The Gold Coast Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society (ARPS) was formed in 1897 in the port city of Cape Coast, a hub of intellectual and political activism in colonial Ghana. The ARPS remained the voice of colonized Africans until its demise in the 1930s. The idea of forming the society had been incubated as early as 1895, but was shelved until May 17, 1897, when a meeting organized by the African intelligentsia in Cape Coast to protest the proposed Lands Bill of 1894 to 1897 culminated in the formation of the society. Thus, the main catalyst for the formation of the ARPS was the African intelligentsia’s protest against the Lands Bill. Had the Lands Bill been passed, it would have allowed the colonial government to take over so-called waste or public lands.
Several developments in the preceding decades, including the lack of African representation on the Gold Coast Legislative Council, the problem of direct taxation, and the implementation of the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance of 1883, contributed to the formation of the ARPS. The ARPS had been preceded by the activities of the Mfantsi Amanbuhu Fekuw (Fante National Association), led by members of the African intelligentsia, including John Mensah Sarbah, J. W. de Graft Johnson, Chief J. D. Abraham, and J. P. Brown. The Mfantsi Amanbuhu Fekuw had been founded in 1889 to promote African cultural values that were being undermined by the corrosive effects of the European presence.
Although the ARPS was an alliance between the African intelligentsia and the chiefs or the indigenous rulers, its leadership was mostly made up of educated Africans who were able to use their literacy to negotiate with the colonial government. The African intelligentsia had the full support of the chiefs, especially from the inception of the ARPS to about 1912, when Governor Hugh Clifford effectively implemented indirect rule, which used the chiefs as the main agents of local administration. Thereafter, smarting under overt criticism from African intellectuals, the colonial government systematically marginalized them while it preoccupied itself with the promotion of the illegitimate power of the chiefs. This divide-and-rule tactic created antagonism between these educated Africans and the local chiefs.
The ARPS was led by elected officers; during its first years, its president was Jacob W. Sey, while the vice president was J. P. Brown. The society also had a secretary and a treasurer. ARPS activities were not restricted to Cape Coast; as early as 1897, the society had local branches in cities along the Gold Coast littoral regions, including Elmina, Saltpond, Winneba, and Axim. Its overall influence was felt throughout the Gold Coast, especially in districts where there was a sizeable number of African intellectuals, such as Krobo and Akuapem in the Eastern Province.
Indeed, by the first two decades of the twentieth century, the influence of the ARPS was being felt colonywide as it extended its concerns to cover problems of colonial rule, including forced labor and taxation in Asante and the Northern Territories. For much of the southern regions of the Gold Coast, the ARPS gained political ascendancy because of its ability to capitalize on publicity in the local newspapers.
Although the Lands Bill was its immediate preoccupation, the aims of the ARPS were broad and encompassing. Among other things, the ARPS hoped to make sure that various bills and colonial policies involving taxation, labor, and constitutional changes would not burden the Africans. During the early twentieth century, the ARPS occupied itself with colonial policies on education, sanitation, health, the provision of infrastructure, and imperial labor and military recruitment in the Gold Coast during World War I. The society also sought to modify or prevent the passing of several bills, including the Town Councils Ordinance of 1894 that came into force in 1904, and the Forest Bill (1907-1911). The Forest Bill can be traced to the Native Jurisdiction Ordinance of 1883. It empowered chiefs to pass local bylaws for forest preservation. This was vigorously implemented in 1907 with the passing of the Timber Protection Ordinance which sought to prevent the cutting of saplings. Eventually, the Forest Bill led to the establishment of forest reserves. The Town Councils Ordinance dealt with the levying of municipal house rates.
Some of the methods used by the ARPS included campaigns in local newspapers, namely the Gold Coast Methodist Times and the Gold Coast Aborigines in the late nineteenth century and the Gold Coast Nation and the Gold Coast Leader during the first two decades of the twentieth century. These newspapers, read by the African intelligentsia and Europeans, including government officials, in the Gold Coast, were used as political platforms to call attention to African demands.
Additionally, the ARPS, through the instrumentality of a few Africans serving on the Gold Coast Legislative Council, was able to address the council directly. For example, on June 4 and 5, 1897, J. H. Cheetham, an African unofficial member of the council (unofficial members had no voting rights), arranged for John Mensah Sarbah and P. Awooner Renner, members of the African intelligentsia, to address the council. The ARPS also held public meetings, not only in Cape Coast but in various places where it had branch offices. Aimed at discussing national issues and strategies, the meetings were attended not only by the ARPS echelons but by ordinary ARPS members and the public at large.
Apart from various petitions issued by the ARPS, the society also sent delegations to meet with the colonial government. Most significantly, in 1898 it sent a delegation, including President Sey and other prominent members, such as T. F. E. Jones and George Hughes, to England to meet directly with British officials to discuss problems of colonial rule, especially the Lands Bill. The ARPS delegation met with Joseph Chamberlain (18361914), the colonial secretary, with whom they discussed the questions of land, taxation, and constitutional reform. The delegation was successful because the Colonial Office later asked the colonial government to abandon the Lands Bill and the hut tax. In 1906 another delegation led by Reverend K. Egyir-Assam was sent to England under the auspices of the ARPS to demand the repeal of the Town Councils Ordinance, though this time the Colonial Office did not grant the wishes of the ARPS.
The activities of the ARPS were not always an all-male affair. Although colonial society was dominated by men, throughout the period of colonial rule several women’s groups teamed up with men or supported men in anticolonial protest politics. For example, in 1906, following the campaigns against the Town Councils Ordinance championed by the ARPS, Cape Coast market women unleashed a large-scale, well-organized protest against the ordinance when Governor John Rodger visited Cape Coast to open an agricultural show.
The ARPS has been described as a protonationalist organization because it sought not to overthrow colonial rule, but to reform it. Overall, however, the protest politics of the ARPS went beyond mere reformism. From the late nineteenth century to the immediate post-World War I period, the society gradually sowed the seeds of revolutionary nationalism not only in the Gold Coast but in the West African region as a whole as its members contributed to the formation of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) in 1919. More importantly, the ARPS demanded radical constitutional reforms to enable the African intelligentsia to participate in the administration of the colony.
By the mid-1930s, the ARPS was in a state of decline. In the first place, it never gained strong roots beyond Cape Coast in the Central Province. For example, the society never developed in the adjoining Eastern Province. The society also remained elitist, and its decisions were made by a few individuals at the helm of the organization. Above all, the Cape Coast elite, in spite of the rapid economic transformation and social change as well as the vigorous consolidation of colonial rule, had called for radicalization of African protests and could not disengage from the old reformist protests of the nineteenth century. Thus, by the 1930s the ARPS, having lost popular support, existed as a ghost of its former self. Indeed, in the 1920s it had been taken over by the equally elitist but broader-based and more radical NCBWA, which sought to bring about fundamental change in colonial rule.
Overall, deprived of an effective voice in the administration of the colony and its dependencies, the ARPS served as the main representative of colonized Africans. The society was able to mediate between Africans and the colonial government, thereby moderating colonial rule. Although the formation of the ARPS was due to the cumulative effects of colonial rule in the late nineteenth century, the immediate reason for its formation was the Lands Bill. Having successfully forced the colonial government to abort the implementation of the Lands Bill, the ARPS tackled other objectionable colonial policies, including forced labor, taxation, indirect rule, and the lack of African representation on the Legislative Council. It also vigorously campaigned for improvements in education, sanitation, health, and the provision of infrastructure. Above all, it served as a precursor to revolutionary nationalism not only in the Gold Coast, but in the entire West African region in the 1930s.