Africa: Revisiting the Spirit of the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society

1 September 2020

The other day, I had an encounter with a young student, who told me that he was "reading history."

"What's the most interesting thing you've read about the history of Ghana so far?" I asked him.

As he silently considered the question , I quickly blocked the obvious exit: "Don't tell me about how we achieved independence in 1957!"

He scratched his head. But nothing was forthcoming.

So I tossed him a leading question: "What was the ARPS"?

His face looked blank.

Our educationists, I realised, have not drawn up syllabuses that should make organisations like the ARPS very familiar to our young generation.

If you ask any young Briton about The Magna Carta, it is unlikely that he will draw a complete blank. And many an American youngster would be able to tell you about The Boston Tea Party, I am sure.

But here we are in Ghana with a student actually reading history, who has, so far, not come across the ARPS.

So, extrapolate: if you were to ask such a student why it is necessary to use all the emphasis at our command to protect our lands and water-sources from the activities of galamsey operators, what would he say?

He would probably be able to tell you that galamsey destroys water-bodies and farms. But would he be able to situate the struggle against galamsey within the context of Ghana's overall fight to retain control over its lands (control which the colonial government attempted to wrest from Ghana's chiefs and people between 1896 and 1897)?

In those years, very few Ghanaians had been educated to the level whereby they could fully understand and deploy the legal mechanisms through which Britain exerted control of its colonies (such as "The Gold Coast").

But the few educated Gold Coasters possessed knowledge of real practical importance. They knew, for instance, that the British respected organised public opinion in their colonies.

So when these educated people heard that the British wanted to pass laws that would empower them to seize any lands in the Gold Coast that had not already been built upon or cultivated, they formed a Society through which they sent a delegation to Britain to fight against the proposed law.

The Society was called "The Gold Coast Aborigines' Rights Protection Society" or ARPS. It was established by an alliance of traditional rulers and the educated elite. The laws they were opposing were called "the Crown Lands Bill" of 1896 and "the Lands Bill of 1897.

These bills, if passed by the British Parliament, would have abolished traditional land tenure - the system under which the people of the Gold Coast maintained legal possession of their lands. This meant it , legally obligatory for contractors, miners and other persons and entities, whether locally based or, more important, established in the United Kingdom, to seek the agreement of the chiefs and people of any locality before they could build on a piece of land, prospect for or mine minerals from it, or cut down timber trees growing on the land.

These specific objectives were later broadened by the ARPS and it became the main political organisation that led organised and sustained opposition against the machinations of the colonial government in the Gold Coast.

The ARPS thereby laid the foundation for political action that would ultimately lead to Ghana becoming, in 1957, an independent country within the British Commonwealth.

Among the educated elite who led the ARPS were J.W. de Graft-Johnson, Jacob Wilson Sey, J. P. Brown, J. E. Casely Hayford, and John Mensah Sarbah. (But Sarbah is one of the few founder members of the ARPS remembered through a well-known memorial: "Sarbah Hall" of the University of Ghana, Legon, is named after him.)

The Gold Coast ARPS has been described as a "conglomerate of different groups of intellectuals in Cape Coast and Southern Ghana, who sought to protect the traditional land tenure practices of the indigenous Gold Coast peoples, from being usurped by the colonial government". One of its initial goals of was to ensure "that every person may understand the Lands Bill of 1897". To this end, the ARPS disseminated its aims in its own newspaper, The Gold Coast Aborigines.

This paper strongly argued the reasons for the ARPS's dissent to the Lands Bill of 1897 before the Legislative Council of the Gold Coast. Sarbah, a lawyer, elucidated to the Council, the fact that the Lands Bill of 1897 "was no different" from a previous, unsuccessful bill that had been presented to the Council in 1894.

Sarbah pointed out that the new Bill, like the defunct one, "would break family and society ties". The land was valuable to indigenous peoples because of its "religious significance", he told the Council.

The ARPS followed its local campaign up by sending a delegation to London to lobby Joseph Chamberlain, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, against the Bill. One notable aspect of the delegation was that it included not only members of the Gold Coast elite, but also 'prominent merchants'.

Joseph Chamberlain and other members of the British Government were persuaded by the ARPS delegation that the Lands Bill of 1897 was a harmful piece of legislation. They gave the delegation the assurance that "native law would remain and prevail, with regard to devolution of land".

The victory which the ARPS chalked up in London helped "cultural nationalism" to grow strongly in all parts of the Gold Coast during the late 19th century. Members of the educated elite, not only in the Gold Coast but throughout the Western African region, began to return to their traditional roots by reclaiming their "original African names, when these could be discovered."

The victories of the ARPS occurred one hundred and twenty-three years ago. What would members of the ARPS think today, if they were to be able to rise from the dead, and see rivers such as Ankobra, Pra, Oti, Densu, Birem, Offin and Tanoh - to name but a few - threatened with total destruction by the use of excavators in them in search of gold?

What would they say if they saw the cancerous diseases caused by the use of mercury, cyanide and other lethal chemicals to process gold ore in the water-bodies and farmlands - that form part of the sacred lands which the ARPS won for our people as long ago as 1897?

I am sure those noble sons and daughters of Ghana would beat their chests disconsolately and say, "Ao! Yeako agu!" [Alas, we have fought in vain!"]

As our politicians, traditional rulers, and would-be business entrepreneurs close their eyes and ears to pleas from the populace to put an end to galamsey, they should be told, in no uncertain terms, that so far as the gallant patriots of the past are concerned, they are all traitors who don't deserve to call themselves Ghanaians.

For so much knowledge has been pumped into our minds in the past one hundred and twenty-three years. Yet our mindset is more primitive than

what obtained in those "dark" days, long ago! When the ARPS could detect and promote the national interest on behalf of all Gold Coasters.

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