Battle of Adowa

The invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 is actually preceded by another symbolic event of historical import in the epic memory of Pan-African Nationalism known as the Battle of Adowa  (1896).  This latter event was the armed rejection of imperial Italy’s initial encroachment on Ethiopia.  Italy’s actions, at that time, were reflective of the 1884-85 Berlin Conference, the so-called, “Scramble for Africa” conference.  The conference produced documented commitment to the cooperative pursuit of Africa’s exploitation.  A particular document titled, General Act of the Berlin Conference was addressed to:

1.                  The Empress of India;

2.                  The emperors of Germany, Austria, the Russias, the Ottomans;

3.                  The Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland;

4.                  The kings of Prussia, Bohemia, Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, and Norway;

5.                  The Grand Duke of Luxembourg; and

6.                  The presidents of the United States of America, and the French Republic (Annex to Protocol No. 10:  General Act of the Berlin Conference 1973, 288).

While this conference focused primarily on the “free navigation on the two chief rivers of Africa flowing into the Atlantic Ocean …”  (288) it also addressed the criteria of settling the African coast. Part of a document issued from that conference provides a glaring example of the latter:

Chapter 6.  Declaration relative to the essential Conditions to be observed in order that new Occupations on the Coasts of the African Continent may be held to be effective.







Any Power which henceforth takes possession of a tract of land on the coasts of the African continent outside of its present possessions, or which being hitherto without such possessions, shall acquire them, as well as the Power which assumes a protectorate there, shall accompany the respective act with a notification thereof, addressed to the other Signatory Powers of the present Act, in order to enable them, if need be, to make good any claims of their own.




The Signatory Powers of the present Act recognize the obligation to insure the establishment of authority in the regions occupied by them on the coasts of the African continent sufficient to protect existing rights, and, as the case may be, freedom of trade and of transit under the conditions agreed upon.  (Ibid., 299-300)


Italy was a relatively young “national” entity at this conference.  It had become a nation-state in 1861.  National unity for Italy required a battle for liberation against the Bourbons.  Garibaldi successfully led that battle (Davidson 1992).  England was his ardent supporter and under his lead England’s approach toward Africa was mimicked, as seen in Davidson’s statement:

After the unification of Italy in 1861 the new Italian nation-state would turn quite shamelessly to colonial enterprises in Africa.  The very steamship company whose boats had carried the Thousand to Sicily would be foremost in Italian colonialism; and Garibaldi himself would speak in favor of loading on Africans the chains of servitude that Italy had struck from itself.  (1992, 127)


“By the time Italy and Germany became colonial adventurers in Africa, they were barely three decades young” (Tibebu 1995, 23).  The Red Sea port of Assab was declared an Italian colony in 1882 after being obtained by the Societa Rubattino, a private Italian shipping company.  The shipping company itself had acquired the port from an Italian Lazarist missionary named Giuseppe Sapeto.  Mr. Sapeto had purchased the port from a local sultan for “6000 Maria Theresa dollars” (Akpan 1985, 265).

The fact that such penetration was possible reveals the fragile situation in that part of Africa at that time.  Competing empires plagued Africa during this century and the horn of Africa was no exception.  As Italy encroached, Emperor Yohannes was more concerned with the suffocating pressure of Egypt, which then ruled much of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden coasts and the port of Massawa.  Egypt, however, had come under the occupation of the British Empire in the same year of the Italian purchase of the port of Assab.  Egyptian concerns in the area became British concerns and both were primarily concerned with the Sudanese uprising of the Mahdists.

The advance of the Mahdists and the retreat of the British caused Egyptian rule to collapse on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden area bordering Ethiopia.  Britain was temporarily rebuffed but not totally beaten.  To the British Empire the opposition existed on two fronts:  rebellious Africans and imperialist competitors.  The empire chose first to retreat and regroup. 

Brilliant in its ability to manipulate affairs of states, Britain sought the support of the Abyssinian ruling class in its evacuation efforts.  Abyssinia pledged cooperation but requested that England return territory bordering Egypt to Ethiopia as well as the port of Massawa and the city of Harar.  To the first part of this request, Britain easily capitulated, as it was no longer able to maintain a presence in those areas.  Concerning the port, “Britain merely promised free transit ‘under British protection’ for Ethiopian goods, including arms and ammunition” (Akpan 1985, 267).  Both parties signed an agreement to this arrangement on June 3, 1884.  With this agreement the Ethiopian military relaxed and fell into Britain’s counter offensive.

The counter offensive was the advance of Italy on the port of Massawa in 1885.  This advance was done with Britain’s consent and with the intent of surrounding the French beachhead at Aussa, which included the areas of Obok and Djibouti on Ethiopia’s northern border.  The Italians promised the Ethiopians that their agreement was not disturbed but the falsity of this statement became apparent as the Italians began to close off the import of arms to the ruling group in Ethiopia.   Ethiopia responded in 1887 with a military stance at Dogali.  Not desiring a mountainous campaign Italy called on Britain to negotiate the crisis.  Britain sent an envoy to Yohannes, then emperor asking him to consider ceding portions of Ethiopia.  Angered by Britain’s reneging Yohannes wrote to the Queen of England and told her that there would be peace only when Italians were back in Italy and Ethiopians were in Ethiopia. 

War was imminent so the Emperor pulled his troops from the Sudanese border to reinforce the front against the Italians.  The Mahdists realized this opportunity to advance and did so.  In response to the new situation, the emperor rushed to the Matamma area to resist the disturbance with some of his army.  Though the Ethiopian troops were victorious, the emperor was killed with a stray bullet.  The year was 1889. 

Yohannes’ army did not survive the news of his death.  The central state dissipated.  Northern Ethiopia was suffering from cattle plagues, resulting famine and disease.  During this time of confusion the Italians advanced and established the colony of Eritrea.  Confident in its future as an empire, Italy endorsed the ascendancy of Menelik, a leader of the Shoa region of Ethiopia, to the position of Ethiopia’s emperor.  Italy felt somewhat safe with Menelik because its relationship with him had been cordial during the altercations with the previous regime.

Because of this friendship with Italy, Menelik was able, as King of Shoa (1865-1889), to forcibly conquer the rich regions of Arussi, Harar, Kulo and Konta to the south and southeast, and Gurage and Wallaga to the southwest.  On May 2, 1889, Menelik and Italy signed a treaty at the Ethiopian village of Wuchale.  In this agreement Menelik recognized Italian sovereignty over most of Eritrea. Italy recognized Menelik as the emperor of Ethiopia.  The agreement, however, was problematic and short-lived.

The treaty was craftily written in both Amharic and Italian.  The Italian version implied that Italy had sovereignty over all Ethiopia.  This was unacceptable to Menelik and he sent an envoy to Rome to reissue the treaty in its original form.  Italy did this but on 11 October 1889, reasserted its claim to a protectorate over Ethiopia to the other European powers.  When Menelik informed these same powers of his coronation to take place on 3 November 1889, they embarrassed him by informing him that they could not communicate directly with him since he and Ethiopia came under the protection of Italy.  Britain went as far as to negotiate the borders and frontiers of Italy’s claims between 1891 and 1894.

Feeling able to do so, and in accordance to the Berlin Treaty, Italy advanced from Eritrea farther inland to Tigre.  Italy occupied the town of Adowa in January 1890 and informed Menelik that they would not withdraw until he recognized the Italian version of the Wuchale treaty (Akpan 1985).  In a secure manner, Italy staked its claim in Europe and negotiated frontiers with Britain.

Menelik was also busy during this apparent standoff period.  He intelligently manipulated the competitive nature of European empires to increase his advantage.  He imported large quantities of arms from Russia and France.  Using this technical advantage he forcibly consolidated Shoa’s neighboring polities into a centralized military state.  Yohannes had imagined and elaborated Ethiopia but it was under Menelik’s management that it was consolidated (Tibebu 1995).  Backed by 82,000 rifles and twenty-eight cannon, this consolidate Ethiopia denounced the Wuchale treaty on February 12, 1893.

Under this new Ethiopian posture, a fifth column emerged behind the Italian front.  Led by Batha Hagos, an Eritrean rebellion broke out in December of 1894.  The Italians launched a counter-attack in Tigré during the following month.  In September the Ethiopian army marched north and by the end of December had defeated the Italians in the towns of Amba Alagi and Makalle.  By the end of 1895, Italy fell back to the town of Adowa.

Italy was at a quantitative and qualitative disadvantage.  Ethiopia had 1,000,000 men with modern rifles.  Italy had 17,000 troops, one third of which were Eritrean conscripts.  Italy had 56 cannon to Ethiopia’s 40 but this was not decisive.  Ethiopia had the advantage of familiarity with the terrain while Italians maps were full of error.  The most significant factor was the collusion of the local population with the Ethiopian army.  These populations had experienced the direct oppression of Italian colonialism, which had begun the process of seizing land to support Italian settlers.  Local populations enhanced the eyes and ears of the Ethiopian Army enabling them to roundly defeat the Italian colonialist force.  On October 26, 1896, the Italians capitulated and agreed to the Peace Treaty of Addis Ababa.  This treaty nullified the Wuchale agreement and recognized the complete independence of Ethiopia.  It did not, however, mention Italy’s abdication of Eritrea.  This was probably because Menelik’s vision of Ethiopia did not automatically include Eritrea.

Nevertheless, the Ethiopian victory gave it respect in the only way that one could obtain respect during the time of imperial expansion.  The respect was global.  Diplomatic missions came to Ethiopia from France, Britain, the Sudanese Mahdists, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the Tsar of Russia (Akpan 1985).  Although V. B. Thompson equated the battle of Adowa to the battle of Issandhlawana in 1879 (1969), in which the British were temporarily shaken, the routing of Italy was more complete.

The outcome of the battle, the greatest victory of an African over a European army since the time of Hannibal, was of major significance in the history of Europe’s relations with Africa.  The Ethiopians acquired prestige throughout the Red Sea area, as note by the Polish traveler, Count Potocki, who remarked that the Somali displayed ‘race-pride on the victory of their neighbours over a great European power.’  (Akpan 1985, 272-273)


Here we see first hand the developing of a sense of supra-identity of being a victorious African in the face of an encroaching outsider.  This feeling was not only felt on the African continent.

Increasing interest in Ethiopia, the last indigenous independent state in black Africa, was also evinced by black intellectuals in the New World.  The Haitian, Benito Sylvain, one of the first apostles of pan-Africanism, travelled to Ethiopia four times between 1889 and 1906, carrying letters to and from President Alexis of Haiti, while William H. Ellis, a black American of Cuban descent, visited the country twice in 1903 and 1904 with various plans for economic development and the settlement of black Americans.  (Akpan 1985, 272-273)


Benito Sylvain was born and reared in Haiti but lived in France for a number of years and probably took advantage of France’s desire to see a victorious Ethiopia against an Italy-Britain partnership.  “The Emperor Menelik actually made Sylvain a sort of representative of Ethiopia, a sort of diplomat” (Martin 1993, 11).  Known for organizing the Black community in Paris, Sylvain founded the Black youth Association of Paris in 1898.  He also attended the Pan-African Conference of 1900.

An Ethiopian impact was also felt in South Africa where the biblical prophecy about Ethiopia stretching forth her hands unto God had aroused South Africa by 1900.  Increasing awareness of Ethiopia was later manifested by the appearance in 1911 of the Gold Coast intellectual J. E. Casely Hayford’s book, Ethiopia Unbound, which was dedicated ‘to the sons of Ethiopia the World Wide Over’.  (Akpan 1985, 272-273)


In fact, Ethiopianism in South Africa preceded the battle of Adowa.  “Ethiopian” churches, which reflected nationalist tendencies, began appearing in southern Africa in the 1870s (Martin 1983).  The victory of 1896 must have been an amazing boost to these churches.  Their faith in eventual victory was probably heightened as if prophecy was being fulfilled in the battle of Adowa.

In summary, how was this amazing feat accomplished?  Tibebu attributed to the Ethiopian victory to three deciding factors:

1.                  Ethiopia imported more firearms from Europe than any other place in Africa at that time.

2.                  Ethiopia had a history of centuries of statehood with varying degrees of centrality.  During the latter part of the 19th century there existed a part of the state that specialized in the art of war making as a vocation.  This ‘warrior class’ (chawa, watadar) was an armed body that existed separate from the rest of the population, similar to a standing army.

3.                  Ethiopia had a cultural unity, a sense of oneness that was established ideologically through the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  Ethiopians developed an identity that saw ‘others,’ beyond their righteous borders, as heathens (Tibebu 1995, 51).

To these points should be added: (1) the forced, yet timely consolidation of the various Ethiopian local polities, (2) the competitive nature of the European imperialists, and (3) the oppressive treatment of the indigenous population by Italy.

In modern history, the collusion and collision of imperial interests released a shock wave of activity and consciousness. Both of which became synthesized in the Nkrumahist paradigm. The epicenter of the first jolt took place at the battle of Adowa, in 1896.  It was here that Italy suffered an early colonial defeat.  That defeat left Africa its oldest independent political entity as the symbol independent African agency.  Ethiopia would serve as a beacon of hope and potential until the Italian revenge of 1935.

Some of the factors for Ethiopia’s initial success against Italian imperialism mentioned above became the factors of its fragile defense against a recuperated aggressor.  Garvey commented on the failure of Ethiopia’s ruling group to upgrade its ability to resist Italian aggression.  Looking critically at the shortcomings of Emperor Haile Selassie Garvey wrote the following:

He kept his country unprepared for modern civilization, whose policy was strictly aggressive.  He resorted sentimentally to prayer and to feasting and fasting, not consistent with the policy that secures the existence of present-day freedom for peoples whilst other nations and rulers are building up armaments of the most destructive kind as the only means of securing peace . . . and protection. . . .  The results show that God had nothing to do with the campaign of Italy in Abyssinia, for on the one side we had the Pope of the Catholic Church blessing the Crusade, and the other, the Coptic Church fasting and praying with confidence of victory. . . .  It is logical, therefore, that God did not take sides, but left the matter to be settled by the strongest human battalion. (Blackman, January 1937, 8) 


Garvey, who had earlier sang the praises of the former Abyssinia that had defeated the Italians recognized that more than tradition was necessary to hold the imperialist at bay.  This became a continuous concern and theme of Nkrumah’s in a later period when he would face the dilemma of tradition versus innovation. 



The Liberated State and Pan-African Nationalism




To the participants at the first Pan-African conference (1900) Ethiopia was seen globally as an impetus to African pride in a vain similar to Haiti.  The difference was that this battle took place within the Motherland.  At the 1900 Pan-African Conference, Sylvain proudly recalled the achievements of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Menelik II as reasons for Europe to respect persons of African descent.  The presidents of Haiti, Ethiopia and Liberia were made honorary members of the Pan-African Association at this conference (Esedebe 1982). 

Here we see, even if only symbolically, the role of liberated states within the Pan-African Nationalist movement.  One would have to admit that while these states were elevated in status by Pan-Africanists they did not sufficiently reflect a Pan-African self-consciousness that would later be reflected by the States of Ghana and Guinea (Conakry).  Nevertheless, these states were reflections of the possibility of the African Personality in world affairs.  What elevated the African identity at that time was the fact that a part of the European empire was outgunned and out strategized by the Ethiopian military during the reign of Menelik II.  Italy experienced an embarrassing defeat of its imperialist designs and the hope of African Redemption became enamored.  This enamoring came to affect Nkrumah as did the local battle to free Ghana.



The Battle to Liberate Ghana




In his famous address titled, “Motion of Destiny,” delivered July 10, 1953 in Accra before the Assembly, Nkrumah said:

. . . Among the colonial peoples, there is a vast reservoir of peace and goodwill towards Britain, would she but divest herself of the outmoded, moth-eaten trappings of two centuries ago, and present herself to her colonial peoples in a new and shining vestment and hand us the olive branch of peace and love, and give us a guiding hand in working out our own destinies.

In the very early days of the Christian era, long before England had assumed any importance, long even before her people had united into a nation, our ancestors had attained a great empire, which lasted until the eleventh century, when it fell before the attacks of the Moors of the North.  At its height that empire stretched from Timbuktu to Bamako, and even as far as to the Atlantic.  It is said that lawyers and scholars were much respected in that empire and that the inhabitants of Ghana wore garments of wool, cotton, silk and velvet.  There was trade in copper, gold and textile fabrics, and jewels and weapons of gold and silver were carried.

Thus may we take pride in the name of Ghana, not out of romanticism, but as an inspiration for the future.  It is right and proper that we should know about our past.  For just as the future moves from the present so the present has emerged from the past.  Nor need we be ashamed of our past.  There was much in it of glory.  What our ancestors achieved in the context of their contemporary society gives us confidence that we can create out of that past a glorious future, not in terms of war and military pomp, but in terms of social progress and of peace.  For we repudiate war and violence.  Our battles shall be against the old ideas that keep men trammeled in their own greed; against the crass stupidities that breed hatred, fear and inhumanity.  The heroes of our future will be those who can lead our people out of the stifling fog of disintegration through serfdom, into the valley of light where purpose, endeavour and determination will create that brotherhood which Christ proclaimed two thousand years ago, and about which so much is said, but so little done.

Mr Speaker, in calling up our past, it is meet, on an historic occasion such as this to pay tribute to those ancestors of ours who laid our national traditions, and those others who opened the path which made it possible to reach to-day the great moment at which we stand.  As with our enslaved brothers dragged from these shores to the United States and to the West Indies, throughout our tortuous history, we have not been docile under the heel of the conqueror.  Having known by our own traditions and experience the essentiality of unity and of government, we constantly formed ourselves into cohesive blocs as a means of resistance against the alien force within our borders.  And so to-day we recall the birth of the Ashanti nation through Okomfo Anokye and Osei Tutu and the symbolism entrenched in the Golden Stool; the valiant wars against the British, the banishment of Nana Prempeh the First to the Seychelle Islands; the temporary disintegretation of the nation and its subsequent reunification.  And so we come to the Bond of 1884.  Following trade with the early merchant adventurers who came to the Gold Coast, the first formal association of Britain with our country was effected by the famous Bond of 1844, which accorded Britain trading rights in the country.  But from these humble beginnings of trade and friendship, Britain assumbed political control of this country.  But our inalienable right still remains, as my friend, George Padmore, puts it in his recent book, The Gold Coast Revolution, and I quote—“When the Gold Coast Africans demand self-government to-day they are, in consequence, merely asserting their birthright which they never really surrendered to the British who, disregarding their treaty obligations of 1844, gradually usurped full sovereignty over the country”.

Then the Fanti Confederation—the earliest manifestation of Gold Coast nationalism occurred in 1868 when Fanti Chiefs attempted to form the Fanti Confederation in order to defend themselves against the might of Ashanti and the incipient political encroachments of British merchants.  It was also a union of the coastal states for mutual economic and social development.  This was declared a dangerous conspiracy with the consequent arrest of its leaders.

Then the Aborigines Rights Protection Society was the next nationalist movement to be formed with its excellent aims and objects, and by putting up their titanic fight for which we cannot be sufficiently grateful, they formed an unforgettable bastion for the defence of our God-given land and thus preserved our inherent right to freedom.  Such men as Mensah-Sarbah, Atta Ahuma, Sey and Wood have played their role in this great fight.

Next came the National Congress of British West Africa.  The end of the first Great War brought its strain and stresses and the echoes of the allied slogan, “We fight for freedom: did not pass unheeded in the ears of Casely-Hayford, Hutton-Mills and other national stalwarts who were some of the moving spirits of the National Congress of British West Africa.  The machinations of imperialism did not take long to smother the dreams of the people concerned, but to-day their aims and objects are being more than gratified with the appointment of African judges and other improvements in our national life.

As with the case of the National Congress of British West Africa, the United Gold Coast Convention was organised at the end of the Second World War to give expression to the people’s desire for better conditions.  The British Government, seeing the threat to its security here, arrested six members of the Convention and detained them for several weeks until the Watson commission came.  The stand taken by the Trades Union Congress, the farmers, students and women of the country, provides one of the most epic stories in our national struggle. . . .

We have experienced Indirect Rule, we have had to labour under the yoke of our own disunity, caused by the puffed-up pride of those who were lucky to enjoy better opportunities in life than their less fortunate brothers; we have experience the slow and painful progress of constitutional changes by which, from councils on which African were either absent or merely nominated, this august House has evolved through the exercise by the enfranchised people of their democratic right to a voice in their own affairs and in so doing they have shown their confidence in their own countrymen by placing on us the responsibility for our country’s affairs.  (Nkrumah 1973a, 163-165)


Nkrumah saw this history as an important epoch to recant.  As such, this dissertation will look further into that aspect of it which led to the development of his early environment and informed his nationalism.  This is done in an effort to draw the reader into the epic memory of Nkrumah’s first educators—his elders, family and intellectual mentors that initially formatted his consciousness.

At the outset it is important to reiterate that the inhabitants of modern Ghana are by and large migrants from the ancient empire of Ghana and from participants of the larger political entities of Mali and Songhay.  They were probably on the fringes of these empires and eventually developed in diverse ways.  The Fanti, for instance were not as centralized as the inland empire of the Ashanti.  Their respective political infrastructure represented this diversity at the time of their encounter with European empires.

The settlement of the Fanti[1] portion of the Akan along the coast of what is now known as Ghana predates the arrival of the Portuguese to West African coast in the fifteenth century (Osae, Nwabara and Odunsi, 241).  The Fanti and other Akan groups along the coast had experienced the roguish behavior of the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, witnessed their being joined by the Dutch in the sixteenth century, and other aliens competing for space and trade in the name of the French and British by the seventeenth century.  By the opening of the eighteenth century, “twenty-eight forts had been built by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Danes on the Gold Coast, in what is modern Ghana” (Murphy 1978, 264).  By the mid-nineteenth century the British imperialists were encouraging a general instability among the Akan in preparation for direct dominance. 

“Fanteland” was a loosely knit union of Fanti villages and towns in the eighteenth century.  It was a fluid and decentralized polity in comparison to its northeastern neighbor, the Asante[2].  The eighteenth century was a time of expansion and consolidation for the Asante who had previously thrown up the likes of central rulers such as Osei Tutu and Opoku Ware (Osae, Nwabara and Odunsi 1973).  The Asante made their centralized authority known to all populations in the area as they became the politically dominant group of the Akan.  Added factors that contributed to Asante’s relative strength were, 1) their proximity to the former inland empires, 2) their roles as intermediaries between these empires and the gold producing populations, and 3) their magnitude of population and urban organization compared to the loosely knit polities to their south and east (Wilks 1993).

Thus, by 1750, nearly all of what is today called Ghana was obliged to pay tribute to the Asantehene with the exception of the Fanti and a few smaller states.  The buffer states between the Asante and the Fanti were often obliged to pay tribute to the Asante.  Nkrumah’s group, the Nzima,[3] was one of these buffer groups on the periphery of the Asante and the Fanti.

The first altercation between the Fanti and the Asante came in 1765 after the two had initially collaborated against one of the smaller states between them, the Dinkyira (Osae, Nwabara and Odunsi 1973).  Trade between Accra and Elmina was deemed crucial by the Asante because both ports provided European trade access. The Asante used this access to procure weapons in an effort to further consolidate its authority.  In 1765, Denkyira challenged the authority of the Asante to pass through their territory, effectively disturbing Asante trade routes.  The Asante appealed to the Fanti for assistance in the matter and the Fanti complied.  The combined group amassed a force that caused the Denkyira to stand down.  After advancing into Fanti territory to admonish the rebels, however, the armed Asantes were slow to retreat.  The Fanti sensed a threat to their sovereignty.  After a tense standoff, the Asante departed from Fanteland.  The British traders occupying coast settlements at this time were nervous that a war between the Asante and Fanti would disturb their business. Peace between the Asante and Fanti was short lived.

“During the course of the nineteenth century the Asante and Fante were at war for no fewer than nine times.  The nineteenth century wars should in reality be called Asante-Fante-British wars, for the British were more or less actively involved in all of them” (Osae, Nwabara and Odunsi 1973, 243).  The British assisted the Fanti from coming under the yoke of the Asante only to snare them into the web of the British Empire. 

Sensing encroachment from the British authority the Fanti sought to unify in a confederation and seek recognition from the British.  As they had allied with Britain against the Asante they “now proposed an alliance with Britain to establish self government” (Dubois 1965, 38).  A constitution was constructed and adopted by the Fanti in 1871.  It was then forwarded to the British who recognized the document by incarcerating its authors and charging them with treason.  After the Fanti collaborators were reduced to colonial subjects the British went after the weakened, but not yet beaten, Asante.  Apparently the British no longer felt obliged to negotiate with any competing powers in the area.

By 1874, the British attitude toward war between Fanti and Asante had changed from peacemaker, to Fanti ally, to Fanti colonial master, to stalker of the Asante.  In 1874 the British led another war against the Asante.  By the end of this war the Asante empire was reduced greatly.  The areas that remained under the control of the Asante experienced confusion, civil war, and population displacement.  Calm and order did not reappear until the 1880 ascension of the new Asantehene, Kwaku Dua III, also known as Prempeh I.

It was, however, too late to reconsolidate the Asante empire.  The British and other European empires, decided that the time was ripe to administer direct control over areas that could not resist.  The British were euphemistic in their demand for capitulation when in 1891, the British offered the Asantehene “protection.”  Prempeh I, just as politely, refused.

This did not save him or his nation.  In 1896 Asante was surprised and tricked by a British led military expedition to Kumasi.  Prempeh I was seized and taken to the coast and finally deported to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean off the East African coast.  Asante was annexed by the British.  (Osae, Nwabara and Odunsi 1973, 242)


The Asante were not the only Akan group to agitate the British.  Even after collaboration and subsequent subjugation, the Fanti fought back in other ways.  Farsighted Fante leadership realized the importance of knowing the world of these coastal traders.  The Fante, like the Asante, had literate elites that served the collective polity.  As European trade became permanent, leadership of the Akan groups felt it necessary to send some of their citizens to the educational institutions of these imposing foreigners.  It was generally deemed good for business, or so it was thought, and it provided an occasional advantage when non-military battle was required.  On the other hand, the British on occasion required royal youth to be drafted to areas of European control for “security”.[4]  Nevertheless, in good times, the “educated elites” worked in unity with the royal elite.  In the best of times, both served the general populace.

The Fanti were on the verge of the best of times in 1865 for it seemed that the British, who had become more troublesome allies than they were worth, were under a mandate from a British Parliamentary Select Committee to abandon the Gold Coast settlements.  A couple of reasons stood out for this decision.  One, the British forces were humiliated in their war with the Asante in 1863, suffering considerable loss of life and a great deal of prestige.  The prestige loss resulted from failure to protect the Fanti and other groups that had been earlier coerced into the protectorate treaties of 1844 and 1852.   The British were also discouraged by the lack of Dutch resolve to oppose the Asante.  Second, and more important, the British felt that their control of the coast was ineffective as long as their settlements were interlocked on the coast with the Dutch.  If they could control the coast completely, the British postulated, they could monopolize trade and impose tariffs and taxes making the colonial venture more profitable (Osae, Nwabara and Odunsi 1973).

A British Select Committee instructed its colonial force to depart gradually as to reduce confusion as the Africans seized control of their own affairs.  What this actually meant was, ‘reduce the loss of influence.’  A particular move to place the Fanti under the administration of the Governor of Sierra Leon was repulsive to the Fanti.  The Fanti elites pondered the departure of the British and organized themselves to resume their affairs as they had done before the British intrusion.  Then a change in circumstances, probably provoked by the British, disturbed the plans.

In 1867, however, an exchange of forts was arranged which put the Dutch on one side and the British on the other of the coast.  Serious trouble attended the execution of this arrangement.  The people of Komenda refused to allow the Dutch to occupy the British fort there and even begin to attack the people of Elmina.  The Dutch decided amidst the general chaos to pull out of the Gold Coast altogether, offering to sell their forts and possessions in the country to the British.  . . .  [The British] could now collect revenue to pay for their administration by imposing duties on trade.  So the 1865 Select Committee’s idea of withdrawal was quickly dropped.  (Osae, Nwabara and Odunsi 1973, 253)


The British must have been aware that the Dutch and the Asante had a strong relationship with each other and the enemies of the Asante were also aware of this relationship. 

The real root and ground of their objection was the fact that, Elmina, where the seat of the Dutch government was, had always been friendly with Kumasi  and they feared in the end, submission to the hated Ashantis.  In this objection they were strongly supported by the Fantis.

The outcome was great confusion.  The Fantis regarded the British as having forsaken them and declared that they were being handed over to slavery.  (Balmer 125, 149)


It was known to the British that the Dutch were still involved in the slave trade and would be looked upon unfavorably by the Fanti and other neighboring groups on the western portion of the Gold Coast.  It was apparent that, the Dutch had never thoroughly abandoned nor suppressed the slave trade (Balmer 1925).  The Dutch were known to obtain persons enslaved by the Asante to use as soldiers in Java and other parts of the Dutch empire.  The Dutch promises of returning the enslaved Africans after a period of service were disbelieved because of the small number that actually came back.  Many Fanti believed that this could become their fate.  The British knew the fears of the Fanti on this matter.

The British also must have calculated that the Asante, fearing a blockade of their direct trade route through Elmina, would respond violently.  It was also predictable that the population surrounding Elmina would respond with hostility toward the disturbing of their livelihood, which was usually tied to the post and/or fort.  Previous conflict had revealed the close ties between the population affiliated with the Dutch outposts and the Asante.  In a sense, these populations were under the joint protection of the Asante and the Dutch.  Thus, the Asante saw a possible loss of both an establish seaport outlet and the reduction of a coastal support population.  Acceptance of this situation was tantamount to fiscal suicide.

Of course, if the Dutch settled in prosperously to their new destinations in the West, new benefits might be made available to the Asante.  However, the Asante knew the Dutch as the Fanti knew them.  It was believable that the greed of the Dutch, especially when out of the reach of the Asante, would attempt to eliminate the middle connection.  In other words, Dutch raiding of the less formidable Fanti was to be expected and less trade would go on with the interior.  The all around economic forecast for the Asante was not good. Finally, the British had to know that the Dutch would fall for this tactic and see it as a way to accrue profits from the “weaker, decentralized” states through extortion and enslavement, something not possible with the Asante.

According to W. T. Balmer, who wrote in 1925, the British asked the Dutch and Elminas if the swap would be acceptable.  Both parties concurred with the arrangement.  The Asante, however, upon hearing of the proposal sent a letter of concern about their historical relationship with Elmina to the British.  In this letter the British were informed that Asante collected rent from parties that sought to use Elmina.  The Dutch then informed the British that the money sent to Kumasi (the Asante capital) was “given as a complimentary present to secure the goodwill of the king and to encourage trade”(Balmer 1969, 156).  Thus, the British sent what they considered a generous complimentary gift, “much more valuable than the Dutch had ever sent” to Kumasi together with a letter of the understanding parlayed by the Dutch.  The ambassador that took the gift returned with a letter, later thought to be a forgery, stating that the arrangement described was not accurate, nor acceptable.  Nevertheless, the British took possession of the castle at Elmina and the entire coast by 1872.

The maneuver worked well.  It was not long before mayhem broke out.  The population from Elmina supported the Dutch as they sought to set up in Kommenda.  The Elminas thought that the Kommendas would be under their control and acted accordingly.  The Kommendas put up a determined resistance.  The Dutch resorted to bombardments and destroyed the town causing the inhabitants to flee to the nearby forest.

When the disturbance was over the swapping of forts began, the Fanti chiefs combined to support Kommenda against Elmina, the latter being allied with the Asante.  There were also attacks on the new Dutch positions.  Finding themselves in hostile territory, the Dutch escalated the battle only to incur the wrath of a larger Fanti force.  Exasperated, the Dutch quit the Gold Coast and sold their remaining stores to the British for £4,000 (Balmer 1969). 

The Fanti leadership came together and formed the famous Confederation.  Between 1870 and 1871 the Fanti ruling body and intelligentsia formed a political movement and constitution that advocated:

1.                  the creation of friendship and cooperation among the Kings and Chiefs of the Fanti, especially for common defense;

2.                  the improved building of roads and schools;

3.                  improving agricultural technique;

4.                  improving mineral extraction technique;

5.                  rendering “assistance as directed by the executive in carrying out the wishes of the British government” (DuBois 1965, 39);

6.                  creation of a “Confederacy Government with a General Assembly” of elected members, both chiefs and non-chiefs.  The Assembly would have power to make laws and to levy taxes” (Osae, Nwabara, and Odunsi 1973, 254).

While the British might have welcomed this document in 1865, their new consolidated position did not lend itself to supporting a competing authority, even if a cooperative one.  Submission to the Queen of England was to be total so the authors of the Fanti constitution were arrested and debased.  British officials propagated that the leaders of the confederation were a small clique of agitators and discontented elements who merely wanted personal power.  The fact of the matter, as mentioned above, was that traditional rulers and the new professional elite worked together in the constructing of the Fanti confederation.  As the Confederation sought cooperation with the British they were somewhat shocked at the treatment received. 

It is an everlasting blot on the escutcheon of British Colonial Governors in the Gold Coast that Mr. Charles Spencer Salmon, Administrator, should so have misinterpreted the object of this movement as to have arrested and imprisoned the leading members of the confederation who went as envoys to lay the written constitution before him, charging them with what he called a “conspiracy to subvert the rule of Her Majesty the Queen on the Gold Coast.”  It is true that Her Majesty’s Government has since dissociated itself with Mr. Salmon’s high-handed act; it is true that the Administrator-in-Chief, then stationed at Freetown, Sierra Leone, (Mr. John Pope Hennessey) strongly condemned Mr. Salmon’s action in an 1872 despatch to the Secretary of State; it is further true that Mr. Herbert Taylor Ussher, Adminstrator, declared the arrest and treatment of the confederate leaders to be erroneous, illegal, imprudent, offensive, unjustifiable and irritating; but the oppressive deed had been done, . . .  (Danquah 1969, 15)


The Fanti confederation can best be understood as a nationalist movement for those populations on the coast.  Kofi Hadjor (1988) placed the Confederation’s effective life from 1868 to 1873.  Hadjor went farther to say that it “was the first movement Ghana had seen where its traditional rulers had joined together with the educated elite to fight for independence in common cause” (1988, 24). This dissertation is in agreement with Hadjor’s statement on the unity part[5] however; it disagrees with the assertions that this was the first time that this happened.  The point disregards the role of learned persons who were educated through traditional institutions or Islamic sponsored learning.  However, the statement is accurate for the period under review.  This unity, unfortunately, was fragile.

The Fanti federation was designed to unify the Fanti in defense of their liberty from the Dutch/Asante threat and the perceived British abandonment, as well as for the “modernization” of Fanti infrastructure.  The British took the opportunity of Fanti unity to organize the further consolidation of the Gold Coast.  The Asante realized that the departure of the Dutch would insure the increased harassment of their trade routes to the sea and cut off the income that was paid as a tribute or tax from Dutch trading rights.  The Asante wanted assurances that the British would honor the previous agreements obtained from the Dutch.

The British responded first by joining the battle between the Kommenda and Elmina by attacking Elmina.  Meanwhile, the British continued negotiations with the Asante, which included a swap of prisoners, Europeans held in captivity in Kumasi for an Asante chief of Akyempon who had been expelled from Elmina and held at Cape Coast.

The Ashantis, however, were determined on war, and made extensive and secret preparations.  They fully understood, now that the British had the whole sea-shore in their possession, that this would be their last opportunity to assert their dominion over the coast.  In addition, they were deeply wounded in their pride at the loss of Elmina, which was their last foothold on the shore.  The British offered to pay twice the annual sum paid by the Dutch as a present.  But it was power, not presents, tribute, not thanks which the Ashantis desired.(Balmer 1967, 157)


There were internal struggles going on within the Asante.  The Kotoko, or great council, surrounding the Asantehene was pressuring the government to move swiftly to rectify the dangerous position that the into which the Asante had been thrust.  The Asante launched a war effort against the Confederation and the British in order to secure a favorable position in the shifting arrangements. Victory was expected over the Fanti front since the Asante had defeated them previously.  However, Fanti unity, fortified in the recent opposition to Dutch control, strengthened the resolve of the Fanti and their stubborn defense caught the Asante by surprise.  This allowed the British to beat back the Asante to the northern borders of Fantiland.  The British wanted to finish off the Asante and march into the heart of Kumasi.  However, for this they had to wait for British reinforcements for the Fanti had no desire to invade the Asante.  The British received their reinforcements and marched on Kumasi.

Internal civil war related to defeat from previous engagements and encouraged by British efforts made the complete colonization of the Gold Coast possible by 1896.  The Fanti morale had been weakened when the British had repressed their reasonable confederation and the Asante had been suppressed by way of deteriorating political unity.  Between 1894 and 1895, the newly recognized Asantehene sent a delegation of 300 persons to England to negotiate a respectable peace.  The British Colonial Office responded by refusing to see the delegation and redirecting them back to the on-site administration.  Upon the delegation’s return they found that while they were in England the governor of the colony was instructed to offer the Asante an ultimatum.  This ultimatum required that the Asante pay a war indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold.  The Asantehene refused. The British marched to Kumasi in 1896 and deported the Asantehene, first to Sierra Leone, and then to Seychelles in 1900 (Gueye and Boahen 1985, 132).  Were it not for the durable structure that the Asante built around the Queen Mother, the Asante might have perished. 

Alas, both the Asante and Fanti were united in submission.  Both became, ‘aborigines,’ which reflects the power of the conqueror to assign identity to the vanquished.  The face of British colonialism, now secure in their control of the Gold Coast and inland, exposed its ultimate interests.  The British sought to establish direct control over land, which it deemed as vacant.  To this end they circulated in 1894 and in 1897, the Lands Bill.  In response, the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (hereafter referred to as the Society) was formed (Kaniki 1985).  Following in the footsteps of the Fanti Confederation and the normal organization of the Asante nation, the educated elite worked with traditional rulers.  The Society, “organized nation-wide protest and despatched [sic] a delegation to England in 1898, to demand that the Colonial Office rescind the new laws” (Padmore 1969, 374).  The delegation was successful in persuading the Colonial Office, in May of 1898, to drop the Bill “on the grounds that there were no vacant lands in the Gold Coast and that every piece of land was owned by one extended family or another” (Kaniki 1985, 392).

During the battle to resist the consolidation of British Imperialism the West African intelligentsia increasingly took part in Pan-African activity. Though held in London, about one third of the attendees to the 1900 Pan-African Conference were directly from Africa (as opposed to Europe or the Americas) (Esedebe 1982).  The “most prominent being J. Otonba Payne; James Johnson; the Sierra Leonean Councilor G. W. Dove; A. Ribero, a Gold Coast barrister; F. R. S. Johnson, formerly Liberia’s attorney-general, and Benito Sylvain, Aide-de-camp to Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia. (49)” 

In fact, the nexus between West Africa, the Americas, and Europe reflected not only increasing Pan-African activity but the assertion of an ‘African based nationalism.’  Incipient Pan-African Nationalists like J. Casely Hayford and Edward Blyden before him were cases in point of the important contributions made in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to Pan-African ideation.  While Blyden’s concept of African Personality was heavily loaded with the race notions of Pan-Negroism Nkrumah echoed his cultural synthesis of Islamic and Christian impacts upon a traditional African base.

Casely Hayford, whose brother, the Reverend Mark C. Hayford, participated in a 1912 International Conference sponsored by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, composed a letter which reminded the conference that such a thing as an ‘African Nationality’ existed which was not necessarily the same thing as Pan-Negroism (Langley 1973).  Newspapers and organizations sprang up in the Gold Coast and other parts of West Africa to fight for its redeemed sovereignty.  The Gold Coast seemed to emerge as one of the models for developing ideas on Pan-Africanism.







The Battle of Adowa and the struggle to maintain and regain independence in the Gold Coast must have figured into the epic memory of those that were Nkrumah’s first educators.  The events were too magnanimous to be ignored and too inspirational to have been overlooked.  The spirit of resistance of those enslaved from the Gold Coast area left a legacy both in Brazil and in Asanteland.  This spirit must have entered the stories told at the time of Nkrumah’s impressionable youth.

Nkrumah was well aware of events in the history of the formal Pan-African movement as is made clear in his published works.  His knowledge of the Pan-African congresses that took place from 1919 through 1945 was documented in his text Africa Must Unite.  His commentary about being influenced by the text Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, lets one know that he was aware of the experiences of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.  His speeches show that he was aware of the numerous uprisings of Africans that fought against the oppression of enslavement and colonialism but the two case histories described in this chapter were to have special impact on him. 

For his 1942 graduation oration, Nkrumah chose the subject, “Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands Unto God”.  He felt that independent states like Ethiopia and Liberia had particular roles to play in advancing the liberation of the rest of the African continent (Nelson 1985).  Nkrumah’s horror at the invasion of Ethiopia reflected the epic memory of Pan-African Nationalism and Black pride. 

Nkrumah’s struggles to unite the Gold Coast colony and elevate it to the glory of the former Ghana reflected his deep knowledge of the exigencies for a renascent Africa.  Nkrumah has already informed us that he was an ardent nationalist at the time that he reached England in 1935.  His Mentorship under the educator Kwegyir Aggrey and encouragement from the West African nationalism Nnamdi Azikiwe had to have deepened his interest in the struggles of his locale.  He also informs the reader in his Autobiography that he was tutored by the knowledgeable Sam Woods who must have imprinted the history of Gold Coast Nationalism in him before ever leaving Africa.  Then there are the obvious tales that had to have been told to him by his beloved mother and close kin.  Even his birthday was referenced by symbols of colonial intrusion—the ship called Bakana, which became shipwrecked while carrying oil from Nigeria to England. 

Too often Nkrumah’s biographers have overlooked these factors of epic memory.  The next two chapters in this dissertation will chronicle Nkrumah’s contribution to the organization of Pan-African Agency during the periods of 1945 through 1966.

[1] Fanti and Fante are used interchangeably as there is not consensus on its English spelling in the texts under review.

[2] As in the case of the Fanti, Asante and Ashanti are used interchangeably in the texts under review.

[3] The name, “Apollonia,” is often used in historical text to refer to Nzima, which is sometimes found spelled as Nzema.

[4] The Treaty of 1831, signed by George Maclean on behalf of the King of England, Princess “Akianvah” and Chief “Quagua on behalf of the King of Ashanti, King Aggery of Cape Coast, King “Adookoo” of the Fanti, and a number of neighboring Kings, included the following passage:  “1.  The King of Ashantee having deposited in Cape Coast Castle, in the presence of the above mentioned parties, the sum of 600 ounces of gold, and having delivered into the hands of the Governor two young men of the royal family of Ashantee, namely, ‘Ossoo Ansah,’ and ‘Ossoo In Quantamissah,’ as security that he will keep peace with the said parties in all time coming, peace is hereby declared betwixt the said King of Ashantee and all and each of the parties aforesaid, to continue in all time coming. . . .” [emphasis mine] citation is from W. T. Balmer, A History of the Akan peoples of the Gold Coast, Negro University Press, New York, 1925, p. 201.

[5] The use of the term “educated elite” by Hadjor and other Ghanaian writers, as opposed to the term, “intelligentsia,” is aptly explained in the following quote:  “One result of Sir Ofori Atta’s opposition was to place him in direct conflict with what came to be called the intelligentsia of the Gold Coast.. . . Because of his eloquence, both in the Fanti language and in English, his high training in politics, law and in philosophy, both in this country [Gold Coast] and in England, together with his masterful control of a trenchant pen, Mr. Sekyi was eminently fitted by temperament to put the case of the intelligentsia against the Chiefs.  Between 1920 and 1925 the Gold Coast had a foretaste of the promise of strife or peace we could expect from a continued maintenance of acrimonious “party politics.”  While Sekyi wrote in the press, Sir Ofori Atta and Casely Hayford fought the wordy battle in the Legislative Council, . . . . the one believed that the request for the grant of liberty could proceed from the intelligentsia, and the other that the request should proceed from the natural rulers. . . .  In the past the Chiefs had submitted themselves to be led by the educated people into the new realm of co-operation with a “lettered race” of European rulers in the government of this country; now the Chiefs themselves having become educated, claimed that they should not merely be led, but should themselves be admitted into the front rank amongst the leaders, that they too should share in the labour to bring peace and happiness to the Gold Coast people. . . .” quoted from: J. B. Danquah, Introduction, in M. J. Sampson, Gold Coast Men of Affairs, Dawsons of Pall Mall, London, 1936; 1969, pp. 33-34.