number 9 (spring/summer 1996)


25-28 OCTOBER, 1995

by Paul Jenkins
Basel Mission Archive

The centenary of the appearance of C.C. Reindorf's History of the Gold Coast and Asante was celebrated in Basel, the city in which the book was published, by a 3-day international seminar aimed at encouraging a revival of interest in this pioneering piece of African work on African history. The Seminar was organised by Paul Jenkins and Peter Haenger for a consortium consisting of the History Department of the University of Basel, the Swiss Society for African Studies, the Basel Africa Bibliography and the Basel Mission.

Two of the contributors have been working on dissertations on topics in Ghanaian social history in which Reindorf plays a role -- symmetrically enough at the very beginning and very end of his adult life -- and thus helped us to approach the man through his Sitz im Leben. Peter Haenger (Basel) analysed the tangled relationships between Reindorf, a headstrong woman "slave" and the Basel Mission's attempts to force through emancipation in its congregations in Ghana in the 1860s. John Parker (London and Keele) offered us a view of conflict in Ga politics in the early 20th century in which Reindorf's credentials as a Ga savant, and the impact of his History, were both at issue.

Turning to Reindorf's text: this is, of course, potentially sensational. According to his own account he was collecting oral tradition widely from people of both sexes more than a century ago. His book is, however, very difficult for us to handle at the end of the 20th century. It is without footnotes. It is also loaded with personal and geographical names, a feature which was appropriate for someone writing for his own people, but a point of major difficulty for those of us for whom the late 19th century Ghanaian context is strange.

Two Ghanaian contributors sought to demonstrate approaches to these dificulties. Kofi Baku (Ghana, Legon) put it in the context of a century of the development of indigenous Ghanaian historiography. Emmanuel Akyeampong (Harvard) showed how suggestive Reindorf can be for a (post-?) modern interest in cultural studies and the cultural construction of power. From the European side Adam Jones (Leipzig) and Tom McCaskie (Birmingham) reflected on their own experience with Reindorf. Jones assessed Reindorf's claim to be a "native" historian and concluded that we need much more research before we will be in a position to use his text to full advantage. McCaskie offered us the judgement that "in terms of its Asante content Reindorf's History is a most impressive performance," read texts with us to support this assertion, and reflected on the question how a coastal writer before 1896 could come to such detailed knowledge of that foreign power to the north with its restrictive information policies.

One important key to assessing Reindorf is understanding his links to christian missions. Reindorf was an early and leading Ga catechist and pastor of the Basel Mission. His patron in many ways was the Basel Mission linguist J.G. Christaller. Thomas Bearth (Zürich), himself a linguist with Akan leanings and a missionary background, explored what the contact between Reindorf and Christaller meant for both sides. Reflection on a parallel case -- the Yoruba CMS pastor Samuel Johnson and his History of the Yorubas -- were offered by J.F.A. Ajayi (Ibadan) and J.D.Y. Peel (London). Ajayi has been reading and reflecting on Johnson his whole academic life long, and offered us an intimate view of this process and insight into his mature assessment of Johnson's achievement. Peel pursued the double aim of establishing the character of Johnson's dialogue with Yoruba religion and culture, and understanding the importance of his presentation of Yoruba history in this context.

The Seminar was conducted under the title "African Writing about the Past: On the Frontier between Local Oral Tradition and International Public Discourse." Albert Wirz (Berlin) pointed to some of the issues raised by this approach to Reindorf: what have we to do with the research conducted so many years ago by someone we could well call a colonial African pastor? The Seminar showed that the state of our knowledge of indigenous concerns with the African past during the colonial period is still extremely fragmentary -- even Reindorf has been forgotten in the city in which his book was published, and by the Mission for which he worked. The Seminar's proceedings (which will also include the chapter on Reindorf in the late Ray Jenkins' unpublished Birmingham dissertation about Ghanaian historiography in the early colonial period) will be published in 1997 by the Basel Africa Bibliography -- a contribution, we hope, to furthering research and discussions on this very important theme.

Back to the GSC No. 9 Contents page.