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.