On The Rise of Colonialism in Ghana

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Pan-African News Wire

There are interesting developments involving socialist theory in Africa. The Communist International Comintern recently reprinted an extensive report written years ago on the history of colonialism in Ghana by Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire. The organization hosting the site has taken an Albanian-oriented approach to Marxism-Leninism in the tradition of former leader Enver Hoxha applying it to the situation in contemporary Ghana drawing on the legacy of Nkrumah and the labor movement as well. They refer to themselves as Stalinist-Hoxhaists. Below the Pan-African News Wire reprints this document published 30 years ago initially.

The following article is taken from a chapter in the “Pambana Journal” Monograph Series number four initially published in the spring of 1985 at Wayne State University. The chapter examined the encroachment of British colonialism in the Gold Coast and the efforts organized both nationally and internationally to meet the imperialist onslaught with some form of resistance that was considered effective during the time in question. This excerpt from the series was reprinted in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the political independence of Ghana. The country was led to national independence in 1957 under the guidance of Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party. Over the last several years people around the world have traveled to Ghana to honor the legacy of the post-World War II anti-colonial struggles in Africa.


The Atlantic slave trade paved the way for the rise of colonialism in Africa. The social dislocation caused by the trade in human cargo underdeveloped Africa to the point where it was unable to adequately defend itself against the onset of European imperialism.

However, the African peoples resisted the onslaught of European rule by force. Africans fought fiercely against the political domination of the European imperialist countries that were seeking to exploit Africa.

CLR James in his book entitled: “A History of Pan-African Revolt” (which was originally called “A History of Negro Revolt”, released in 1938), points out the many instances of African revolts and armed rebellions which took place in the period of the onslaught of western European imperialism in Africa:

“For four centuries the African in Africa had to suffer from the raids of the slave dealers and the dislocation of African civilization which had been caused thereby. America continued with the slave trade until the end of the Civil War, but whereas in 1789 San Domingo alone was taking forty thousand slaves a year, between 1808 and 1860 the southern states of North America took only two hundred thousand. Other nations of Europe and the Arabs on the east coast continued the trade. Actual colonies, however, were comparatively few in Africa. There was, of course, Cape Colony and the districts beyond, and colonies in West Africa which were on the whole, little more than trading stations. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Disraeli referred to colonies as damned milestones around the necks of the British people. As we have said, it is unlikely that more than one-tenth of Africa was in European hands. But in the 1880s began the intensive rivalry of European imperialisms for colonies as the sources of raw materials, for markets and spheres of influence. By the end of the nineteenth century, less than one tenth of Africa remained in the hands of the Africans themselves. This rapid change could not fail to produce a series of revolts, which have never ceased.”

The first European country to reach the area which became known as the Gold Coast was Portugal. The Portuguese navigators were the initial contact group which began to engage in trade along the west coast of Africa in the latter part of the 15th century.

Two famous Portuguese navigators, Jao de Santarem and Pero de Escobar landed on the coast of Ghana (Gold Coast) in 1471. These two navigators had been commissioned by a Portuguese merchant to explore the West African coast for gold in order that they could bypass the Arab gold traders who controlled the supply of the valuable mineral to Portugal.

In 1481, the Portuguese decided to build a large port on the Atlantic Coast. The Portuguese eventually built more forts as increasing numbers traders and navigators came to settle along the Gold Coast. The environmental conditions in West Africa were so radically different from that of Europe that the Portuguese died by the dozens of yellow fever and malaria. It was only with the introduction of quinine that the European deaths began to decline.

Despite the massive deaths of Europeans in the Gold Coast, they still came to engage in the trade in gold. However, the Portuguese were unable to maintain a monopoly on the trade in gold in West Africa. In 1598, the Dutch arrived and began building forts; by 1642 the Dutch had taken control of all the Portuguese forts along the coasts. In later years, the demand for African labor intensified as a result of the European conquest of large territories in the Caribbean, South America and North America.

Initially there was an attempt by the European colonizers in the western hemisphere to enslave the indigenous people of the region. However, this did not work because of the nature of European intervention. The wars waged against the indigenous people of the western hemisphere brought about large scale death as a result of warfare and also disease. In addition, the indigenous people of the western hemisphere were better acquainted with the terrain and therefore they were able to escape the plantation set up by the European invaders.

Africa contained a large source of potential untapped labor for the European imperialists, therefore, the slave trade was the primary incentive behind the intervention in Africa during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. By the middle of the 18th century there were thirty major forts along the West African coast.

The spread of slavery increased the level of warfare in Africa among the various ethnic groups and also between the African nations and the European imperialist nations. This placed a serious strain on African societal development, consequently weakening the African societies as a whole. By the early 19th century, many countries in Europe began to outlaw the trade in slaves. This phenomenon was caused by the emergence of industrialization and the need for raw materials and expanded markets for the dumping of European produced commodities.

Also during this period, the introduction of European Christian missionaries played a significant role in spreading their values on the continent of Africa. This, also, represented another religious force in the African societal context, which served as a partner of the European colonial administrations that were set up in Africa beginning largely in the latter 19th century.

There was fierce rivalry among the various European countries: the Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and the British, over the control of the area that became known as the Gold Coast. However, by 1872, the Dutch, Portuguese and the Danish had removed themselves from the territory leaving the British. The British attacked the Ashanti nation in 1874 and declared it a colonial territory. They were not able at that time to control the entire area that is now known as Ghana, but the area of the Ashanti region within Ghana was attacked by the British. The British began at that time (1874) to make drastic social infrastructural changes in the Ashanti society.

By the 1890s more areas around the Ashanti region were taken over by the British colonialists. However, this entrenchment of British imperialism in the Ashanti region met fierce resistance from within the Ashanti nation. Several protracted wars were fought between the Ashantis and the British.
Nana Yaa Asantewa was a great African queen who led a rebellion against British imperialism in Ghana during 1900.
The Africans in the region fought decades to reverse the rise of colonialism.
  Yaa Asantewaa, an illustrious woman warrior who led her people,
the Ashanti, against the encroachment of British imperialism in the Gold Coast, later known as Ghana.
Ghana commemorated its 50th anniversary of national independence on March 6, 2007.

The liberation movement in the 1940s and 1950s was led by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah who became the first Prime Minister and later President of an independent African state.

The British-Ashanti Wars

Beginning in the early part of the 19th century, the Ashanti nation encompassed approximately 125,000 to 150,000 square miles of territory with a figure of about 3,000,000 to 5,000,000 inhabitants. The area had been developing as a nation since the early part of the eighteenth century with a high degree of trade, educational facilities, religious temples, a highly centralized governmental state and a ruling elite headed by the king (Asantehene). The nation conducted lucrative trade with the neighboring territories of Hausaland, the western Sudan and later with the Danish, Portuguese, British, French and the Dutch.

When the British began their attempt to take control of trade routes and dominate the Ashanti political system, war broke out between the British and the Ashantis. Several battles were fought beginning in 1806. There were six other major battles between the Ashantis and the British after the initial battle of 1806. These latter military conflicts took place in 1811, 1814-1815, 1823-1826, 1863, 1873-1874 and 1895.

It was the wars fought during 1873-1874 that actually led to the firm entrenchment of British interests within the area. After this time Cape Colony was established in 1874. British troops attacked the capital of the Ashanti nation, Kumasi, in 1874, and burned the city, including the palace of the Asantehene. After this episode, the British developed the Fomena treaty which brought about several conditions which were detrimental to Ashanti society. These conditions included: an indemnity of 50,000 ounces of gold, renunciation of the Ashanti claims over Denkera, Akim, Elmina, and other territories, plus the assurance on the part of the Ashanti to keep the trade routes open to European-British domination and control.

Despite the British predominance over the area beginning in 1874, the Ashantis continued the resistance movements against British intervention. In 1893 another new Asantehene, Prempeh I, came to power and began to push for Ashanti independence from British rule. By 1895 the British felt that it was necessary for them to engage in another military intervention campaign in the Ashanti region. They charged the Ashanti rulers with refusing to abide by the conditions laid down in the Fomena Treaty and demanded that the Ashantis accept a British Protectorate. The Ashanti leader Prempeh I refused to abide fully by the new British demands for accepting the protectorate. Eventually, in 1896, the British sent troops to enforce the placement of a British Protectorate government in the Ashanti region. The Asantehene, Premph I, and his family, were deported out of Ashanti after 1896 by the British colonialist.

In 1900, the British demanded that the Ashantis turned over the sacred golden stool of the Ashanti nation, which represented the “soul” of the people and their system of governance. This caused a revolt within the Ashanti region which prompted another British military invasion in 1901 that led to the total colonization of Ashanti. After nearly a century of long struggle for predominance, the British won out over the Ashantis for political and economic control.

The British domination in this area of West Africa brought about tremendous economic benefits for England. The establishment of a one-cash crop economy (cocoa) in the Gold Coast provided the British with an effective means of exploiting the African territory of what is now known as Ghana. In addition, the mining of gold provided an impulse for the development of the first railway in the territory. This railway line extended from the gold-mining district of Tarkwa to Sekondi by 1901. After the construction of the railway line in the Gold Coast, the rate of profits accrued from the trade in gold accelerated.

In 1897 the value of gold exports from the Gold Coast region was 22,000 (pound sterling), however, by 1902 the value had increased to 97,000 (pound sterling). After 1902 the value had increased to 255,000 and by 1907 the value of the trade in gold was 1,165,000. By 1914 the value of the gold exported from this area had reached 1,687,000 (pound sterling).

The railway extended to Kumasi in 1903 in order to ensure the political and military dominance of the Ashanti nation. This factor led to the penetration of the forest areas where the process of rubber-tapping began to be carried out by the British. In addition to rubber-tapping, the expansion of cocoa farming brought about another round of windfall profits for the British colonialists.

In 1901, the value of cocoa exported from the colony was 43,000 (pound sterling); it was 95,000 in 1902, 515,000 in 1907 and 2,194,000 in 1914. By that year cocoa amounted to 49 percent of all exports, and cocoa alone was already paying for all the Gold Coast’s imports. The exportation of timber, worth 169,000 (pound sterling) in 1907, also resulted from the building of the railway. Cocoa, gold and timber made the Gold Coast, by 1914, the most prosperous of all the African colonies.

The Rise of African Nationalism

The colonial intrusion into the Gold Coast and other areas on the African continent met fierce resistance on the part of the African nations. Several organizations arose which sought to protect the rights of the African population from the colonial intrusion into the territories. In the Gold Coast this phenomena of British intervention brought about the rise of the Fanti Confederation beginning in 1868. The confederation consisted of Fanti chiefs who sought to protect themselves from the strong political kingdom of the Ashantis and the encroachment of British colonial interests. The Ashanti and Fanti nations had been long rivals in the Gold Coast area. The British sought to exploit this rivalry by siding with the Fanti chiefs against the monopoly of trade in the area that was carried out by the Ashanti chiefs.

The Fanti Confederation proposed a constitution which would have required an alliance with the British government in order to bring about the introduction of western technology and education. The constitution consisted of forty-seven articles, many of them sub-divided into various sections. Some of the principle articles read as follows:

“Article 8. That it will be the object of the confederation
1. To promote friendly intercourse between all the kings and chiefs of Fanti, and to unite them for offensive and defensive purposes against the common enemy.
2. To direct the labours of the confederation towards the improvement of the country at large.
3. To make good and substantial roads throughout all the interior districts included in the confederation.
4. To erect school houses and establish schools for the education of all children within the confederation and to obtain the service of schoolmasters.
5. To promote agricultural and industrial pursuits, and to endeavor to introduce such new plants as many hereafter become sources of profitable commerce to the country.
6. To develop and facilitate the working of the mineral and other resources of the country.
Article 12. That the Representative Assembly shall have the power of preparing laws, ordinances, bills, etc., of using proper means for effectually carrying out the resolutions, etc., of the government of examining any questions laid before it by the ministry, and by any of the kings and chiefs, and in fact, of exercising all the functions of a legislative body.
Article 21 to 25 deal with education.
Article 26. That main roads be made connecting various provinces or districts with one another and with the sea coast…
Article 37. That in each province or district provincial courts be established, to be presided over by the provincial assessors.
Article 43. That the officers of the confederation shall render assistance as directed by the executive in carrying out the wishes of the British government.
Article 44. That it be a component to the Representative Assembly, for the purpose of carrying on the administration of the government, to pass laws, etc., for the levying of such taxes as it may seem necessary.”

This was the Fanti Confederation’s program which was proposed to the British colonial government in 1871. The response of the British government to these demands was the jailing of the leadership of the confederation who were tried and convicted of treason.

Beginning in the 1890s, another organization arose in the Gold Coast called the Aborigines Rights Protection Society. This organization sought to protect the interests of the indigenous Africans against the depredations of the British colonialists. The organization was founded by men who were from the chieftain class in the Gold Coast society, its most vocal and prominent leaders were people like Mensah-Sarbah, Atta Ahuma, Sey and Wood.

The establishment of a British controlled legislative council in the 1890s served as a political mechanism for the maintenance of colonial rule in the Gold Coast. The demands of the Aborigines Rights Protection Society centered around the composition of the legislative council. However, the British colonialist had no intentions of sharing power with the African people, therefore, the effectiveness of the Aborigines Rights Protection Society was limited.

Beginning in 1919 the Gold Coast lawyer Joseph Casley-Hayford laid the foundation for the establishment of a National Congress of British West Africa. The organization’s founding conference was held in 1920 in London, England. The purpose of this organization was to forge links between the various African nations subjected to British colonial rule in the region. The congress attracted delegates from Sierra Leone, Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana; resolutions were passed calling for the right of suffrage, increasing educational facilities and equal opportunities in employment.

Hayford led a delegation to London consisting of two representatives from each of the British colonial territories. They presented a memorandum of protest to the Secretary of State for the colonies Lord Milner, requesting increased representation in the colonial legislative assemblies, the establishment of a West African court of appeals, and a West African university. This effort on the part of the National Congress of British West Africa gained very limited results from the United Kingdom government. The British did extend the limited franchise in several West African cities and created Achimota College in the Ashanti region of the Gold Coast.

The limited demands of the early phase of the African nationalist movement in the Gold Coast were reflective of the level of aggression which characterized the British colonial system. After the Anglo-Ashanti wars, the British were effectively able to crush the significant opposition forces through military might and deportation. Therefore, it is easy to understand the limited nature of the nationalist movement in its early phase in the first part of the 20 century.

The Pan-African Congresses

After World War I the movement of the African peoples for freedom and independence gained new momentum. Even before WWI there arose a movement in the western hemisphere which was aimed at solving the collective problems of African peoples on a global scale. In 1900, a barrister named Henry Sylvester Williams, convened the first Pan-African Conference in London. Williams was born in the West Indies (Trinidad) and most of the participants in the first Pan-African Conference were Africans born outside of the African continent in North America and the Caribbean. The Pan-African Conference was reflective of the growing awareness among Africans that their oppression resulted from the fact that Africa was totally dominated by European imperialism and that the labor of African peoples scattered throughout the western hemisphere was viciously exploited by the western capitalist economic system.

The purpose of the first Pan-African Conference in July of 1900 was limited, but this gathering did represent the growing awareness among African peoples in regard to their common historical heritage and a common political and economic subjugation by European imperialism.

The purpose of the Conference was outlined in four aims drawn by the participants:
“I. To act as a forum of protest against the aggression of white colonizers;
II. To appeal to the missionary and abolitionists tradition of the British people to protect Africans from the depredations of empire builders;
III. To bring people of African descent throughout the world into closer touch with each other and to establish more friendly relations between the Caucasian and African races;
IV. To start a movement looking forward to the securing of all African races living in civilized countries their full rights and to promote their business interests.”

After WWI the Pan-African movement gained new momentum when two new phenomenas arose in the western hemisphere: the arrival of Marcus Garvey in the United States and the convening of a series of Pan-African Congresses in America and Europe under the direction of WEB DuBois. The founding of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) by the Jamaican born Marcus Garvey in 1914 began a political movement which had tremendous impact on the collective consciousness of African peoples world-wide. Garvey’s organization grew by leaps and bounds after WWI in the early 1920s. Garvey’s aim was to build an international organization of people of African descent in order to drive colonialism out of Africa and to establish a free and independent united Africa.

DuBois’ Pan-African Congresses beginning in 1919 in Paris brought together Africans from America, the Caribbean and a few Africans from the continent. This Congress organized by an African born in America played a large part in the convening of the National Congress of British West Africa in 1920. The demands that came out of the 1919 Pan-African Congress were largely reformist, nonetheless, this phenomena of reformism was only reflective of the oppressive nature of the western imperialist system which was predominant in world politics after WWI. The colonial powers had convened at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85 in order to partition the African continent. WWI had been the result of the increased competition between the European powers for predominance in Europe, Africa, Asia and the world.

The African intelligentsia had begun to grapple with the immense problems posed by the advent of European imperialism. As time progressed, programs for the alleviation of the oppression suffered by the African peoples gained analytical strength.

The Garvey movement also made a long lasting impact on the African struggle for freedom and independence. Garvey’s organization, the UNIA, had chapters throughout the US, the Caribbean and eventually on the continent of Africa. The UNIA newspaper, called the “Negro World,” printed in three different languages: French, English and Spanish. This newspaper was widely circulated and read in many parts of Africa, including Liberia, Nigeria, Kenya and Sierra Leone.

Garvey’s movement proved to be a threat to western interests and therefore it was attacked by the United States government. Garvey was framed and convicted on a bogus charge of using the mail service to defraud the public and deported from the US in 1927. However, the impact of the UNIA had made its mark on the consciousness of Africans throughout the world.

The events of the 1920s served to bring about the closer links between the African struggle for independence in the west and on the continent.


Abayomi Azikiwe has written extensively on African affairs with specific reference to historical studies and political economy. He has done research on the origins and political ideology of the African National Congress, its leaders as well as other national liberation movements and regional organizations  in Southern Africa.