Professor A. Adu Boahen

Historian who shone new light on Africa's past and campaigned for democracy in Ghana

Albert Adu Boahen, historian: born Oseim, Gold Coast 24 May 1932; staff, Department of History, University of Ghana, Legon 1959-75, chair of department 1967-71, Professor of History 1971-75 (Emeritus); twice married (four sons, one daughter); died Accra 24 May 2006.

A. Adu Boahen, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Ghana, Legon, devoted his life to correcting the false impression created by many Western historians of the colonial era that Africa had "no history". Or that, if it had any history, it was full of barbarity and backwardness.

He also taught his fellow Ghanaians by example that it was not enough to know that one's history was full of heroic deeds, but that people must let their knowledge of their glorious past spur them on to accomplish great deeds in their own lives. He bestrode academic and political life. In 1988, he felt called upon to deliver a series of fearless public lectures on "The Culture of Silence" that had descended upon Ghana under the dictatorial rule of Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings. Then - in a move considered by some to be even more foolhardy - he stood against Rawlings in a presidential election in 1992.

Before that, he had, through the Movement for Freedom and Justice, also opposed the military rule of General I.K. Acheampong. This earned him a period of detention in prison - an ironic fate, since he had, a decade earlier, presided over a commission that inquired into the death in Nsawam prison under the Kwame Nkrumah regime of the "doyen of Ghanaian politics", Dr J.B. Danquah.

Adu Boahen published nine books and numerous articles in learned journals on African history. He was known as Africa's foremost historian, respected both by those who disagreed with him because they thought his historical notions were of a "romantic" nature, and those who adored the boldness of his imagination and the wide scope of his research. He was president of Unesco's International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, and the invaluable eight- volume General History of Africa published by Unesco - the seventh volume of which Adu Boahen edited - will stand as a monument to his work.

It was not by accident that Adu Boahen lived and breathed history all his adult life. For he was born, in 1932, at Osiem, in Akyem Abuakwa (in the eastern region of Ghana) to a mother of Asante extraction, Maame Kisiwaa (a fish-seller) and an Akyem father, Agya Amankwaa (a cocoa-buyer). They had seven children, of whom Adu was the third.

The Asantes and the Akyems, immediate neighbours in southern Ghana, are of common descent. But they parted ways about 500 years ago, since when they have been at each other's throats in battles too many to count. The immediate ancestors of Adu's mother were from Dwaben, in Asante, and had been driven into exile in Akyem, during the civil war in Asante in 1874. So Adu Boahen's birthplace and its environs were a veritable hotbed of political intrigue and historical disputation. Although his father was an indigenous Akyem, Adu Boahen was actually an Asante, because both the Asante and the Akyem trace their roots through their maternal line.

A few years after Adu had started his education at Osiem Presbyterian Primary School in 1938, his mother's brother, Kwasi Asare, who was living at Dwaben and was relatively prosperous, came for his nephew and enrolled him at Asokore Methodist School in 1943. Adu had to walk eight miles to and from school each day, but this onerous enterprise was rewarded when, in 1947, he gained entrance to one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Ghana, Mfantsipim, in Cape Coast.

Adu Boahen was in his second year at Mfantsipim when history invaded his life. In 1948, the Gold Coast (as Ghana was known before its independence in 1957) erupted into a series of riots and boycotts against continued British rule. Six of the country's best-known nationalist leaders - J.B. Danquah, Akuffo Ado, William Ofori Atta, Obetsebi Lamptey, Kwame Nkrumah and Ako Adjei - known as "The Big Six", were picked up by the British authorities and imprisoned without trial. Mfantsipim students, angry at this show of "gunboat diplomacy", went on strike. Although this could have led to expulsions, Boahen joined the strikers.

He got good enough grades to enter the University of the Gold Coast, Legon, in 1951. He chose, of course, to read History. He obtained a BA (Hons) degree in History in 1956 and in the same year, entered London University's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) to pursue a PhD in African History which he got in 1959. Out of his thesis came a book entitled Britain, the Sahara, and the Western Sudan, 1788-1861 (1964).

At the time Boahen was a student, British scholars, who determined the syllabus and oversaw the work of students of African history everywhere, including the nascent African universities, were largely of the Hugh Trevor-Roper school of thought, which professed (in the words of Trevor-Roper) that "Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none: there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness."

Adu Boahen may not have consciously set himself the task of demolishing Trevor-Roper's nonsense. But when he returned to Ghana in 1959, to teach at the University of Ghana, Legon - where he rose rapidly to take the chair of the history department in 1967 and become a Professor in 1971 - all his work was geared towards shining a new light into Trevor-Roper's "darkness".

Instead of concentrating on what Europeans had done in Africa, he researched and taught what was in Africa both before and after the Europeans came. On colonialism, in particular, the question he addressed, in his own words, was:

What was the attitude of the Africans themselves to the establishment of colonialism? . . . This is a question that has so far not been seriously considered by historians, African or European, but it needs to be answered. The answer is quite clear and unequivocal: an overwhelming majority of African authorities were vehemently opposed to this change and expressed their determination . . . above all, to retain their sovereignty and independence.

Boahen was a prolific writer - "the main weapons in his revolutionary armoury", according to one writer, were "his ground-breaking textbooks": Topics in West African History (1966) and, with J. B. Webster, West Africa Since 1800: the revolutionary years (1967), along with his later African Perspectives on Colonialism (1987), The Ghanaian Sphinx: reflections on the contemporary history of Ghana, 1972-1987 (1989), Mfantsipim and the Making of Ghana: a centenary history, 1876-1976 (1996), Yaa Asantewaa and the Asante-British War of 1900-1 (2003). He also co-edited the Asantehene Agyeman Prempeh's The History of Ashanti Kings (2003).

Boahen was very jovial and wrote a humorous column under the sobriquet "Kontopiaat" for The Legon Observer, the periodical founded by Legon dons after the 1966 coup.

Cameron Duodu