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British influences on Christian practices of the population of the Gold Coast

Although the belief in Jesus Christ was not introduced by the British but by the Portuguese missionaries, who brought their creed to the land of the Gold Coast in the fifteenth century, it was the British colonial authorities that controlled and facilitated the spread of Christian faith among “uncivilized” indigenous inhabitants of the area remaining under their jurisdiction. Since the expansion of Christianity was provided by missionary educational activity, British colonial power facilitated the foundation of missionary institutions and the development of missionary activities in the Gold Coast, the former being created on the pieces of land which were leased to Christian denominations by local chiefs. In the beginning, missionary schools were financially supported by the European parishes, since the early 1920s, however, the funds provided by colonial administration grew in importance as the British catered mainly for the establishment of health clinics and hospitals in rural areas, and covered most of the expenses of the schools including the purchase of textbooks and teachers’ training (Hastings 1976:65-67).

The mutual efforts of the colonial authorities and missionaries concerning the educational development of the population of the colony led to the introduction of formal education on the Gold Coast (Curtin 1995:648), which offered a means of social and economic advancement. An educated Ghanaian elite was born, whose members were lawyers, doctors and accountants, working either for the colonial administration or for companies outside the country after graduating from foreign universities. In rural areas skilled farmers appeared, and throughout the colony educational development of women was promoted.

Christianity itself, its spread and growth among the population of the Gold Coast was strongly stimulated by the phenomenon of colonialism. The natives lost the belief in the indigenous gods, since they failed to defend their followers either from the European invasion or from sickness and famine. At the same time, the idea of the new prophet, Jesus Christ, who was believed to come to announce God’s will and initiate the revival of religious life by cleansing the community of influences of unchaste forces and starting everything from the very beginning again seemed extremely appealing and made the majority of the native people convert into the new creed (Fiawo 2007:22).

The establishment of Christian faith and development of the missionary educational system that followed was not the only benefit the missionaries gained from the arrival of British colonial power. Together with the recognition of Christianity among their subjects, the British colonial authorities welcomed the change in the mode of dress of the coastal population and adoption of British names (Caldwell 1968:10). Consequently, after being born male children of Ghanaian converts were given names such as Jack, Olivier, Harry, Charles, William or James, whereas female representatives of Christian faith were named Grace, Brenda, Emily, and so on.

More important were the changes made by the colonial jurisdiction concerning religious practices (Anyidoho 1983:11). Since bride-wealth, puberty rites and polygamy opposed Christian “civilized” customs and beliefs, they were abolished. Burying of the deceased, whether Christian by faith or not in places other than a cemetery was abolished as the body of every dead person deserved to be interred in a sanitary manner. Besides, it was belief of the colonial government that “the exhalation of the gases and the emanations of the dead into the air posed a serious threat to public health”. The belief was backed by the observation of the manner in which parochial authorities had treated bodies of the deceased before. Robert Baker, a sanitary reformer from Leeds, England, states in one of his reports given to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Interment in 1842:

I was in the ground last Wednesday collecting information and the sexton took me to a grave which they were digging for the internment of a female; two feet below the surface they took out the body of an illegitimate child, and it had been buried for five years; below that and two feet six inches below the surface were two coffins side by side, the bones were in a state of freshness; the matter had putrified off the bones, but they were perfectly fresh; they were thrown on the surface and at that time the person came in who was going to do the internment; he spoke to me about it and made use of the expression: ”Look! These are the skulls of my father and brother and the bones of my relations-is not this a bad business”(Greene 2002:65).

To understand the novelty of establishment of the public burial grounds by the Burial Acts in 1852, a few words must be said about the notion the native population of the Gold Coast shared concerning the deceased and the matter of their interment.

Since it was their strong belief that spiritual and physical worlds are interwoven and the peace of earthly life of an individual family is dependent on the comfort and serenity of their ancestors and departed members in the spiritual life, that is, after death, the indigenous population of the coastal area was extremely careful when choosing a place of burial of the dead. Apart from extra care about the content of the deceased, it was essential not to forget that the spirit of the dead might want to return in reincarnated form to the family. Finally, a carefully chosen place of interment served the purpose of assuring the spirit of the deceased that even though his/her body is lifeless, the spirit and soul is still appreciated, loved and remembered, thus expected to keep his/her living members of the family from the danger of sickness, starvation or any other harm.

As it was observed by Greene(2002:66) , who researched methods of burial in the early nineteenth century:

A man who had married, built his own home, and died an “acceptable” or “good” death was interred in his own home. An adult woman who had given birth was buried in a room in the house of a paternal relative. Firstborn children were also buried within their paternal family’s compound, usually in the floor of the bathhouse (Greene 2002:66).

The handling of the body of the deceased described above was not to be understood and accepted by both missionaries and colonial authorities as it contradicted the Christian belief that the departed and the living can communicate with one another no sooner than on Judgment Day when souls of the dead would awake to answer before God. In terms of the place of interment a graveyard was the only acceptable place since it was not appropriate to keep the dead body among the living, which would bring disease and bad odour (Greene 2002:69) .

National legislation on the establishment of public burial grounds passed in 1852 turned out to be less effective than it had been expected since it applied to major towns of the Gold Coast only, still allowing burials in an unsanitary manner in the rest of the colony (Chanock 1985:75-76). There were attempts, however, to change the situation when in 1911 the colonial authorities made amendments to the Burial Acts expanding its area of power over all villages and other settlements remaining under the colonial authority.

Unfortunately, launching the new regulation did not bring satisfactory results since the population of rural areas had no intention to adopt “modern” , incomprehensible for them, approaches to interment. The majority of them still buried their dead relatives’ bodies in their homes and interred empty coffins in the cemeteries only for fear of getting a fine for not obliging the law. The appointment of medical officers whose responsibility was to visit assigned to them cemeteries and sanitary inspections did not influence the old burial customs either (ibid 1985:77).

The nature of resistance of coastal people to interring the deceased in public cemeteries led colonial authorities to understanding that in order to have their legislation enforced the mentality of their subjects had to be changed. As the only means to achieve it was that offered by education, the British government decided to impose teaching sanitation on all schools receiving its assistance. It was warmly welcomed by teachers and lectures on hygiene began bringing positive results. During lessons books explaining the health risks associated with improper burials were read, and for better understanding of the problem students were engaged in discussions on the matter of their study. Since dance and performance played an extremely important role in Ghanaians everyday life, they were employed by the teachers in the process of education. Sanitation dramas were performed with participating students dividing themselves into two groups: those acting as “sanitary inspectors” and the rest playing the role of chiefs of their villages. During the play, students who were personating the colonial officers would inform “their” subjects about the hazardous character of burying the dead at their houses since the decomposing bodies of the deceased could bring a number of diseases affecting the health not only of one family, but the whole community. As the “chiefs” would have their own view on the matter of interment based on the tradition they had been brought up in, they would present their own arguments, thus the debate would open, ending with the convincing the “native population” to adopt “colonial” approaches and to abandon traditional reasoning (Greene 2002:73-74).

The debate technique was extremely helpful in spreading and disseminating the habit of “proper” burials since as it armed them with the ability to translate scientific knowledge into the language which would be understandable by local people and influence their habits concerning decisions on the manner of body’s disposal, students were able to educate their parents and other members of their communities on that subject. Consequently, the mentality of the native population of the Gold Coast was gradually changing, which was reinforced by another legislation passed by the colonial government on the introduction of Health Weeks, periods during which the most sanitary compounds were awarded a prize (ibid 2002:74).

As a result of the governmental educational policy, the majority of the indigenous population of the Gold Coast realized the necessity to alter their interment practices. A number of them not only began burying bodies of the deceased members of families within the area of public burial grounds, but also felt responsible for propagating this practice among their communities. Those were most often the graduates of the mission schools, such as Chief James Ocloo, Togbui Sokpui and Awoamefia Sri II (Anyidoho 1983:13).


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