Kwasi Konadu

African Spirituality, Christianity and Islam

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment
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Brodie Cruickshank was a Scottish merchant, commander of Fort William, member of the local legislative council at Cape Coast Castle, and then lieutenant governor of the British-controlled territories on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), 1834-1854. His years spent on the coast were chronicled in his two-volume book, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of West Africa, published in 1853.

The excerpt below chronicles his observations of the three belief systems that shaped African history, namely indigenous African spiritualities, Islam and Christianity, as they played out on Africa’s Gold Coast. Rather than solely describe, Cruickshank filtered his impression of African spiritualities through his Christian optics, recasting these spiritualities tethered to local cultures. In his haste to chastise, he failed to realize the Africans’ idea of a cosmic, creative force was non-gendered, in that their languages did not declare the gender of non-human beings. When Cruickshank, then, refers to the idea of “God” among them as he, his, and him, the writer was deeply mistaken; more importantly, he produced false evidence against the Africans by gendering their language and ideas, claiming they said, “in God’s hands, he will do whatever he think’s best.” His recasting represented a widely held view that has persisted into the present, a view which still holds, as Cruickshank did, Africans were unable to develop their own ideas of a creative force without contact with Islam or Christianity.  Though Cruickshank believed contact with Islam and Christianity generated the “one God” idea among indigenes, the irony is the indigenous terms he cites support not a generated one God but much more nuanced, non-gendered, non-patriarchal spiritual forces and beliefs. In the course of his observations this also becomes clear.


We shall now, however, attempt to describe the nature of this [belief], which exercises such an illimitable influence over the minds of the masses of the population. An analysis of this description is beset with no ordinary difficulties. We derive little assistance in our investigations from the ideas of the [Africans] themselves, which are extremely vague and indefinite, and we are still farther puzzled to discriminate between such impressions, as may be the result of an effort of their own reason, or the consequence of their fears, and such as without the knowledge of the existing generation may have been derived from a more enlightened people, and handed down to them as a portion of the creed of their forefathers. There is great room to believe that the idea of one great first cause, the Creator of all things, has prevailed among them from time immemorial; for the Fantee words Yankompon [Onyankopɔn]. . . by which they designate God, would seem to indicate that the idea of a benevolent Creator was coeval with the language; but there can also be little doubt that indefinite as this idea even now is, in their minds, it must have received its confirmation from an intercourse of more than three hundred and fifty years with Europeans, whose acknowledgment of one God must soon have become universally known. Even before their intercourse with Europeans, it is possible that this great truth might have been disseminated by the Mohammedan [Muslim] population of the interior. Be this as it may, the natives of the Gold Coast generally acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being, who made and governs the world, but they cannot be said to worship him. They sometimes invoke his name, and call upon him to bless those whom they love, and much more frequently to curse those whom they hate….

When oppressed with afflictions and overwhelmed by any great calamity, for a release from which they have sacrificed to their [abosom; spiritual forces] in vain, we find them resigning themselves submissively to their fate, with the exclamation that “they are in God’s hands, and he will do whatever he thinks best.” But they neither offer sacrifices to him, nor do they think of seeking by supplication to avert what (if their [spiritual forces] fail them) they seem inclined to regard as their inevitable destiny. To this extent, then, we may regard them as predestinations, acknowledging one Supreme Governor of the world, who has appointed all things according to his pleasure, and to whom it were in vain for man to appeal with any hope of changing his immutable decrees. They believe, however, that this Supreme Being, in compassion to the human race, has bestowed upon a variety of objects, animate and inanimate, the attributes of Deity, and that he directs every individual man in his choice of his object of worship. . . . From the moment that he has made his choice, he has recourse to this [spiritual force] of his in all his troubles. He makes oblations to it of rum and palm wine; he lays offerings before it of oil and corn; he sacrifices to it fowls and goats and sheep, and smears it with their blood; and, as he performs these rites, he prays it to be propitious to him, and to grant him the accomplishment of his petition….

The character of the Gold Coast African, the nature of his government, his ideas of justice and its administration, his domestic and his social relations, his crimes and his virtues, are all more or less influenced by, and even formed upon their peculiar [beliefs]. There is scarcely an occurrence of life into which this all-pervading element does not enter. It gives fruitfulness to marriage; it encircles the newly-born babe with its defensive charms; it preserves it from sickness by its votive offerings; it restores it to health by its bleeding sacrifices; it watches over its boyhood by its ceremonial rites; it gives strength and courage to its manhood by its warlike symbols; it tends its declining age with its consecrated potions; it smoothes its dying pillow by its delusive observances; and it purchases a requiem for its disembodied spirit by its copious libations. It fills the fisherman’s net; it ripens the husbandman’s corn; it gives success to the trader’s adventure; it protects the traveler by sea and by land; it accompanies the warrior, and shields him in the battle; it stays the raging pestilence; it bends heaven to its will, and refreshes the earth with rain; it enters the heart of the liar, the thief, and the murderer, and makes the lying tongue to falter, quenches the eye of passion, withholds the covetous hand, and stays the uplifted knife, or it convicts them of their crimes, and reveals them to the world; it even casts its spells over malignant [forces], and turns them for good or for ill, according to its pleasure. It might be supposed that a religion with pretensions of this nature could not stand the test of a single week, and that no ingenuity of the [spiritualist-healers] could conceal the multitude of their broken pledges, or save from exposure the hollow tricks by which they manage to prop up their tottering faith. That a race of men, who are by no means devoid of intelligence, and who upon many other subjects are perfectly open to reason and to conviction, should continue, time after time, the dupes of such a childish infatuation, can only be accounted for by man’s innate consciousness of the helpless nature of his being, and his necessity for supernatural assistance; his need, in short, for some faith in things unseen, on which to rest the anxious burden of his hopes and fears….

We have now taken a general view of the people and of their [spiritual] belief, and would desire to place before the reader some account of their ordinary habits of life; but this we find impossible, without being obliged to recur, at every step, to their [spiritual] practices, so much are they incorporated with the every-day occupations and pleasures of the African. It is to be lamented that the [Africans] should, in this respect, exhibit a more constant; steadfast and pious dependence upon his [spiritual forces] than the Christian does upon God, and that man, relieved from his superstitious fears, should so often subside into indifference with but few indications of a reverential and grateful heart. It is rare for them to omit, morning and evening, to make some oblation to their [spiritual force], or to pay their homage when they eat or drink. They undertake nothing even of ordinary importance, without raising their thoughts to an unseen intelligence, and propitiating it by some observance, while humble thank-offerings invariably attend its successful issue. If they were content to confine themselves to this humble and thankful dependence, we might regret their ignorance of the true object of worship, while we applauded the spirit which dictated it; but, unfortunately, their belief in a multiplicity of [spiritual forces] leads to the idea of a variety of discordant attributes, which render necessary a multitude of observances. Their vague ideas of a future state of rewards and punishments, amounting practically to a disbelief of such a state, limit the operation of their spiritual instincts chiefly to the circumstances of their present existence; which are all more or less influenced by them.

War is never undertaken by kings or states without consulting the national [spiritual forces]. The [spiritualist-healers] “go up to inquire” of their idols, after sacrifice being made, and unless the response be propitious, they will not engage in it. Renewed offerings and sacrifices are made to obtain the favor and assistance of their [spiritual forces], and a promise of success. This once secured, they meet their enemies with confidence, relying as much upon the protection of their [spiritual forces] as their own bravery. After victory, the glory of which belongs to the [spiritual force], they propitiate a continuance of his favor by sacrificing many of the prisoners taken in war. These are considered especially grateful to their [abosom]. This idea seems to arise from the belief that, in international wars, the protecting [spiritual forces] of one nation are contending against those of the other, and are equally interested in the result of the warfare with the mortal combatants.

[The spiritualist-healers] accompany the warriors to the field, and urge them to deeds of daring and bravery by the promise of supernatural aid, and by the invocations which they never cease to make. Their captive enemies are consequently regarded as the enemies of the victor’s [spiritual force], and no sacrifice is so acceptable as their blood. Hence those wholesale slaughters of vanquished enemies which attend the victories of the kings of Ashantee [Asante] and Dahomey, proceed not so much from the blood-thirsty disposition of the African, as from a religious sense of duty to their [spiritual forces]. Want of success is sometimes, but not always attributed to the inferiority of the [spiritual forces] of the vanquished. The [spiritualist-healers] do not easily give up their defense, and frequently manage to convince the conquered that their failure is owing to their displeasure, for the omission of some observances, for national impiety, or for inattention to prescribed ceremonies. After the conquest of Fantee by [Osei Tutu Kwamena] in 1807, the faith of the Fantees was considerably shaken in the Braffo [spiritual forces at] Mankassim, which, up to this time, enjoyed an extraordinary share of national favor. The [spiritualist-healers], however, had always been averse to the war, and they now took occasion of this known aversion to excuse their defeat, and the [adherents] were soon brought back to its altars. It is worthy of remark, that although the [Asante] destroyed Mankassim, they had respect to the [sacred] grove [i.e. Nananom Mpow] in its immediate neighborhood….

Source: Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853), 2: 125-28, 153-55, 171-75.