In tracing our march to independence, we must count among Ghana’s heroes Theodore Kwamla Taylor – also known as Boycotthene, or Nii Kwabena Bonne III
First published at https://asaaseradio.com/lest-we-forget-nii-kwabena-bonne-the-man-who-gave-us-independence/
Sane Eteshi – Matters Arising
The path to our independence was forged in diverse ways in the early part of the 20th century by many people – some of them ordinary, public-spirited folk who intervened in an extraordinary way to speed the fight for freedom.
This month, as we continue to celebrate the 65th anniversary of our independence, it is right to recognise and celebrate one such person who participated actively and contributed to the forging of the country, but whose role has been largely relegated to the footnotes of our written history.
His contribution is even more inspiring if we reposition the narrative of his life to depict the history of our country as more of a living movement of people and events that occurred in our not-so-distant past.
Krio culture of discipline
I knew the man. He was confident, suave and diligent in all his pursuits. He did things because of his love for his people and his country. Just because I knew him, though not very well, I feel fortunate that I can place myself in his narrative, that I was part of his history and that I can bask in the honour that he brought to his people of Osu.
I grew up in what was known as Alaremi, or Lagos Town, or Accra New Town. Mallam Attah was not too far off. I knew Kokomlemle fairly well, and Agotim, where Rolyat Castle was situated. I knew the owner because I visited his son there, but did not know the history of the palace and the fact that, at one stage, it had been leased out for the war effort.
My grandmother had grown up with Theodore Kwamla Taylor around the Orange House on Horse Road, where he was born on 26 January 1888. There was then, at the turn of the 19th century, quite a large group of Krio families in that area – the Doves, Buckles, Taylors, Coles, Grants, Robertses, Sawyerrs, Nylanders – all of which have now become integrated into the Ga polity, in line with the deep philosophical concept of the Ga people of ablekuma aba kuma wɔ.
There are many aspects of his upbringing that I can relate to and which shaped his outlook on life. There was the hard, disciplined SaLone training, leading to him often running away from uncles and aunties who nurtured him, but also his loyalty to the masters and mentors who helped form his character for a remarkable life of public service.
Taylor’s whole life was about hard graft. He did not shy away from work, he loved challenges, and he tried his hand at every profession and grasped every opportunity that came his way. He worked as a steward, a pantry servant, apprentice fitter, winch driver, a messenger and office boy with various people, both foreign and local, and benefited from these associations. He traversed the country for work of this sort until he settled down in a job at which he was to excel, that of a project manager in building culverts, streets, houses and factories.
He had graduated from being a hard timekeeper and taskmaster to being a conscientious project manager, always with an eye on the bottom line.
Taylor’s first job as a builder was with Mr Kranschitt, a German, at the site where my grandfather Akilagpa Sawyerr’s homestead, Christiana House, still stands at Tudu. And though he drove his workers hard, they were devoted to him because he kept to the many promises he made to them about sharing the profits with them. Their respect for him bordered on affection.
It was the same attitude he took to his next business as an exporter of cocoa, palm kernels and piassava and importer of all manner of goods. He had learned this trade because he had worked as an assistant and interpreter for many of the foreign agents working in the Gold Coast. They had trusted him with huge sums of money and he, in turn, had learned from them the rules of the mercantile business, volumes and margins. He had learned how to cut deals, how to negotiate contracts, how to cajole and even coerce people to pay him and honour their obligations.
As his business grew, he was bold enough to charter boats on his own. He knew how to rely on agents, some of whom were not exactly trustworthy. He employed white people. He went as far as to set up in business in the UK, occupying a choice location in what is now the City of London, at a WC2 address. He even married and divorced a white woman, providing her with a generous settlement. He trusted in the law and took people who did not honour their contracts to court and won decisions against them.
In the same manner, he held court and consorted with royalty on his sojourns and travels, on one such trip being fêted and given a grand tour of Buckingham Palace. He attended exhibitions and trade shows. He visited not only London, but also Cardiff, Bristol, Paris, Leipzig, Trieste, the Middle East, going as far as Singapore, India, China and Japan. Indeed, his expertise in Japanese goods helped coin a phrase in Ga – “Kɛ ole nii shɛɛ, shɛɛ kɛjɛ Japan”.
He was a wonderful host, entertaining royalty both African and European at the Savoy in London and holding sherry parties for the intelligentsia and the elite at his rambling castle in Kokomlemle. His ever-widening circle of friends suggests that as he developed his financial capital – to the extent of almost opening a bank, becoming partly responsible for the setting up of Barclays Bank in Ghana in 1925 – so did he invest in social capital, making and pinpointing contacts and friends who could be called on to help realise his dreams.
Little is known of his mobilisation of thousands of citizens to reduce the prices of foodstuffs to curb a vision of looming hunger that was revealed to him in a dream. He enlisted the support of the clergy, traditional priests, traditional rulers and a host of vocational and professional people who supported his dream of reductions in the prices of ordinary goods, fish and farm produce.
The initiative had the support of the colonial government and he was accorded police escorts as he travelled around the country to plead this largely successful cause.
It was Kwamla Taylor who got the then Anglican Bishop of Accra, John Anglionby, and the high priest of Accra, the Nai Wulɔmɔ, to pray together on the beach so that the catch would be plentiful. And it was he who, later on, presented a report to dignitaries assembled at the meeting place around the main Catholic church in the Arena. The galvanisation of people in the 1930s must have been a trial run for the events that took place closer to Ghana’s independence.
The Ga people have a saying: Ayɛ gbɔmɔ dani awoɔ mantsɛ. His lineage, as a direct descendant and grandson of Kwabena Bonne I, who led his people from Techiman as they fled war to settle at the foot of Christiansborg Castle and founded one of the four quarters of Osu – Alata – qualified him to be a mantsɛ. He was duly nominated and installed under the stool name Nii Kwabena Bonne III.
On assuming the title, he led a retinue of 300 people through Kumase, where he was welcomed by the Ashante Mantsɛ on his way to explore his roots in Techiman. There he was accepted at the most memorable, thunderous and emotional durbar, where the Omanhene of Techiman invested him with an appropriate dual title – Nana Owusu Akenten III, Oyokohene of Techiman – and he was presented with a golden sword or tsi as a symbol of his authority.
Being Nii Kwabena Bonne
If I observed earlier that Nii Kwabena Bonne III was quite deliberate in his assessment of business opportunities, he was also quite calculated in how he used legal and administrative processes. He used the law to assert his position to match the recognised Osu Alata Mantsɛ, insisting he was in no way usurping the role of the substantive Osu Mantsɛ to whom he continued to pay homage, but that he was indeed chief of just one of the four quarters of Osu, the others being Kinkanwe, Ashante and Aneho. His title was on a par with that of the other quarters but subservient to the Osu Mantsɛ.
Yet it was his role as a member of the then Joint Provincial Council, his knowledge of mercantile matters and his membership of the African Merchants’ Association that he sought to use to bring change to the commercial enterprises and extortionate practices of the corrupt cartel of the Association of West African Merchants (AWAM), which had increased prices of goods steadily during the Second World War period of scarcity and continued to do so even after the end of the war in 1945. He knew what it cost to import goods and that a profit of 75% on goods landed in the Gold Coast was more than the ordinary people could afford. With his past experience, he was confident of his success in organising direct action involving consumers. And, having worked with many of the foreign traders in the past, he was not afraid of them, either, and knew that he could take them on.
The struggle commences
Nii Kwabena Bonne’s Anti-Inflation Committee received widespread support from the Joint Provisional Council as well as from citizens and traditional rulers around the country. He entered into negotiations with the European traders.
At first, they did not take him seriously and felt that because of their monopolistic stranglehold on commerce, any boycott of their goods would be a nine-day wonder or hoo otsi. But the support for him could not be shaken and so, once the boycott started on 26 January 1948, it held across the country. No bribery would shake the resolve of Gold Coast citizens, all of whom refused to buy goods from the foreign traders. Telegrams flooded in to Accra from the provinces reporting that the boycott was solid. It lasted for a month.
“We cannot buy; your price is too high; if you don’t cut down your prices then close down your stores and take away your goods to your own country.”
I can just imagine him chanting the slogan in his special brand of English.
Eventually the European traders capitulated and, at a negotiated meeting, they agreed to cut their prices. This development came on 20 February 1948, with the boycott set to end on 26 February 1948. The message that the boycott was being called off was slow, however, in going out to the people as the traders dithered over implementing all aspects of the protocol.
Events have a way of taking their own course. On 28 February 1948, ex-servicemen of the Gold Coast Regiment set out to march to Christiansborg Castle to present their demands to the government because it had failed to pay them an equitable pension for their war effort. They took a wrong turn away from the agreed route. The chief of police, Superintendent Colin Imray, ordered his subordinates to fire. When they refused, he was seen wielding a rifle himself and using live ammunition to kill three ex-servicemen – Sergeant Nii Adjetey, Corporal Patrick Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey. Sixty others were wounded.
In the confusion as news of the shooting broke, looting of shops started. The Watson Commission, which was formed in March 1948 to investigate the riots, showed that the events of the boycott were in no way connected to the looting.
Nii Kwabena Bonne III has used his knowledge to plan, organise, staff, lead and control the boycott. It was a monumental success. He had expended his own social capital and financial resources to organise it, but he did not seek any reward – the beneficiaries of this in political terms were the Big Six of the United Gold Coast Convention: Joseph Boakye Danquah, William Ofori-Atta, Edward Akufo-Addo, Emmanuel Obetsebi-Lamptey, Ebenezer Ako-Adjei and Kwame Nkrumah.
All six nationalist leaders were detained on 18 March 1948 on suspicion of organising the riots and were sent into detention in the Northern Territories. There would have been eight leaders but there was no place on the plane for the other two – Robert Samuel Blay and another Osu man, James Quist-Therson. In this way, the accidental beneficiaries – those who had no hand in the successful boycott – have been immortalised, but the man who had galvanised the people – Kwabena Bonne, who had conceived the plan for the boycott long before the establishment of the UGCC – remains uncelebrated!
What if this larger-than-life citizen was seen to have led us on the march to independence? Of course, the politicians courted him; some promised to make him the minister of commerce when they won election; others promised to make him a superchief over all the chiefs in Ghana. His response was always: “You, a human, cannot make me anything better than my God has made me.”
Perhaps it was because of his humility that Nii Kwabena Bonne has never been celebrated. Perhaps it was because he shied away from politics and was content to serve his people of the Gold Coast.
As we continue to mark the 65th anniversary of our independence, I charge the Osu Heritage Foundation to initiate a special campaign to change the name of the airport in Accra to Nii Kwabena Bonne International Airport in honour of this son of the soil. That will be a fitting memorial to this reluctant hero of our times.
I also charge the Osu Heritage Foundation to reprint the book on the life of Nii Kwabena Bonne and give a copy to every child born of Osu, so that it may inspire them to achieve greater things than could otherwise ever be achieved for the cause of Ghana.
We must continue in the scholarship of Frederick Dowuona, the first chief of Osu as we know it – but we must also learn to honour our heroes.
Owula Ade Sawyerr, Croydon, March 2022
Owula Ade Sawyerr is a writer, social activist and founder partner of Equinox Consulting, which works to develop inner-city and minority communities in Britain. He comments on economic, political and social affairs and is a past chairman of the UK branch of the Convention People’s Party.