Jacob Wilson Sey aka “Kwaa Bonyi”, President of the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society. The first real architect and financier towards Ghana`s independence. He was the first Gold Coast millionaire.
Image from "Political History of Ghana", by David Kimble, Oxford Press, 1963. Used with permission.
THERE were many great people who were the honour and leaders of their generations but who died unsung and their memories forgotten by posterity, so is that of Mr. Jacob Wilson-Sey, popularly known by his nick-name “Kwaa Bonyi”. This nick-name he earned from his light hearted jokes which made many people consider him merely as a joker who should not be taken seriously. These people nicknamed him “Kwaa Aboan’nyi” which literally meant – there is Kwaw the ‘joker’. Wilson Sey of Anomabo, in Gold Coast now Ghana was one person who gave his all for his country and yet has not been properly rewarded. He was the first Gold Coast millionaire! His singular act of financing Gold Coast deputation to England to debate the Land Bill of 1897 saved the the entire West African coast from their land being ceased as the Queen`s property.
Jacob Wilson-Sey was born in Asafura-Biriwa, a fishing village near Anomabo to a poor and illiterate couple on 10th March, 1832. His father was Paapa Saah – a Carpenter and his mother Maame Abadua – a Farmer. Kwaa Bonyi belonged to the Akona Ebiradze family of Anomabo.
Jacob did not have any opportunity for formal education and right from childhood, he was compelled to pursue his father’s calling and he also sold palm-wine for many years. Jacob was a neglected child and apart from about seven pounds which his mother gave him and which he used to purchase a farmland at Asafura village near Biriwa, he received no other help of any kind from any member of his family.
Later, Jacob studied joinery and became a coffin vendor. Many people flocked to buy coffins from him, because he used his great sense of humour and his jokes to create laughter ad thus lightened the grief of bereaved families at his workshop. He was noted for coining his own version of the English language spicing it with Fante words. For example:
"The Epo Prams of the sea has nothing to do with Akesaw’s Podise” – meaning – the high tides of the sea have nothing to do with a crablet.
Whenever he found the going tough with his coffin trade because of lack of money to fund it, he always fell back on his palm-wine tapping and palm oil manufacturing trade.
Jacob had two other brothers namely Ewusi – who came to be known as Joseph Wilson-Sey and a younger brother called Kwabena.
Jacob came by his enormous wealth in the manner that looked like a fairly tale, an African ‘Aladdin Cave tale’ and became one of the very, very few multi-millionaires in the whole of Africa.
It is said that one early morning at about 12:45a.m., Kwaa-Bonyi decided to visit a certain farm between Asafura and Egyirfa where he could get excellent palm fruits. He left for this farm when the whole village was still asleep. That day, he did not sing hymns, as was his habit whenever he was working or walking, but he restricted himself to praying silently. Fortunately, it was a bright moon night. When he reached the farm, he saw a very tall palm tree near a hill. He went to the tree and began to climb it, but a snake chased him up the palm tree.
Terrified of the scaly monster, Kwaa Bonyi lost his grip and fell to the ground unconscious. It is said that he heard a voice commanding him to wake up and go in peace and therefore show love and kindness to the needy. On regaining consciousness, his eyes fell on a glittering object. Out of curiosity, he cautiously approached it, took it up and examined it. To his amazement, it proved to be a gold nugget. He also saw in the near-by bush what seemed to be a number of pots filled with pure gold.
He sealed off the place and over a period of time, managed to smuggle the pots of gold secretly to his house. This treasure trove was supposed to be worth about two hundred billion pounds today. From that time onward, his life changed dramatically.
No longer was he Kwaa Bonyi the poor and illiterate; no longer the palm wine seller;
People knew, no longer the carpenter who sold coffin and no more the palm oil manufacturer, he was Jacob Wilson-Sey Esq.
Clothed in expensive silk shirts, tail coats and trousers, top and bowler hats. Jacob was a co-founder and the first President of the Aborigine Rights Protection Society, which was bent on opposing the Lands Bill of 1897. In this connection, Jacob led a deputation to present a petition to Queen Victoria in England and was received at No. 10 Downing Street to parlay with the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies on behalf of the kings, chiefs and the people of the Gold Coast on the abrogation of the notorious Land Bill of 1897 which had appeared in the Government’s Gazette extra-ordinary No.8 dated 10th March, 1897. The only two unofficial Gold Coast members in the Legislative Council at that time were helpless in blocking its passage.
The petition was signed by 15 kings made up of: Amonoo IV, King of Anomabu; Otu IV, King of Abura; Kwame Essandoh IV, King of Nkusukum; Badu Bonsa, King of Ahanta; Hima Denkyi, King Atta, King of Behin – Western Appolonia; Wiraku Atobura, King of Western Wassaw; Kwesi Ble, King of Atoabu, Eastern Appolonia; Nkwantabisa, King of Denkyira; Akyin II, King of Ekumfi; Kobina Kondua, King of Elmina; Kobina Hamah, King of Adjumaku and over 64 Chiefs from the western and Central provinces.
George Hughes, E.F. Hunt, T.F.E. Jones, the 1897 London Deputation of the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society Image from "Political History of Ghana", by David Kimble, Oxford Press, 1963. Used with permission.
With the legal help of Edward F. Hunt, a solicitor from Sierra Leone who was assisted by a leading London firm of legal practitioners – Messrs Ashurst, Crips Co. and Mr. Corrie, Barrister at Law, the deputation consisting of Jacob Wilson-Sey (leader), Thomas Freemnand, Edward Jones and George Hughes (both merchants at Cape Coast) succeeded in their mission.
They returned to the Gold Coast with a letter from Queen Victoria abrogating the Land’s Bill and a gift of her bust. This was later mounted on a plot of land near the sea which later came to be known as Victoria Park for durbars and other state functions. The bust was unveiled in 1925 by Princess Anne, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
He encouraged the chiefs to build other Victoria Parks in their parts of the country in honour of this illustrious queen. Thus resulted in the building of Victoria Parks in Saltpond, Winneba, Elmina, Axim, Accra, Koforidua and Kyebi, etc. It is note-worthy that all the expenses on the deputation, running into thousands of pounds, were fully borne by Jacob Wilson-Sey alone. It is said that he hired a ship called “Alba” to convey the deputation to and from Britain.
Jacob Wilson Sey`s money went into the transformation of this great school
On his return to the Gold Coast from Britain, Jacob Wilson-Sey continued to plan for the betterment of the people of Cape Coast and the entire Central Province. He turned his efforts to the introduction of railway to serve Cape Coast and its environs. In conjunction with his good friend John Mensah Sarbah who was on very cordial terms with Governors White, Griffith, Hodgson and Maxwell, they negotiated for this project.
The condition given to them was that if Cape Coast and its hinterland would be able to produce two tons of cocoa a year, a railway line would be built as an economic proposition. To implement this condition, it became necessary to stimulate and encourage the native farmers to accelerate the growth of cocoa and palm oil. Jacob Wilson-Sey and Mensah Sarbah made substantial cash advances to them in order to achieved this, but the target was unattainable within the time set.
Indeed, if it had bee achieved it would have been the eighth wonder of the world, since in 1919 the entire cocoa output of the whole country was only 80ibs – twenty-eighth of a ton. Each farmer would have had to increase his output fifty-six times over the year. But he was able to bring help of another kind to the people of Cape Coast.
With the building of a wharf at Sekondi, the importance of Cape Coast began to wane. Many of its lawyers, e.g. Casely-Hayford, Riberrio, Charles Bannerman, Hutton Mills, Renner and Sapara-Williams left for either Accra, Axim, or Takoradi. Kwaa Bonyi bought many houses in Cape Coast and entreated these people and others to return and occupy them free of charge.
Among the many houses old Sey bought in Cape Coast for the returnees were Candle House, Commissariat House, de-Graft House, Palm House, Fordgate House No.2, PWD Building, Rose Pillars, Colonial School, Russel House, Standard Bank Building, part of Supreme Court building and many others. On top of these houses, he erected a replica of a pot of palm wine in clay in recognition of his early beginnings and the good fortune which had made it all possible.
Jacob Wilson-Sey (Kwaa Bonyi) was a very staunch Methodist. He was known for his interest in and support of the church, financing the purchase of church; organs, repairing church buildings and providing the choristers with robes and hymn books.
He also paid the salaries of the clergy and other missionary staff. The magnanimity was not limited to the Methodist Church alone. All other churches in Cape Coast derived benefit from it.
He was a good patriot and made generous contributions in support of the moves to return to the Gold Coast Kings in exile – e.g. Kobena Gyan of Elmina and Nana Prempeh I of Ashanti. At last, after a brief illness, Kwaa Bonyi died in his house on May 22, 1902, at the age of 70 years. The bodies of both Kwaa Bonyi, and that of his wife Amba Kosimah, also known as Agnes Charlotte Morgue were buried in the graveyard near the Cape Coast Town Hall.
In conclusion, it could be said that Jacob Wilson-Sey was not only a good son of the Central Province/Region which he used his fabulous wealth to develop, but also a true patriot of the Gold Coast and indeed of the whole of Africa. But for the role he played in founding the Aborigines Right Protection Society and his sponsoring of a deputation to London to persuade Queen Victoria to abrogate the notorious Lands Bill of 1897, the lands of the Gold Coast would have been vested in the Crown and the Gold Coast would have been another South Africa, another Zimbabwe where land reclamation from the Whites have led to violence, anguish and several deaths of both the Blacks and the Whites.
Kwaa Bonyi should be lauded and his name established in the history of the country; for while other heroes’ and heroine’s work affected only their areas of origin, Kwaa Bonyi’s affected the whole of the country and thus saved her from anguish and deprivation which would otherwise have been its lot.
– The Palmwine Tapper
In the country’s Gallery of Celebrities,
We mount you as a reminder to your countrymen
That they were kings of commerce,
Till they chose to be agents.
Your history is a standard for thrift,
One of which any nation can be proud.
The conversion of four pounds into fifty thousand
Is the work of a commercial giant.
Born of landed aboriginals, you early took to the soil and found profit in the palm-tree.
Your mother, a wise woman, encouraged you, and gave you a little bank;
That bank was the idol that usurped the rightful place of your ability and talent,
Which were the means of the acquisition of your wealth:
For your countrymen had the belief,
That your mother entrusted you with a treasure-trove of gold dust in two palm wine ports.
The value of which in English currency would be five thousand pounds.
This can be contradicted.
Mr. W.T. Duncan was your neighbour in a house that faced the Cape Coast Castle.
You informed him that the story of your wealth was unfounded.
As it concerned the gold in palm pots,
And you confided to him, that the present from your mother was only.
“Esuanu” – four pounds one shilling.
Sire, with this foundation, you built a fortune by hard toil:
First, from the sale of palm-wine;
Secondly, from joinery and the sale of coffins;
And thirdly, from the sale of palm-oil.
At the third stage, you had risen to the enviable position of a commercial magnate.
Your fortune rose into tens of thousand.
You had no education to help you,
But you were able to maintain an equilibrium that carried you on till your death.
At the time of your death, you had over thirty thousand pounds in cash;
Ten thousand pounds owing to you, and your real estate exceeded ten thousand pounds,
These are not wonderful figures in now-a-day world.
But they are the magnificent fruits of the seed of four pounds and toil.
We leave the story to history.
It was the palm that gave you wealth.
We remind your countrymen of this,
And ask them to shake off the incubus of the foreigner-cocoa.
We acquire wealth, and we leave it:
But, if we help our country, we gain fame.
Your name has gained renown.
You will be remembered as a Patriot who helped his country with thousands;
Who, on the crisis of the Land Bill, his affairs and became an Ambassador of State to present a memorial to the Queen of England, And saved his country.
You will also be remembered as the first President of the Aborigines Protection Society.
JACOB WILSON-SEY is dead,
But, by his great and kind deeds, Jacob Sey still lives for his countrymen.
In the country’s Gallery of Celebrities, your country offer you a Chief place,
And hands you her Banquets
Aborigines' Rights Protection Society
Building the foundation of modern Ghana
The ideas behind these organizations rested on a long tradition of constitution-making and protest that can be traced back to the original constitutions of Sierra Leone (1787) and Liberia (1847), and the political treatises of James Africanus Beale Horton (1835-1883), Edward Blyden (1852-1912) and their intellectual circles. Mindful of the prevailing political climate of oppression and retaliation, indigenous chiefs and their educated subjects in the colonies evolved strategy and tactics that emphasized a conservative and constitutional approach to protest, always stressing their loyalty as British subjects. One of the most significant of these organizations was the Aborigines? Rights Protection Society (ARPS), founded in Cape Coast in 1897 (Tenkorang 1975; Edsman 1979: 54-67; Kimble 1963: 330-81).
The ARPS emerged from a protracted protest carried out by the Fante chiefs and people against a sustained attempt by the colonial government to pass legislation restricting their rights of land ownership and usage as well as assuming control of mineral and forest rights. In 1894, the colonial government submitted its first Lands Bill for consideration of the Legislative Council, in which there were only two African unofficial members. From the first whiff of the government?s plans, the chiefs and the educated elite organized petitions, public demonstrations, mass meetings, and a powerful press campaign, masterminded by Reverend Samuel Richard Brew Attoh-Ahuma (formerly Samuel Solomon) (1875-1921), who made no apology for turning his newspaper, the Gold Coast Methodist Times, from a religious organ into an engine of political protest.
The press characterized this legislation as ?civilised Robbery or British Brigandism.? A central theme developed by the press and petition-writers was that neither the Bond of 1844 nor the 1874 Proclamation defining British jurisdiction mentioned anything about the soil of the Gold Coast being the property of the British monarch.
Agitation against the lands bills stemmed from the deep reverence for land as the foundation of West African community and family life. One historian has concluded that seldom had a measure so far-reaching in its impact on society been introduced with so little understanding of its implications (Kimble 1963). According to customary law, all land was owned by the traditional authorities who administered it for the collective good of their people and their future descendants. For the government to take over even a portion of the control over land implied a significant reduction in the authority of the chiefs and family heads of families. In the process of defending indigenous institutions, John Mensah Sarbah (1864-1910) published Fanti Customary Laws (1897) and Fanti National Constitution (1906) and J. E. Casely Hayford (1866-1930) published Gold Coast Native Institutions (1903), which have remained important sources for understanding traditional polities.
In Great Britain, the ARPS agitation received support from several groups. Influential commercial interests joined the protest: mining companies, merchant groups with long-term links (and sometimes kinship ties) with Gold Coast merchants, and most worrying for the Colonial Office, the Chambers of Commerce of London, Liverpool and Manchester. But by far the most important backing came from the anti-imperialist pressure group, the Aborigines? Protection Society (APS), led by its secretary, F. H. Fox Bourne. Links between Fox Bourne and the leaders of the ARPS went back to 1891, when he proposed a fact-finding tour of West Africa. Then, he advised the editor of the Gold Coast Chronicle that interested residents in the principal towns should form local committees in order to supply information to the society for the purpose of securing justice in government policy throughout the Colony and the Protectorate. His letter received much publicity in the Gold Coast, and the Chronicle used it effectively to campaign for political unity and purposeful agitation. Although his visit never took place, ?united action? became the catchword of the day.
Throughout 1897 and the early months of 1898, the ARPS improved their methods of consultation, organizing regular meetings with the chiefs and setting up branches in all the main coastal towns and important chiefdoms. The executive arranged for legal advice in London, and set about collecting historical background information. The Colonial Office was duly informed that the Kings and Chiefs of the Western Province (Fanteland) intended to present their objections against the Lands Bill to Parliament while, at the same time, the administrators in the Gold Coast, proffered contradictory information that these same traditional rulers were more or less resigned to the pending legislation. In May 1898, the ARPS delegation, composed of three prosperous Cape Coast merchants
After an eloquent presentation of their case against the lands legislation, Chamberlain assured them that indigenous law and custom would prevail in all cases involving local peoples, and that cases involving indigenous law and custom would be decided in a judicial court. This represented a substantive victory for the ARPS and ensured the respectability of the movement at home, winning them widespread national publicity. Thereafter, quite a number of traditional rulers signed a declaration recognizing the ARPS executive to act on their behalf. The ARPS had no strong central organization until 1907 when the first formal constitution was drawn up.
A major difficulty concerned the question of how to create a permanent association that would neither limit the traditional authority of chiefs in their own states nor set any particular chief in higher position than the others. This issue was solved by delegating power to non-chiefs, the educated officers of the executive, who were authorized to act on behalf of the chiefs in summoning them together and in carrying out joint decisions. The president had the power to invite any or all of the chiefs for discussions of common problems or united action.
The main objectives of the ARPS was ?to protect the rights and interests of the Aborigines of the Gold Coast and to promote and effect unity of purpose and action and to be medium of communication and right understanding between the government and the people.? In addition, it set out to study legislative measures and monitor general government policy. The new constitution delineated the structure of the organization, providing rules for membership, entrance fees and subscriptions, the rules of procedure, and provided for sub-committees on such matters as commerce, sanitation, the press, and education.
Headquarters was located in Cape Coast, and the executive was to selected from the educated elite, consisting of a president, three vice-presidents, a recording secretary, a corresponding secretary, a treasurer and a Kyiami (a linguist). It set up a newspaper, The Gold Coast Aborigines.Clearly, the ARPS adopted a very conservative style, dedicated to a constitutional approach to protest, and careful in its expressions of loyalty to the British crown. The educated elite deployed it as a means of putting themselves in a position to mount effective protest against first the Lands Bill and then any other measure they perceived as inimical to the people?s interests. Thus backed by the chiefs, they knew that the government could not lightly dismiss their protests as being from just from a small group of alienated scholars.
Its original founders and members included some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day, including Joseph Peter Brown (1843-1932), a distinguished merchant prince; John Mensah Sarbah, the first Gold Coaster to qualify as a barrister; J. E. Casely Hayford, later to become one of the Gold Coast foremost politicians; Reverend Samuel Richard Brew Attoh-Ahuma (formerly Samuel Solomon), a distinguished clergyman and educator; and many other community leaders. In later years, William Esuman-Gwira Sekyi (1892-1956) (popularly known as Kobina Sekyi), an important cultural nationalist and writer, came to dominate the movement (Okonkwo 1985; Rhodie 1965). Some of these men published significant works that were read widely throughout the black world. They contributed to the evolving definition of the African Personality and African Nationhood.
In addition, there was a significant amount of interaction through personal meetings and correspondence with key African American and black British leaders. For example, Attoh-Ahuma, who served as the first secretary of the ARPS, later traveled to England and the United States, where he took up a succession of preaching appointments in various Protestant (some of them white) churches, obtained an M.A. at Livingstone College, and published a number of books on West African personalities and history (Ephson 1969: 76-78)During the twentieth century, the ARPS retained the same guiding principles that had sustained it during the Lands Bill agitation. Unfortunately, it became hidebound and failed to keep abreast of the times.
Its leaders grew complacent, assuming that they would retain their position as the link between the colonial government and the people. Moreover, the leaders in Cape Coast seemed oblivious to the fact that the centers of power had shifted to Accra and Kumasi. They could not adapt the structure and tactics of the organization to the changed circumstances of the colonial situation. Only too late, its leaders realized that power had slipped away from them, in favor of leaders with a more progressive outlook, who sought fundamental change in the colonial relationship. In 1920, it was eclipsed by the more progressive strategy and wider horizon of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA), although it continued to play a role in the ongoing political debate until 1935.
Edsman, Bjorn M. Lawyers in Gold Coast Politics c.1900-1945: From Mensah Sarbah to J. B. Danquah (Uppsala: Borgstroms Tryckeri Aktiebolag, Motala, 1979).
Ephson, Isaac S. Gallery of Gold Coast Celebrities 1632-1958, vol. I (Accra: Ilen Publications, Ltd., 1969).
Kimble, David. A Political History of Ghana: The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism 1850-1928 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).
Okonkwo, Rina. ?Kobina Seky: Forgotten Alternatives for African Development?, Heroes of West African Nationalism (Enugu: Delta of Nigeria, 1985).
Rhodie, Samuel. ?The Gold Coast Aborigines Abroad,? Journal of African History, 6, 1965.Tenkorang, Sammy. ?Gold Coast Aborigines Rights Protection Society 1897-1935,? Ph.D., University of London, 1975.