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Colonial Gold Coast, Early Nationalist Movements

indirect rule, nationalist leaders, Casely-Hayford, Organized opposition, local affairs

Organized opposition to British policies took place from the early days of colonial administration. In 1852 coastal chiefs protested the imposition of a poll tax, and in 1868 a confederation of Fante states contested British interference in their local affairs. In an effort to protect the erosion of their traditional rights, the chiefs adopted a constitution in 1871 that was to regulate relations with the British administration. The British reacted by arresting several of the chiefs.

Most Gold Coast nationalist leaders were educated Africans. An organization called the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society was formed in the 1890s to oppose land bills that threatened traditional land tenure. In the early 20th century, nationalists challenged the arbitrary nature of the colonial political system, which placed unlimited power in the hands of the governor and his appointed Legislative Council. In 1920 Joseph E. Casely-Hayford, a prominent Gold Coast lawyer and nationalist, organized the National Congress of British West Africa. This body of educated persons from Britain’s various West African colonies sent a delegation to the British Colonial Office in London to argue that a colony’s administration should be elected by its subjects. The British government, however, preferred to practice indirect rule, relying on a colony’s traditional chiefs for local administration at the exclusion of educated people. In their various newspapers and at conferences, these early nationalists nevertheless continued to urge the colonial government to initiate administrative changes.

Demands on the colonial government intensified after World War II (1939-1945). In 1946 Governor Alan Burns responded by announcing radical constitutional changes that made it possible for a majority African Legislative Council to be elected. Executive power was to remain in the hands of the governor, to whom the legislative council reported. Even so, the 1946 constitution provided the people of the Gold Coast with a higher degree of political power than anywhere else in colonial Africa. The changes also showed nationalist leaders that their voices were being heard.

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