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  • “Watch the Waves of the Sea”: Literacy, Feedback, and the European Encounter in Elmina
  • Bayo Holsey


On 19 January 1482, a Portuguese fleet of ships under the command of Captain Don Diego d’Azambuja landed at Elmina (a small town on the Gold Coast, what is now Ghana). D’Azambuja immediately set up a meeting with the king of Elmina. King Kwamena Ansa, dressed in all of his finery, met with the Portuguese captain, and during this meeting d’Azambuja asked for permission to build a permanent settlement. At first, Ansa denied his request, stating that he should watch the waves of the sea. Just as they come to the shore, reach the shore, and go back, so too should he continue to come to Elmina, trade, and go back to Portugal. After persistent requests however, Ansa finally agreed and allowed the Portuguese to build a fort known today as Elmina Castle.

I first heard this story from men and women in Elmina during field research there in 2001. When I asked people to tell me about the history of the town and gave them free rein to discuss any topic of their choosing, this was often the story that they chose to tell. Kwamena Ansa, it seems, is a local legend. His fame has extended beyond Elmina however, and into Western scholarship. In particular, David Henige has tracked the emergence of Ansa within Elmina’s oral tradition. Henige argues that, while this historical figure can be traced through written sources reaching all the way back to the early sixteenth century, his recognition as a past king by local residents in Elmina has a much shorter history. Indeed, Ansa first emerged in kinglists dating back only to the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, Henige argues, local residents began reading European texts about Elmina’s [End Page 79] history in order to negotiate colonial courts. The inclusion of Ansa on kinglists represents, therefore, an example of feedback, which is the process of the integration of information from the written record into the oral tradition.1

While the story of Ansa’s legendary encounter with the Portuguese does not appear in the court records analyzed by Henige, it emerged soon after in collections of oral history written by nationalist authors in Ghana. We can therefore greatly expand our understanding of the significance this historical figure by considering these local renderings of the narrative. As I argue in the pages that follow, nationalist writers were drawn to this story because they could frame it as a story about Elmina’s early autonomy and about the agency of an African king. In contrast to European narratives of the day that described Africans as powerless in the face of Europeans, in this story, the king had the power to act; he stood up to the Portuguese and told them that they must leave. Nationalist writings have a long tradition of including histories of autonomy and agency to make the case for decolonization into which this story fits.

These collections of oral history came to constitute an official record of the oral tradition. Thus, by examining these texts, I not only demonstrate the nationalist impulse that undergirds the telling of this particular story; I also explore issues concerning writing and the formalization of oral tradition more generally. Through the process of putting it down in writing, local historians, like colonial courts, have in fact, in some cases, reshaped the “traditional” history by introducing elements from written texts. I argue here that for these nationalist writers, the distinction between oral and written sources was not a particularly important one in their conceptualization of “tradition.” Rather than concern themselves with this distinction, they measured the authenticity of a given “traditional history” by the degree to which it focused on African agency. Their construction of “tradition” was a dynamic one that could absorb many different outside influences, which was in keeping with long-standing local understandings of history. Below, I examine the story of Kwamena Ansa’s encounter with the Portuguese with attention to the politics of writing. In addition, I consider the renewed salience of this tradition today in the context of the contemporary popular history...


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pp. 79-101
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