The Origins of Modern Africa
This lecture took place on Tuesday 25 January 2022 at 2pm (New York), 7pm (London), 8pm (Lagos)
African societies are the oldest in the world and as such the communities of the continent have been engaged in continuous thought about their “origins” for longer than any other community.
This makes African origin stories some of the richest and most interesting stories of their kind. But can we really use such stories to study the history of a community? In this conversation with a case study of West Africa we will explore African anthropogony, anthropology, and early oral histories to see if we can use them to reconstruct the history of Africa.
Lecturer: Apeike Umolu | Director and Lecturer in Intellectual History
Hello everyone and welcome to this African History Project conversation on The Origins of Modern Africa. My name is Apeike Umolu and I am the Director of the African History Project.
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Political societies1 in Africa are the oldest in the world and as such the people of the continent have been engaged in continuous thought about their “origins” for longer than any other community. This makes the African experience the optimal site from which to explore theories of the origins of political society. Furthermore, the unique nature of the modern African experience as a result of the Great Dislocations2 of the 15th to the 20th centuries makes the African experience prime epistemological and experiential ground on which to grapple with questions of “beginnings”, “turning points”, and all the moments in between.
Throughout the bulk of human history, waves of peoples migrated across Africa following the waterways around the continent and populating its four corners. In addition to these overground migrations, communities migrated by sea, tracking their way around the coast over many millennia. With them they took language, culture, and of course religion and their various forms of social organisation. The first Great Dislocation also took Africans to the Americas in the largest systematic and prolonged forced migration of humans and human capital in history. In the Americas, African culture and society continued to evolve and proliferate. Following the second Great Dislocation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which involved various co-options of African political society on the continent as a means of commandeering Africa’s economic productions, in addition to a second non-coerced wave of emigration out of centres of African civilisation on the continent and from parts of the diaspora in the mid to late 20th century, African culture has continued to inculcate various world cultures with African notions of social and political philosophy.3
As a result of this rich and dynamic history however, it is difficult to talk about the origin of any specific African political society. The societies we now know as Akan or Afro-Caribbean or Black British have developed in many cases over hundreds of years as a result of waves of entry into, movement within, and dislocation from various localities, mentalities, and political realities. Thus, a theory of the origins of political society in the African tradition is by definition a multiplicitous enquiry. Pan-Africanism’s attempts at various times in the last 100 years to regard itself as evidencing a single political and cultural origin for Africans has been met with accusations of naivity at best and disingenuity at worst. Global Africa theory as espoused by historians such as Ali Mazrui and Hilary Beckles represents an improvement of sorts in this regard, in that it condones greater mutuality between the continent and the diaspora as sites of authentic African knowledge production. While noting the important place of Africa, Beckles’ “global Africa” accepts diasporic spaces as legitimate starting points in the exegesis of notions of African origin, allowing origin stories to begin in the current locale of each African community, without such an act negating the community’s claim to African heritage or right to be thought of as existing as part the global Africa body politic.4
The aim of this conversation is to explore theories of the origins of political society derived uniquely from this multiplicitious African experience, on the continent and in the diaspora. In so doing it hopes to map the foundational philosophical concepts from which deeper explorations of the history of African political organisation can take place. In particular, in exploring how Africans have conceived of the beginnings of their political selves, it is hoped that the groundwork will be laid to allow for further enquiry into what a political society is or should be, adding to existing scholarship which explores normative political theory within the African experience.
This conversation begins by considering what African origin stories, particularly anthropogenies, offer by way of theories of political origin. The conversation then considers what African theology offers us in relation to the definition of beginnings before looking at continental political pre-history and national history as well as diasporic political history. More widely, in relying on classic and modern texts, both oral and written, the conversation intends to demonstrate how one can read philosophy from various African intellectual productions.
A Defence of Origin Stories as a Genre of Knowledge
We begin with a defence of origin stories as a genre of knowledge. Origin stories are by their nature part science, part memory, part literature, part religion, and part political tools of national unity or acts in collective esteem building. Cosmogony is the branch of science that concerns the origins of the universe. Colloquially when used it often includes theogony and anthropogeny which concern the origins of deities and human beings respectively. African cosmogony is the oldest such science and we see many of its elements in the cosmogonies of different communities around the world proving the interconnectedness and oneness of humanity. But to what extent can we use such cosmogonies to determine the “truth” of the political origins of a people?
Considering first the very concept of an origin story as a theory of the beginning, in many ways it is impossible to conceive of the beginning because to do so, one would have to conceive of a time before the beginning. And if there was such a time, when did that time begin, and why does that earlier beginning not dislodge the later beginning? This is sometimes dealt with by distinguishing the “primordial” from the “temporal”, where the primordial is that which has existed from the beginning and therefore existed before the commencement of the temporal plane, being the plane on which humanity and other life came to exist. A conception of the beginning that distinguishes between primordiality and temporality in this way, where agency is believed to have existed in primordiality without the need for corporeality, is a fundamental building block of what we call religion – the idea that before there was humanity there was something or some things that had agency. In this primordiality filled by an agent-ful being or beings, there was the capacity to consider the world outside one’s self, to conceive of cause and effect, and to be consequential. In many parts of the African tradition the primordial beings had knowledge of and interacted with each other and with the supreme being in primordiality so that one could discern some primordial political organisation by examining their interactions. All of this is to say that when exploring the origins of political society, how a community conceives of the politics of primordiality provides useful insight into their understanding of and the history of their temporal political organisation. This is the first case for taking seriously African cosmogony in any investigation of the history of the people of the continent and their descendents.
This position is supported by anthropologists such as Daniel McCall and S A Shokpeka who hold that the deification of state actors and institutions are actually reflections of the pre-existing importance of those actors and institutions to the community [Shokpeka, 489]. This is to say that, supernaturality is bestowed upon that which is already important. It is wrong to read into oral tradition the suggestion that supernaturality precedes temporal significance when in fact the opposite is true. Certain people and institutions in society were so important that the people deified them, elevating them in memory to supernatural beings. Thus, by exploring origin stories which often reference to the supernatural world and by examining which categories of people and institutions have been deified, we can know what people and institutions were previously most impactful to the communities on earth that codified these traditions. Because importance on earth precedes deification. In this way, an exploration of the supernatural elements of origin stories can teach us a lot about the temporal political history of various state actors and institutions, and what types of interactions between the two have been important at various stages of the society’s history.
A further defence of the importance of origin stories as a genre of knowledge can be drawn directly from their inculcation with supernaturality as it is importat to appreciate that African societies do not simple use oral traditions or simply refer to the supernatural, they are oral societies and they are spiritual societies in a very fundamental way. On the latter concept, their spirituality, the historian Akintola notes that ‘the African world view [is one] in which super- and preter-natural events occupy an important role. Life itself cannot be fully comprehended except through reference to those mysterious forces which often influence events. Thus, although a man may be the principal in the life drama, there are other forces to which he (as well as life itself) is subject’ [Akintola, 73]. On the importance of orality to African consciousness, it is important to note that an oral society is a completely different organism from a literate society, or more accurately, one in which the written word is revered above the spoken one. It is not simply a matter of the prioritisation of orality in the transmission of information however; the entire social contract is a reflection of the oral nature of human interactions in that society. The historian Hampaté Bâ calls oral tradition ‘total knowledge’, meaning it is the vehicle for the transmission of everything man knows about anything [Hampaté Bâ, UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume 1, pp. 167-168.]. The historian Ki-Zerbo notes that ‘for the African, speech is a weighty matter – an ambiguous force which can make and unmake, which can be the bearer of evil’ [Ki-Zerbo, UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume 1, p. 9]. Thus, the oral capacity of a community is reflected in its constitution, in what it values, what it prohibits, what it venerates, what it punishes. In a society without love letters, an African embrace may be a language form more capable of nuance than its counterpart in writing. One only needs to observe the multiple and strict rules of salutation in many African societies, the various methods of prostration and genuflection, to understand that there is orality even in the movement of the body. This is why the historian Vansina offers that ‘a scholar who has to work with oral traditions must thoroughly understand and accept the attitude towards speech of an oral civilisation’ [Vansina, UNESCO General History of Africa, Volume 1, p. 142]. Thus, when we talk about oral tradition, we are talking about oral societies, and understanding the constitutional implications of orality in that society will greatly assist in the deciphering of the meanings hidden in the recitation of their histories, foremost among them, their origin stories. Therefore, you cannot study the history of African societies, which are fundamentally oral societies, without considering as your most important source, their oral traditions.
Origin stories can be divided into three broad categories: primordial, pre-historic, and political historical. The primordial stories recount the creation of the material universe (cosmogony), any lesser deities below the creator deity (theogony), their relationships with each other and the supreme being (what I would term the primordial political order), and the creation of humanity (anthropogeny). These primordial origin stories suppose a time when the universe was ordered fundamentally different to how the universe appears to us today and are therefore theories of both spirituality and corporeality and by extension they constitute theories of consciousness and the delimitations of the three. Next we have pre-historic origin stories. These are pseudo-political in nature, recounting some prior political society of the people, evidence of which has long been lost but impressions of which are preserved in social memory and in whispers in their customs of various “before” cultures. Finally, we have origin stories within political-historical memory that concern the political origins of the people as a result of known migrations, conquests, or defeats. These are events that the people clearly remember and the evidence of which is baked into their language, their forms of social living, and their physical placement on the planet.
Anthropogeny as a Theory of the Origins of Political Society
Having understood the nature and utility of origin stories as a genre of knowledge, we will now explore a primordial oriin story from the Akan tradition and consider what we can learn from it about the origins of Akan political society.
Wherever the beginning was, for there was a beginning, those who witnessed it or were created by it, whoever they were, were Africans. But before them, according to the Akan, there was Nyame…
…and his was the original consciousness. The creator of all the universe and all consciousness, Nyame is the very concept and act of creation. Where he lived was known as the sky and next to him was earth, where all consciousness outside of Nyame existed without division or exclusion.
Existing there on earth was an old woman and her children. Each day she would rise and position herself, a grand pestle in her hand, and cassava cut and boiled waiting in her mortar, to pound fufu for her children. Such was her fervour, such was her diligence, and such was her closeness to Nyame that, in the course of the hammering of her pestle at one end against the cassava, at the other end she inadvertently hammered against Nyame. Nyame warned her, all this making of food without regard to me, without regard to anyone or anything around, this blind focus on your pestle, and mortar, and on your own children, all of this will push me away. She didn’t believe it. She couldn’t conceive of a time when she would not be so close to Nyame and her pestle would not be able to so easily touch his cheek, and that when Nyame would speak she would not be able to hear it directly. She could not imagine any of these things.
On the first day, she woke up, took her grand pestle in her hand, her mortar sat at her feet, the cassava cut and boiled sat within and she began to pound fufu for her children. Nothing. She expected to hear Nyame’s protest but it never came. She looked up and, though she could see it, she could no longer touch the sky, and she could no longer see Nyame, who no longer replied when she asked a question. She panicked. Was it real, that Nyame had left as Nyame had warned. She panicked even more. She gathered all her children from every corner of earth and told them to bring every mortar they could find. They were to pile them high, high up until they touched the sky.
Nyame could see what they were doing but he said nothing.
The children climbed up the mortars until they could almost touch Nyame but a short distance remained between them and him. They were one mortar short but no matter where they looked, they couldn’t find another mortar to bridge that last expanse. They still didn’t understand, Nyame was the creator of all things, Nyame had created every mortar and of course made sure to position himself just outside of their reach.
But the old woman wouldn’t understand, she’d decided not to understand as she had decided not to listen to Nyame when he had warned her what would happen. She told her children to take the mortar from the bottom and use it to bridge the gap at the top. You see, she thought she was equal to Nyame, that she could do as she pleased, to make mortars float and connect humanity to him against his will. But every mortar fell when the bottom one was released, many men and women involved in the campaign perished under shards of mortar. Broken into a million pieces, not one grand mortar remained, just smaller replicas of the first original thing. The world was never the same. And that is why it was called the first day.
© Apeike Umolu, 2022
This is the origin of political society as distinct from man’s congress with the creator as the Akan remember it and know it to be true.
* * *
What does this tell us about Akan political history. To really understand the knowledge we are trying to arrive at you can think about it like this. Before the codification of this tradition, the progenitors of the Akan existed. At some point this tradition was established and it has become a principal and constitutional text for the Akan. The meanings derived from it have been used to shape aspects of Akan moral and political philosophy, to conceive of the limits of human agency, and to support the ordering of society. Thus, when we look at certain aspects of the society today, their norms and customs, if we want to understand where they came from, we can use oral traditions such as this one to give us an idea of the origins of key concepts in that society. For example, this tradition tells us that Nyame did not simply create humanity and leave it to its own devices. There was a time in which humanity and Nyame were in congress, inhabiting the same time and space, the same consciousness. This therefore establishes that all human societies are at their origin, congresses with God. It is not that people join together, decide on the national religion, and erect monuments to evidence this decision. No, the society itself is a creation of the divine and the divine lives within it. Human society is an extension of a divine society. This have very real political implication. Few African societies have a weekly holy day observed by all people, and few have set daily rituals required of all people to invigorate or evidence their connection with Nyame. There is not need for such things because African do not need to evidence their connection with the divine, they societies are the creations of and home to the divine. Those who are in particular need or receive a particular calling may join a cult or secret society. And community-wide festivals that divide up the year are both spiritual and political, celebrating more the existence of the nation and the intercession of the ancestors than undertaking any specific veneration of the supreme creator being.
Thus, in exploring the events of this tradition we can begin to arrive at knowledge that contributes to what it means to be Akan and how the Akan believe their communities should function.
In the first instance, humanity was dislocated from Nyame himself and as such we no longer have a direct relationship with or full understanding of him. This tradition documents effectively a dislocation from knowledge and as such is a reminder of the limits of human knowledge and evidences the epistemic humility at the heart of Akan society.
The second dislocation conveyed in this account is the dislocation of human communities from each other. The great fall of the mortars from that great height meant different people were thrown to different parts of earth. What is most important is that we were all there in some way at the beginning and everyone was equally dislocated from Nyame at the same time, so no one community can claim to know him more than any other or claim to be more highly favoured by him than any other. This further demonstrates the epistemic humility at the heart of Akan political consciousness and in effect places a limit on the use of claims of the innate inhumanity or immorality of others as a basis for oppressing or destroying entire communities. It is also poignant that, when there was a great task to be done, all the people of the earth answered the call and they all trusted the process. This tells us a lot about the responsibility we all have not only to our immediate community but to our neighbouring and distant communities.
However, it is important to note that the most senior person, the one who had the closest relationship with Nyame, was the one who led the community astray. Thus, leaders in a society are not infallible, they make mistakes and their knowledge is limited and can fail them. No leader should think himself equal to Nyame, or capable of controlling Nyame, that is not how things work. Leaders must recognise that they have a responsibility to know the limits of their own knowledge and not put their community in harm’s way.
From Akan anthropogeny then, it is possible to conceive of the nature of humanity at its origins. We cannot know where in temporality these events took back or if they ever took place in temporality. Using origin stories in this way does not imply a ‘belief’ in the Akan religion or a rejection of more empirically derived theories of our origins. Within African epistemology, the locus of scepticism is in one’s conception of their own capacity to know. Thinking that this account encompasses all possible knowledge of the beginning is as egregious as thinking that any other theory of the beginning encompasses all such knowledge. There are many ways of knowing and you cannot know them all. And even within those ways of knowing that you are privy to, there will be a lot that you still will not know. These are sometimes called the “mysteries” of a faith and is a form of epistemic humility that is central to all African epistemology. African epistemology is not concerned therefore with complete or absolute knowledge but with an appreciation of and reception to multiplicity of knowledge and to the possibility of new knowledge. This takes us back to the defence of origin stories as sources of knowledge. This origin story provides a means through which we can ask questions and obtain answers about the root of the ordering of the world and the societies we see today and in this was understand more about who we were at the origins of our political consciousness. To deal with such stories scientifically would be to misunderstand the whole thing.
Migrations by Land
The first man was an African and therefore the first language was an African language, the first society was an African society, and Africans were the first to conceive of the concept of the divine. All other human civilisations, together with their languages and political societies, are derivatives of original African iterations of the same. The discovery in Africa in the 20th century of some of the oldest human remains show ‘without any possibility of error, that the development of man in all his racial variety took place in Africa’. The fact also that ‘Africa is the only continent where there is evidence, in unbroken chronological sequence, of all the stages of the development of man’ offer proof that African thought and forms of social living are the oldest in human history. Africa is therefore the cradle of both humanity and human thought and with this foundation African thinkers continue to contribute new knowledge about the world and human relations.
Africa was peopled by continual migration across the continent. Where one community left, an age later their descendents returned such that there have been many overlapping migrations as evidenced in the rich diversity of language and culture that Africa is known for. A lot of this movement was instigated by climatic changes, the last major change taking place between 12,000 and 16,000 years before the common era. At this time, parts of Africa became very dry leading to a decrease in population. Migration increased as populations tried to find better habitats in which to survive. All of this didn’t happen overnight; populations slowly migrated and shrunk to cope with the changing conditions.
It is during this period that the first identifiable ancestors of the Akan can be found. The ancestors of the Akan were originally based in the north eastern part of Africa. They began migrating out of the region as the land proved no longer able to sustain them. They survived where others did not because they were able to adapt to the changing conditions. Very importantly, as they made their way to what we know today as Akanman, the land of the Akan, they brought with them their technology, culture and language. By following both anthropological, socio-cultural, intellectual, and linguistic trails we are able to trace the origin of a part of the Akan people to those communities who left north-east Africa during this Great Migration. These people were not Akan in any sense of the word. They were the ancestors of all West Africans. Also, they did not migrate into a void. There were already communities in West Africa with which over time they integrated. It is also important to consider the possibility as some have suggested that perhaps there was no great migration of people during this time and instead it was technology, language and culture that travelled. In any event, the migrations out of north-east Africa caused a spread of ideas, culture and customs (and perhaps people) throughout Africa.
We are unsure exactly where the first man developed as some of the oldest human remains have been found to both the east and north of modern-day Akanman. It is even possible that the earliest man developed in West Africa but there is no archeological evidence for this. Until such time as there is we can assume that those who inhabited West Africa before the Great Migration had themselves migrated from the north and northeast of the continent at some previous point in human history. But it is the migrations of the Great Migration out of northeast Africa that started the formation of the political societies we have across Africa today. This is because the ‘new techniques’ of these migrants ‘were so successful that …their languages, social customs and religious beliefs came to dominate and assimilate all previous languages and cultures on the continent. The combination of the old and the new produced unique new regional cultures and dialects that formed the ancestral origins of Africa’s historic people’. And by historic is meant a community for which we have an understanding of their past political and social activity distinct from the general past of humanity. Many migrations into West Africa would follow after the Great Migration. Each new arrival contributed to the development of the Akan understanding of the world and to the development of that body of customs that govern the way one is to exists within the world that we today know as Akan culture.
Migrations by Sea
So far we have covered the origin of the Akans cosmogonically, anthropologically, and anthropologically by looking at Akan spirituality and migratory patterns. We will now consider the political origins of the Akan that lay just outside Akan historic memory.
The land migrations described above show us that the Akan are a product of many feeder communities in the way that all communities are. Thus, the Akan in their conception of the world have welcomed ideas from outside as well as nurtured ideas from within. It is not possible to say that the real Akan are those pre-Great Migration inhabitants of the land. Nor that the real Akan are those who have join them from other places at all points in human history. To be Akan is to be the result of all of this knowledge, experience, and ancestry. No community exists today as it did in the distant past, and almost none of the communities existing today will exist in the same way in the distant future. It is hard to think now that in 2,000 years time English may no longer be spoken, after all it has only existed as an identifiable language from the fifth century after the common era, and even then the English of those days would be near-incomprehensible to us today. Thus, societies are always evolving.
[By the 1500s there were a number of thriving political societies in West Africa displaying varying degrees of centralisation and formal administration. There is some evidence to suggest that all the peoples of West Africa were at one time united under a single political society we will call Guinea under the suzerainty of the monarchs of Benin. Benin began its ascendancy around the year 1200 of the common era and there is no dispute that it was one of the most extensive empires ever established. There are many similarities between Akan and Edo culture, which is the culture of the monarchs of Benin, such that it is highly likely the two communities enjoyed then, as they do now, a high degree of affinity and fidelity. Thus, in mapping the origins of Akan political society, we must take into account those aspects of Akan culture contributed by other communities of the peninsula. This is to say that West African people have long enjoyed close relations and all of their political societies have been influenced by their neighbours, above all by the grand and suzerain cultures of the peninsula, of which Akan culture is one.
Going back even further, around 600 years before the common era, West Africa began to receive immigrants by sea. One of the first accounts we have is of a Phoenician expedition sponsored by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho. There is no physical evidence of this Phoenician voyage and many take it to be more myth than history but this is besides the point. It is almost impossible that the account is completely fabricated irrespective of what it may lack in verifiable details. We know that many communities at the time were able to undertake great sea voyages so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that immigration into Akanman at this time included immigration by sea. The second account we have of such immigration is the Carthaginian voyage led by Hanno some forty years after the Phoenician voyage. Hanno intended to colonise West Africa and travelled from Carthage well stocked with supplies and around 30,000 people. It is likely that others made such voyages and arrived on the coast at this time also, established settlements and soon integrated into the original populations across West Africa.
All of these migrations are integral to understanding what we find in later Akan history and political philosophy. Not only did one part of the ancestors of the Akans migrate over land from north-east Africa during the Great Migration, another part migrated from the western and northern coasts of Africa by sea, all to join the original people of the region who had probably arrived overland at some point in time immemorial and can be said to be the true indigenes of the land. This is why when one dives into the origin stories of different communities of the Akan, you will find accounts of ancestors who came from Egypt, others will speak of arrivals from the north, some will speak of ancestors coming from the sea, while others will have no memory of having ever been anywhere else other than where they are today, as Akanman is for them where Nyame left the people alone on earth on the first day. ]
Akan Ancient National History
Having mapped the origin of the Akan from a time that lies outside their historical memory proper, we can now explore their political origin as they recount it in their oral histories. One part of the Akan originated at sea during the time of historical memory and to understand their history we must turn to the earliest history of the people of the coast as their histories are deeply intertwined.
The Akras, being the principal people of the Ga, came out of the sea on the stretch of coast that to today is their home and is the capital city of the modern nation of Ghana, the first of the twentieth century African nations to emerge at the end of the two Great Dislocations by which its people had been greatly strained over the preceding five hundred years. Their king, the great Ayi Kushi, who some say had his origins in the east, made the last stretch of his voyage by sea along the coast of Guinea. At the same time, an Akan king emerged from the sea with them and together the two royals descended onto what would later be called the Gold Coast. What this shows us is that, there is a part of the interior community of the Akans which originated from among a migrant group that arrived at that part of the peninsula by sea. It also shows us, in the acknowledgement that some Akans and some Ga arrived at the same time, that at some point they lived freely among each other.
But how is it that one part of these immigrants should happily inhabit the coast, and another part should happily inhabit the forest of the interior, when both had arrived by sea, together? For one account, we are going to turn to the oral history collected by Carl Christian Reindorf, a historian from the Gold Coast, in the second half of the nineteenth century:
The Akra King Ayi Kushi (perhaps Ayi the Cushite?) and his son Ayite with their subjects, the tribe of Tungmawe, now Abora, had in their company a prince with a few bodyguards, who had the commission to rule over the Tshis in the interior. The two princes, i.e. the Akra and Akem sovereigns, proposed to send out one man each to spy out the land. They had to run a race, and he who first discovered land should claim preeminence for his sovereign. The racers started, but the Akra, perceiving his antagonist outstripping him, pretended to have got a thorn run into his foot. He thereupon asked the Tshi to spare him a knife to remove the thorn; but he replied, “Where came a thorn on this rock?” Upon stooping, however, to get him the knife, the other forthwith took hold of his shoulders and jumped over him with these words ”It is I who first saw God!” And there and then both became the twin rocks known as Akwete and Akuete on the rock Tumo on the beach behind the Basel Mission Factory at Ussher Town, or Dutch Akra.
The tribe of Gbese arrived first with two powerful priests, Amugi and Anyai. These with their people took possession of Tungmawe with the Obutus and the Ningowas also came out. Wyete, the king of Obutu, arrived, although late, yet very grand, having plenty of gold ornaments on his person; hence it was proposed by the Akras, that he should be the king of all the immigrants. Upon refusal to accept that offer, the Akras took hold of one of his arms, his people holding the other arm, which very unfortunately was plucked off; he therefore retired into the sea. The numerous body known as the Asere tribe thereupon requested to have the ruling power; and that so offended the king (Ayi Kushi) that he also retired into the sea, after he had handed his sword to prince Ayite, who at his father’s request marched with all the Akras, Obutus, and the Tshi prince, to Ayawaso, and there established his capital ou the hill known as Okaikoi or Kplagoil. The Aseres settled at Amonmole, the Obutus on the west of that hill, and the Akem prince went to the interior to assume government over the people there. The ancestors of Mowure also are said to have come out of the sea very numerously, so that a man seeing them and being astonished to behold such a host of people coming out of the sea, gave a cry, which deterred the rest still in the sea, and those became rocks.
[In reference to the above, we give the following account from the “Western Echo”.
“The founder of Asabu, it is traditionally reported, was Amamfi, a giant, who with his sister, accompanied by Kwagya, another giant, are said to have come from the sea with a great number of followers. On their way from the sea, which took them five days, they were observed by a certain huntsman, who on seeing such a large body of men, is said to have clapped his hands and exclaimed, “how numerous!” At this the line of people emerging from the sea was suddenly cut off, and became petrified and transformed into several shapes and postures, which till now may be seen in clear sea extending to some distance. These two giants with their retinue travelled on together till they arrived at the Iron Hill and descended to the road which leads to the base of a hill called Aberewanfo, the literal signification of which has reference to the difficulty of the ascent for old women. Here they parted, and Amamfi and his sister, taking the road that leads to Akotekua, made for the interior, finally making their abode in Asabu. Kwagya on the other hand took the road leading to the beach side, until he arrived at the brow of the promontory now known as Mowure, and finding the place to be well situated for fishing, he and his men halted. They immediately set to clearing the bush, which was completed on the sixth day after their arrival, probably on Monday”.]
From this collection of traditions, we can discern that both the Akan and the Ga came from somewhere else along the coast and they each set out at one point in time to find new land for their homes. But the Ga landed first such that when the Akan landed they perhaps lived for some time amongst the Ga but after some time, the Akan moved inland into the forests to found their own kingdom separate from that of the Ga. It is clear that there is a dispute about the fairness of this and that perhaps the Ga had outwitted the Akan in some way. Thus, this is how the Ga came to dominate that part of the coast and the Akan continued their march inland, where they met those of their people who were already there, that is to say, that meeting those who were already there, they came to think of themselves as having always been of the same people. Though they may have arrived at different times and from different directions they were now together the Akan of the forest region, and their land was called Akanman.
Akan Diasporic National History
Contrary to popular belief, African political societies in the diaspora created by the first Great Dislocation have never been cut off from their knowledge of their origins. Given the unique nature of the formation of these societies, involving the mixing of different African communities, Africans in the diaspora developed new language and religious forms to not only preserve their understanding of their origins, but also to act as vehicles to facilitate continued exegesis and to preserve the new knowledge they were creating in their new spaces. Whether in religions and customs more recognisably inspired by their African origins, or in their influence on the social, religious and political institutions of their locales more generally, Africans in the diaspora have preserved and continued to add to global African knowledge production.
Let us look then at one account of the origins of Afro-Jamaican society. It is a recent political-historical account written by the American historian Vincent Brown and details a war between Akans, known as Coromantees in the Americas, and Europeans. By exploring this account we can learn something about the foundations of Afro-Jamaican political society:
“Following the attack on Fort Haldane, the rebels doubled back to Trinity for more arms and reinforcements. As the numbers swelled with allies from neighbouring estates, the rebels marched up the main road… Thinly settled by whites but profitably devoted to sugar production, St Mary’s teamed with newly imported slaves from the Gold Coast, who worked the plantations cited all along the parish’s river system… Early in the morning, the rebels surrounded the overseer’s house at Ballard’s Valley estate. Zachary Bayly had been in Saint Mary’s for a few weeks, touring plantations that he owned or managed for others. He had been at his own Trinity estate the day before the uprising, inspecting newly purchased Africans and distributing clothing and cane knives among them.… At daybreak, some of Bayly’s enslaved domestic workers woke him with startling news. The insurgents were close… Bayly then descended the hill from Cruikshank’s house to see “the whole body of rebel Negroes in full march” and hear what he believed to be a “Koromantyn yell of war. He rode toward the rebels, hoping to convince them to stand down … They answered with gunshots, compelling Bayly’s hasty retreat. Then the rebels attacked the house, killing the overseer and three other white men inside. Writing decades later, the planter-historian Brian Edwards would claim… that the rebels “literally drank their blood mixed with rum”, a detail presented to make the attack look more barbaric… People from the Gold Coast commonly believed that blood and alcohol were spiritually potent fluids. Power, especially military capacity and the authority of command, derived equally from the temporal and supernatural realms; war gods and spirits could be entreated for aid through libation and blood sacrifice.… In Jamaica, the Africans probably drew upon these traditional practices to accrue spiritual force while appropriating and counteracting the power of their immediate foes, the colonists.… Having taken Esher, the insurgents turned to the business of proclaiming their authority among the slaves. Slaveholders generally believed that the most important social cleavage during a slave revolt was between black and white, but distinguishing friend from foe was always more complicated. The rebels had spared the overseer of Trinity estate, Abraham Fletcher, who had a good reputation among the enslaved, allowing him to flee the plantation unmolested. On the other side they did not hesitate to slay fellow slaves who failed to join them or impeded the uprising. In the initial burst of violence, when the rebels killed more than ten whites, they also killed some thirty non-whites who opposed them. As it had [been] during the planning stages, success in battle depended on a calculus of trust and betrayal. Once the rebellion was underway, the plotters struggled to convince those on the fence that they were in control, and that the planters had lost the power to determine the slaves’ collective or individual fate. This made the war a matter of personal histories of fellowship and animosity. Whatever new order the rebels would establish, it would build upon the estimation of the alliances and antagonisms of daily life. A prior grievance or an earlier kindness might determine who could be trusted and who would be killed. As in all wars, the physical contest for power conscripted elemental emotion: fear, rage, and lust.”
I would like to summarise our conversation today. Before I do that I would just like to tell you about what we have coming up in the next few weeks:
I hope I am going to see all of you in two weeks time for part 2 of this conversation, where we will be looking at the reigns of three of the monarch in early Asante history between 1700 and 1800 and exploring the moral and political philosophy of these early communities. We will be using Reindorf’s text as our main source so we’ll be able to continue our conversation oral traditions and how to use them to reconstruct political history.
Next week Tuesday is our Information Session, please do come along if you are interested in studying on our Foundation Certificate in African History starting in September 2022. It’s going to be a Zoom session and I’m leading the session, we’ll look at the structure of the course, we’ll discuss lectures, tutorials, readings, and assignments. Please do come along if you can and this is something that interests you.
Kai is giving the final talk in her series on Pan-Africanism on the 26th of February so I hope you can joi us for that as well.
Before I let you go, I’d like to summarise the key take aways from our conversation today.
There are many different sources of African history and oral traditions, particularly origin stories, remain an important genre of literature for those looking to explore the political and philosophical origins of African society. It is important to think of African societies as inherently oral societies and as such such traditions hold knowledge that just could not be gleaned from later written or scientific histories. Exploring such traditions requires a level of epistemic humility, rigour and an appreciation for the multiplicitous nature of global African society.
And that is it for this conversation, thank you so much for joining me. I’ll stay online for another five minutes if anyone has any questions about the African History Project, oral traditions, Akan society, books etc so fire away.
© Apeike Umolu, 2022
1 Goertzel (2010): offers the following defintion of political society: “The phrase political society is used in different ways, generally revolving around the process by which the interests and values of civil society are articulated and aggregated for action by government. A large variety of groups and organizations take part in this process … More is known about each of these kinds of groups and organizations than about how they function collectively to aggregate and articulate the interests and values of a society as a whole.”
2 By the “Great Dislocations” is meant those series of events commonly known as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonisation of Africa.
3 This is a variation of Ali Mazrui (1994) definition of “global Africa”
4 Mazrui’s (1994) definition of “global Africa” brings diasporic sites of African civilisation within the bound of the linguistics, semantics and consciousness of the modern African world. Michael O. West (2005) however defines the term as more closely aligned to Pan-Africanism, being not merely the notion of supra-continental African statehood, but the idea of supra-continental citizenship in that the distinct political struggle against European hegemony undertaken by Africans globally was the concern of every African global, those suggesting a supra-continental citizenship. Beckles (2021a, 2021b) idea dislodges the continent and the continental experience from any position of privilege and democratises African identity, holding the diaspora as equal sites of uncaveated African intellectual production and political action.