Tax Resistance in Colonially-Dominated Ghana

Wo̱apoma apre̱m antum’ antow,
Wo̱apoma apre̱m antum’ antow.
Abro̱fofo akotw̌a ṅkontompo mā Abibifo yi tow.
E̱tow no, ye̱mmā ō; mpanyimfo, ye̱mmā ō,
Wóṅkose Obroni mmā o̱mmera!

(Cannon they have loaded, but couldn’t fire,
Cannon they have loaded, but couldn’t fire.
Whitemen dishonestly imposed poll-tax on the blacks.
The poll-tax we will never pay, the grandees never deliver up,
Go tell the white man to come out!)

This song comes from 19th century Ghana which was partially under British colonial control at the time (they were in the process of taking over from the Dutch), and is taken from Carl Christian Reindorf’s History of the Gold Coast and Asante ().

The book gives some further context:

It was thought, when the English became possessed of the Danish settlements, that it would facilitate the introduction of custom duties, which would more than defray the expenses of government; but the Dutch government, whose settlements were dovetailed between the different English stations, having declined to impose similar duties, it was found necessary to abandon the project. Governor Winniett died on , without seeing the completion of this his favourite scheme. The company of 1st West India regiment was sent back to Sierra-Leone, Governor Major Hill assumed the administration and the Gold Coast corps was instituted. His excellency, acting upon the recommendation of Lord Grey, who took a most warm interest in the advancement of the natives and made himself thoroughly acquainted with our condition, thought he could raise a revenue in the country, capable of defraying the expenses of the administration. The Fantes, the old allies of the English, may have then become alive to the necessity of contributing to the support of the government (it was even said afterwards that a single lady in Cape Coast alone suggested the idea), but our people here at Akra had not the remotest idea of supporting yet.

King Kodsho Ababio of James Town, king No̱te̱i Ababio of Christiansborg, king Kwadade of Akuapem, king Ata Panyin of Akem Abuakwa, king Agyemang of Akem Kotoku, king Kwadsho De̱i of Krepe, and the chiefs from Labade to Adà and Krōbō were all summoned to Christiansborg and had a grand meeting with governor Hill and commandant Bannerman. The necessity of contributing towards the administration of the government was suggested to them. They begged leave to retire for a few minutes to deliberate, which his excellency might have allowed; but captain Ade, an influential relative of Mr. Bannerman, stood and said, "I agree to contribute to the support of the English administration." The kings and chiefs then were forced to second the captain and the poll-tax of 15 strings of cowries, now three pence, but then six pence per head, was fixed. The customary presents of rum etc. were given, and the meeting adjourned; the kings and chiefs returned to their respective countries.

The government might in this case have taken a census of the whole population, and then fixed the yearly sum to be paid on the king or chief of a district or town respectively, holding him responsible, and appointing agents to receive the tax collected by the chief for the government. That would have certainly saved the trouble and all inconveniences connected with the business. Not doing so, the government simply constituted the following districts, without knowing the exact number of the people: the Akra district, Adangme district, Akuapem and Akem districts, and employed respectful native agents to collect the poll-tax. The first collection in was quietly and cheerfully given, yet some complained they had pawned their sons and daughters in paying it.

On the arrival of Major Hill in , Mr. Bannerman returned to Christiansborg as commandant, at which time the second collection of the poll-tax was to take place.

In the first week of , the acting governor Cruickshank arrived from Cape Coast, and after the customary salute had been fired by the young men of the different bands of Christiansborg, the grandees of the town paid their respects to his excellency on the next day. They were told by the governor that it was time to begin with the poll-tax again. They asked for a few days to consult about it and his excellency repaired to Cape Coast to be informed by Mr. Bannerman when the raising of the tax was to begin.

As the grandees had promised the governor, Mr. Bannerman, after a few days, sent for them to come to the castle to know what reply they had to give. They, knowing what they were about, hesitated in going to the castle, but assembled outside, requesting Mr. Bannerman rather to come to them. They were told at once to appear personally before Mr. Bannerman and to show cause why they should not come inside. They left the summons on the spot and retired to town. It was impossible for the commandant to overlook such an insult. He went out with the few soldiers to arrest the grandees, but none was found, save one, who even upon being arrested was rescued by his people. Mr. Bannerman therefore called the Akuashong and the native merchants to the castle and told them to advise the grandees to obey the summons on Saturday next.

But the grandees left the town and resided at Labade. Neither the Akuashong nor the native merchants could induce them to return. Hence this misconduct of the grandees towards the government was reported by Mr. Bannerman to the acting governor Cruickshank at Cape Coast. He therefore returned to Christiansborg in . Meanwhile a night meeting of all the Akuashongs of Christiansborg, Labade and Teshi etc. had been convened at Kpeshinaī i.e. at the mouth of the lagoon Kpeshi, between Labade and Teshi on the , and there they swore, not to let the grandees go to the fort nor pay any tax, even if the government should fight with them, and to make war with any party breaking the agreement. Previous to the taking of this oath chief Owu of Christiansborg, then employed in the capacity of the government interpreter, did not take part in this meeting; his brother Anang was required to take the first oath in the name of Owu. To this he objected, saying, he had not consulted his brother, and would therefore not do it. One Saki of Christiansborg then took the oath, the other headmen of the Akuashongs seconded him, and the meeting broke up. However, the headmen of Christiansborg were told by those of the other towns, that if they listened to tales of their coloured masters and mistresses to infringe the agreement, they would be made pads by which the castle of Christiansborg would be carried into the sea.

On over 3000 armed men of Christiansborg, Labade, Teshi, Ningowa etc. assembled at Klōtemushi, immediately under the loaded cannons and rockets of the castle. The educated native community, some Basel missionaries of Christiansborg, viz. Revs. John Stanger, C.W. Locher, John Zimmermann and August Steinhauser, a deputation from king Taki of Akra and Kwāme Mienya, an influential man of Cape Coast, assembled in a group of their own to try whether they could make peace. Mr. Julius Briandt of Christiansborg was the interpreter for the educated community. Badu Asōnkō, the powerful linguist of the infuriated people, addressed the assembly to the effect, that they would not serve the English government any longer, nor pay the poll-tax. Alimo, another powerful linguist of king Taki, replied that they might refuse paying the tax, but not throw off their allegiance to the British government. Badu Asōnkō was obliged to retract that part of his speech as to their throwing off allegiance to the English government.

A second grand meeting of the armed men was held a few days after this at Teiashi in the valley between Christiansborg and Labade — where they would be safer from the actions of the cannons, than in the site selected the previous day.

Here Messrs. J. Richter and H. Svanikier most vividly pointed out to the chiefs of Christiansborg the danger of fighting the government, advising them never to mind what the other townspeople said, that Christiansborg might not be destroyed. A stir was made by some ruffians when they perceived the chiefs of Christiansborg were on the point of giving in, upon which the whole assembly, amounting to over 4000 men, at once took up arms to attack the merchants. Failing a second time with their negotiation for peace, the educated community of Christiansborg reported the state of things to King Taki. He summoned the armed men to meet him at Okaishi near Dutch Town. Over 4000 armed men assembled there, but with no good result; so they all marched back through Christiansborg to Labade. Fires from the loaded cannons and rockets could have been easily opened upon them when passing by the fort; yet the government exercised patience with their folly. They were, however, warned never to come again to Christiansborg so armed.

After such an insult to the British flag the garrison was strengthened with munition, provision and soldiers, and Mr. Cruickshank, witnessing all these, deliberating as to march out against the rebels. Another rush into Christiansborg was made to capture chief Owu; but he had escaped to Akra. Like mere boys, they first sang to welcome the British government, and now composed [the song whose lyrics are reproduced above] against them.

The British eventually did fire their guns, scattered the forces arrayed against their garrison, looted the evacuated local towns, and then enforced a truce by taking hostages.

Some excerpts from the debates about the tax resistance campaign are preserved in Johann Zimmermann’s A grammatical sketch of the Akra- or Gā-Language and a Vocabulary of the same, Volume 2 (), pages 187–193. Here’s an excerpt from Badu Asōnkō’s speech on :

[Lists some grievances.] And now it is also said: Above this there shall polltax be raised! — And some have sold their children and things because of this polltax (the first time); and to day — after a long time — it is said, it shall be raised again! … But the tax they do not pay, heh! they do not pay! … Fathers! Is this not what you said? (Answer of all): “Ā! we give not one penny!”