CARL CHRISTIAN REINDORF: A CRITIQUE OF HIS CONTRIBUTIONS TO WEST AFRICAN HISTORIOGRAPHY

Carl Christian Reindorf has come to be regarded as one of the pioneers of modern West African historiography through his classical work, The History of the Gold Coast and Asante, 1895.  Before launching into a detailed evaluation of his contributions, it is imperative to say something about his life and background.  Christian Reindorf was a contemporary of Revd. Samuel Johnson, the historian of the Yorubas. In particular, he was born in 1834 in a village near Accra, Ghana to mulatto father of Danish descent and a Ga mother.  He attended Bassel Missionary school and in 1855 he became a catechist cum teacher – a career he pursued until his death on 1st July, 1917.

 As a teacher-priests, Reindorf was influenced by a member of Bassel missionaries particularly Reverends Christaller Aldinger and Widman.  Another influence on Reindorfs life was that his maternal ancestors belonged to the traditional priestly class. Although, he was sent to Accra in 1840 partly to escape from the “fetish superstition”, he nevertheless maintained contacts with the religious and social traditions of the Ga-through his grandmother’s historical renditions.  
How then did Reindorf perceive the nature and purpose of history?  His notion of history is surpassingly modern though essentially the product of his own time.  He defines history as:
“The methodical narration of events in the order in which they successively occurred, exhibiting the original and progress, the causes and effects, the auxiliaries and tendencies of that which has occurred in connection with a nation”.
To Reindorf, therefore, history was not just a chronicle of events.  If involved “methodical” handling. It was also not a mere academic exercise.  Fore him, history had a utilitarian purpose in as much as it is inextricably tied up with the development of a nation.  Indeed, his notion of the nature and purpose of history was dictated by the circumstances of his age – the prevailing pessimism among European Social Warwinists that Africans had no history.
Let us also examine Reindorf’s object of writing.  he made it clear in the book that his concern was to write a patriotic account if his people’s history.  He declared categorically thus:
“The sole object of this publication is to call the attention of all of you my friends and countrymen to the study and collection of our history, and to create a basis for a more complete history of the Gold Coast”. (p. viii).
He called attention to the disturbing neglect of the people’s traditions by the African educated elite.  Indeed, Reinforf was also aware of the negative notions of the European intellectual circle concerning indigenous African history.  It was as a result of these challenges that he embarked on the self-imposed patriotic assignment of producing a “complete history” which in his view, any nation would atrophy.
What was Reindorf’s view on the question of authorship?  His contention was that the history of the country could only be properly written by an indigenous author well versed in the traditions of the people.  Foreigners, he asserted, had no intimate knowledge of the people nor the means of acquiring their traditions. More significantly, foreigners would never be able to compare those traditions that they might have gathered from a single individual with other sources.
With the above background of Reindorf’s “philosophy” of history, one may now focus attention on his real work.  Basically, Reindorf sought to trace the history of his own Ga people (the inbahitants of Accra and its environs) and those of the Fante in the Coast and of the inland Asante.  He was aware of the problems of a proportionate balanced coverage for all these three sections of the Gold coast. For instance, the traditions of the Fante, “the land of history, the land of poetry”, could not be traced from its early origins.  He hoped that other people would co-operate to revise his work and fill the existing gaps so that a future edition may be “more complete.” Although, he exhibited biases (as we shall see later) in the treatment of these three groups, he as sufficiently detached to see a necessary link between the peoples.  He asserted that the history of the Gold Coast could not be complete without that of a Sante “as the histories of both countries are so interwoven”.
With this clearly defined framework, Reindorf’s History begins with a geographical account of the Gold Coast, its location, size and peoples.  Attention is then turned to the different aboriginal ethnic groups who were subdued by more powerful invaders. Prominent among the latter was the Ga kingdom, “the first powerful kingdom” formed by the Akins, who happened to have come from Egypt.  Others who came “from the sea” included the LATE OBUTU OWURE GBESE, TWI ANGULU AKWAMU and AKYEM. Pp. 19-20. A rather short reference is made to the early history of the Asante, while Asante history is covered in copious detail from the beginning to the time of Osei Tutu.
Emphasis then shifts to relations between the Asante and their coastal neighbours, especially the Fante.  Most of the events described here are mainly political and military. There is comparatively little on the common man (who is just being rehabilitated by modern historical scholarship).  Nevertheless, some attention is given to the social and economic organization of the people. Readers are given an insight into the types of government of the people which varied from absolute monarchy to the Ga’s brand of “fetishcracy”.
The economic activities of the people are also discussed in considerable detail.  Farming, hunting, fishing, goldmining were the main economic activities of the people before advent of the Europeans.  Contacts with the latter led to the introduction of new occupational activities such as carpentry, cooperage, tailoring, shoe-making, etc.
This book closes with more details on the political and military engagements between the Asante and their southern neighbours.  The establishment of the Christian missions and their impact on the people are given some prominence. The final chapter deals with the cession of the Danish possessions to the English government and the problems of administration of English law and justice.  On the whole, Reindorf’s account covers voer the three centuries from C. 1500 – 1856.
At this point, it is reasonable to critically evaluate the strengths and weakness in Reindorf’s writing with the object of determining his place in the development of modern West African historiography.
METHODOLOGY
Reindorf’s methodology was one of the most distinguishing aspects of his contributions to the growth of modern West African historiography.  He was as meticulous as he was thorough, in his research methodology. He made use of three category of sources: oral traditions, eye witness accounts and written materials.  By far the most important of these were the oral sources. Reinforf had been greatly influenced by the cultural milien into which he had been born. He became, to all intents and purposes, the apostle per excellence of the use of oral traditions.  He spent roughly 30 years in the collection of these sources for his History. Two of these years were spent at the feet of his grandmother. In pursuance of his policy of critical evaluation of his sources, he interviewed over two hundred people of both sexes whose accounts he “carefully compared in order to arrive at the truth” p. x.
What was more, he was himself an eye-witness to some of the events he described in his book.  For instance, he knew most of the dramatis personae of the crisis over the collection of poll-tax in Accra between 1854 and 1856.  He had taken part in the war between the Addahs and Awunas in 1866 and in the Akwamu war of 1869-70.  These events he described from the vantage point of an eye-witness.
Nevertheless, he was quite aware of the necessity to consult all available written source not least to cross-check on matters of dates and chronology.  He consulted all the available Danish papers which were translated into German especially for him by one Rev. P. Steiner. He also made use of the works of European travellers like William Bosman and Thomas Bowdich.  Significantly enough, he denied access to the British Colonial Government paper which he lamented, “would have furnished me with correct dates and substantial informations”. (sic)
Thus for making effective use of oral traditioins which were thoroughly sieved and carefully compared with written records and eye-witness accounts, Reindorf proved himself a painstaking researcher and a pioneer of modern West African historical methodology.  Jan Vansina, at a much later date, was to win for himself a reputation as the guru of African historiography mainly because he has established in the minds of Western Scholars the crucial significance of oral traditions as an invaluable source of African history.  If Vansina could be so recognized, what can we say of Reindorf or Johnson? Robert July is therefore quite correct to see Reindorf’s use of oral tradition and African mythology as one of the major points establishing him as one of the founders of a new African school of historical scholarship.
THE AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE OF HISTORY
Certainly one of the most significant impressions made on the reader is the authors deliberate effort to present the African perspective of history.  A mere glance at the contents table reveals quite clearly that Reindorf was mainly concerned to write the history of his country as seen from the eyes of his people.  Conspicuously missing is the conventional recitation of what some external agencies did or did not do. This approach is quite deliberate. Reindorf made it clear that the activities of European government, their different policies and “connections with the people of the Gold Coast” were a subject not for his immediately concern but for further investigation by other historians.
The significance of this deliberate policy of writing about Africa, for the Africans and from the African point of view cannot be over-emphasized in the development of West African historiography in modern times.  Most foreign scholars of the post-Reindorf era have generally emphasized foreign or for all practical purposes, the “Eunicentric” perspective of African history. However, the present generation of African scholars has tried to correct the imbalance by giving due prominence to “Afrocentric” viewpoints.  By thus attempting to indigenize African history, modern African historians are clearly following the path already charted by Reindorf.
DEFICIENCIES
In spite of the monumental achievements of Reindorf there are a number of deficiencies and flaws which are not unexpected in any work of scholarship.  Certainly the most obvious, even to the most casual reader is the author’s undisguised bias which favoured the Gas as much as it was against the Asante. As far as Reindorf was concerned, Accra, a Ga Kingdom, was the first kingdom in the whole of the Gold Coast.  Their ancestors had not come like others “from the dea’ but from Egypt. Their religion had many Jewish and Hebrew traits, which to him were a sign of superiority. Not only were they the most advanced African nation as far as religion was concerned, they possessed the most refined qualities of character.  He concludes that the Accras are a people specially favoured by the Divine profector. His view of the Fante are less partisan while for the Asante he exhibited clear prejudice and occasional intolerance. He was at pains to trace instances of Asante’s “barbarous trynny” and bloodiness of deposition. But Reindorf’s predilection for Ga traditions has been verstreched.  J.D. Fage, for instance, has argued that Reindorf’s work could not be regarded as a “comprehensive” account of the Gold Coast and Asante because of its allegedly Ga orientation. This criticism is unduly harsh. A detailed analysis by Ray Jenkins has revealed that about 1/3 of the book is devoted to Ga affairs while nearly half is set for the Asante.  Similarly, no more than half of the sources is based on Ga materials. Certainly the pro-Ga sentiments were there but from the point of view of the spread of sources and coverage, Reindorf’’ work transcended particularist Ga frontiers.
Another clear defect was his view of causation.  Perhaps because he was a pastor, he tended to see the hand of God in every event.  There are frequent occurrences of “Providence” and the Divine hand as historical explanations even for issues over which he has identified extra-ecclesiastical factors.  The hand of God as historical explanation is emtiquated as it is unacceptable in modern historical scholarship.
Another defect was the author’s emphasis on unnecessarily heavy details particularly in the early chapters.  Reindorf got himself and his readers sunk in such a quagmire of individual and place names that one has the impression that he could not separate the relevant data from the irrelevant.
There are also contradictions in his arguments.  In one breath, he condemns the danes for doing nothing for the people during their long rule over Accra, in another is full of praise for all their social and religious achievements.  At one point, he blames European powers for causing wars in the country. Later he shifts this blame squarely on the “blood-thirty” Asante. His open-arms welcomes for European education and religion while at the same time calling for the innovation of indigenous culture against unbridled westernization, falls into this category of contradiction.  Indeed Reindorf actually expressed his welcoming hand to British colonialism in a poetic language:
Rule, supremely rule, Britannia, rule they newly acquired colony of the Gold Coast.”   
 All the above-mentioned limitations – the element of bias, the divine factor in history, ambivalence towards European presence as well as instances of argumentative contradictions – were not peculiar to Reindorf.  They were present in the writing of other 19th century African leaders of thought like Samuel Johnson, African W. Horton, Sarbah, John Mensah, ABC Sithorpe, Sir Arthus Lewis, etc.  Even though most of them were unmistakable apostles of modern Africa thought, it is obvious that they were also products of their own environment and times.
In any case, these limitations do not detract in any substantial way from the value of Reindorf’s scholarship.
REFERENCES
  1. Historiography may be defined as the study of the writing of history, with emphasis on the works of significant historians and with special interest in what they said it.
See A. Marwick, The Nature of History (Macmillan, p.16; also R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History  (Oxford, 1963)
  1. The earlier tradition of West African historiography had produced several Sudanese memoirs, chronicles, travellers’  accounts and biographical pieces such as Ahmed Ibn Fartua’s History of the Reign of Idris Alooma of Bornu 1571-1583.
See Thomas Hodgkin, Nigerian Perspectives An Historian Anthology. (Oxford, 1960); also H.P. Palmer, Sudanese Memoirs.
  1. See Robin Law, “Early Yoruba Historiography” in D. Hegine (ed) History in Africa: A Journal of Methodology 3, 1976, pp. 69-89.
  2. The late nineteenth century was the high water mark of European imperialism.  The period also witnessed the vulgarization of science in the hands of the Social Dawinian theorists and anthropologist who supplied the much-needed intellectual justification for the imposition of European rule on so-called “weaker” races of the world.
  3. See for example Professor A.P. Newton’s 1923 assertion that “Africa South of the Sahara had no history before the coming of the Europeans.  History only begins when men take to writing.” Quoted in S.A. Akintoye “Nigerian Contributions to Black History”, Nigeria Magazine, 115-116, 1975, p.110.
  4. Reindorf, The History of the Gold Coast and Asante, 2nd ed. (Ghana Universities Press, Accra, 1966) pp. 4.5.
  5. Ibid p.8.
  6. Rev. Aldinger actually commissioned Reindorf to collect oral traditions in 1864.  The reluctance of the old people to make information available to Reindorf “stirred up a greater desire in me to use all available means in my power to collect traditions.
Ibid. pp. ix-x
  1. Ibid. p. 5
  2. Ibid. p. ix
  3. Ibid. pp. ix-x.
  4. See G.E. Metcalfe, Maclean of the Gold Coast (O.U.P. 1962.
  5. Ray Jenkins, Impeachable Source? On the use of the Second Edition of Reindorf’s History as a Primary Source for the study of Ghanaian History.”  Part I, History in Africa, 4, 1977, pp.123-147; Part II in 5, 1978, pp. 81-100.
  6. Note that the Dedication by C.J. (sic) Reindorf indicates for the new edition “a few alterations here and there which have been found necessary, and corrections of the dates.”  Reindorf, History. P. III.
  7. Jenkins, Op. Cit.,  pp. 89-90.
  8. Quoted in History in Africa.
  9. Jenkins, Op. Cit.,  p. 91.
  10. See J.F.A. Ajayi, “Samuel Johnson, Historian of the Yoruba”, Nigeria Magazine, 81, June 1964, op. 141-6.
  11. Reindorf, Op. cit.,  p. iii.
  12. Ibid. p. viii.
  13. Ibid. p.viii.
  14. Ibid. pp. vii, x
  15. Ibid. pp. viii.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Compare to Johnson’s declaration of “… a patriotic motive, that the history of our fatherland might not be lost in oblivion, especially as our old sires are fast dying out.  Educated natives of Yoruba are well acquitted with the history of England and with that of Rome and Greece, but of the history of their own country they know nothing whatever.”
The History of the Yorubas, Reprint 1966, p.vii.
  1. Reindorf, Op. cit. p.ix
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid. p.p. ix, 5
  4. Ibid. p.x.
  5. See ch. Ixxix., pp. 322-335.
  6. Ibid. p. xi.
  7. Ibid. p. xi.
  8. See His Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (Pengium, 1965).
  9. Robert July, The Origins of Modern African Thought (Faber and Faber, 1968), p.278.
  10. See Jenkins, Op. cit, p. 93.
  11. Reindorf, Op. cit. p.ix
  12. Ibid. p. xi.
  13. Ibid. p. xi.
  14. See for instance J.K. Fynn, Asante and Its Neighbour 1700-1807 (Legion History Series, Longman, 1971).
  15. Reindorf, Op. cit. p.ix
  16. See especially chapters V-VIII.
  17. Chs. X-XIII.
  18. Chs. X-XIII. p. 264.
  19. Ibid. p. 264.
  20. Ibid. especially pp. 264-274.
  21. Ibid. Ch. XIX.
  22. Chs. XXIX.
  23. Ibid. p. 335.
  24. Ibid. pp. x-xi.
  25. See Ali Mazrui, “Written History and National Consciousness, “Cultural Engineering and Nation Building East Africa, (Evanston, 1927, Ch. I).
  26. Reindorf, Op. cit. pp. 78-79.
  27. Ibid. p. 18
  28. Ibid. p. 21.
  29. Ibid. p. 35
  30. Ibid. especially pp. 162ff.
  31. J.D. Fage, “Some Considerations Relevant to Historical Research in the Gold Coast”, Transactions of the Gold Coast and Togoland Historical Society I,I, 1952, pp.24-25.
  32. Jekins. Op. cit. p. 93.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Note his utilitarian approach as seen in his rather weird justification for the inclusion of so many names.  He says he wants his readers to see the names of their forefathers who had defended the country against the yoke of the Asante, trusting that “everyone of you will be pleased to find his grandfather’s name in the list.”
Reindorf, Op. cit., p. xii.
  1. See for example, pp. 35. 274, et al.
  2. See pp. 274 and 320.
  3. Ibid. p. 325.
  4. Ibid. pp. 263-274.
  5. David Kimble, A Political History of Ghana, The Rise of Gold Coast  Nationalism 1850-1928, (Oxford, 1963), p. 521.
  6. West Africa, 8 March 1930, cited Kimble, Op.cit. p. 521.
  7. Boahen and Fynn, among others, have embarked on a major collection of Ghanaian Oral Traditions.  See Fynn’s Oral Traditions of the Fante States, 7 vols. (Institute of African Studies, Legon, 1974-76).
  8. Ray Jenkins, Op.cit. p. 92.