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Opinions of Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Columnist: Prof R. Addo-Fening

The ‘founder of Ghana’; A contribution to the debate

The acrimony of the debate about who deserves to be given the honorific title of ‘Founder of Ghana’ shows no signs of abating.

This year, as in previous years, the debate has preoccupied the general public for several weeks and rightly so, as we need a greater diversity of views and perspectives to enrich the debate on the history of our struggle for independence.

Uses and Abuses of History

In his book entitled Uses and Abuses of Power published in 1970 (University of Chicago Press), a Ghanaian political scientist in the US, Maxwell Owusu, observes that “in situations of social change, as groups and individuals compete for political and economic advantages,” [they strategically] reinterpret, redefine, and manipulate tradition or custom. (p5)

This observation will no doubt resonate with our countrymen who regret what appears to be a calculated attempt by some of our countrymen to distort the historical reality of our recent past for partisan political advantage.

Nineteenth century England went through a similar experience which developed out of the long-standing political feud between Protestantism and Catholicism from the 16th century.

In some ways I see what is happening in our country as a throwback to the 19th century wrangle between the ‘predecessor’ parties of modern day Tory and Liberal parties in the United Kingdom which led to abuse of the process of historical reconstruction known to historians as the Whig interpretation of History.

The Whig Interpretation of History

The Whig interpretation of history developed out of the debates between the WHIGS (now the Liberal Party), and the TORIES (now the Conservative Party) over the English Revolution of the 17th century.

The long standing political feud between Protestantism and Catholicism in the time of King James 11 (1685-89) resolved itself into a conflict between Royal Absolutism on the one hand, and Parliamentary Democracy and personal liberty on the other.

Ranged on the side of Royal Absolutism were the Catholics and adherents of the theory of Divine Right of Kings. On the opposite side were the Protestants and advocates of Parliamentary supremacy.

In the 18th Century the Protestants became identified with the Whigs while the Catholics aligned themselves with the Tories. Under King George 1 (1714-1761) the Whig landowning aristocracy who had played a leading role in the Revolution of 1689 achieved supremacy and enjoyed majority representation in the House of Lords. English revulsion against revolutionary France and Edmund Burke’s ‘‘anti-French revolution’’ and ‘‘anti-Napoleon’’ stance enabled the Tories to enjoy a long tenure of power beginning in the late 18th century and extending beyond the French Revolution.

After Peace was concluded, English public opinion was swept by a strong counter current against the Tories. They however, managed to stay on by means of the completely antiquated electoral system.

The Whigs rode on the crest of the counter current, raising the ‘Reform’ as their battle cry. Behind the Whigs were the radicals who threatened revolution.

The Tories stubbornly resisted reform arguing that England’s future lay in maintaining the status quo of traditional forms of authority and subjection.

The passionate belief in ‘progress’ aroused by the French Revolution made it unimaginable for the British Historian of the period between the mid-19th century and the outbreak of World War 1 to conceive of historical change for the better in terms other than of progress.

Nearly all British historians of the 19th century, without exception, regarded the course of History as the ‘unfolding of the principle of human progress.

Progress became the measure of History and the ideology of a confident, rapidly progressing Britain. In the political wrangle that ensued, each side appealed to history, reading and interpreting the English Revolutions of the 17th century to its advantage. While the Whigs held up the revolution as a warning, the Radicals held it up as a deterrent.

In 1825 a young Whig historian, T.B Macaulay entered the debate on the side of the Whigs, supporting reforms to ward off revolution and its excesses.

In a book titled History of England from the accession of James the Second, he asserted that the history of England ‘during the last hundred and seventy years’, (i.e. since the death of Queen Mary) was ‘eminently the history of physical, of moral and of intellectual improvement’ (A Marwick 1970 p45) It was the belief of Macaulay, the most celebrated exponent of the Whig interpretation of History, that ‘history is full of a natural progress of society (Pieter Geyl, p43); and he saw the history of England as ‘emphatically the history of progress’ (P.Geyl,pp37,45).

Furthermore, he assumed that in each of the many struggles that marked the history of England, there had always been a side that was right; that it was ‘this right side’ alone that had served the cause of progress. Macaulay claimed that in the struggle between the Tories and the Whigs, the latter had always been on the right side since they (the Whigs) were ‘the men to whom we [i.e. England] owe it that we have a House of Commons’ (Geyl, pp34, 38-39).

Macaulay maintained that since history is all about progress, whatever was done in the cause of progress, symbolized by liberty, was right. It followed from his viewpoint that, in judging the past, the historian derives his standard from his own time or age. The result was that the picture of the 18th century that Macaulay set before his readers was distorted through 19th century spectacles.

Macaulay and his age obtrude every moment ‘between the reader and events described or personages pictured’ (Geyl, p35).

As the Historian Pieter Geyl explains, the distorted picture was a function of the fact that Macaulay ‘came to the contemplation of the past with a mind brimming over with ideas and sentiments about the present’. Hence, he was not able to avoid ‘the temptation to judge men and events of earlier ages ‘by the dictates of the preoccupations of his own time or age’.

Nothing could be more willfully one-sided than such an interpretation. It is this mental attitude to the past, an attitude which is unhistorical in the deepest sense that is referred to as the Whig interpretation of History.

That interpretation seeks to negate what historians have been trying to do ever since the 19 th century Rankean Revolution in Historiography, namely:

•to look at the past ‘’from within’’, so to speak;

•to ‘imaginatively transpose’ oneself into the past and ‘make intellectual adjustments’ when a historian confronts a generation earlier than his.

For Macaulay and other historians of the Whig tradition, a past event has relevance for them only in so far as it serves their generation. Adherents of the Whig interpretation of History study the past for the sake of the present, not in an effort to understand the past for the sake of the past.

The Whig interpretation provides a handy rule of thumb for easily discovering what was important in the past, which by definition means what is important from their point of view. The Whig interpretation misconceives parties to any struggle that takes place in any given generation.

By that interpretation, historical personages are ‘‘easily and irresistibly classed into men who furthered progress and men who tried to hinder it’’. By so doing, it enables a historian of that persuasion, to arrive at what seems to be self-evident judgements concerning historical issues even before any serious and deep study has been made. In conclusion, Herbert Butterfield, author of the Whig Interpretation of History, states on pp28-29, 38:

It will enable him [i.e. the historian] to decide irrevocably, and in advance, before historical research has said anything and in the face of anything it might say, that Fox [the Whig leader], whatever his sins, was fighting to save liberty from Pitt [the Tory leader], while Pitt whatever his virtues cannot be regarded as fighting to save liberty from Fox.

He continues ,if we see in any generation the conflict of the future against the Past, the fight of what one might be called progressive versus reactionary, we shall find ourselves organizing the historical story upon what is really an unfolding principle of progress, and our eyes be will be fixed upon certain people who appear as the special agencies of that progress.

We shall be tempted to ask the fatal question. To WHOM do we owe our religious liberty? But if we see in each generation a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that probably no man ever willed, our minds become concentrated upon the processes that produced such an unpredictable issue, and we are more open for an intensive study of the motions and interactions that underlie historical change. In these circumstances, the question will be stated in its proper form: HOW did religious liberty arise. (Butterfield p38)

The Whig interpretation has been called the historians’ ‘‘pathetic fallacy’’. It results from the practice of abstracting things from their historical context and judging them apart from their context. In other words, it is characteristic of the Whig historian to study the past with reference to the present.

History’s importance in national development is not in doubt. An unbiased, non-discriminatory, non-controversial reconstruction of our country’s past can be a powerful tool for forging a sense of shared destiny which will strengthen the camaraderie between social groups in our multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.

By the same token, any calculated attempt to abuse History by using our past to discredit any group for unfair political advantage will polarize and paralyse our society. History should not be a figment of any body’s imagination.

It must be based on evidence, essentially bits of the past that have left ‘traces’ of itself, traces that the historian calls ‘sources’; bits which have survived in a variety of forms: documents, archaeological remains, eyewitness accounts and oral tradition. It must seek to paint a picture of the past, by connecting individual events together into a coherent account.

Admittedly there is a greater element of subjectivity in history than in science. A body of propositions is described as ‘objective’ if it is the case that all persons who seriously investigate them will accept them, because it has a universal character which makes it impartial and impersonal.

Two or more competent scientists given the same evidence will achieve the same results. Objectivity of science is not a function of their subject matter. It arises from the existence of clearly defined, standardized methodologies or procedures.

Historical works are incapable of achieving the same extent of objectivity as scientific works because knowledge acquired by the scientific method is demonstrable or verifiable. By contrast, historical conclusions are subjective because of the element of interpretation.

Why Historians disagree

The reasons that limit historians’ capability to achieve objectivity are several. First, historians as, human beings, have biases. They may be in the form of personal likes and dislikes, or they may be ‘group prejudice’.

While personal biases arise primarily from our feelings, our group prejudices tend to stem from assumptions associated with our membership of a certain group... a religion, social class or ethnic group. As such, they tend to be anchored to a rationale, warrant or principle.

Second, the so-called historical facts used by the historian are facts selected subjectively for their readers. The do not exist independently of the historian. According to the philosophical historian, E H Carr, ‘the belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy’. The facts of history ‘never come to us ‘pure’ since they do not, and cannot, exist in a pure form. They are always refracted through the mind of the recorder’ (E H Carr, What is History? pp’ 12, 22)

Historians subscribe to one or other of the conflicting theories of historical interpretation. A Marxist Historian sees the ultimate explanation of all historical events in the operation of economic factors and turns a blind eye to any single type of causal factor as decisive in history.

Third is the historian’s inability to suppress his own views from constantly cropping in the judgements he makes. Without his ethical, religious and metaphysical outlook of his age, he is unable to make any sense of his material. For all these reasons and more ‘there will never be histories that are absolutely objective in the way scientific theories claim to be’ (Walsh pp110-111),Nonetheless, to the extent that genuine History may be distinguishable from propaganda, History may be said to have objective validity. (Walsh pp96-97)

Historical accounts involve linking events, interpreting, explaining and evaluating them. Invariably a piece of historical writing reflects both objectivity (in terms of the verifiability of the facts contained therein) and subjectivity (arising from the intrusion of the historian’s own prejudices, processes of thought and imagination). In other words, historical enquiry is not only concerned with mere sequences of events (narrative) but also with the thought behind the events (interpretation or analysis).In the words of Barraclough,( quoted in E.H Carr), ‘The history we read though based on facts, is strictly speaking not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements’ . Sir George Clark similarly sees History as consisting of ‘ a hard core of facts’ and a ‘surrounding pulp of disputable interpretation’ (also cited in EH Carr pp9-10 from the Listener, 19 June 1952) .

We must therefore deny any proposition that historians can know absolutely certain facts, about the past. Hence the aphorism that the history we read, though based on facts, is strictly speaking not factual at all but a series of accepted judgements. To that extent a definitive history on any subject cannot be said to have been written and never will be.

Today, practitioners of the historian’s craft, acknowledge that history is not a figment of the imagination. It is not about what we thought happened; nor is it about what we wished had happened. It is about what really happened and its objective interpretation based on empirical evidence available to us in the form of documents, eye witness accounts or other forms of analyzable survivals from the past.

The inter-war years in Ghana and the decade immediately following them, have not been given sufficient attention by Ghana’s professional historians. The periods remain a relatively neglected area of serious historical research. As a result, discussions of events of those times get bogged down with sentimentality, rancour and lack of historical objectivity. All too often, some people, particularly partisan politicians and self-styled social commentators, try to pass off figments of their imagination as history.

In one of his recent, scholarly publications titled: Setting Straight the Record of Ghana’s Recent Political Past, (Digibooks, 2011) Professor S.K.B. Asante has provided the Ghanaian public with ahistorical perspective for understanding and evaluating that phase of our country’s struggle for nationhood. The book, based mostly on little known and hitherto untapped archival records and other authentic sources, presents the story of Ghana’s independence struggle, not as an event but as the culmination of a process whose driving force was Pan-Africanism.

In Chapter1, titled Introduction: Tendencies toward distortion of Ghana’s immediate historical Past, Professor Asante clearly sets out the context of the study. The concern here is the necessity for Ghanaians to re-orientate discussion of Ghana’s history away from unbridled partisanship towards a sober, intellectual analysis based on hard evidence that is recognizable by all. It reminds us that historians do differ, not about the facts but about their interpretation; and for interpretation to be historically objective, the historian must not deliberately suppress any of the known facts. He must tell it as it is—warts and all.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4, deal with the subject of Pan Africanism. Chapter 2 deals with the genesis of Pan Africanism as an “an idea” and as ‘‘a Movement”; Chapter3, documents pan-African consciousness among Ghana’s political elite since 1900; and Chapter4, deals with Nkrumah’s injection of energy and drive into Pan Africanism in the post- World war II era.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine the changing phases of Nkrumah’s conceptualization of African Unity, his assessment of the political imperative of unity, opposition to his scheme and an evaluation of the long-term and enduring impact of his thoughts on African Unity.

Chapter 7 highlights Dr Danquah’s thoughts on pan Africanism; his contribution to the nurturing of Ghanaian nationalism, beginning from the 1930s; his role as journalist and politician, and his seminal role in Ghana’s attainment of nationhood.

Chapter 8 is devoted to Kobina Sekyi, an unsung hero of Ghana in the fight to protect our indigenous value systems by fending off the disintegrating forces of so-called western civilization. It outlines his political thought and his influence on Nkrumah’s political formation. Chapter 9 sums up the thesis of the book.

Professor Asante’s work re-echoes late Professor Hugh Trevor Roper’s view that the purpose of studying history is to enable us to discover how we have come to be where we are’, and his caution that to be objective, the historian must not deliberately suppress any of the known facts recognized by all. By focusing on processes, Professor Asante succeeds in portraying the attainment of independence as the cumulative effect of the sacrifices of generations of Ghanaian patriots and not the single-handed achievement of an individual.

The book’s main message to Ghanaians is that the growing polarization of, and the divisiveness in, our society stem, in part, from a misreading of the history of our recent past. Instead of asking the right historical question, namely, “HOW did our country emerge from years of colonial domination and humiliation,” we continue to ask the wrong question, namely, “TO WHOM does Ghana owe her liberation from colonial rule?” By asking the former we place the emphasis on processes. By asking the latter we place the emphasis on an individual.


EH Carr has described history as dialogue between the present and the past. Each age re-interprets its own past as it makes a different evaluation of what is significant in its own past and sees the past in the light of its own preoccupations and current prejudices. But that this should not result in the falsification of the past if the historian transposes himself into the past and writes as an insider rather than an outsider.