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The best books on The History of Ghana

recommended by Kwasi Konadu

Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation by Kwasi Konadu

Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation
by Kwasi Konadu

Read

Ghana's gold coast was a magnet for Europe's nascent colonial powers right from the very early years of European expansion. As historian Kwasi Konadu argues, the relationship between those imperial powers and what is now Ghana helped to forge the modern world as we know it—for good or ill.

Interview by Benedict King

Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation by Kwasi Konadu

Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation
by Kwasi Konadu

Read

Why is it interesting or important to study Ghanaian history? What can the study of Ghanaian history teach us in broad terms?

The study of Ghanaian history can teach us quite a bit about world history. It just so happens that the capital of Ghana, Accra, is located next to the prime meridian and the equator, making it, essentially, a center of the world.

As I argue in a forthcoming book of mine called Empires of Gold, the former Gold Coast, the present-day Republic of Ghana, has been a magnet for international trade. And the savannah region was a major source of the gold.

Some of your readers might know that the major empires of the region—Songhai, Wagadu, and ancient Mali—rarely had their own sources of gold. The gold came from elsewhere, including the Akan region, which is the former Gold Coast. The supplies of this very important international currency, and the culture, values and ideas that come along with it, have really been a crucial measure for why the Gold Coast is globally important.

Let’s move on to the books, starting with Ray Kea’s Settlements, Trade and Politics in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast. Tell us about this one. What is it about? 

Ray Kea’s book is a classic. It was an instant classic when it first came out in the early 1980s. Ray Kea studied at the University of London. He also spent time at the University of Ghana at Legon, which was an intellectual hub in the 1960s and 70s, into the early 80s, much like Ibadan in Nigeria and Dakar in Senegal. These were intellectual powerhouses, and many notable Africanist historians cut their teeth at Legon. Many of the Africanist archaeologists, historians and other social scientists cut their teeth in these intellectual centers.

Ray Kea came out of that center in the 1970s and joined Johns Hopkins in the early 80s. That’s when he published his book. It was really a slow-cooked dissertation that was greatly revised after years of additional research, based on a very close reading of Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, and English sources that laid out the fine texture and scale of local and global exchanges. We’re talking about the ideas and actions of local indigenous peoples and their interaction with various European empires: the Dutch Empire, the Portuguese Empire, and the Danish Empire.

Kea takes us through scales of international global trade, regional commerce, and all the in-between actions, in terms of conflicts, politics, and the conflicts between the powerful big men who controlled the movement of goods and people and gold, at the level of the village and the district. He takes a fine-grained approach across different scales and introduces us to a cast of characters— highway bandits, thugs, ritual specialists — as well as festivals, and also the big globalized transatlantic slaving transaction that took place and makes the modern world what it is.

I chose that book because of the way in which it takes us through these various scales in a very detailed account of the 17th- and 18th-century Gold Coast.

Next up is Carl Christian Reindorf’s History of the Gold Coast and Asante. This was published in 1895, so it’s 130 years old. Why is this book such a stayer?

It’s also a classic, although it’s very little known outside of historians of Ghana. I chose it for three reasons. First, Carl Christian Reindorf was born on the Gold Coast and became part of the Basel Evangelical Mission Society, which established itself on the mid-19th century Gold Coast. He was converted and became a catechist for the Basel Mission, a German-speaking missionary organization that was based in Switzerland. Reindorf is one of those earlier converts, but what makes him so important is that he began to teach himself the craft of history, methodology, oral history, and how to work with written sources. In those days you could not travel to the archives in Europe, so he would actually correspond with individuals, with merchants, about copies of travel accounts, copies of official documents and correspondence.

“The capital of Ghana, Accra, is located next to the prime meridian and the equator, making it, essentially, a center of the world”

What I love about the book, secondly, is that he was very judicious about interviewing people who lived a century ago and more, who had recollections. He would interview people about their recollections of the patterns of trade and commerce and politics on the coastal region and in the interior, where Asante was located. He made sure that there was a judicious account of both male informants and female informants. To me, that’s really great and a lesson for current and future historians about the gendered nature of knowledge. Who are the ones chosen to be tapped for recollections and memory and the things that we historians love most, the data points that allow us to create our narratives?

The third piece is that his book was self-published because the Basel Mission Society refused to fund or publish the book, even though they had agreed, in words, that they would. He published the book with his own resources.

The combination of underground research, combining oral and written sources, using a gendered methodology long before this was in vogue, and using his own resources to publish this book and make it available for those along the Gold Coast, contributing to, essentially, an early Gold Coast historiography—that’s why I chose this classic book.

Why did the Basel Mission Society refuse to publish it? Was there something in it that they objected to or something about his thesis that they didn’t like?

My sense is that the Basel missionaries were on the Gold Coast for one purpose; they were there to win over souls for Christendom, and Reindorf’s history with its political overtones could not be endorsed, much less funded, by a missionary organization with clear proselytizing aims. Reindorf’s protracted struggle to publish this work on his own terms and at his own expense, however, testifies also to the colonial and even racist context of his times.

The Basel Mission Society was not there for what they saw as the intellectual development of a Gold Coast intelligentsia. They were not there to support historiography that was both local and indigenous and not based on foreign funding and foreign censorship. Reindorf was very clear that this was his account, not their version of his account, so there’s an entanglement about ownership of knowledge and about the processes of knowledge production, and who controls the clearinghouses of knowledge.

These things plague us today, in the shape of big academic and trade presses and powerful academic institutions. Reindorf actually gives us a preview of the fights over whose knowledge gets privileged and of how those battles would play out with regard to African history.

Let’s move on to State and Society in Pre-colonial Asante, by T.C. McCaskie. Tell us about this one.

Tom McCaskie has written extensively on the Asante polity, empire, and he’s very well known in the UK and around the world. This was his first major book based on a range of articles that were published in the 1970s and 1980s. By the early 90s this book came out, and it was a crystallization of his work on Asante. What’s really fascinating about it is that it takes us into what the French scholars refer to as our mentalités—the idea of not just looking at what people do in a robotic way or with a mechanized approach to history, but looking at why people do what they do in the way they do it rather than in another way.

What he does is he looks at framing Asante history through the Odwira ritual and festival, which is both a nation building and a nation regenerational ritual called Adaduanan. He takes us through that period as a matrix and says this is a way to understand the inner workings of Asante society, of the mentality that drives them. What pushes culture through history? What are the motivating ideas and actions and mechanisms that make a society like Asante the way it is rather than another way?

He looks at language in detail—in fact, there’s a glossary of about forty pages. He looks at ritual; he’s deeply invested in historiography. He knows the materials perhaps better than anyone of his generation. It’s a meditation on how a society came to be, how an empire state came to be, looking at their own ideas and actions and archives to figure them out from the inside out.

It covers the 18th and 19th centuries. Is that right?

Indeed. Mostly 19th century into the early 20th, but a bit of the late 18th. He doesn’t really go back further than that.

Does he say anything particularly striking or notable about the mentalités that he’s studying?

He pushes back against one of the other authors on my list, which is Ivor Wilks and his seminal work, Asante in the Nineteenth Century. He pushes back on the framing device that Wilks uses, which is the sociologist Max Weber’s. McCaskie argues that it’s not enough to simply record, even in minute detail, what people do every day, every hour, without understanding what motivates those actions every day, every hour. What’s the matrix in which they operate?

McCaskie uses much more the notions being offered by Michel Foucault. He uses Foucault’s approach to power, and he has, in some cases, a less-than-idyllic sense of Asante society. He says that Asante society is driven by the notion of power—tumi, in the Asante/Twi language—that, he says, is the filament for Asante society. It is what regulates it; it is what structurates it. He uses the Foucauldian notions of power as manipulative, as a means of social control, which I actually disagree with. But that’s the view that McCaskie brings to the table. But in terms of detailed research, in terms of the fine-grained approach, it’s one of the best books on Asante society.

Let’s move on to Ivor Wilks, whom you just mentioned, and his Forests of Gold, which was published in 1993. 

Forests of Gold is more a compilation of Wilks’s writing. It chronicles Wilks’s writing from the early 1960s into the very early 90s, and so what you have is three decades of work. One thing that’s clear about Ivor Wilks, whether you agree or disagree with his writings or his points of view or his framing devices, is that he did his homework.

He was one of the early students at the University College of the Gold Coast—soon to be the University of Ghana in 1961—when it was linked to University College London. He was one of the earlier non-Africans at the University College, and cut his teeth working with African intellectual giants there and built up a very notable reputation for detailed research, and fine-grained writing.

The articles really chart the growth of Wilks’s ideas over time, but they also spell out the wide-ranging fields he covered. For example, there are articles about using the Akan or Asante calendar to think about time and space. The Asante and the Akan people, broadly, have a calendrical system that uses time and distance to measure space and thus territory, but also rituals and a range of other activities ordered in definite patterns. He uses the calendar to think about time and space and distance in the Asante empire as a whole.

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It’s a really innovative approach. He thinks about agronomy and how that had an impact on how the Akan states came into being. In thinking about agronomy, he theorizes that the use of root crops would have led earlier agrarian people to build these societies using ecology as a framing device.

There’s that and much more. There are essays on women. There’s a very notable woman, Akyaawa Yikwan of Asante, that he writes about, a biography of her, using a combination of oral and written sources. There’s a lot to offer there, giving you a package of Ivor Wilks’s career.

We’re now at the fifth book, which is edited by you and Clifford Campbell: The Ghana Reader: History, Culture, Politics. What were you trying to achieve with this book?

This book is designed for a number of audiences. It’s designed for historians, for business people, for study-abroad students, for a range of people who may have either a deep or curious interest in Ghanaian history, politics, and culture. It was a way to bring five hundred years of history, politics, and culture into one place through very important yet accessible primary sources. They’re all framed, put into context, and accompanied by wonderful artwork and illustrations.

There are things ranging from Caribbean festivals that are now part of the Ghanaian cultural fabric, to cooking, as well as deep readings and historical sources in Arabic and Portuguese and Dutch and Danish, the range of European-supplied source materials. In one place, you’ll find very accessible, very digestible information, framed in a way that the newcomer or the experienced learner or scholar or student will find enriching.

Let’s talk a little bit about your own work. You published Our Own Way in This Part of The World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation, and you’re about to publish another book. What is the particular focus of your academic research? Is Our Own Way very different, in terms of its focus, from the next book that’s coming up?

Our Own Way in This Part of The World is a biography at three scales. I call it a communography, which is a term that I created and flesh out in the introduction. It’s the story of a healer named Nana Kofi Dɔnkɔ, whose life cuts across the entire 20th century, with a back story in the 19th century. That’s the chronological arc of the book. It tells his story and that of his family and his community, and the Gold Coast colony and nation of Ghana. It weaves these three scales—individual, township, nation—and tells the story of all three through the lens of this healer and his family in Takyiman (Techiman), central Ghana.

Methodologically, I do a number of new things. I move the focus away from the coast (because a lot of historians focus on the coast) and say there’s a lot of intra-African history, meaning history that’s created amongst and between African peoples without a European interlocutor or a Muslim interlocutor or any other interlocutor.

I wanted to use a crossroads town, Takyiman, that sits between the north and south of Ghana, right in the center of Ghana, to say that there are some deeply important histories and perspectives if we think about the arc of Ghana’s history from there. What kind of history do we get when we look at Ghanaian history from the center, from the interior, rather than from the coast? In other words, moving away from the Europeanized view of the coast and saying, let’s look from the interior and see what new insights we get. What happens then is a very textured, layered story that gives us individual, community and national development and all three get entangled in this idea of the Republic of Ghana. The story ends in the 1990s when Kofi Dɔnkɔ passes away.

For those who are either afraid or hesitant about history being dry and only about facts, it will give them a lot to digest. It’s a very readable account that can give them those three stories in one place.

And what about your forthcoming publication, Empires of Gold? What’s that covering?

Empires of Gold is really the story of the modern world, but I use the case of the first European seaborne empire in the modern era, which is Portugal, and the Gold Coast, because the two of them met in the 1470s and their encounter help set off a chain of events through which we can trace the contours of the modern world. In fact, little is known of those early decades, from the 1470s to the 1530s. Throughout those six decades, the Gold Coast had funded the rise of Portugal into a seaborne empire. I use the relationship between the two to talk about how the modern world took shape in the way that it did, rather than in another way.

I take us away simply from economic explanations or political explanations, as other histories have offered, and show that we need to move away from whether Spain or Portugal should be credited for creating the modern world, and look at how African regions like the Gold Coast were integral to the exchanges and interconnections that essentially bled or led into this thing we now call the modern world; and how very seminal ideas about race, religion, and economic and political power took shape through this region that hosted all European seaborne empires.

One of the legacies of that history is that the Ghanaian coast of some 350 miles has the most European fortresses of any nation in the world—I think it’s about forty-nine or fifty. It shows that even today, there are these mnemonic devices or relics or ruins that are statements of how this region was a global hotbed. This real estate was a global magnet, and what I argue is that the world was shaped by global empires, and global empires were, in turn, shaped by their relationships with this region.

Interview by Benedict King

January 23, 2024

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Kwasi Konadu

Kwasi Konadu

Kwasi Konadu was until recently John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Endowed Chair and Professor at Colgate University, where he taught courses in African history and on worldwide African histories and cultures. His writings focus on African and African diasporic histories, as well as major themes in world history. His life work is devoted to knowledge production and the worldwide communities and struggles of peoples of African ancestry.