An abundance of creative writing by local authors, largely in English, can be found in African-owned newspapers in ‘British West Africa’ between the 1880s and 1940s. Focusing on material published in the Gold Coast Leader in the early twentieth century, this paper asks if current approaches to African literature on the one hand, and to African cultural history on the other hand, can be extended by the inclusion of this vast, unwieldy, under-studied archive of ephemeral writing that falls outside transnational understandings of anglophone world literature and popular culture.
In the period of Europe’s ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 1880s and the rise of British ‘new imperialism’ in the 1890s and 1900s, increasing numbers of African entrepreneurs and well-connected educated professionals secured investment and capital to import printing presses into the territories designated as ‘British West Africa’. Their African- and English-language newspapers became a significant part of the public life of educated West Africans in the twentieth century. Professional elites and newly educated sub-elites found a collective space in the press for the expression of opinions and arguments: through local newspapers, people with access to pens and paper intervened in municipal debates about taxation, sanitation and town planning; they debated moral issues such as the merits of Christian marriage; they urged government action against European trade ‘combines’ for price-fixing in the region; they commented on legislation as it passed through colonial legislative councils; and they interpreted global political affairs from regional and pan-African vantage points.
African-owned newspapers were connected together in their first half-century of local production by one key feature. Across the wide ideological spectrum that characterised editors and owners – from conservative pro-imperialists to radical anti-colonialists and many others in between – newspapers were sites of intense literary activity. In the absence of independent publishing houses in the region, the press provided the chief, and in most cases the only, outlet for local creative writers and intellectuals to send material for publication. As a result, West African newspapers contain a vast storehouse of original creative writing by local authors, ranging from serialised fiction to occasional poetry and short stories, as well as other types of non-news text such as philosophical essays, articles on local history, travelogues and reviews of books, films and theatrical shows. These local contributions sit cheek-by-jowl with creative material from further afield, such as pan-Africanist novels and poems by African American intellectuals, and poetry and fiction by Europeans in West Africa and by West Africans in Europe.
This vibrant newsprint creativity forms a neglected corpus of West African literature. The material selected for this essay is intended to expand the historical study of African literatures to include local newspaper presses and to complicate some of the timelines and genre categories through which postcolonial African literatures – including popular literatures – are often understood. If we wish to understand non-Western reading cultures and histories of literary taste outside Europe and America, we need to expand our conception of what constitutes the literary archive to allow for the greatest possible inclusivity of printed materials and genres ranging from newspapers and magazines to pamphlets and other types of ‘ephemeral’ literatures. Some of these materials had, and continue to have, such small print-runs and circuits of distribution as to place them outside the institutional radars of archivists, librarians and literary scholars (although private collectors have often amassed significant personal libraries of African ephemera, and scholars such as Emmanuel Obiechina and Bernth Lindfors dedicated their careers to preserving and analysing neglected corpora of West African literature). 1 Other materials contain local forms of writing that defy contemporary generic classifications and seem to initiate no future trajectories.
The press in colonial West Africa cannot be understood exclusively through transnational relationships or processes of colonial subject formation, important as these are to the networks of African elites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see Zachernuk, 2000). The ‘local’ is a vital category for understanding West African newsprint textuality in the early twentieth century. Used both as an adjective and a noun, ‘local’ is a great deal more complex than implied by its conventional usage as the marker of lesser – narrower, more parochial – cultural concerns in opposition to global or cosmopolitan people and ideas (Appiah, 2007; Majumdar, 2021). Indeed, the category of the local can include important but overlooked universalist standpoints: as Ranka Primorac (2018) points out in her work on Zambian fiction, a significant and neglected aspect of local African literatures is their ‘non-apologetically universalistic poetics’ that contrasts starkly with the standpoints of transnational authors such as Chinua Achebe, who have been reluctant ‘to use the term “universal” in literary analysis’ (p. 101).
The writing discussed in this essay supports arguments for a reconceptualisation of the category of the local in literary histories of the global south. Without careful attention to local political and aesthetic concerns, it would be easy to miss the ways in which West African intellectuals and creative writers in the early twentieth century carefully positioned themselves and their readers, not as marginal to world affairs, nor as centrally involved in them, but as balanced external critics of happenings in Europe and America. In an era that witnessed the rise of imperialist ideologies based on pseudo-scientific beliefs in the racial superiority of whites and culminated in mass warfare, dictatorship and genocide caused by political decisions in the global north, West African editors consistently positioned their publications as looking in from a place of reason and sanity outside the escalating ‘barbarism’ and ‘madness’ they observed in America and Europe. Theirs was a comparative, universalising consciousness: ‘“[C]ivilization” is a purely relative term’, Dusé Mohamed Ali, the editor of the Lagos Comet (1933–1944) pointed out in 1936 in response to an anti-African article published in United Empire, and ‘[t]he reputed barbarities of the late war have amply demonstrated the fact … that the so-called civilized when aroused can be quite as barbarous as any Simon-pure savage’ (Comet, 4 January 1936, p. 6). 2 West African editors and correspondents continuously positioned themselves and their readers in this way as global witnesses and interpreters with a strong sense of place, problematising Eurocentric views of the world and encouraging local readers to become critically involved in the printed materials circulating around their communities.
The availability of newsprint and printing machinery in late nineteenth-century West Africa made possible reading matter that was local in its composition, production, circulation and consumption, and affordable to some, but not all, people who could read. Newspapers were neither disposable nor ephemeral, however, nor was there any expectation on the part of consumers that newsprint commodities should be thrown away after use. Many West African readers amassed substantial collections of back-issues of newspapers, and some even demanded that editors provide binding services for the storage of their unwieldy stacks in their personal libraries. One of several letters on this topic to the editor of the Comet encapsulates the sentiments of newspaper readers throughout the region: The ‘Comet’ is not a newspaper merely to be read, and thrown aside or passed for parcelling articles, but one to be read, bound and kept for the coming posterity to enjoy. As a weekly reader, when I turned to enjoy myself in reading the back issues of this your valuable and educative Journal, then thought came into my mind [that you should] adopt a yearly ‘Bound Volumes’ system which I believe most of your readers will welcome to fill their Libraries, and should in case they missed a copy which such ‘Bound Volumes’ will supply.
The ‘Comet’ is not a newspaper merely to be read, and thrown aside or passed for parcelling articles, but one to be read, bound and kept for the coming posterity to enjoy. As a weekly reader, when I turned to enjoy myself in reading the back issues of this your valuable and educative Journal, then thought came into my mind [that you should] adopt a yearly ‘Bound Volumes’ system which I believe most of your readers will welcome to fill their Libraries, and should in case they missed a copy which such ‘Bound Volumes’ will supply.(1 September 1934, p. 1)
Another way in which newspapers were anti-ephemeral was that they were rarely, if ever, read exclusively by the individual who purchased them. The custom of sharing a paper within and outside the subscribing household was so well established by the mid-1930s that the official circulation figures for the Comet in Nigeria were calculated from the estimated number of readers (16,000) rather than from the number of copies (4,000) actually printed and sold (Comet, 3 March 1934, p. 4). As Ali reminded advertisers in an editorial in 1935 celebrating the completion of two successful years of production and an ever-expanding readership: Today, through the formation of reading groups in Government offices and Trading concerns, we can boast not less than 20,000 readers throughout Nigeria, the Cameroon, the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone. Moreover, in the rural districts, one literate member of a family who subscribes, usually devotes a portion of the week end to reading and translating the contents of The Comet including advertisements to his illiterate relations. Thus The Comet is known and appreciated throughout the length and breadth of the country … All of which should be of prime interest to our advertisers who have accorded us their unstinted support from the beginning and without whom we could not have achieved success. Kindly allow me space in your valuable columns to speak of the behaviour of some scholars in town who have turned themselves into paper (“Leader”) beggars. It is very strange and quite disgraceful to see respectable men of means imploring their friends to lend them the Leader for their perusal.
Today, through the formation of reading groups in Government offices and Trading concerns, we can boast not less than 20,000 readers throughout Nigeria, the Cameroon, the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone. Moreover, in the rural districts, one literate member of a family who subscribes, usually devotes a portion of the week end to reading and translating the contents of The Comet including advertisements to his illiterate relations. Thus The Comet is known and appreciated throughout the length and breadth of the country … All of which should be of prime interest to our advertisers who have accorded us their unstinted support from the beginning and without whom we could not have achieved success.(Comet, 19 July 1935, p. 5)
Kindly allow me space in your valuable columns to speak of the behaviour of some scholars in town who have turned themselves into paper (“Leader”) beggars. It is very strange and quite disgraceful to see respectable men of means imploring their friends to lend them the Leader for their perusal.(Gold Coast Leader, 7–14 February 1903, p. 4)
Whether ‘men of means’ or ‘illiterate’ rural dwellers, non-subscribing readers clearly counted as consumers – and collectors – of newsprint materials in West Africa: they were recognised by editors as members of the reading public and, in their habit of collecting and sharing textual commodities, they became targets of advertising for other types of commodities. For all these reasons, newsprint texts cannot easily be consigned to the category of ephemera if ‘ephemera’ defines commodities that are so common as to be deemed unworthy of collection, so unremarkable as to fail to earn a second glance. By this definition, ‘ephemera’ is insufficiently complex to apply to the circulation and consumption of newsprint texts in West Africa at any point in the history of reading in the region.
There is, however, one way in which West African newsprint creativity can be regarded as ephemeral. The category of printed ephemera is conceptual as well as material, indicating the presence of everyday temporalities as well as the disposability of objects. Regarded as a temporal marker, ‘ephemera’ describes the fleeting historicity of textual commodities; it describes creative moments and local articulations that do not fully coagulate into events and traditions; it denotes material that does not register on the scanners of cultural and literary scholars as they sweep the past for significance; in short, it describes matter that does not matter later on. Regarded as a way of measuring time rather than a way to judge value, ephemera, in combination with the category of ‘local’, provides a particularly helpful framework for the reappraisal of moments in African literary history that never become institutionalised as history. Defined as a mode of historical thinking, ephemera helps us to appreciate the work of writers and local intellectuals for whom newsprint enabled the expression of topics and temporalities that are often tangential to the core concerns of later literary historians, for whom such material may be regarded as disposable.
Three writers, all pseudonymous, submitted material for publication in the Gold Coast Leader in the first decade of the twentieth century: ‘A Banker’, whose sonorous prose appeared weekly in the Leader for a period of six years from 1904 to 1910; the monogrammic ‘B.B.’, who published a three-part diary in November and December 1904, and ‘Dick Carnis’, whose pseudonym parodically invokes the very carnality his pseudonym frustrates, and whose declamatory seven-part column, ‘Between Ourselves’, was published alongside the others in the early 1900s. These writers share a style of writing that might be dismissed by current literary standards as turgid, sermonising, rhetorical or simply too singular to be recognised as part of a genre or tradition.
The literary styles of these creative writers, though very different from one another, collectively encapsulate a current of English writing that infuriated colonial officials in West Africa, especially educationists. ‘Stand by! ye giddy wrestlers for the lustrous Moon, stand by!’, reads the first instalment of Dick Carnis’s seven-part column, setting the rich tone for subsequent episodes: next to men by whom crude thoughts and past events in silken garb are clad – whose paeans erstwhile with lusty voice, in dulcet tones, we sang – lend us your ravished ears, all ye that thrive on Briefs; and ye worthy Leeches in numbers, least of all, – experts, men of science, hearken enrapt, enchained!
next to men by whom crude thoughts and past events in silken garb are clad – whose paeans erstwhile with lusty voice, in dulcet tones, we sang – lend us your ravished ears, all ye that thrive on Briefs; and ye worthy Leeches in numbers, least of all, – experts, men of science, hearken enrapt, enchained!(Gold Coast Leader, 15 October 1904, p. 3)
The polyphonic editors and educated elites who produced and consumed this material existed in greater proximity to colonial regimes than many other sectors of West African society. They were in frequent contact with British officials through their professions, and through their attendance at the churches, racecourses, libraries, clubs, theatres and restaurants also patronised by colonial officials (Mann, 1985; Echeruo, 1977); they passed through colonial missionary and British private schools; and their editorials and reports on current affairs demonstrated that they were just as capable of writing plain English as any other person educated to their level. The florid creative writing published in their newspapers therefore demands explanations that are less dismissive than the ideas about local ‘mimicry’ that persist in postcolonial literary criticism.
West African creative writing in early twentieth-century newspapers rarely yields empathetic characters, clearly structured plots, naturalistic scene-setting or coherent themes and messages. Stylistically, authors like Dick Carnis operate so far outside the norms and traditions of realist prose that their work necessitates other forms of literary recognition and appreciation. Indeed, Dick Carnis’s fellow creative writer, ‘A Banker’, is inspired by the Romantic poets in a thoroughly ‘Romantic’ manner whereby he seems to literally in-spire, or inhale, them. A Banker sustained this tone across a staggering ninety separate articles published in the Gold Coast Leader between 1904 and 1910. There one finds Alfred Lord Tennyson mixing with Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth and Lord Byron, sprinkled with quotations from other English Romantic poets, and always re-purposed to Christian moral ends. In the manner of a preacher, A Banker de-personalises the intensely subjective Romantic lyric by replacing first-person perception with collective pronouns, through which he issues moral weather-warnings against conditions such as ‘the icy clutches of a cold, callous wordliness [sic]’ (Gold Coast Leader, 15 October 1904, p. 3). Such ‘wordly’ anti-materialism may be surprising coming from an author who named himself after a profession associated with usury and greed by Jesus, whose presence he invokes in all ninety columns.
A Banker’s short columns describe a Romantic view of the vastness of nature – where Nature stands for, or stands in for, God – but in the final paragraph of each narrative he floods this world with Christian symbolism and biblical morality, reclaiming Romantic meditational discourse for devotional ends. At the end of each article, the world he conjures up transcends earthly preoccupations and asserts universal connectivity: nature and history are removed from the material world and rendered channels towards the spiritual condition of redemption, in which Heaven is open to righteous souls, and unspeakable consequences await the rest. This is an ecumenical vision that invites colonial readers into a belief system extending throughout the world, the universe and beyond into the hereafter. It is difficult to imagine a less local or material world than offered by this geography, nor a more universal vision of human subjectivity.
As it turns out, A Banker was an Englishman. In June 1910, the editor of the Gold Coast Leader informed readers that a ‘regrettable inadvertence and oversight’ had led to a seven-month delay between the delivery and the opening of a letter from a member of A Banker’s family informing the editor of the death of the stalwart contributor on 28 October 1909 (25 June 1910, p. 3). Here readers discover that A Banker was Charles James Lacy, Jr., the grandson of Mr. Benjamin W. Lacy of the bank Lacy, Hartland, Woodbridge, and Co., London (est. 1809). By the time he circulated his Christian Romantic prose to newspapers in diverse corners of the British colonial world – including New South Wales (Australia), ‘British East Africa’ and Canada alongside colonial Ghana – Lacy had probably retired from his profession. ‘Mr Lacy rendered us invaluable services during his lifetime, free of charge’, the editor wrote: ‘his articles were most highly appreciated and immensely enjoyed by a wide circle of readers … He preached the Gospel with a facile pen’ (Gold Coast Leader, 25 June 1910, p. 3).
A Banker’s English identity is immensely useful in helping to clarify what is meant by ‘Anglo’ and ‘local’ in relation to the two other writers chosen for analysis, because the literary influences on Dick Carnis and ‘B.B.’ are more eclectic than A Banker’s influences and their content is more grounded in identifiable local settings. Dick Carnis’s influences stretch back to Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), through to the Romantic poets, particularly Shelley, and to mid-nineteenth-century Presbyterian psalms and hymns, including Charles Seymour Robinson’s popular Songs for the Sanctuary (1865), with passing references to the titles of Shakespeare plays along the way. Unlike A Banker’s one-way transports up to a heavenly destination, Dick Carnis knits these textual references together into dense, multi-layered blankets of prose that cryptically and metaphorically refer to specific local figures such as Fante chiefs and colonial governors, and to recent events such as the death of Queen Victoria alongside broader African political demands, including calls for enfranchisement. The ‘universal’ in Dick Carnis’s work is humanist and this-worldly rather than transcendental: a general emphasis on existential freedom pervades every column.
Dick Carnis offers a promiscuous mash-up of the Victorian literature syllabus and produces cryptic matter that makes for very slow reading. Unlike A Banker’s uprooted, anti-worldly writing, the bombastic language in Dick Carnis’s work can be interpreted as offering critical commentaries on local political affairs and on the general impact of the British presence in the Gold Coast. The exclamatory and symbolic language in the first instalment, for example, includes references to the recent death of Queen Victoria (via The Faerie Queene), and a commentary on political culture in its broadest sense (see Figure 2.1). Excerpt from The Gold Coast Leader, 16 October 1904, p.3, showing Dick Carnis and A Banker’s columns.
From one perspective, overt protest and radicalism in ‘Between Ourselves’ are masked by the insubstantial, allusive content of the columns. From another perspective, however, this tone produces and gives substance to the serial’s political critique. Dick Carnis’s citations are multi-layered, working outwards from the empirical to the allusive through layers of quotation. Interestingly, when one turns to his Romantic influences, the poet who takes precedence above the others is Percy Bysshe Shelley whose visionary language is duplicated in the column.
A typical paragraph from ‘Between Ourselves’ reads: We have Kings to the right and Chiefs to the left in plenty, but who like sorry steeds no longer sport the shaggy mane, nor strong to prance, nor swift for the unequal race. Cheer them, in their saddest plight; keep watch and ward – not for loaves nor for fishes but with joy that shakes the spheres, and for strenuous love that moves the wheels of whirling orbs.
We have Kings to the right and Chiefs to the left in plenty, but who like sorry steeds no longer sport the shaggy mane, nor strong to prance, nor swift for the unequal race. Cheer them, in their saddest plight; keep watch and ward – not for loaves nor for fishes but with joy that shakes the spheres, and for strenuous love that moves the wheels of whirling orbs.(Gold Coast Leader, 15 October 1904, p. 3)
Figure 2.1 Gold Coast Leader, 15 October 1904, p. 3
Without any direct reference either to the Gold Coast, West Africa or British imperialism, Dick Carnis portrays traditional African authority in the Gold Coast as weak, vulnerable and anachronistic, incapable of achieving an equal footing with British imperial power. A passing reference to Shakespeare cloaks a general complaint about political progress: ‘There’s much ado about nothing grand and high: much stir but no certain sign of sure advance’ (Gold Coast Leader, 15 October 1904, p. 3). This is the same message offered by B.B. and in numerous editorials in the Gold Coast Leader, indicating that B.B., Dick Carnis and the editor may have been the same person. The political frustrations harnessed to English literary quotations convey this author’s – or these authors’ – intellectual and political readiness to take the reins as educated Africans who could creatively fuse colonial and African traditions.
Unlike A Banker who always explains the moral of each symbolic episode in the final paragraph, transforming allegory into parable in the process, Dick Carnis uses his English literary sources in the manner of local oral practitioners, creating new environments for his quotations and relying on them to produce morals to be extrapolated by readers. The ebullient style of his writing displays his artistic authority and skill as an innovator, while readers carry out the work of interpretation. Combining metaphorical language and quotation, he leans on Akan oral traditions in which an expert in the use of proverbs will cite the familiar line, embellish it artistically and shape it to fit a particular circumstance without commenting directly on the situation under scrutiny: the listener completes the work by applying the proverb and drawing out its lessons (Yankah, 2012 ). In this manner, Dick Carnis remains outside the incendiary political implications carried by the quotation he has chosen in its dialogue with readers, while drawing from the English literary canon for an additional reservoir of materials.
‘Between Ourselves’ achieves its political critique through this densely woven network of English literary references, rendered with complete linguistic and grammatical control. In a similar manner to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1918–1920) and Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1990), the author’s free-ranging quotations can be regarded as ways to translate West African ‘national’ life into epic terms, positioning local events and characters in a high heroic frame and, in the process, generating august, neo-classical status for the Gold Coast and its inhabitants. Perhaps paradoxically, Dick Carnis’s emulative English prose is pressed into the service of West African national – or cultural nationalist – politics. Importantly, his profoundly patriotic assertion of the capacity of local people to occupy heroic worlds and rule themselves occurs through the literary production of de-localised worlds that are articulated through canonical English literatures. Contra Ngũgi, Dick Carnis asserts a global and cosmopolitan relationship with English literature in which the latter is flattened out and treated as mobile, available for trans-national ‘nationalist’ uptake.
If Dick Carnis inscribes heroic references into local public spaces by emulating Spenser, Milton and Shelley, B.B.’s three-part narrative, ‘A Poor Man’s Diary’, has a more ambivalent relationship to its sources. The column is narrated in the first person by a young man named Boves Bones (Latin: Cows Bones) whose name circles playfully back to the author’s epigram, which at first sight might be regarded as the least pseudonymous of all markers of authorship, a monogram being the lightest disguise of identity. Boves Bones recalls paying regular visits to his ‘mentor’, Fidus Achates (Latin: faithful Achates), also known as ‘the Old Man’, who lives at the Bunyanesque address ‘All Fool’s Paradise, Blunderment House, Circumlocution Office, Humburg Street’ until his death. The column comprises extracts from Fidus’s journals containing versions of the senior man’s political oratories in the 1880s and early 1890s, bequeathed to B.B. and entitled ‘De Omnibus Rebus’ (Latin: With Regard to Everything; On All Kinds of Matters).
At first glance, the characters’ Latin names and satirical addresses indicate that the author will adopt a traditional mock-heroic style to criticise senior political figures in the Gold Coast without naming (or libelling) his targets. With blunders, humbug and foolishness inscribed into Fidus’s address, readers might expect the youthful narrator to outshine the senior man, and for B.B. to satirically appropriate and expose the original ‘fidus Achates’, Aeneas’s faithful companion in Virgil’s Aeneid, in a colonial setting. While the senior man’s eccentricity is constantly on display – his habits include chain smoking cigar butts from an overfull ashtray and constantly repeating his tagline, ‘If I were a millionaire, if’ – the mock-heroic rapidly collapses as the column proceeds, and the classical framework loosens into lucid political commentaries on colonial rule in West Africa. ‘The wealth of each town, village and hamlet in the Protectorate is … entirely and absolutely in the wrong hands’, reads the first extract from Fidus’s diary (Gold Coast Leader, 12 November 1904, Supp. I). ‘Think of the potentialities of and the undoubted possibilities of our youths’, the diary continues, contrasting these with the ‘[i]lliterate nobodies’ currently in power, ‘who have not a scintilla of imagination, who know nothing of the Promethean Fire, nor any notion of the Social and Political exigencies of the Protectorate’ (12 November 1904, Supp. I). 6
‘A Poor Man’s Diary’ demands to be situated in its immediate local environment for its fragments of commentary and ambivalent satire to make sense. Episodes cover topics ranging from agricultural experiments with cassava, potatoes and other crops to the Latin syllabus in Gold Coast secondary schools. Of all the columns discussed so far, B.B.’s is the least oblique, and the most realist, in its outward orientation to colonial Ghanaian society. Fidus’s initial positioning as a mock-heroic target using Latin and classical literary references rapidly becomes a critique of these very sources. Ultimately, the most quoted writer is the West African diarist himself who, after ‘five academic years fighting with … our own chief Euclid’ at one of the colony’s two secondary schools, and after being made to learn Latin, concludes that ‘the Declensions and Conjugations of Dead Verbs’ alongside ‘Problems and Theorems, Riders and Corollaries have profited me NOTHING’ (Gold Coast Leader, 26 November 1904, p. 5, emphasis in original). Instead he calls for ‘Practice, Practice, Practice!’ and an appreciation of the beauty and productive potential of the ‘cross-grained, matter-of-fact world’ (26 November 1904, p. 5). Translated into aesthetic terms, this utilitarianism sounds like a call for realism to puncture and deflate the tendency among educated West Africans to emulate classical and Romantic sources.
B.B. hides twice-over from political answerability, first in his use of a pseudonym, and second in his adoption of the ruse of a journal written by an eccentric dead genius, containing a host of ‘utopian schemes and other impracticable projects’ in agriculture and industry (and in so doing, he distances himself from the practical achievability of Fidus’s ‘matter-of-fact world’) (26 November 1904, p. 5). The narrator quotes Fidus’s lengthy speculations ‘regarding the Colony, the World in General, the Government and the People of his day’ while continuously reiterating the gap between the past and the present and between Fidus and himself (26 November 1904, p. 5; 12 November 1904, Supp. I).
For all its simplicity, B.B.’s narrative contains a complex and politicised temporality: allegedly composed in the 1880s before Fidus’s death in the early 1890s, and published by B.B. as a historical document in 1904, the diary offers optimistic projections for the future of the Gold Coast in the forthcoming century. ‘In the democratic age of the Twentieth Century, Home Rule shall become an accomplished fact’, the diarist predicts (Gold Coast Leader, 26 November 1904, p. 5). As a present-day narrator who occupies the time anticipated by his mentor, Boves Bones comments without political aggression on the extent to which his mentor’s ideals have – or have not – been achieved. For example, in one annotation to Fidus’s call for rapid expansion to the education system in the Gold Coast, he writes, ‘N.B: In this year of grace 1904, the Government has 7 Schools in the Colony and Protectorate, 3 for Boys, 2 for Girls; 1 for the Fanti Police and 1 for the Hausa Force. We are moving on!’ (26 November 1904, p. 5). The cleverness of the column lies in the way the voice of the diarist reverberates through the decades behind Bones, predicting self-rule and mass education that were further off in 1904 than they were in the 1880s as a consequence of the new imperialism that swept from Britain across the colonies in the 1890s.
In different ways, A Banker, Dick Carnis and B.B. all need to be understood through the combined impact of English poetry, the classics and Christian education at the end of the nineteenth century. Learning by rote and recitation were accepted teaching techniques in British as well as West African schools well into the twentieth century, and emulation was a highly rated and respectable literary endeavour in Europe until the rise of the mass-produced novel, existing in parallel with it as a separate literary trajectory and often considered to be an act of homage (or satirical doubling) rather than dependency or plagiarism (see Winter, 2011; Ofori-Attah, 2006; Gazda, 2002).
The derivativeness of A Banker’s, Dick Carnis’s and B.B.’s prose is impossible to ignore, but as the ebullience of their writing demonstrates, these authors were anything but colonial mimics. Their richly emulative prose would have challenged readers to identify the chains of literary reference while also – particularly in the case of Dick Carnis – inviting local readers to relish the explosive pleasure of deciphering the local referents behind the metaphors and symbols. These authors’ work exhibits so little ‘anxiety of influence’, to use Harold Bloom’s (1997 ) influential explanation for how poets’ sources exist in unbearable tension with their desire for a unique vision, that alternative models of appreciation to mimicry become necessary in relation to the literary expressions of these English-language authors.
All three writers exhibit confidence and pleasure in their influences. A Banker and Dick Carnis pay homage to their diverse literary mentors in the best Victorian sense of emulation as role-modelling. What connects these authors is the way they de-verse poetry, stripping out rhyme and metre, rendering their sources into prose and, in the process, freely borrowing individual words and distinctive phrases from the poets to add beauty and erudition to their own chosen topics. Notably absent from the repertoire of these writers is the novel – realist, romantic, picaresque, or otherwise. For all its seriousness of tone, their writing can be regarded as less anxious and more playful than allowed for by notions of mimicry, either in its subservient sense as emulation or in its politically subversive sense as parody and satire. These authors seem to relish and exploit the disembodied quality of writing that characterises newsprint, as articulated by newspaper editors in their sense of the global reach of print, and as theorised by Benedict Anderson in his classic account of newspaper readerships (2006 ). This literature is ludic, playful with English language and literature while also carrying symbolic and moral messages about readers’ capacity to inhabit a world made available by print.
Dick Carnis, B.B. and A Banker make sense through the framework of popular literary genres in the late nineteenth century, including homilies and psalms, and through educational techniques such as recitation and copying out, as well as through local aesthetic cultures in which the use of quotation simultaneously enabled creative innovation and political critique. Creative writers in the Gold Coast Leader thus show that to write well may have been to write ‘in the style of’ canonical authors, and in so doing they showcased their erudition and intellectual leadership.
These writers produced postcolonial utopias, imagining universal spaces inhabited by humans unmarked by hierarchies of class, gender and race. Dick Carnis defined his audience as ‘all [who] may read’: ‘[n]o flowery legends these, but actual facts in golden letters wrought that all may read, e’en they who run’ (Gold Coast Leader, 15 Oct 1904, p. 3; citing the Book of Habakkuk 2:2). Given its dense, verbose literary style, many readers might have wished to run from the full serialisation of ‘Between Ourselves’, but the world addressed by Dick Carnis included all Anglo-literates: all can freely access his ‘actual facts in golden letters’ because they appear in the medium of newsprint. Moreover, these authors’ pseudonymity gave them status as print-mediated subjects that took away the pressure either to mimic or to innovate and rendered any dichotomies between originals and copies irrelevant: why would a pseudonymous author be anxious about his or her influences, given that accusations of derivation (and acknowledgements of originality) require the existence of a named author as a legal entity who wishes to assert ownership over a text for posterity?
Their work illustrates the importance of activating the category of ‘local’. English-language creative writing in colonial West African newspapers is not equivalent to anglophone literatures from other parts of the English-speaking world. Whatever the geographical origin of an author, it is necessary to think about how English-language writing, as printed in locally owned newspapers in colonial settings, is entangled with the social histories of reading and print in those places. Indeed, given the crucial mediating role of print in English-language writing in the British empire, anglophone might usefully be pulled into two parts, the prefix retained and the suffix discarded: in disconnecting the ‘-phone’, with its emphasis on spoken language and sound, it becomes possible to think about authors and readers in British colonial contexts as ‘Anglo-scribes’ and ‘Anglo-literates’, as people who were mediated by and saturated in print, whose textual ‘voices’ were produced by and in print, and who were firmly situated in local print cultures where – in ‘British West Africa’ at least – mastery of English mediated the political relationships between local and transregional elites and sub-elites, and also helped a person to gain access to transnational networks.
Africanist literary scholars have, for good reason, tended to focus on the cultural specificity of African literatures and the nuanced ways in which local authors engage with their particular times and places. But as the examples in this essay have shown, even the most ‘local’ narrative engages with universals: in adopting transcendental frames of reference and borrowing freely from English literary resources, these authors were thinking beyond their location in specific histories and places. In this gesture, they can be regarded as truly post-colonial in that they demonstrate, or model, a cosmopolitan humanist vision for a dis-embodied and non-colonised English writing that is neutral, transhistorical and genuinely global in its ability to move transnationally through space. As such, they exemplify Primorac’s identification, discussed at the start of this essay, of a ‘universalistic poetics’ in local African literatures.
Nevertheless, Dick Carnis and B.B. remained ‘local’ – or located – in a way that A Banker was not, using English poetry to host political critiques of Gold Coast institutions. The pleasure of influence and confidence exhibited by Dick Carnis and B.B. exhibit a form of local cosmopolitanism in which, as Anglo-literates, they asserted the right to cite freely from, and to globalise, the English literary canon. This is the flip-side of the nineteenth-century vision of English literary superiority, infamously pressed into the service of imperial expansion in India by Thomas Babington Macaulay in his infamous ‘Minute on Indian Education’ (1835), quoted widely and indignantly the world over by postcolonial critics, in which he insisted that the global superiority of English literature gave cultural legitimacy to the British right to rule. Over and against this nationalist insularity was the universalist idea of English literature espoused by West Africa’s local literary elites in the Gold Coast Leader at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The newspaper creative writing discussed in this essay reveals local editors and authors projecting the existence of an egalitarian world produced in and by letters, populated by disembodied print-subjects (separated from their ‘selves’ by pseudonymity and print), who had access to the English language, who existed in and because of newsprint and whose works had the potential to circulate globally. Nevertheless, Simon Gikandi’s (2001) observation that English Literature was global in its reach but parochially national in its periodisation and practice is relevant in this context. Anglo-scribes and Anglo-literates in British West Africa continuously risked reabsorption into the British colonial project articulated by Macaulay in the 1830s and institutionalised a century later by F.R. and Q.D. Leavis (Gikandi, 2001, p. 654).
Newspaper editors’ shared belief in the capacity of print to carry messages across the world, and their sense of the free availability of English-language literature, the Bible and the classics for their own use, was anything but a watery universalist vision of ‘imagined communities’ or a cry for visibility from peripheral cultures. Rather, to borrow Edward Said’s (1994) terms in his essay on Fanon and Lukacs, ‘the fiery core’ of the borrowed material was ‘reignited’, and a postcolonial humanist affiliation was asserted worldwide (p. 452). Said’s argument works well to describe Anglo-literate print communities for whom the borrowing of poetry across global spaces exemplified the humanistic assertion of ‘intellectual, and perhaps moral, community of a remarkable kind, affiliation in the deepest and most interesting sense of the word’ (p. 450). This was a utopian humanism made possible by print, a universalism that was locally situated in the political specificities of authors’ times and places.
The texts at the heart of this essay were local in their specificity and plural in their forms. While it would be easy to regard them as ‘emergent’, ‘nascent’, ‘amateur’ and ‘experimental’, rather than as substantial textual productions in their own right, with their own integrity and historicity, this essay has been motivated by the question of what Africanist literary historians can do with all those texts that have no obvious place in the literary and cultural logic of our hindsight. If we respect newspaper writers’ creative contributions on their own terms, swathes of printed matter that might otherwise be regarded as peripheral to global cultures regain relevance to West African cultural and literary history – and to world literatures – under the rubric of the local. The idea of the local allows scholars to search newsprint for expressions of critical opinions and subjectivities that may be so culturally and politically nonaligned as to engage with other priorities than those that have come to frame (post)colonial people’s lives in the twentieth century. Local writers produced their own theories of identity, place, history and culture, some of which overlap with core positions in postcolonial literary debates, many of which responded to global events as they happened, and most of which were produced by authors and intellectuals situated in West African countries where the four corners of the printed page allowed them, in their imaginations at least, to address the four corners of the world from their own times and places.
Ways of Civilization.
We can only repeat here, what we have often said in these columns since the intended application of the Ordinance to our Towns was made known. The Ordinance is intended for the people, yet they had no voice in the making of it. When made, it was first tried at Accra and the results have shown that the Ordinance as it is, will not do for this country. Town Councils exist elsewhere, and ours have been modelled according to these; but they are with people whose ideas and customs easily fall in with them. Not so with us, as a people we have our own municipal laws, which because of our having come in contact with a foreign Power, may be harmoniously blended with the foreigner’s for the peace and prosperity of the governed, and the dignity of the government. Is this asking for too much? Do the authorities lose any prestige in doing so? Will it not rather command the respect of the People among whom they have come to live and redound to the fame of our Empire for justice and fairplay irrespective of colour or creed?
As for the dictum that the law must be enforced because the Secretary of State has so ordered, we can only take it to be an attempt to throw the responsibility on some body’s shoulders. Mr. Lyttleton knows nothing of the people and their country more than what his official duties can tell him, at all events he can never know of us as those who have lived and are living amongst us, not even those who have spent years at the Downing Street. We leave the inference to be drawn by those immediately concerned. This Colony may be brimful of Ordinances, but with a MAN to apply them, there may be very little to complain of and it is said we have had our man in the present Administrator. We patiently look on.
Between Ourselves (by dick carnis.)
Stand by! ye giddy wrestlers for the lustrous Moon, stand by!
Next to men by whom crude thoughts and past events in silken garb are clad—whose paeans erstwhile with lusty voice, in dulcet tones, we sang—lend us ravished ears, all ye that thrive on Briefs; and ye worthy Leeches in numbers, least of all,— experts, men of science, hearken enrapt, enchained!
Strike aloud! magic lyre and cool this savage breast that burns with strange and febrile fires, while we descant upon the wondrous tale of sweet release and speechless conquest—this, o’er red-stained maws and hoofs of death; that, from shameless tongues of lethal foes. No flowery legends these, but actual facts in golden letters wrought that all may read, e’en they who run.
First of all—Tardy Greetings! ye who coin for drachms the careworn brow of ruthless pain, that may hold intact their natal rights of restful peace. For thus and thus stand ye accused.
Curious lips wag ill of you.
They tell of devious ways and crooked deals. In tenor parts, proud censors wild depose, that ye have sold the inner man for calf and live to crush and squeeze the widow and the poor, the sireless babe and lonely wight, the village swain and the upland chief. Do ye make hay through thick and thin while melting rays of tropic suns endure?
Gripped by hounds unleashed and prodded on by imps of mischief, do grim spectres in gruesome dress arrayed drive you headlong into lethean lakes?
Alas! alas the day! if this be so—Buckle on the sword and with lance and shield hie forth to the fray; meet as men of war; let them no more malign, if guiltess, Right doth rule the roost within your, manly hearts.
More spiteful tongues wax strong and bold:—Runners after creature comforts of weary worlds, who yet share not their spoils with sighing, gnawing grief! Sarcoid souls that barter costliest goods for naught, who would not see the dangers of the land while on her fat, ye gorge and batten—the sleek and haughty spawns of Jove. Called for redress, do ye indeed offences breed and goad on to greater losses, making common cause alike with them that strike as well with them that suffer blows of vengeful ire? Ye let loose the starving dogs of war, gathering where none has strawed—austere and hard as Jingo himself. And if perchance ye briefless be, e’en when no tape of red and blue binds fast the rustling sheets that hope of gain insure, turn ye recreant spies and reckless sneaks for sparkling potion and mess of crimson potage? Ye feed upon scandal’s brimming bowl and rumour’s treacherous wail of woe, with laches foulest breath of busy life. At variance with each other, ye fill the vernal air with feuds and broils and secret ban. Is there one thread or jot of truth in this? Say, oh say, dwells ought of solid substance in such grave and serious counts, fraught with venom, full of vile? What is the plea? Is it because abuse is now become the thing in vogue? May be out of malice prepense and without rhyme and without cause?
Blare not the trump of artless lays in praise of selves—a long blast to prove you guileless and sincere. Stay while of bias bereft, we call up minds that daily beat for the nations rhythmic plaint: for gall and wormwood ’tis, to hear the favoured tribes of toil and moil so badly mauled by deadly fangs of ravenous wolves.
Oyez! Who but lately saved the threatened land from grasping paws of the forest King and the lordly unicorn? And who laid down what all hold dear, without price, for love’s sweet sake? The groans of tens of thousands, the tears of orphans, the broken chords of shattered hearts—where found these refuge and hiding place, but in sterling men attuned for heroic ends. And such were some of you in this Country’s gloomiest, most crucial moments. Recall who then dispensed the law, revealed its meaning, scoured through its mazes, sounded its depths with the plummet of sense and zeal: and who there be, that can its gordian knot yet sever, but you whom ingrats brand hell-hounds in virtuous wrath so ill assail?
Should teeming clans so soon forget and sting the hand stretched out to save? Could this be Christian act or fruit of moral grace? In no pleasant places have the lines fallen. See here, the lot of them that doff grey wig and dusky gown! Well-loved to-day, hated the next; revered and oft reviled; despised and yet adored—by fits and starts. ‘Tis yours to wave the palm and then the branch of moaning cypress: smiles and frowns, bliss and curse together grow for you whom Briefs enrich or render poor.
And what of you who by deft fingers trace the fluttering pulse, the throbs of the hale and the wan, of old and young, the ebb and flow of the living stream? Fare forth, with lancet and scalpel probe the vitals of the weak, and glad assuage the ills to which we are the lawful heirs.
From crown to sole are ancient wounds that fester and destroy amain. The dumb, the lame, the blind, the halt and maimed would catch the piercing eye and feel the touch of the skilful hand: for Quacks have played us false, fleecing by rule of thumb and still they ride rough-shod over the lea, ending where they should mend and marring where they might make anew.
We have Kings to the right and Chiefs to the left in plenty, but who like sorry steeds no longer sport the shaggy mane, nor strong to prance, nor swift for the unequal race. Cheer them, in their saddest plight; keep watch and ward—not for loaves nor for fishes but with joy that shakes the spheres, and for strenuous love that moves the wheels of whirling orbs.
There’s much ado about nothing grand and high: much stir but no certain sign of sure advance. Let then your cry be Roman shout for courage and for pluck. Lift skyward the banner, man of men, most honoured of all! and with your valiant team, brood over us like a gentle dove, wide-winged and teach us how to grind through mills the finest dust of civic power. Give us the will to dash through leafy wood where brightly hang the silvern drops of dew and rain—bringing not buck nor roe; but as the hunter marks well mid herds of bigger game and in the nick of time lets fly all strength of nerve and death to profit, so help us to aim the well-meant blow that seldom fails. Say each, will I arms in hand waste shot and shell on that which may not give drawn force to those I serve.
We know, what mortal man for naught obtains he’s apt to lightly prize. Still sing:—Row to me, row back, ye who have crossed the dull expanse of turbid seas. The rose bush is bare of bloom and the fecund sod one crunching carpet of withered leaves—yet care for them, come hustle them out of old and musty grooves with flow of spirit and genial warmth: guard against plots of touts; fight through rings of preying Jackals; bear us no grudge, as we deserve—save, oh, save the land! and brow cast sow the seeds—of promise the Eden that is to be. And more than all let our native sanctions grow into law stalwart and sublime; think high of them; for Roman dictum and these decrees are one at base and root. Fail in, fall thus and win the madding crowd. By scores and hundreds come! there’s room for all. We’ve much of precious ore mixed up with dirt—this assay: am I, are we not wise enough to extract the burnished gold from the cumbrous dross? Holders of Briefs and Leeches all, hear the parting word! Shadows steal across the path, and gloom darkeus the landscape o’er: acorn and hate breathe upon the leaden soil—But morning breaks; twill soon be day, if faith weds chaste and honest brain. Pay then your dole of life,s [sic] increased demands: quit bowers of ease and spells; fling you into the seething vortex fling, and yield back our rights of regal birth. Agree unite, enter the hallowed fane of fame; lay seige to man-soul and find a quiet niche therein, where each may carve a name to conjure with on sea and land. Be no gilded pawns but Kings had Bishops and Knights supreme. Come but is the guise whereof we know, not in piebald raiments, beyond our ken. We seek no selfish helmsmen before the storms and tempests of the raging main, but Captains of repute, musing upon the conning tower, bent towards the destined goal in.
We’ve held forth as we hear, and side by side, that which we know to be the truth—whole truth nothing but truth.
Thus our say we’ve held forth as we hear and side by side also that which we know. Hark back and wherein ye fall short amend, that all may live to our this record true. Range far; read more; dig deep; delve and drudger. We need no pompous symbols and pushful cyphers of cryptic lore but men of men, Princes in wisdom steeped—who know and know they know. Accept this meed of praise though but a humble fare and can the solemn charge. Adieu.
A Shrouded World (by a banker).
Looking backward down the long vista of the ages, we see in the dim, far off past an epoch in the history of the world when a great part of the entire northern hemisphere was over-whelmed with a mighty cataclysm of ever advancing ice; a gelid shroud which in its onward march buried deep beneath its icy pall many of the fairest portions of the earth’s surface, almost exterminating all life, and changing the flower-bedecked parterres and the verdure covered hills and dales from a beautiful garden to an arid ice-bound waste.
On, on, on, the mighty frozen deluge continues its pitiless onrush, never pausing never retreating, but gripping tight all nature with the iron clasp of the cold hand of death. How was it that the sun failed to check the irruption of these colossal arctic surges? Whence originated the prodigious ocean of waters which became frozen into those towering ramparts of moving ice; in some localities several thousand feet in thickness? And what war the stupendous force which impelled the frozen, billowy ocean up-hill, down-hill, and even over the summits of mountains, and across the beds of seas and lakes?
What a spectacle must the advance of this frozen flood have presented in, for instance, Britain. Preceded doubtless, by continually decreasing temperature, and heralded by a roar as of ten thousand thunders, as the heaving fields and mountains of ice were rent and torn by the herculean power which was perpetually impelling them onward, the advancing mass have from time to time been cleft asunder, and millions of tons of ice hurled over mountain precipice, and over lofty beetling craigs and escarpments, with a resounding, detonating crash such as had not been heard on this earth since that still more remote day when its gradual shrinkage was forcing upwards the several ranges of mountains and hills. At length fair Britain lies wholly buried beneath an icy pall more than a thousand feet in thickness, and the luxuriant, nature-favoured land, which before had vibrated with life and beauty, was utterly obliterated from the face the earth, and, save perhaps a few of the highest peaks of her mountains, inhumed in a grinding icy sepulchre. And then the fiat went forth, the advance was arrested, the wintry shroud was slowly lifted, and once more she revelled in the enjoyment of life and radiant, fascinating loveliness.
And surely this transition reminds us of ourselves. Gripped in the icy clutches of a cold, callous wordliness which, like a gelid shroud, crushes, and deadens our finer sympathies and emotions, the warmth and glow of our spiritual aspirations is frozen out of our soul. But if by the aid of the Holy Spirit we grasp the outstretched hand of Him who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, that benumbing deadness will melt away, and we shall revel in the gladness of His chosen.
When your neighbours house is on fire it is time that you looked to your own, and the saying could be appropriately and practically applied in connection with the quite anomalous application of the egregious and most detestable “Town Councils Ordinance” to the town of Sekondi. There has been paralysing my people a chronic disease of indifference, difficult to unravel, that necessitates an effective febrifuge, and if the forcing into our throat of such arbitrary. Ordinances begotten by a determined effort to ignore our treaty rights and liberties could in some way avail to arouse them from their lethargic inclination. l should altogether deem it a blessing in disguise, although such monstrosities should never be suffered to pass to possibilities. A threefold cord is not quickly broken, and had the majority, not to say all, of the towns in the protectorate been as dutifully mindful of the maintenance intact of their rights and liberties, as one or two towns out of the lot had been actively doing, much of the official irresponsibility and irregularly, not to say faithlessness, assumed! through serpentine ways and means and almost resulting in our
This article was researched and written during my period as Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor to Newcastle University between August 2019 and July 2020. I am indebted to the Leverhulme Trust for its generous support.
Nobody has undertaken for the period between the 1880s and the mid-1940s what Lindfors did for the mid-1940s to the early 1970s in his comprehensive Bibliography of Literary Contributions to Nigerian Periodicals, 1946–1972 (1975), which catalogues over 4,000 separate items published in English-language newspapers and magazines in Nigeria alone.
Dusé Mohamed Ali (1866–1945) was an Egyptian-born intellectual and creative artist who edited or contributed to African and pan-Africanist newspapers in Britain, the United States and Nigeria. At the end of his long career he migrated to Lagos and, together with his spouse, the American actress and Rosicrucian practitioner Gertrude La Page, launched the Comet, described as “a News-Magazine that will be ‘different’, replete with information of a varied character and not a newspaper in the ordinary sense of the term” (29 July 1933, p. 4).
In Sekyi’s Fante-English play, the “bombastic” character, Mrs. Borofosem, gets her English grammar and cultural references all wrong, thus demonstrating Sekyi’s derision for poorly educated Africans. By contrast, the authors discussed in this chapter use impeccable English language and grammar, exemplifying what Sekyi’s lower-class woman a decade later can never hope to achieve.
My guarded acceptance of the gender pronoun indicated by Dick Carnis’s pseudonym is no indication that this author was in fact a man. While historians have identified few, if any, female columnists for the West African press at this time, authors’ use of pseudonyms demands that readers keep open the diversity of possibilities for gendered authorship and attribution. For a further discussion of these issues, see Newell, 2013.
Alongside Shelley, the poet accompanying Dick Carnis on his literary journey is John Milton, another writer renowned for his advocacy of freedom of speech and the right to self-determination for oppressed people (Schwartz, 2012).
Note the bias against unschooled Africans in this sentence. The sense of superiority among educated elites and their support for “modern” educated youths against “illiterate chiefs” lasted for many decades, and was central to the ideology of Nigerian popular pamphlet literature in the 1950s and 1960s.