In the history of Ghana, Nana Kobena Gyan, King of Elmina who ruled from 1863 to 1872 has been described as one of the most powerful Gold Coast Nationalist rulers who resisted colonial rule. It was he who strongly resisted the selling of the Dutch possessions to the British in the Gold Coast and was exiled for his brave move and his Elmina town bombarded to the ground by the British.
Nana Kobena Gyan became the King of Elmina in 1869 after destoolment of Nana Kobena Condua who ruled from 1863 to 1869. He came from the prominent family of rulers and his nephew was Kofi Gyan, the subject matter of Manu Herbstein`s 2014 historical fictional book “The Boy who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye” ; a book ably reviewed by history Professors Trevor Getz, Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Marika Sherwood and others. He surrounded himself with the best of Elmina nobility. One of his famous Councillors and elder (opanyin) who acted as a Principal Secretary was the famous Lieutenant in the Gold Coast British army, Chief Andoh who played a key role in the Sagrenti War.
His tenure as the King was the period that the British were also making a daring move to colonise southern Gold Coast as their Colony. This plan saw British making frantic efforts at expanding the signatories to the Bond of 1844.
Several other moves were made to get all the coastal chiefs and some interiors of Gold Coast to sign treaties with the British or expand British jurisdiction. Thus on 6 April 1872 the Dutch entered into agreement and successfully transferred all their properties in Gold Coast to the British. Ulzen (2013) posits that the lawyer at the time who had adequate skill in commercial transaction on mergers and acquisitions at that time and was engaged to work on the transfer of the Castle and other Dutch properties to the British was no less a person than the Dutch educated lawyer, George Emil Emisang, an indigene of Elmina and later prominent member of Fante Confederation and Fante Amanbu Fekuw (which developed to Aborigines Right Protection Society).
Nana Kobena Gyan, in alliance with their long-time allies, the Asantes represented by their ambassador to the coast and stationed at Elmina, Yaw Akyeampon vehemently opposed the transfer of the Dutch possessions in Elmina, especially the Castle to the British. Nana Kobena Gyan and the Elmina people were so annoyed that people supported the transfer became the enemies of the Elmina state. As a result, George Eminsang who was made interim commandant of Elmina Castle had to flee to Cape Coast. British took the incident seriously because the Elmina people were noted for killing some of the Dutch Governors of the town who made grievous mistakes in poking their noses into the chieftaincy and internal issues of Elmina. In the view of this, the British in the spirit of ‘divide et impera’ which they deployed to rule Africans; made a move to bribe Nana Kobena Gyan and his elders.
So on 12 March 1873, at dawn, the whole Elmina government was summoned to the Palaver Hall of the castle. Nana Kobena Gyan was accompanied by only five elders and they were asked to take an oath of allegiance to the English. Three of his elders readily acquiesced; but Kobena Gyan and two others, Tando Mensa and Kwamina Ekum, resolutely refused. Baesjou in his 1979 work, “An Asante Embassy on the Gold Coast: The Mission of Akyeampong Yaw to Elmina, 1869-1872,” quotes prominent Elmina Euro-African and merchant, Hendrik Vroom who was in the British service, as reporting that King Kobena Gyan made the following statement in his defence:
“The castle belonged to the Dutch government, before, and the people of Elmina were freemen; they are no slaves to compel them to do anything. When Governor Pope Hennessy came to take this castle he did not consult me before the English flag was hoisted; if he had considered me as the king he would have done so. On account of the hoisting of the English flag of the castle of Elmina the people have brought me great trouble. They have disgraced me. They themselves told me not to accept the flag. I also refused to accept the flag.
Some of the people then changed their minds, and, as I would not do so, went to Gov. Ferguson and begged for ammunition to fight against me. Gov. Ferguson gave the ammunition. Gov. Ferguson then sent his colonial secretary and three other officers with a paper for me to sign. The governor offered me as a bribe a large sum of money to let that transfer go on smoothly end peaceably. I refused the bribe because had I taken it, chiefs would have turned round on me afterwards and said I sold the country for money (this information can also found at Public Record Office, London, CO 879/3: 12 March 1873).
Prof. Thaddeus Ulzen (Kwamina Mends on Facebook) contends that the King was then asked to take the oath of allegiance and sign a paper before him but he got very vexed and excited, struck the table with his fist and said, “I am not afraid of your power. You may hang me if you like. I will not sign any paper. I and some of the people of Elmina have taken fetish oath to oppose the English government from coming to Elmina and we have not broken that oath yet.” Yarak (2005) explains that after the king and the majority of the Elmina asafo have rejected British authority, they appealed for help to Asante and the Asante king, Kofi Karikari (whose father was Fante) responded by dispatching an army to assist Elmina in taking the fort by force. Unfortunately, the war plan failed big time.
Ulzen (2018) posits further that with that show of defiance and plan to involve the Asantes, Kobena Gyan’s fate was sealed. Along with the other two dissident chiefs, he was arrested, bundled onto the awaiting Seagull, and transported to Cape Coast where he was locked in debtors’ jail. They were sent into exile in Sierra Leone without any charges or a trial. In the ship which took King Kobena Gyan to Sierra Leone was Thomas George Lawson, an interpreter in British employment from Sierra Leone and Aneho in Togo, who was to serve the king as his interpreter (Jones and Sebald, 2005). He arrived in Sierra Leone on 30 April 1873, a dispirited, broken, and disappointed man. He was deeply worried about his relatives, wives, and children.
In retaliation and as a lesson to other Akan towns of the coast, the British bombed Elmina town from the forts and from ships at sea and in the bay. Professor Michel Doortmont contended that the bombardment of Elmina is a classic case of British ‘gunboat diplomacy.’ In this ‘gunboat diplomacy, Old Elmina town was utterly destroyed and then looted by peoples from the surrounding microstates and the descendants of those who had failed on so many previous occasions to conquer Elmina themselves. Elmina town “was never allowed to be rebuilt and stands today as an empty field adjacent to the fort, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The destruction and burial of old Elmina brought the middle ground between Europeans, Euro-Africans and Elmina asafo to an end and opened the new era of colonialism (Doortmont, 2010)
Yarak (2005) also paints the picture better: “This was a momentous occasion, which returned a then still flourishing trading town of some 12,000 plus people to the status of a fishing village of circa 5,000. The impact of the bombardment and the ensuing fire was tremendous. It completely destroyed the old town with all its contents, bereaving over half the population of the town of home and property.
Thousands of people fled the town, some living in makeshift refugee camps in the countryside for years, some of the richer merchants permanently moving to neighbouring Cape Coast, while others moved even further away. The bombardment changed the physical outlook of Elmina permanently. The area of the old town was transformed into a ‘parade ground’, resettlement being prohibited.
When refugees started to return to Elmina in the late 1870s and early 1880s, they had to find living space on the other side of the lagoon. This area, the so-called Garden of Elmina, was already fairly crowded, while usable space was limited due to the presence of several flood plains, salt marshes, and three hills. Eventually the people of Elmina found ways of accommodation, and by the 1920s the town had regained some of its former splendour, due to remittances from its sons and daughters acquiring wealth in the booming Gold Coast economy of that decade.”
Soon after the bombardment of Elmina, the British moved on the Asante with an attack on their capital Kumase led by Sir Garnett Wolseley.
Ulzen (2010) concludes that Nana Kobena Gyan remained true to his conviction that Elmina was not to be taken and swapped between European powers at will. In 1877, four years after his deportation, his people, missing their king, petitioned the British for his return. This was granted with the proviso that he returns to Elmina as a private citizen. He reasoned that he was exiled as king and rejected the terms. He thus prolonged his exile, returning to Elmina on May 17, 1894, to die only 2 years later. His exile lasted twenty-one years.
Baesjou, Rene (1979). An Asante Embassy on the Gold Coast: The Mission of Akyempon Yaw to Elmina, 1869-72 (Leiden, the Netherlands: Afrika-Studiecentrum, 1979)
Doortmont, Michel (2010). Bombardment of Elmina, 13 June 1873 http://gcdb-doortmontweb.blogspot.com/2010/ (accessed on 26/07/2018)
Herbstein, Manu (2014). The Boy Who Spat in Sargrenti’s Eye. Accra, Ghana: Techmate Publishers.
Jones, A., & Sebald, P. (Eds.). (2005). An African Family Archive: The Lawsons of Little Popo/Aneho (Togo) 1841-1938 (No. 7). Oxford University Press.
Public Record Office, London, CO 879/3: 12 March 1873
Yarak, Larry W. (2003). A West African cosmopolis: Elmina (Ghana) in the nineteenth century. In seascapes, littoral cultures, and trans-oceanic exchanges, library of congress, Washington DC.
http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/…/proceedings/seascapes/yarak.html (accessed 26/07/2018)
Ulzen, T. P. Manus (2013). Java Hill: An African Journey. Xlibris Corporation.
Ulzen, Thaddeus (2018). Kobena Gyan, King of Elmina Returns From Exile In Sierra Leone After 21 Years (May 17, 1894). https://www.todaygh.com/kobena-gyan-king-elmina-returns-ex…/ (accessed 26/07/2018)
Kweku Darko Ankrah