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Anti-Witchcraft Cults in Asante: An Essay in the Social History of an African People*

  • T.C. McCaskie (a1)
Abstract

There is a considerable literature dealing with the phemenon of twentieth-century anti-witchcraft cults among the Akan peoples of Ghana, and notably the Asante. This literature is written from the disciplinary perspective of social anthropology and it may be divided into two interpretative views of the matter. The first espouses the theory that such cults are ‘new’--creations of the twentieth century--in that they represent a reflexive response to the social disorientation assumed to have been engendered by colonial overrule. The second questions the causative link between the twentieth century and increased anomie, and suggests the location of such cults in a time perspective reaching back into the distant--but undefined--pre-colonial past. For a social historian interested in the problem of witchcraft and its suppression this literature presents a resistant difficulty. It concerns itself with the material appurtenances and the impressionistic ‘psychohistory’ of cult practices, but it is almost entirely bereft of historical data and it indulges in generalizations erected upon the flimsiest of factual considerations. McLeod, who has ably reviewed this literature, has commented upon this deficiency with regret, but--at least so far--has done little to rectify it.

In this paper I am concerned with the discrete history--social, economic and political--of three important anti-witchcraft cults that flourished in Asante between the late 1870s adn the late 1920s; in chronological order these were, domankama (‘The Creator’), aberewa (‘The Old Woman’) and hwe me so (‘Watch Over Me’). In discussing these cults as historical phenomena I seek to explicate or otherwise to dissolve some of the generalizations evident in the existing literature. I seek too to say something concerning the construction of a valid Asante (and African) social history, the relationship between social history and social anthropology in the African context, and the significance for the historian of Africa of socio-cultural phenomena such as witchcraft.

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A very preliminary draft of part of this paper was circulated at the first Workshop on the Akan Peoples, Northwestern University, April 1978. I am grateful to all those who commented at that time. The present paper is dedicated with gratitude to Meyer Fortes and Ivor Wilks, both of whom by their writing and in conversation profoundly influenced my thinking on the matters discussed here. Neither of course is to be held in any way accountable for the views which I have advanced here.

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NOTES

1. The following abbreviations are used in the following notes: BMA--Basel Mission Archives, Basel; CRP--Colonial Records Project, Rhodes House, Oxford; MMS--Methodist Missionary Society Archives, London; MRO--Manhyia Record Office, Kumase, Ghana; NAG--National Archives of Ghana; RAI-- Royal Anthropological Institute, London; THSG--Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana.

2. Debrunner Hans, Witchcraft in Ghana: A Study on the Belief in Destructive Witches and Its Effect on the Akan Tribes (Accra, 1959); Field M.J., Search for Security: An Ethno-Psychiatric Study of Rural Ghana (London, 1960); Fortes M., “The Ashanti Social Survey: A Preliminary Report,” Rhodes-Livingstone Institute Journal, 6(1948); Tooth G., Studies in Mental Illness in the Gold Coast (London, 1950); Ward B., “Some Observations on Religious Cults in Ashanti,” 26(1956), 4760. A useful review of such cults in the African context is to be found in Willis R.G., “Instant Millennium: The Sociology of African Witch-Cleansing Cults” in Douglas Mary, ed., Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (London, 1970).

3. See especially Goody J.R., “Anomie in Ashanti?,” Africa, 27(1957). See also the same author's essay in Goody J.R., ed., Changing Social Structure in Ghana: Essays in the Comparative Sociology of a New State and an Old Tradition (Cambridge, 1975).

4. McLeod M.D., “A Survey of the Literature on Witchcraft in Ghana” (B. Litt., Oxford, 1965) and “On the Spread of Anti-Witchcraft Cults in Modern Asante” in Goody, Changing Social Structure.

5. Dupuis Joseph, Journal of a Residence in Ashantee (London, 1824), 114–17, with emphasis added.

6. A general account of the political context may be adduced from ACBP/54: Akosua Adoma in Asantesem: The Asante Collective Biography Project Bulletin, No. 11 (1979), 1417.

7. The seven figure numbers used throughout this paper to identify places are the locality code numbers listed in volume 1 of the 1960 Population Census of Ghana: The Gazetteer: Alphabetical List of Localities (Accra, 1962). Accuracy enjoins this identification as so many Akan towns share the same names.

8. The basic evidence here is drawn from MRO, Ms. “History of Asante,” n.d., but drawn up in the 1930s and 1940s by a committee of traditional authorities under the chairmanship of Asantehene Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II. I wish here to record my gratitude to Otumfuo the Asantehene Nana Opoku Ware II for permission to work in the palace archive, and to CWAS, University of Birmingham for funding two research visits to Kumase in 1975-76 and 1979.

9. Some account of atopere is given in Rattray R.S., Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford, 1927).

10. I wish to record my gratitude to those individuals in Kumase who were prepared to discuss these sensitive matters.

11. For some comparative insights see Trevor-Roper H.R., The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays (New York, 1969) and Thomas K.V., Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971). For some impression of the complexity of beliefs at the level of the historical individual see Ginzburg C., The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (London, 1980).

12. From a considerable literature see Ramseyer F. and Kühne J., Vier Jahre in Asante, (2nd ed.: Basel, 1875).

13. Wilks Ivor, Asante in the Nineteenth Century: the Structure and Evolution of a Political Order (Cambridge, 1975), 519–20 and Lewin T., “The Structure of Political Conflict in Asante, 1875-1900” (Ph.D., Northwestern, 1974), 1: 88. In a rapid reading I can detect no mention of domankama in Aidoo A.A., “Political Crisis and Social Change in the Asante Kingdom, 1867-1901” (Ph.D., UCLA, 1975) but I confess that I may be doing the writer an injustice.

14. Rattray , Religion and Art, 2930.

15. MRO, Kumasehene's Tribunal, Civil Record Book 12, in re Yaw Num vs. Kwadwo Apan, commenced 27 April 1931.

16. BMA, Ramseyer to Basel, n.p., 19 June 1880. I am grateful to Paul Jenkins for his annotated translation of this document. A complete version of the relevant correspondence--but in French rather than German--is to be found in Bulletin de la Mission Achantie, iii, 1 (Neuchatel, 1880), 710.

17. Ibid.

18. See for example I. Wilks, Interview with Opanin Domfe Kyere, Kumase, 23 November 1973, in which the informant spoke of the abonsamkomfoo accusing individuals of witchcraft, but at the same time referred to members of domankama as being themselves “bewitched.” I am grateful to Wilks for a copy of this interview. See also Lewin , “Structure,” 2: 125–31.

19. RAI, Mss. of R.S. Rattray, Ms. Bundle 107, notebook 3, 1837.

20. For convenient summaries see Wilks, Asante, passim; Agbodeka F., African Politics and British Policy in the Gold Coast, 1868-1900 (London, 1971); Lewin T., Asante Before the British: the Prempean Years, 1875-1900 (Lawrence, Kansas, 1978).

21. Wilks , Asante, 589632 for the fullest discussion.

22. For some context see ACBP/20: Koko Owusu in Asantesem, 4 (1976) and ACBP/47: Awua Kwabena in Asantesem, 10(1979). For the politics of the reign of Kwaku Dua Panin see McCaskie T.C., “The Paramountcy of the Asantehene Kwaku Dua (1834-1867): A Study in Asante Political Culture” (Ph.D., Cambridge, 1974) and Office, Land and Subjects in the History of the Manwere fekuo of Kumase: An Essay in the Political Economy of the Asante State,” JAH, 21(1980), 189208.

23. Affairs, C.3064, 1881, Dudley to Colonial Secretary, Cape Coast, 17 February 1881 and report of a meeting between Griffith and the Asante messengers, Elmina, 18 February 1881. On Kofi Bene see MRO, Kumasehene's Tribunal, Civil Record Book 14, in re Kwasi Wuabu vs. Kwame Kusi, commenced 29 February 1932.

24. MMS, Picot to Boyce, Cape Coast, 3 May 1876.

25. The bulk of the evidence is in MRO, Kumasehene's Tribunal, Civil Record Book 12, in re Yaw Num vs. Kwadwo Apan, commenced 27 April 1931. The history of the Butuakwa kyeame stool (at present held by Baffuo Akoto) is known in considerable detail. For relevent context see ACBP/75: Kwame Dwoben in Asantesem, forthcoming.

26. T.C. McCaskie, Interviews with kyeame Boakye Tenten, Kumase, (various days) December 1975; MRO, Ms. “History of Asante”; MRO, Kumasehene's Tribunal, Civil Record Book 7, in re Kwadwo Poku vs. Kwame Adu, commenced 22 August 1929; MRO, Kumasehene's Tribunal, Civil Record Book 4, in re Osei Yaw vs. Yaw Bredwa, commenced 5 July 1928; MRO, File N13, “Akronfru Stool Affairs,” correspondence 1930-36; Lewin , “Structure,” 2: passim.

27. The quotation is from BMA, Ramseyer to Basel, n.p., 19 June 1880.

28. See Bulletin de la Mission Achantie, iii, 1 (Neuchatel, 1880), 710 and MRO, Kumasehene's Tribunal, Civil Record Book 10, in re Kwame Kusi vs. Kwasi Kobi, commenced 23 June 1930.

29. MRO, Kumasehene's Tribunal, Civil Record Book 4, in re Osei Yaw vs. Yaw Bredwa, commenced 5 July 1928.

30. For a convenient political summary see Lewin, Asante before the British.

31. Goody , “Anomie,” 362.

32. The phrase is borrowed from Hill Christopher, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (London, 1972).

33. For a summary see Tordoff William, Ashanti under the Prempehs, 1888-1935 (Oxford, 1965).

34. BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission, D179, 1903, compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 20 February 1904. I am most grateful to Donna Maier for calling my attention to this very valuable source.

35. Ibid., D184, 1905, compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 12 February 1906.

36. Ibid.

37. The common term of opprobrium is ahupoofoo, sing. ahupooni (an arrogant person, a bully). For a brief indication of the longevity of the resentment harbored against “collaborators” see the remarks on the stool of the Domakwaehene Kumase in West Africa, 26 August 1974, 1062.

38. These matters have formed the subject of numerous conversations that I have had in Kumase. The sentiments involved are very difficult to document, but for a suggestive fictional treatment of Asante history and society by a Ghanaian see Armah A. Kwei, The Healers (Nairobi, 1978), and for explication see Fraser R., The Novels of Ayi Kwei Armah (London, 1980), esp. 82100.

39. CRP, Mss. Brit. Emp. s344, Papers of Charles Henry Harper Sir, especially “Memorandum on the Effects of British Rule in Ashanti,” 1922. I am grateful to the late Lady Harper for permission to use her husband's papers. A similar tone is evident in the concluding pages of Fuller F.C., A Vanished Dynasty: Asanti (London, 1921).

40. A major source here--and one that I have yet to examine in any detail--is the voluminous material filed in MRO under the general rubric of Criminal Court Proceedings.

41. For som historical perspective see McCaskie, “Manwere;” Wilks I., “Dissidence in Asante Politics: Two Tracts From the Late Nineteenth Century” in Abu-Lughod I., ed., African Themes: Northwestern University Studies in Honor of Gwendolyn M. Carter (Evanston, 1975); idem, “The Golden Stool and the Elephant Tail: an Essay on Wealth in Asante,” in Research in Economic Anthropology, 2(1979), 1-36; Arhin K., “Some Asante Views of Colonial Rule: as Seen in the Controversy Relating to Death Duties,” THSG, 15(1974), 6384.

42. This impression has been culled from a number of Asante informants.

43. See for example the case histories recorded in Tooth, Mental Illness, and in BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission (for convicted murderers in Kumase prison).

44. For an extended discussion of these matters respecting three cults-- hwe me so, kunde and tigari--see CRP, Mss. Afr. s1051, Cowley Papers, “A Description of the Tegare Fetish, Gold Coast,” Kyebi, March 1949.

45. For some discussion see McCaskie T.C., “Social Rebellion and the Inchoate Rejection of History: Some Reflections on the Career of Opon Asibe Tutu,” Asantesem, 4(1976). See too BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission, D188, 1907, compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 29 February 1908.

46. See numerous ‘confessional’ testimonies contained in the files of BMA and MMS.

47. BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission, D190, 1908, compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 22 February 1909.

48. For an accessible contemporary account see Ffoulkes A., “Borgya and Abirwa: or, the Latest Fetish in the Gold Coast,” Journal of the African Society, 8(1908/1909), 387–97. Further references to the secondary literature may be found in McLeod, “Spread.”

49. See Apeatu C., “Suman Aberewa ho asem titiri bi,” The Christian Messenger, Akuropon, 31 March 1908 and Afari-Antoa J.H. Keteku, “Suman Aberewa h.a.,” The Christian Messenger, Akuropon, 31 March 1908. See too BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission, D186, 1906, compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 20 March 1907.

50. Colonial Reports (Annual), 564, Ashanti, 1907, 10.

51. For the ‘official’ history in summary see ibid; 603, Ashanti, 1908, Ashanti, 1909. For some impression of the rumors surrounding aberewa see The Gold Coast Leader, Cape Coast, 18 July, 29 August, 5 September 1908, and 6 March 1909.

52. For some discussion see McLeod, “Spread.”

53. According to some accounts Asantehene Kofi Kakari himself capitalized on this trade. For the most recent general statement on the northern trade see Arhin K., West African Traders in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London, 1979).

54. See BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission, D186, 1906, compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 20 March 1907; MRO, File D77, “The Suppression of Fetishes;” MRO, unnumbered, “Letters on the Affairs of Mampon;” Das Sklavenheim: Kollekteblatt Des Bern. Hülfsvereins für das Missionswerk und Sklavenheim in Asante, letters from Ramseyer in 39 (1908), 41(1908), and 42(1909). The career history of Yaw Awua is being prepared for publication in Asantesem.

55. BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission, D188, 1907, Compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 29 February 1908.

56. MRO, File D77, “The Suppression of Fetishes.” For some account of the general situation in Ahafo see Dunn J. and Robertson A.F., Dependence and Opportunity: Political Change in Ahafo (Cambridge, 1973). For some impression of analogous developments in Takyiman see Colonial Reports (Annual), 564, Ashanti, 1907, 22.

57. A point made for the general African context by Willis, “Instant Millennium.”

58. MRO, File D77, “The Suppression of Fetishes,” enclosed petitions.

59. Colonial Reports (Annual, 640, Ashanti, 1909, 17; BMA, Annual Reports on the Asante Mission, D190, 1908, compiled by N. Asare, Kumase, 22 February 1909.

60. Rattray , Religion and Art, 3134; the geographical distribution of hwe me so is derived from correspondence in the following: CRP, Harper Papers, File on the “Fwemso” fetish and enclosed correspondence to Acting Secy, for Native Affairs; MRO, File D77, “The Suppression of Fetishes;” NAG (Kumase), D87, “Fetishes;” NAG (Koforidua), B12 “Native Religion.” I am grateful to C.E. Osei-Bonsu for his assistance in assembling materials on this subject.

61. See Debrunner, Witchcraft, esp. appendix B. The most famous Nzema of all, Kwame Nkrumah, was (at least after his downfall) popularly associated with supernatural practices. See in brief Boahen A.A., Ghana: Evolution and Change in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London, 1975), 209.

62. See CRP, Harper Papers, File on the “Fwemso” fetish, Rev. Waterworth to DC (Kumase), Kumase, 6 January 1920. A version of the same report appears in NAG (Kumase), D98, “Fetishes.” For the general context--but not the report--see MMS, Mss. of W.G. Waterworth, 1913-32.

63. See for example CRP, Harper Papers, File on the “Fwemso” fetish, enclosures in Acting Secy. for Native Affairs to CCA, Accra, 16 January 1923.

64. Ibid., DC (Obuasi) to PC (Kumase), Obuasi, 6 November 1922.

65. Ibid., A Report about Fetish Brahua, by P.C. 1st Class H.C. Amoah (no. 2586), N.d. but 1922; MRO, File D77, “The Suppression of Fetishes.”

66. For the comparative figure see Kay G.B., ed., The Political Economy of Colonialism in Ghana: a Collection of Documents and Statistics, 1900-60 (London, 1972), esp. 318.

67. MRO, File D77, “The Suppression of Fetishes;” CRP, Harper Papers, File on the “Fwemso” fetish, statement of Atta Kwadwo, Kumase, 30 November 1922 (and enclosed note by Police Sgt. Amusu). See further NAG (Koforidua), B12, “Native Religion.”

68. CRP, Harper Papers, File on the “Fwemso” fetish, A Report about Fetish Brahua, by P.C. 1st Class H.C. Amoah (no. 2586), n.d. but 1922; Boama Kwabi to DC (Mampon), Beposo, 11 December 1922 (and previous correspondence); Agonahene Kwadwo Apaw to CCA, Agona, 28 February 1923; NAG (Kumase), D87, “Fetishes.”

69. The figures are all derived either from the Harper Papers or from MRO, File D77 cited above.

70. CRP, Harper Papers, File on the “Fwemso” fetish, statement of Amma Fua to P.C. 2nd Class Mensah (no. 2781), Kwaso, 11 November 1922.

71. These petitions range from cursory single sentence pleas to fairly elaborate historical defences of the use of “fetishes.”

72. The classic is of course Febvre L., Le problèm de l' incroyance au XVIe siècle: la religion de Rabelais (Paris, 1942). For some recent work see Burke P., Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 1978); Davis N.Z., Society and Culture in Early Modern France (London, 1975); Ozouf M., La Fête Révolutionnaire (Paris, 1976); Ladurie E. Le Roy, Le Carnaval de Romans: de la chandeleur au mercredi des cendres 1579-80 (Paris, 1979).

73. A point made throughout his entire body of work by Cobb. For some of the problems of social history as “social science” see Judt T., “A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians,” History Workshop 7(1979), 6693.

74. See in brief McCaskie T.C., “Time and the Calendar in Nineteenth Century Asante: an Exploratory Essay,” History in Africa, 7(1980), 179200.

75. The overconcentration upon political structures evident in McCaskie, “Paramountcy” is, I regret to say, entirely typical of recent work on the Asante past.

76. I do not wish to labor this point but one might mention the fact that Asante--and African--historiography emerged in a world where it was necessary and important to convince the sceptics that Africans, like everyone else, were capable of reasoned political choices and actions. One might also mention the fact that as recently as thirty years ago African history was virtually a tabula rasa; consequently it was deemed to be a matter of the highest priority “to get the story straight,” and that in effect meant basic political reconstruction. Finally, one might argue that the sources for African history overwhelmingly favor the “political event”--kings and dynasties, office-holders, wars and conquests, and all the rest.

77. The words are those of Mary Douglas, editor of the volume (xiii). In a number of subsequent publications too numerous to list, the contributors of the “historical” essays in this volume--N. Cohn, P. Brown, K. Thomas, A. Macfarlane--have advanced substantially our knowledge of the social history (including the history of witchcraft) of Europe.

78. For a recent statement by a Ghanaian see Owusu M., “The Ethnography of Africa: the Usefulness of the Useless,” American Anthropologist 80(1978), 310–34.

79. Cohen D.W., Womunafu's Bunafu: a Study of Authority in a Nineteenth Century African Community (Princeton, 1977), 1517.

* A very preliminary draft of part of this paper was circulated at the first Workshop on the Akan Peoples, Northwestern University, April 1978. I am grateful to all those who commented at that time. The present paper is dedicated with gratitude to Meyer Fortes and Ivor Wilks, both of whom by their writing and in conversation profoundly influenced my thinking on the matters discussed here. Neither of course is to be held in any way accountable for the views which I have advanced here.

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