control. In 1858, the paramount chief of the Yilo Krobo had faced just such an accusation in what Louis Wilson has shown to be an affair having nothing to do with slavery. Similarly, the paramount chief of Wassaw had been exiled for slave dealing in 1876. Admittedly, it was the administration's policy to deal with slave trade much more proactively than simple slave owning, which was seen as relatively benign. Yet clearly, the accusation of slave trading was as much a political as a judicial tool.
The BMS enthusiastically provided the witnesses for the prosecution, including important Christians who had a grudge against the King. Atta, however, wisely chose to have his case heard by a jury which included prominent Africans and Euro-Africans. He subsequently discrediting the chief witness against him as both biased, and showed that he had previously sworn an oath on the King's name. Although the presiding justice seems to have missed the significance of this, it clearly shocked the jurors, who understood the significance of such an act in Akan society. As a result, Atta was cleared on charges of slave-dealing and pawning, to Governor Ussher's anguish. He was, however, found guilty of 'malicious arson', and subsequently sentenced to imprisonment in Lagos for five years.
Atta's exile left the state headless, a fact quickly exploited by the BMS, who used the years 1880-1886 to increase their membership, establish new stations and schools, and effectively set up a semi-independent state in eastern Akyem Abuakwa. From their principal outposts, and especially from the eastern town of Begoro, the missionaries offered "immunity from jurisdiction of the traditional Akyem courts" and flouted both Atta's laws and traditional custom, most importantly by sanctioning the seduction of two of Atta's wives.
Yet Atta returned in 1885 with a determination to prevail in his conflict with the church and with a great deal of support from many of his constituents. Moreover, he had no reason to believe that Governor Brandford Griffith, who had subsequently taken over the reins of the administration, was interested in anything other than a peaceful resolution in Akyem Abuakwa. In fact, the Governor clearly believed that both the political situation in Akyem and commerce to the coast were deteriorating in the King's absence, and saw Atta's return as a pragmatic decision.
Nor does Atta seem to have placed a great deal of importance in the Governor's insistence that he swear to "obey and faithfully carry out the wishes of the Governor in governing the country." Having assured himself that the Ankobea and other bodies wished the King to return, Governor Griffiths dispatched him to Kyebi with an escort under the command of Assistant Colonial Secretary Charles D. Turton, a 25-year veteran of the coast.
Yet the re-installation itself was marred by a question, posed by the convert Emmanuel Yaw Boakye, as to whether Atta planned to re-introduce taboos, nnabone, against working on certain days. But for Turton's presence, the meeting might have erupted into open conflict. Instead of taking warning, however, Turton was lulled by the promises of both the King and the missionaries to co-exist peacefully.
In fact, the unrepentant Atta did reinstate the nnabone, and this issue quickly became the flash point of the conflict. As tempers rose, the Okyenhene seems to have been prodded by traditional authorities, especially okomfoo priests and leaders of the amantoomiensa. In 1885, Emmanual Yaw Boakye was expelled from a new station at Asuom, in reply to which the missionaries sent a delegation to Accra to call for the prosecution of his harrassers, despite some attempts at reconciliation by Atta.
The steadily rising tensions climaxed on 16 December 1886, when, in the midst of a durba, the King announced that thieves had stolen a number of valuables from the state treasury. With suspicious speed, severl Christians were rounded up and interrogated. These suspects further implicated a number of important members of the Christian community, and the result was a series of rather serious riots starting in Kyebi and radiating outwards. The leaders appear to have largely been members of the court and the amantoomiensa, and the major points of conflict were in the towns that furnished the amantoomiensa such as Apapam and Tete.
The major difference between this conflict and the previous one was that the two sides clearly recognized the growing (if reluctant) authority of the British administration. Both Atta and Reverend Mohr were quick to submit their version of events, the missionary in a series of letters pleading for intervention, the King in a 19 December justification of the arrest of both the thieves and Mohr's party.
The administration did not implicitly accept the missionary's alarmist despatches. In an Executive Council Meeting called for the 20th of December, the Queen's Advocate W.H. Quayle Jones argued that the Christians were not in any "immediate danger", and received the concurrence of his fellow councilors. A decision was thus taken to dispatch to the region a small party under a Euro-African officer, Jacob Simons, to call down both parties to Accra to resolve the dispute.
The solution satisfied no one. The amantoomiensa met secretly and dispatched men to the coast to buy ammunition, while Atta, fearing another bout of deportation, refused to come down to the coast. Meanwhile, the Basel missionaries would demand the protection of the Hausa Constabularly well into 1887.
Atta, however, perceived his conflict as limited to the Basel missionaries, and dispatched a messenger to Governor Griffiths. His chosen intermediary was George F. Cleland. As well as being an important Euro-African trader, Cleland was also a relative of an important Accra stool, had fought in the 1873-4 war, and had served the administration as Justice of the Peace in 1874. Cleland approached the Governor in mid-January, stating that Atta had written to him for advice, but was told in no uncertain terms that Atta must come down to Accra or the Governor would resort to "other measures". To back up this threat, the Governor dispatched still further troops into the interior to reinforce Simons.
The Governor, however, clearly hoped for a compromise which would not necessitate full intervention. Thus he appointed Cleland to a commission to look into the disturbances. The other commissioners included Metcalf Sunter, a Clerk in Holy Orders and thus likely to be sympathetic to the Basel missionaries, and the Queen's Advocate, W.H. Quayle Jones.
Mollified, Atta on 8 January 1887 reluctantly began his journey to Accra, accompanied by a large body of amantoomiensa. However, soon after arriving in Accra he fell ill with pneumonia. By late January, word of his illness had spread and an estimated 4500 Okyemfo came down to Accra. Upon the request of the Governor, the colony's chief medical officer prescribed medication and ordered his room closed against the cold. His escort, however, preferred to open windows and allow him to bathe. Neither solution was effective, and on 2 February, 1887, Atta died before the commission could meet.
Although the Governor first turned to Cleland again to advise Ajeman to quell these riots51, by mid-March a strong constabulary force was in the territory. The subsequent public enquiry held by Assistant Inspector Brennan of the Constabulary even more firmly established the administration's judicial jurisdiction in the territory, imposing a fine and a large bond upon the state.
Although Brennan found that the BMS partly to blame for meddling in local politics, he imposed no fine upon them. Yet clearly the BMS had developed something of a reputation as being 'unreliable', as one officer posted in Akyem admitted to Assistant Secretary Turton in a private letter. Thus the Governor did subsequently accede to the Ankobea's demands that Mohr, who was blamed for Atta's death, be withdrawn. In a letter remarkably similar to the one Freeling had written about David Asante eight years before, Assistant Colonial Secretary suggested that Mohr be "transferred to another station" and insisted that the missionaries respect the "lawfully constituted native authorities."
Yet even this insistance marked something of a transformation. It was rather unclear to exactly what law the Governor was referring - Akyem law or British law. The gradual growth of the administration's intervention in Akyem affairs reached a critical point upon Atta's death. Whereas in 1874 they had played no role in the dispute between the traditional and missionary authorities, in 1887 they felt free to insert constabulary forces, to assert their authority to resolve the dispute, and to impose fines upon the Akyem state. Despite valiant attempts to ward off intervention, the period of Atta's reign saw the slow demise of Akyem sovereignty.
The process by which this happened is complex. The British did not actively seek to interfere, but were instead driven by political imperatives. The need to stabilize the Asante border led them to remove Atta in 1880, but the resulting disruption to Akyem Abuakwa's economic growth led them to reinstate him in 1885. Similarly, while the administration clearly could not allow threats to white missionaries and riots to go unheeded in December 1886, their response was a commission of inquiry, and a large constabulary force was only sent after Atta's death in February of the next year.
The principal conflict leading to these actions was a political and religious fight for dominance between the traditional authorities, represented by the amantoomiensa and the linguist Adjeman, and the Basel Missionaries, led by Asante and later Mohr. Although the Okyenhene welcomed the advantages, such as schooling, brought by the missionaries, he could not countenance their efforts to win away his political props - whether royal slaves or officials.
In attempting to resolve this conflict, both Atta and the Governor made use of a number of middlemen. James Cleland stands out, but equally important was the largely Euro-African jury which acquitted Atta of slave trading in 1880, and it is interesting that Governor Griffith sent Simons, a Euro-African officer, to deal with the 1886 riots.
In the following decades, while Akyem sovereignty withered away, the spirit of Okyemfo would survive, and following a period of poverty at the end of the nineteenth century Okyenhene Nana Sir Ofori Atta would revive the office. Okyemfo such as Paa Willie and J.B. Danquah would later be on the leading edge of the fight for independence. But Akyem identity would never be the same.
First Online Edition: 2 October 2001
Last Revised: 2 October 2001