Thursday, 3 March 2011

Axim asks for Western education, 1861

Sometimes, as an historical researcher, one accidentally finds information that sheds a whole new light on questions of development in Africa, but at the same time leaves one baffled. It happened to me this week while trawling through a set of documents compiled by Dutch official P.M.J. Kamerling, about whom I am writing an article. In 1861, Kamerling was the official in charge of the Axim Department of the Dutch possessions on the Gold Coast. At the time, Axim was the most western establishment of the Dutch, and a relatively important place. This was due to regional geopolitical circumstances on the mainland, but also to its position as maritime gateway to the Gold Coast for ships coming from Europe and the Americas, with a safe and sheltered harbour to boot. The operative adjective is ‘relatively’, however. In many respects Axim was not part of the main stream developments that were taking place around Elmina and Cape Coast, and in Accra at the time.

In this respect, the following event is very interesting. In December 1861, the king and chiefs of Axim requested Kamerling to petition the Dutch government at Elmina for a schoolteacher to be sent to Axim. In return they would provide a “spacious school building and a house for the teacher”. Kamerling was impressed by the request, and commented: “When such a request comes from the population itself, it does not need further recommendation”.

What was happening here? Where did this request come from? For the moment it remains a riddle to me. In 1861, the European presence in West Africa was still under pressure. Costs were high, income from exports and imports was low, Africa had not yet become a colonial project, and in the parliaments at Westminster and The Hague voices for the abandonment of the West African possessions ran high. At the same time, developments towards a new type of (colonial) relationship were well under way in Sierra Leone and the hinterland of Lagos (Nigeria). Here the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade in the early part of the century had led to an ever increasing British involvement and triggered missionary activities by Methodists and Anglicans. By the early 1850s, this missionary movement was fairly widespread, and a debate had started about the role of education in bringing Christianity and civilisation. Not so on the Gold Coast, though, and especially not with the Dutch. They had their ill-designed castle school, with a structurally inadequate supply of schoolteachers, who more often than not were put to work in the administration after their arrival. Already in the 1830s, children from the Euro-African elite of Elmina, were sent to the British school in Cape Coast instead, and by the 1860s, English was the European lingua franca, rather than Dutch.

In short, the Dutch had no tradition of education, and this makes the Axim request all the more curious. On the other hand, that the request was made sheds some light on the cosmopolitan position of the smaller Gold Coast towns in this period, and the importance attached to the modernisation of society along western lines. One has to keep in mind here that to request for western education required a giant leap in thinking in an oral society, where the power of the written word was more often seen as a threat than as an opportunity.

NANL, NBKG 587, letter P.M.J. Kamerling to governor, Axim 20 December 1861.

High-handed colonialism: Nagtglas, Kamerling, and the case of the Axim hammock-bearers

Governor C.J.M. Nagtglas of the Dutch Gold Coast, in office from 1858 to 1862 and again from 1869 to 1871, is generally known as an enlightened colonial ruler, well acquainted with local politics and customs, but also with a realistic view towards the weak position of the Dutch on the Gold Coast in the second half of the nineteenth century. When he was appointed governor, he was already an old hand in the West African service, having arrived in Elmina in 1851 in the rank of assistant, at the rather advanced age of thirty-seven. In later years he became the single most important advisor to the Dutch minister of Colonial Affairs, first on the modernisation and rationalisation of the possessions, and later on with regard to the hand-over to the British. His re-appointment as governor and government commissioner in 1869 confirms this. In the latter period he also advised the minister on the quality of the officials, and possibilities for their advancement once the Dutch Gold Coast possessions were dismantled. His report on P.M.J. Kamerling, years later, in 1872, was rather negative.

From the correspondence of colonial official P.M.J. Kamerling it becomes clear that Nagtglas and Kamerling did not like each other very much. There are also indications that Nagtglas was perhaps not the big colonial thinker many have held him to be. A good illustration of this is what I have called the case of the Axim hammock-bearers. Inquiry – by Nagtglas – and report – by Kamerling – cover less than one page, but speak volumes.

Axim, 14 March 1861. Pieter Kamerling has just arrived in the town, from his post in Butre, to take up his position as commandant of fort St. Anthony and official in charge of the Dutch government in the Axim district. On his arrival he found a letter from governor Nagtglas dated 10 March, inquiring into a problem with hammock-bearers, reported by his predecessor, D.P.H.J. Weijtingh. Since time immemorial, the Dutch government rented canoes, oarsmen, porters, artisans, labourers, and hammock-bearers in the local towns and villages. The local African leadership was responsible for the organisation of this labour supply, which was regulated in a contract, the so-called “Pen en Contract”, between the respective governments. This included wages and costs to be paid by the Dutch. As long as the system existed, the provision of services requested posed problems. In many cases labour or a specialised service was simply not available, in others political or other animosities often prevented a ready compliance.

On this occasion Weijtingh had complained that he could not get any hammock-bearers, presumably for his trip to Elmina at the conclusion of his command at Axim. Weijtingh was also an old hand in Africa, but not a very experienced official. He first arrived on the Gold Coast in 1842, but as a merchant. Only in 1860 was he appointed as “official at the disposal of governor”, a rank below that of assistant. So it might be that Weijtingh did not have the proper diplomatic feeling to handle the situation.

In any case, Nagtglas wrote a high-handed note to Kamerling to look into the matter. In it he requested an official inquiry and report, and, so he stated, if no "definite and sufficient reasons" were given, leading to "a general apology" for what had happened, those responsible should be punished with a fine of 2 ounces in gold (underlining by Nagtglas).

In my studies of Kamerling’s career on the Gold Coast between 1856 and 1865, I found him to be a very conscientious and diplomatic administrator and diplomat, albeit somewhat arrogant in his demeanour. Kamerling’s response to Nagtglas’s questions of 20 March is worth quoting in full. It highlights the mechanism of labour supply, as well as some of the intricacies of colonial rule on the Gold Coast, and the frustrations of a local Dutch commandant.

"The King of Axim had received an order from Mr. Weijtingh to supply 8 hammock-bearers. He in turn ordered Edjefoe Kwamie, Senior Broker, Nabakouw, Quarter Ensign, and Allaban, to supply two men each, to make up 8 with 2 more supplied by the King himself.

Adaban sent 2, and the King himself sent 2 as well, but the King’s men arrived after Mr. Weijtingh had left (the soldiers confirmed this). Edjefoe Kwamie and Nabakouw sent none. Being asked why, they replied that Mr. Weijtingh had ordered the King [to supply the men], not them.

Furthermore, I found out that the King has no influence on the population whatsoever. Thus, in accordance with [the order of the Governor], Edjefoe Kwamie and Nabakouw were fined 2 ounce gold, and incarcerated for it."

Supplying hammock-bearers was obviously not popular and the king chose to spread the burden, by assigning the task to several local leaders. It is interesting to note that Edjefoe Kwamie was not delivering, because in his position as ‘senior broker’, he was the appointed intermediary between the Dutch and local government, courting a special relationship with the Dutch. Kamerling, being the conscientious administrator he was, inquired into the reasons for the refusal. He quickly found out that he had a potential problem of some magnitude, namely a king – his natural opposite number – who had no authority whatsoever. He loyally fined and incarcerated the two culprits as ordered, but the phrasing of the Dutch text echoes his reluctance with the order. Understandably so, as he was the new commandant and needed to build up cordial relations with all people in authority in Axim. Nagtglas had just made this a lot harder for him, after only six days on the job.

Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands, Archives of the Netherlands Possessions on the Coast of Guinea (NBKG), inv. no. 587, Correspondence Axim 1861: Notification and report 20 March 1861.