"Inventing Tradition" in Elmina: A Note on the Bakatue Festival

Larry W. Yarak
Texas A & M University

[From: Akan Studies Council Newsletter, No. 6 (Winter 1993)]

In the 1840s the Dutch Ministry of Colonies sought to rationalize and regularize the legal interactions of its officers on the Gold Coast with the indigenous population. Dutch Governor A. van der Eb was therefore instructed to draw up a compendium of local laws and customs for use as a reference work in the ministry. Van der Eb submitted his report in May 1851, and it was published many years later in Holland under the title, "Native Law of the Coast of Guinea 1851".(1) A number of scholars of 19th century Ghana have used this document to good effect, but few have seen an unpublished supplement to it submitted by Dutch Governor C. J. M. Nagtglas in 1860.(2) Together these documents provide important information on topics as diverse as slavery, family relations, and laws on theft, murder, adultery, rape, and so on. Van der Eb and Nagtglas also give brief descriptions of the major Elmina "customs" and festivals, including the annual Bakatue, the "opening" of the Benya lagoon (or river, as it is customarily called) to fishing after a period of ritual closure, an event which was held on a Tuesday, usually in July. More detailed accounts of the rites associated with festival may be found in the 20th-century works of E. J. P. Brown and J. S. Wartemberg.(3)

Bakatue today is the culmination of six weeks of activities in honor of Benya, the deity believed to inhabit the lagoon. During the last three weeks Elminans are prohibited from fishing in the lagoon, beating drums, shooting guns, and performing funeral rites. The Benya okomfo ("priest") plays a central role in the Bakatue: he retreats into the Benya shrine house three weeks prior to the festival in order to propiate the deity, emerging on the final Tuesday to lead a procession of Elmina dignitaries through the town to the bank of the lagoon, where he casts a net, ending the fishing ban. The Elmina king (Edenahen) also plays a prominent role in the procession and in the rituals involved in re-opening the lagoon to fishing.

For some years in the course of my research in the 19th-century "Elmina Journals" (the record of daily events kept by the Dutch governor) I had been intrigued by the fact that celebration of the Bakatue was recorded by the Dutch with regularity only from 1850; the earliest reference I have found dates from 1847.(4) Part of the mystery seemed to be solved by Nagtglas's 1860 description of the festival as "of a late date", i.e., of recent origin.(5) But the matter became more complex when I consulted Harvey Feinberg's dissertation on eighteenth-century Elmina. Feinberg cites an Elmina journal entry from June 1716 which recorded that the Elmina chiefs planned to recommence "a certain custom or rites concerning their gods" which they had been unable to perform since the late 17th century; during this "custom" there would be no fishing, no funeral obsequies, no firing of muskets, and no drumming.(6)

One way to reconcile these apparently conflicting references is to hypothesize that the public activities surrounding the "opening" of the lagoon to fishing - the procession, the casting of the net, etc. - may have begun only in the 1840s. In other words, the activities on the final Tuesday seem to have been "invented" as a public celebration involving the Benya okomfo and the Elmina political hierarchy to mark the end of what had been a long-standing practice of annual ritual prohibitions. Such a reading of the evidence is given additional weight when viewed against the documented rise to prominence of both the Benya okomfo and the Edenahen during the first half of the 19th century.

It is clear from records of the early 19th century that the position of the Elmina king was exceptionally weak.(7) Likewise, Dutch references to the Benya okomfo clearly placed him second in rank to the Ntona okomfo, who was held to be a descendant of the founder of Elmina. In 1836, in a dramatic conflict which arose over slaves seeking refuge at the Ntona shrine, Dutch soldiers forced their way into the Ntona shrine house, arrested okomfo Kwamena Isa, and seized all those who served him.(8) He was subsequently banned from Elmina. The "invention" of the expressly public Bakatue may have marked Ntona's eclipse by Benya. Similarly, the prominent role of the Edenahen in the Bakatue symbolized the new-found prestige of the Elmina kingship, which had been achieved during the unprecedentedly peaceful and stable reign of Kwadwo Dsiewu (1831-63). Further research may help to refine the argument made here, but the key point would seem to be that historians should be alert to the fact that public festivals among the Akan, such as the Elmina Bakatue, have their own histories which merit our careful attention.

NOTES

1. "Inboorlingenrecht van de Kust van Guinea 1851", Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indie, 88 (1931), 287-313. See R. Baesjou's discussion of this document in his "Dutch 'Irregular' Jurisdiction on the 19th Century Gold Coast", African Perspectives (Leiden, 1979), 2, 29.

2. "Gewoonten en kostumen der bewoners van de Goudkust, niet vermeld in het compendium van 's lands wetten en gebruiken", in: Algemeen Rijksarchief, The Hague (Dutch National Archives, hereafter ARA), Archief van het Ministerie van Kolonien 1850-1900, 956: Verbaal, dd. 25 June 1860, No. 22, enclosure: Nagtglas to Minister, dd. Elmina, 7 May 1860, No. 199.

3. E. J. P. Brown, Gold Coast and Asianti Reader (London, 1929), vol. II, 214-24; J. S. Wartemberg, Sao Jorge d'El Mina: Premier West African European Settlement (Ilfracombe, n.d.), 101-5.

4. I have recently rechecked the Elmina Journals for every July from 1829-71 (these may be found in ARA, Archief van de Nederlandsche Bezittingen ter Kuste van Guinea 359-70, and microfilm copies are deposited in the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University). References to the "opening" of the Benya are found in 1847, 1850-9, 1861-2, 1866-7, 1869-70. In every reference but one, the event took place on a Tuesday in July; in 1859 it occurred on Tuesday, 2 August.

5. Nagtglas had arrived on the coast in 1851. In his account he also makes the interesting observation that the purpose of closing the lagoon to fishing was to conserve fish, which were spawning at this time of the year.

6. H. Feinberg, "Elmina, Ghana: A History of its Development and Relationship with the Dutch in the Eighteenth Century", Ph.D. diss. (Boston University, 1969), 135.

7. For the rise of the Elmina kingship in the 18th century, see H. M. Feinberg, Africans and Europeans in West Africa (Philadelphia, 1989), 99-103.

8. ARA, Archief van het Ministerie van Kolonien 1814-49 1087: Exh. 1 April 1837, No.17: Verveer to Minister, dd. Elmina, 25 Dec. 1836, No. 9. See also Baesjou, "Dutch 'Irregular' Jurisdiction", 41-2


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