By James Gibbs (University of the West of England)
One Nation, Many Histories; Ghana Past And Present By Ivor Wilks. Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1996, i + 66 pages, £4.95. Distributed by African Books Collective Ltd., The Jam Factory, 27 Park End Street, Oxford, 0X1 1HU.
When he delivered the Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg Memorial Lectures for 1995 in the Great Hall of the University of Ghana, Ivor Wilks was a Professor Emeritus of Northwestern University. However, for a significant number in the audience, he was almost a local boy. Wilks went to teach philosophy in the fledgling University of Ghana in the early fifties, and while there made himself into an historian. He carried out research in the Lower Volta, Akwamu, Akuapem, Asante, Gonja, Dagomba, Wa and, as he puts it, “so forth”. His challenging, wide-ranging lectures, since published by Ghana University Press, were enlivened by references not only to colonial records, but also to material originally written in Arabic and to interviews with custodians of oral history, people whose memories have provided Wilks with what he aptly describes as “windows” on the past.
The five lectures were entitled “Approaching the Ghanaian Past”, ‘Traditions of Origin”, ‘The Enigma of Asante”, “Colonialism Revisited”, and ‘The Future of Ghana’s Past”. In a brief “Preface”, Wilks indicates that “as a result of the vigilance of the (Legon) audience, several errors were brought to (his) attention” and that these have been corrected. He was not only an excellent speaker – the lectures are models of clarity and intelligent presentation, but also a good listener.
Some of the ground he covered was relatively “common”. His Welsh origins made him well aware of the colonial policies of “Perfidious Albion” and his suspicions of the version of West African history produced by British writers during the colonial period were confirmed when he worked alongside radical historians at the Institute of African Studies (Legon). In the lectures, he continued the campaign for “the decolonisation of African history” he had begun in 1970 as he exposed the limitations, prejudices and inaccuracies of what he referred to as ‘The Whig Interpretation of History.” He is also fascinating on economic history, on, for example, the importance of gold for the introduction of agriculture into the forest belt, and he is entertainingly dismissive of the tortured inaccessibility of “post-structuralists, postmodernists, or deconstructionists.” Skirting a sensitive issue, he is strangely silent on the impact of the demand for slaves on the region.
In his analysis, Asante is subjected to particular examination and the attitudes of Colonial Governors, journalists and historians to Kumasi are commented on. Wilks shows how, time and again, the inability of the Castle to appreciate the dynamics of Asante politics, policies and symbols led to disastrous decisions being made. He moves on to more contentious, less “common”, ground by linking what, following Kwame Arhin, he calls “Greater Asante” with contemporary Ghana. (53) His position is indicated clearly when, as he draws towards the conclusion of his fourth lecture, he substitutes for the Whiggish narrative of “tribes” united by British power the view that the British systematically destroyed a nation, Greater Asante, and out of it created the Gold Coast Colony, the Crown Colony of Asante, and the Protectorate of the Northern Territories.
This analysis, which only has to be extended a little to provide the title of the volume, is still open to debate – and Wilks recognises as much by acknowledging that critics see him as an Asante nationalist! Such critics are likely to include scholars and journalists from the area that used to be known as ‘Transvolta”, and it should not be forgotten that the lectures were delivered at a time of intense regional suspicion in a nation whose President was widely perceived as systematically promoting Ewes to positions of influence. History had been at the centre of the local debate since the publication of Kofi Awoonor’s vision of Ewe destiny, Ghana: A Political History, in 1990, and this may have been partly why such a large number of people – over a thousand, climbed Legon Hill every night for five nights to listen to what Professor Wilks had to say. It must have been deeply gratifying for him to return to share with so many Ghanaians the fruits of over forty years spent collecting, sifting and pondering sources of history. His manner throughout is attractive: the gown of learning is lightly worn but the judgements are carefully weighed, the references and sources are generally indicated without being allowed to obscure the arguments they support, and the style is supple. When Akan expressions are used, they “include” Twi-speakers but it is probably impossible to do this without excluding those, some Ewes amongst them, who do not “hear” that language. Those shut out may well feel that Wilks’ Asante nationalism has been confirmed.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 62 (1997), pp. 65-67.]