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  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  and speaks, then they will perceive that of a truth you achieved

  It is not surprisinging that Rattray gave some credence to the history
  which the chief had told him, after such a speech by a man who took it as
unquesitonable fact that he was surrounded by the spirits of the man whose
history he was telling, including Okomfo Anokye himself. After the
speech, the last of the libation wine was poured on the blackened stools,
then they all went down to the nearby stream where they smeared
themselves with the black lignite from its bed (it was supposed to have
started from a fire which Anokye had used to boil some medicine and then
quenched — the ashes becoming the black river bed and the water the
stream itself. A sheep was sacrified, palm-wine was distributed and the
servoice ended with a blessing from the Okyeame: Yen hyira, hyira, hyira,
(‘We invoke blessings, blessings, blessings.)

  He stayed for the next few weeks at Kumawu, using the Omanhene
  Kwame Affram, his Mother Ya Amponsa and an ex-Ko’ntirehene Kweku
Kodia as his guides to traditional Ashanti law (Kwame Affram had been
destooled by the Government during the 1914 war for misappropriating
Red Cross funds, but Rattray had been present at his re-stooling during his
last visit in August (1925). Their information would provide the bulk of
the material for the chapters on Law and Procedure in Ashanti Law and

  During the last year or so he was increasingly aware that another
  establishment power besides the Government was taking an interest in his
work. The foundation-stone for the new College at Achimota, which from
its beginning was planned to evolve into the first West African university,
had been laid at the end of 1924. By 1926, its character was established, as
a place in which the African (the African, that is, whose parents could
afford the subsidised fees) would be trained according to the besty tradition
of British public-school education to take his rightful place in the family of
nations. Like its headmaster, A.G. Fraser, it was almost impossible to find
anything to condemn in it, except that its atmosphere was almost too
wholesome, cheerful and so unrelentingly benign that a man like Rattray
could hardly exist in it. It aroused his old jealousy, his fear of being
usurped by people with better paper qualifications than his own (though by

  152R.S. Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution, 1929, p. 406.



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  now his could hardly be beaten). His instinct was to leave Achimota alone,
but it refused to ignore him.

  Fraser and his staff shared the principle which he had preached so
  insistently: that Africans should not be turned into pseudo-Europeans but
taught to retain the highest values of their own culture and in order to
carry this into practice, they needed his help. Fraser told new staff coming
out from England to read Ashanti and not surprisingly once they arrived
they tried to make contact with the author, and in some cases to take up the
same kind of work. An example was the historian W.E.F. Ward who got
his fingers badly burned when he said in his first report how surprisingly
easy it was to get people to divulge their stool histories — Rattray referred
to this in Ashanti Law and Constitution as ‘a good example of how easy it
is for a newcomer, with only a slight knowledge of local conditions and
difficulties, to be misled into supposing his task an easy one’,
153 which was
rather unfair to an innocent remark by a much younger man. It showed
that he still felt sensitive about his own status as an academic. This also
largely explains why he rejected so abruptly the idea of being established at
Achimota himself: academic institutions made him feel uneasy.

  However, he accepted Fraser’s invitation to stay at Achimota for a few
  days and give a lecture. His reputation for ‘temperament’ had gone before
him and they were relieved to find instead that he was polite to everyone
and even modest. His lecture was an unqualified success. It was to the
entire College, including all the staff, on his favourite subject: the value of
the traditional Ashanti culture, and it moved both the Africans and
Europeans. He tactfully avoided any suggestion that some aspects of
traditional religion might have been more desirable than some aspects of
Christianity, and he spiced the talk with information about talking drums,
gold weights and proverbs. Fraser was delighted. After the lecture he
asked Rattray to talk to some of the classes by himself. Without other staff
present he spoke rather more freely. He told them that he was in a rather
similar position to theirs: he was descended from the early Britons but he
had none of the ancient Britons’ customs. He did not even share the
religion of his parents, and yet he did not think he had lost his national
character. The missionaries had banned drumming and dancing; but they
had brought in not only monogamy but the wedding-ring, bridesmaids and
the wedding-cake, which on moral grounds were hardly more
commendable than drumming and dancing. This account comes from the

  153Rattray (1929) p.129.



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  students as they reported it back to Fraser. They were clearly both
impressed and disturbed by what Rattray had told them. They decided he
was a radical, who was tired of old customs (his own) and liked new ones
(theirs) whereas the missionaries were conservatives who liked what their
own parents had approved, but disliked new ideas or customs. They could
not decide whether they were conservatives or radicals themselves, but
whatever happened their characteristic national life would persist because
they all ‘thought African’ (an expression which was gaining currency at the

  Fraser genuinely liked Rattray: he was another in the line of prim
  academics like Hetherwick and Marett, who found him almost
disconcertingly attractive. And Rattray can only have been pleased with is
reception at Achimota; but he knew that it was at bottom a missionary
institution. He had never been very fond of missionaries, and by now he
regarded them almost as rivals to his own mission which was (one might
almost say) to save the Ashanti from the worst effect of Christianity.

  By April, with two months to go before his leave, he was beginning to
  feel the effects of a long tour spent mostly on the move. He decided to have
a break, which characteristically took far form of cycling down the long
dirt road from Mampong into the Afram plain in search of elephant.
Tragi-comedy struck. He found an elephant and shot it, but it was not
killed and turned on him,. He managed to escape to a fallen tree, under
which he lay until the elephant gave up interest in him. Then he made his
way as quickly as he could to his bicycle but as he mounted the saddle
slipped sideways and he fell down, rupturing himself. He left no record of
how he managed to get back to Mampong, but it must have been horribly
painful, and perhaps even worse was the thought that he might not be
allowed to travel to his leave. The doctor insisted that he should have an
operation, but Rattray managed to persuade him that it would be better
done in England.

  Despite the accident, he continued to do fieldwork, questioning the
  Mamponghene about Totemism, which was the other area of theoretical
anthropology besides cross-cousin marriages in which he had become
interested. And just before his leave, he took down the stool history of
Nsuta, which was conveniently only five miles from Mampong (if he had
not been confined to Mampong area and looking for something to do, he
would probably not have bothered with Nsuta, which is a comparatively

  154Reported by A.G. Fraser, Papers, Rhodes House MSS Brit. Emp.



  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  insignificant stool). Meanwhile, the thought of writing up Ashanti Law and
Constitution on top of the operation prompted him to write a heartfelt
letter to the Government asking for an extension of leave. he pointed out
that since 1921 he had given himself hardly more than two weeks’ real
holiday in each leave, spending the rest of the time for seven or eight hours
each day writing his books. He had had a ‘particularly hard and trying
tour, living in the bush, and for many months occupying the roughest of
native quarters’; and then there was the operation.
155 Maxwell, Rattray’s
childhood acquaintance from Dumfries who had succeeded Harper as Chief
Commissioner Ashanti, supported him and he was told he could have until
the following April. Cheered by this he went off on leave in ebullient
mood, despite the hernia. On the boat, he refused to behave as if there was
anything wrong with him, rampaged around and as a result the hernia
strangulated. He very nearly died, and the surgeon in the hospital at
Plymouth would not hold out more than an even chance for the success of
the operation. It was successful, but even so there was some doubt as to
whether he would be able to go back for his next tour.

  While he was still in hospital, he saw an advertisement for a Reader in
  Anthropology at Cambridge. In spite of all his doubts about academic
institutions, he applied and staggered from his bed for an interview in July.
Everyone liked him, and he was their second choice, but it was decided that
he did not have quite enough academic training and did not know French
or German (which was not strictly true — his French was quite passable).
Hodson was appointed instead. If Rattray, convalescing in a Harrogate
hotel, was disappointed, he did not make a fuss about it. I suspect that he
would have liked to be given the chance of turning it down and of using it
as a lever to hoist himself up the Gold Coast establishment.

  The leave was spent recovering from the operation and then writing
  Ashanti Law and Constitution. It is the most complete of all his books and
shows none of the strain he had been going through when it was written.
Apart from the weight which he attached to stool histories and which some
historians would now question, only one major criticism has been made of
the book. A central part of his argument was that the old Ashanti kingdom
was not a centralised despotism but an intricate system of interlocking but
partly autonomous groups — in other words, that it was more like feudal
Europe than Louis XIV’s France. Historians now tend to picture it as more
like a European monarchy, welded into an efficient fighting unit by the

  155Foreign Office file.



  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  great Asantehenes, such as Osei Tutu. It is an important issue in relation to
the original purpose of Rattray’s work In the last chapter of Ashanti, he
argued that the chiefs were losing much of the old loyalty they commanded
because they were adopting the role expected of them by the Europeans —
of a petty autocrat. We talk about democracy, he said, but to an old Ashanti
our democracy is a sham:

  ‘An Ashanti who was familiar alike with his own and our Constitution
  would deny absolutely our right to apply this term to ourselves or to our
Constitution. To him a democracy implies that the affairs of the Tribe
(the State) must rest, not in the keeping of the few, but in hands of the
many .... To him the State is literally a Res Publica; it is everyone’s

  At the same time, he recognised, though less emphatically, that the old
  democracy was dependent on the old way of life: ‘the real fraternity based
from time immemorial on common needs, a common daily intercourse, in
market, farm, hamlet, or forest, and a common outlook upon life’.
Small is beautiful. Whether or not his argument was historically accurate,
it could make little difference to the direction in which politics were going.

  Once again, he used the preface to his new book to preach a sermon on a
  central issue arising from the book. In this case, it was even more like a
sermon than in the previous volumes. It arose from his experiences at
Achimota and his reading of Edwin Smith’s book The Golden Stool which
had just come out, and it was about religion and education. He began by
explaining why he came to Law and Constitution last amongst the subjects
he had set himself to investigate. The reason was that when he began he
found himself ‘constantly confronted with words in the Ashanti language,
which, although primarily associated with religion, were nevertheless
continuously found in connection with Legal and Constitutional
158 As we have seen, this was a rationalisation after the event:

  156R.S. Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution, p. 406.

157Rattray (1929) p.407.

158Ibid. p.i.



  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  he started by investigating religion because that seemed the most interesting
and important area quite apart from any practical application it might
have. He then went on the say that if the information he was supplying on
Law and Constitution was to be correctly applied, it would have to be used
with reference to the religious belief which underlay it at all points: ‘Upon
the correct application of this knowledge must, I believe, depend our
satisfactory tutelage of this people, and ultimately their own success in self-

  The gist of his argument which followed was that Indirect Rule was all
  very well and simple in an area like Northern Nigeria where the British
Government had agreed not to interfere with local (i.e. predominantly
Muslim) religion and Christian missions were positively discouraged. In
the Gold Coast, the Government was busy trying to encourage Indirect
Rule (’the widest possible scope to Chiefs and people to manage their own
affairs’) while also encouraging the missionaries to destroy the old religion
on which the traditional rule was founded: ‘A living Universe — the
acknowledgement of a Supreme God — sanctity and reverence for dead
ancestors — religion which is inseparable from law — these were the
foundations on which the old order was based’.
160 What then should they
do? Stop the missionaries? Even if desirable, it was too late. The only
possible answer was that given by Edwin Smith in his chapter on
‘Christianity in Africa’ in The Golden Stool: ‘It is necessary to urge that
our religion be presented to the Africans, not in antagonism to, but as a
fulfilment of, their aspirations .... It implies not a paganisation of
Christianity for the purpose of making it easier to Africans, but the
Christianization of everything that is valuable in the African’s past
experience and registered in his customs’.
161 In other words, preserve and
encourage everything that is not obviously inadmissible in the traditional
way of life.

  It is a little odd to see Rattray writing so positively about missions (‘it is
  from Christianity and Christian Missions Colonial Administrations and
Africans who love their own country will yet come to draw that inward
power which alone will justify the retention of “the best in the Africans’


160Ibid. p.ix.

161E.W. Smith: The Golden Stool (1926) p.261.



  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  culture and beliefs”.’).162 In private he was much ruder about them —
though his admiration for Smith was quite sincere. This preface was
polemical and he felt that the only hope was to convert the missionaries
who were the very spearhead attacking the traditional culture. If he really
hoped that by doing so he would get Indirect Rule to work properly, he
was doomed to disappointment: nothing would stop the march of
centralisation, either before or after independence. But his instinct was
probably right: it was at least as useful in the long run for the
anthropologist to ‘interpret the idiom of the soul of the people among
whom he labours’ as to set out the details of legal procedure, and if
modern Ghana is comparatively free of the symptoms of cultural
disintegration, Rattray must take at least some of the credit. He gave the
educationalists a chance to carry into practice their principle of educating
the African (or at least the Ashanti) into rather than out of his culture. He
could not foresee that independence would come much later in education
thana in politics, so that Ghanaian teachers at secondary and university
level are still only beginning to carry into practice the idea of an African
education by Africans for Africans. It means that only now are his books
(still not read nearly widely enough by Ghanaian educationalists) beginning
to be used for the purpose for which above all he intended them: to use his
own simile, as a hand reaching out and linking the modern Ghanaian with
his own past.

  In September, Rattray was forty-five. Like most active men he was very
  much aware of the arrival of middle age. He had finished the work he set
himself five years earlier, with the exception of a collection of folk- stories
which was hardly more than a postscript. Retirement was already due, and
he had no very good immediate reason for going back to the Gold Coast.
The change which was coming over him can be seen even in the style of
writing in Ashanti Law and Constitution’. In the first two volumes, despite
their dense subject-matter, he could not hide the almost continuous
excitement he had felt in hunting down his material. The latest book was
written more with an air of calm authority. It is at the same time the most
admirable and the least human. He was beginning to think of himself as the
Old Coaster, less worried about possible rivals, confident of respect from
both academics and the younger colonial officers. In some ways he had
aged prematurely, especially in these months when he was recovering from
the operation. ‘A short, brown, leathery-looking man’, someone called

  162Rattray (1929) p.x.



  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  him.163 But he was also refusing to grow old. he took up Indian club
exercises, and continued to make plans for the flight to the Gold Coast,
which was beginning to assume more importance than his anthropology.

  Perhaps because it harmonised with his feelings about his own life, he
  was captivated by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West which had just
been translated into English. Everyone was reading and discussing it on the
boat back to the Gold Coast. One of his co-passengers was John Scragg,
whom he had met on the return from his previous leave, when Scragg was
going out to take up his first post as a teacher at Achimota. Rattray had not
seen him at Achimota because Fraser had sent him off to learn Fante at
Cape Coast, where he was also acting headmaster of Mfantsipim School.
They had long discussions on the boat especially about Spengler, together
with another man who was going out to study the Tuareg in Northern
Nigeria. Superficially, Scragg was Rattray’s opposite: over six foot tall and
with a highly respectable conventional academic training. But he had a
strain of irreverence uncommon in Achimota teachers, and he was longing
to get out into the bush and do some hunting, both for animals and for
ethnographic material, and they got on extremely well. It probably struck
Rattray immediately that Scragg might be a suitable person to take up the
banner when he had to leave it, though no specific plan was formulated
until a year or so later. The feeling of things ending was accentuated by the
fact that their outgoing boat passed the boat which was bringing
Guggisberg back from his last tour as Governor of the Gold Coast. He was
to be succeeded by Ransford Slater, the man who had been most keen to get
rid of Rattray from the Secretariat in 1920.

  Rattray did not go back to the red-roofed bungalow at Mampong, which
  had been taken over as District headquarters when they were moved from
Ejura. Instead, it was arranged that he should be based at Pepiase, 2,000
feet up on the Kwahu scarp overlooking the Afram plain, about half-way
between Kumasi and Accra. It is hard to know exactly why he chose to set
up his base here, except for minor reasons of convenience, the main one
being that the house was available. His next project was a collection of
Anansesem or ‘Spider Stories’, and since these are universal amongst the

  163Foreign Office, Rattray File.

164Before he went back from his leave, he arranged an interview with Sir Charles
  Strachey, to ask if he would be considered for the post of Secretary for Natyive Affairs
when C.W. Welman retired. Strachey was almost convinced, but when the occasion arose
two years later, Slater would have nothing of it.



  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  Akan-speaking peoples any area was as good as another for collecting them
— the only qualification being that the language may differ slightly from
area to area, hence the title of the volume: Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales. Then,
he had already agreed to do some more teaching at Achimota, and Pepiase
was nearer Accra than his previous bases. Again, he may have thought it a
good idea to set his researches in the heartland of Ashanti against findings
in a more peripheral area. And finally, he may already have been planning
to go to the North for his next campaign — if time and support given to
him — and Pepiase was a convenient stopping-off point where he could
negotiate with Accra.

  The folk-stories did not take up much of his time and energy. He did not
  try to analyse them, except in a general introduction when he came to write
up the book, but only to write down the Twi text as closely as possible to
the words he originally heard, and then to translate them as faithfully as
possible. The project was given a slight sense of urgency by the fact that
A.W. Cardinall had just written a piece on Anansesem for the Gold Coast
Record. The Gold Coast Record was the brain-child of the new Secretary
for Native Affairs, C.W. Welman, a house-journal for the Gold Coast in
which the new spirit of cultural awakening could be given expression.
Rattray virtually boycotted it. He only contributed one article during its
short life, and that was a rehash of his Blackwood’s article about his 1929
flight. By refusing to contribute any anthropological articles he condemned
it to amateurishness. The fact that Cardinall had written the piece on folk-
tales made him all the more sensitive about it. Cardinall was, like him, a
political officer who had shown leanings towards anthropology, but unlike
Rattray he had never taken any academic courses. He had written, in 1922,
a book on The Natives of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast, and
during this year, 1927, he brought out another travelogue called In Ashanti
and Beyond. A straightforward ‘colonial type’, he regarded many of
Rattray’s activities as window-dressing and no doubt he resented Rattray’s
being paid to do what he (Cardinall) treated as a hobby. Rattray on his side
took every opportunity to ignore Cardinall, although on this occasion he
could not pass over the fact that Cardinall was showing an interest in folk-

  Rattray’s bungalow at Pepease was rented from a local cocoa-farmer,
  one of the many who had grown rich out of the cocoa-boom. It had been
occupied by the farmer’s brother — a ‘noseless gentleman’ Rattray called
him (a sign of the prevalence of syphilis in pre-penicillin days) — who
carried on living in the compound next door. He also asked if he could
keep one room in the bungalow, which Rattray agreed to as long as he did
not need it for a guest. When eventually a guest did arrive, it turned out



  An Old Coaster Comes Home

  that the room was still occupied by the previous owner. It had never been
opened since he doors were painted, sealing the cracks between the door
and frame. The noseless brother still carried out his side of the agreement,
and told Rattray he could open the room:

  ‘Any one who knows West Africa will have experienced the mouldy
  vault-like exudation that emanates from a room which has been shut up
for even a short time. Advancing again with a candle in each hand, I
entered the chamber, to find I was in a Tutankhamen’s tomb such as the
Pharaoh would have had had he lived in the Victorian age. I need not
describe in detail all the paraphernalia it contained, but amid red plush
chairs and gilded mirrors, and set upon a great Victorian bed, was the
largest coffin I have ever seen. It was a double-tiered bier, that is, it had
the appearance of being a lesser set upon a greater coffin; it was
padlocked with three great padlocks, and it was very heavy. I shut the
door and sat down over a whisky and sparklet to await Amadu and the
rest of the carriers.’

  Amadu — ‘the faithful Amadu’ as Rattray always called him with an eye
  over his shoulder to Kipling — was his police orderly. The other
permanent member of his household was James, his ‘boy’, who came from
Southern Nigeria.

  Although it is hard to know for what specific use he intended it, he set to
  almost at once to record the history and constitution of Kwahu, for which
purpose he went down to the headquarters of the paramount Chief at
Abene, a ‘hot and particularly filthy village’ five miles down to the foot of
the scarp on which Pepiase stands. He had only been there five days,
staying in a ‘native’ compound, when he went down with amoebic
dysentery, despite the fact that he had followed his usual routine of having
the floors, window- ledges and furniture scrubbed with water and
disinfectant (‘It always spells contentment to feel that shorts or pyjamas, or
bush-shirt, or other article of apparel may be dropped on floor or laid on
table or window-ledge without my having to worry unduly, because just
possibly the last tenant may have been a corpse, a lepper, or a sufferer
from yaws or craw-craw.’)
A hammock had to be borrowed to haul him up
the steep slope to Pepiase, where the local Medical Officer dosed him back
to life with Emetine and Stoversol. This time, he asked if he could stay in
the ahenfie (palace) which was deserted while being purified after the death
of the late Chief, one of those beautiful old steep-roofed Akan compounds


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