Followers of my posts will know that I am somewhat of a history nut. Most recently, I have been following the discovery of old letters, documents and newspapers from an Ewe Fia (King) that formed the ‘Family Ties: Adamah Papers’ exhibition at the Black Cultural Archive (BCA) in Brixton, London.
These papers are significant because they are thought to be the first of their kind in Britain (and maybe the world) to document Ghana’s Ewe community in such a manner.
These papers provide a snapshot of life in the royal household from the late 1800s to the 1940s and were donated by granddaughter to Fia Togbui Adamah II – Aunty Promise, who lives in east London.
Not only can visitors learn more about the Fia’s life and Ewe culture through the exhibition, but they can see, touch and read the original documents at the BCA’s Archive Library also.
In April 2018, one month after the exhibition’s formal launch, I became the first member of the public to lay my (gloved) hands on these delicate artefacts.
They say there’s something about a new book smell – well there’s something equally magical about touching and reading letters penned almost 90 years ago.
Before I could access these letters, I had to make a formal request to the BCA Archives, outlining which of the archived material I wanted to see. I chose to focus on letters from one of Fia’s sons called Moses and old newspapers that the Fia had kept.
To say that Moses was a character would have to be an understatement. Most of the two hours I spent at the Archives were focussed on reading his colourful and often verbose letters to his dad. Most were dominated by the topic of money. Either Moses was thanking his dad for sending him some or he was asking for more.
Moses’ use of the English language was what struck me more than anything as it provided some insight into his character, his level of education and his desires.
In one letter dated 17th September 1930, he wrote:
“Mr dear and honourable father, wilful and faithless hopes that my letters had reached you with no attention and response. I am writing now to know of your present exertions, in the governance of both national and family responsibilities.”
Wow – never has ‘hello dad, how are you doing?’ sounded so poetic!
In another letter, he bemoaned the fact that he was “terror stricken” because he was broke; was forced to buy two khakis because he didn’t have any trousers and was concerned about ‘wasting’ money on food!
It turns out that Moses was fed up of the institution he was attending (I didn’t quite find out which) but wanted daddy to help him transfer to Cape Coast University, Oxford or Cambridge.
In another appeal, Moses recounted how he sat for the Cadbury’s Competitive Scholarship exam but found out too late afterwards, (which I thought was quite weird) that he was too old to apply.
In all his trials to further his education he focussed on attending the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, US, which offered Black people tertiary level education. This Institute – which started out as a school but is now a university – was established on 4th July 1881 by Booker T Washington and Lewis Adams.
It turns out Moses only had to fill in a form to gain free admission and could get a BSc after four years’ training. The plan afterwards was that he would come back to Accra and teach science at Achimota – the prestigious school (I presume). I never found out if he made it to the US. If he did, it would be interesting to know how he felt navigating life in a racially divided America – and if he saw any correlation to his life in the then Gold Coast with its emerging racial divisions.
As for him becoming a teacher of science – although laudable, I think his strengths definitely lay in writing/acting/performance poetry or something else equally arty!!
Some more juicy titbits emerged when Moses’ sister Esther revealed, in her letter, some of their brother James’ tawdry displays. She wrote her letter from Koforidua – an area I’ve lived in – and informed her father that James had been bad-mouthing him, and saying he had a taste for multiple women.
It was true – Fia had many wives but during the revelation, Esther pointed out that James, who was married then, was carrying on with anther woman himself. He was even caught by the police for stealing a goat and was lucky not to be imprisoned. The crux of the letter was to warn Fia, but also get him to warn dear Moses not to follow James’ ill behaviour. I wonder why that was necessary – was Moses easily led?
News of the day
I got my hands on The Spectator Daily, the African Morning Post, and the Daily Echo newspapers from the 1940s. Apparently, Pagan Road in Accra was the Fleet Street (London street with a high concentration of newspaper houses) of Accra, and housed some of these publications. From them, I learnt that much of the news was quite outward-facing and targeted at the non-natives occupying the land.
The Daily Echo reported on the Greeks in the Gold Coast and there was even a Lebanese-Syrian community in Ghana during the 1940s that had such influence that they staged a ‘Kente and fancy-dress party’ to raise money for the war effort. The event, organised by Mr Massad and Mr Malouf, was staged on 30 November 1940 at Prempeh Hall and was “the first of its kind in Ashanti” and included “a famous city orchestra playing”.
Also telling was the positioning of news about the indigenous people. News about them was often relegated to the back pages and or if found near the front pages was an admonishment of their behaviour.
The African Morning Post on 27 March 1945 called on the Ga Mantse (King of the Ga people of Ghana) to outlaw nudity and the Spectator Daily published a letter about hooliganism and an apparently offensive song called ‘Afontio’. “It leaves the decent mind cold to the feet,” the letter writer said. “It must be stopped sir. It must be stopped.”
Africans and Europeans operated separately when it came to issues of health, I learnt. In one Spectator Daily story in March 1945 that, “a man shot himself in the chest and had to be put on a train to Fumesua (near Kumasi) and transported to the African hospital.”
I initially thought that was the name of the hospital until I read a similar story where a European fell sick and had to be transported to “the European hospital”.
Other interesting observations were the announcement on 19 November 1940 in the African Morning Post that the US had removed its colour bar thus allowing 75 million men aged between 21 and 35 to be called up. But the following day in The Spectator Daily, it was reported that “French coloured prisoners must be kept out of occupied France”.
Just before the war ended, I read that the Nazis were actively learning African languages because they were “confident they would get their colonies back”. There was also a group called the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights Protection Society that featured in the African Morning Post on 28 March 1945.
Once the war was won and its importance fell off the news agenda, there was more news surfacing about trade and agriculture. The African Morning Post on 26 March 1946 featured a call for an agricultural bank to help farmers handle their crop and reap the benefits.
Apparently in that period a third of cocoa came from the Gold Coast and during 1941, 244,000 tons was shipped abroad. According to data from agriculture data provider Yara.com, Ghana’s production was 700,000 tons in 2017 with Ghana second to Cote d’Ivoire, which produced 1,350,320 tons.
The adverts were also illuminating and the most fun because they featured products we still use today but with straplines and woolly claims that would be banned today. Ovaltine got a lot of advertising space and apparently was used to “ward against sickness during the rainy season, mosquito-borne infection respiratory ailments and steadying the nerves!” …imagine – all of that coming solely from malted barley, creamy milk and eggs from the Ovaltine farm!
There was another advert of a suited a booted Black man with a mac and umbrella during the rainy season. Not what you’d expect in the sweltering tropics!
And for those struggling to find suitable Easter gifts, there was only one place – Taj Mahal Stores, that seemed to have everything including lipstick and had branches in Accra, Kumasi, Sekondi and Cape Coast.
But my ultimate favourite would have to be the Macleans toothpaste ad, which went like this:
“Do you clean your teeth each day? Yes, better still I Maclean them. Ask your friends – did you McClean your teeth today. Includes peroxide”!!!!!
Over to you
If you’ve been to the Archives – what were your views on what you saw. If you have yet to visit the Archives, contact Archives@bcaheritage.org.uk …Special thanks to the BCA and BCA archivist Abigail Wharne.