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  • Perspectives on Fifty Years of Ghanaian Historiography
  • Joseph K. Adjaye


This paper seeks to contribute to the ongoing debate on African methodology —sources, issues, methods, challenges—by presenting a Ghanaian case study, for, whereas there are a number of broad overviews of African methodology, some of which include surveys of regions such as eastern or southern Africa, as well as countries like Nigeria and Senegal, a study specifically devoted to examining historical production in Ghana is yet to be essayed.1 This paper, however, shares common concerns with African historiography in general in terms of the quest for distinctly African constructions of history as well as the manifold ways in which African historical production might be made to relate more effectively to local contexts.

In a recent contribution to a volume dedicated to honoring Bethwell Ogot, David William Cohen (2001:53) echoed a call which was by no means new but which still has relevance for African historical production today as it did in the 1960s. Emphasizing the need for African voices, he asserted that “. . . there are realms of knowledge and programs of knowledge production outside the academy, and outside the field situation, that might be understood and drawn upon to work at the reconstruction of the African past.” It is in this light that this piece was originally prepared in connection with Ghana’s fiftieth independence anniversary in 2007. [End Page 1]

Ghana has had a long span of historical writing dating back several centuries, but a tradition of Ghanaian historiography is only about 50 years old, as is the case with the development of national historiographies throughout much of Africa. It was the rise of nationalist and independence movements in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s that brought in its wake revolutions not only in political, economic, and social development, but in historical practice as well. To be sure, historical writing about the Ghanaian past goes as far back as Bosman (1705) and Barbot (1732) and even beyond.2 But there is clearly a difference between writing about the past and writing based on the use of historiographical “tenets,” for the mere mention of, or reference to, the past does not constitute a work of historiography unless it is accompanied by the application of the “historian’s craft.”

This paper’s primary concerns are to examine the nature and content of history practice in Ghana, both historical writing and historiography, interrogate related issues, and explore the prevailing debates. It is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of all historical publications; rather, illustrative cases of specific types of historical writing will be elucidated to demonstrate particular points of view. For practical purposes, historical practice in Ghana can be periodized into the following four phases: precolonial, colonial, national, and postnational.


Historical writing during the precolonial era was dominated by foreigners and non-historians for the most part—travelers, missionaries, and European traders. In consequence, much of what they wrote amounted to travelogue, and their narratives were often clouded by their perceptions of Africans. The historical worth and accuracy of the accounts of early writers such as Bosman and Barbot were minimal as their descriptions were superficial and often did not go beyond random references. By the nineteenth century, however, more detailed information, particularly of relevance to local history, was being produced, although, as before, mainly by European visitors whose views of the societies they described were tainted by prevailing European notions of Africa. Characteristic of the writings of this period were the works of Thomas Bowdich, Joseph Dupuis, and Friedrich Ramseyer and Johannes Kühne.3 [End Page 2]

T. E. Bowdich’s Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (1819) was based on observations he recorded as a member of a peace mission to Kumase undertaken on behalf of the Africa Company of Merchants in 1817 to secure the Asantehene as an ally. Portions of the book are valuable for their vivid and eyewitness accounts of Asante at the height of its power, but, as at least one reviewer saw it, the work is “little more than a jumble of superficial information, much of which is of little interest to a modern reader” (Ward 1966: 15...


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