How Adu Boahen Unlocked Ghana's History

Article excerpt

When the British historian, W.F. Ward, wrote in his 1948 book, History of the Gold Coast that the main ethnic groups of the Gold Coast--among them the Akan, the Akwamu, the Ga, and the Ewe--were relative "newcomers" to the country, and that "there is no nation now dwelling in the Gold Coast which has been in the country longer than the European ... we may [thus] take the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries as the beginning of the Gold Coast history", little did he know that a 16-year-old Ghanaian boy would grow up and comprehensively demolish his work. That boy became a historian of note, a professor called Albert Adu Boahen, who died on 24 May 2006. Cameron Duodu continues his tribute to one of Africa's great historians.

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The late Professor Adu Boahen was an irreverent, mischievous individual with an irrepressible sense of humour. His nickname, as I have noted previously, was 'Kontopiaat', a sobriquet he must have colonised at Mfantsipim School in Cape Coast, Ghana, his alma mater.

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Mfantsipim is an elite institution which was an intellectual power house long before its current rival in the intellectual stakes, Achimota School, sprouted its teeth. At these schools, almost everyone has a nick-name, and there is usually a special term that is shorthand for particular characteristics in human beings.

For instance, a teacher who was a real master of the subject he taught, would be known as one who delivered 'conc' stuff (for 'concentrated'), whilst one whose stuff produced yawns in the classroom would be known as a dilute chap.

I never actually asked Adu Boahen what Kontopiaat meant, but from the way he used it, one could deduce that it meant mischievous, rascally, or foolishly funny. If Adu wanted to reproach someone affectionately, for instance, he would say, 'Hey you Kontopiaat, why did you go and do such and such a thing?' And he would expect the explanation to make him laugh.

Adu's behaviour on 3 February 1966--when he gave a talk in London to a joint meeting of the Royal African Society and the Royal Commonwealth Society, under the chairmanship of no less a person than Professor Roland Oliver, the man who had founded the African history section of the institution at which Boahen had pursued his post-graduate studies, London University's School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS)--could be classified as a metaphor for unbridled Kontopiaatism.

Whenever someone is giving a lecture attended by his former professor, he usually adopts a deferential tone. In Adu's case, his former professor was not only attending the talk, but actually chairing it. So it might have been assumed the deference Adu would show to the academic establishment would be so extensive that it would stretch from the meeting place to the very doors of the building.

Ha! Not on your life. Anyone who expected deference from Adu Boahen was in for a shock. He began the lecture by picking out the three books normally regarded as "authoritative" historical works, to which anyone interested in Ghana's history was "always referred": (1) A History of the Gold Coast and Ashanti by W. Claridge (first published in 1915); (2) History of the Gold Coast by W.F. Ward (published in 1948) and (3) Ghana, An Historical Interpretation by J.D. Fage (published in 1961). Adu then declared:

"I must start with a confession ... [it] is this--that I am going to say a lot of things that may sound highly controversial and probably revolutionary, and there are three main reasons for this. I am going to be controversial because I accept the view ... that 'historical controversy enables us not only to arrive at the truth, but also to keep up the blood circulation in this cold climate'.

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"The second reason is that my approach to the history of Ghana ... is different. Claridge, Ward and Fage looked at the history of Ghana essentially from the outside, and their main concern was the activities of Europeans in Ghana--why and when Europeans came in, what they did and so forth. …