A Single Woman in West Africa

The diaries of a young teacher reveal the complexities of racial tensions in the Gold Coast.

Ann Cotterrell | Published 10 July 2018

Meeting of cultures: Amelia Jackman in a cart, 19th century.

The health risks for Europeans in ‘the white man’s grave’ were well known in the late 19th century. There was, however, less awareness in Britain of the conflicts emerging between Europeans – who claimed and expected superior positions in church and official hierarchies – and their African colleagues. While educated West Africans expected to move into higher positions within both church and government, Europeans were hardening their racial attitudes. As a result, divisions between Africans and Europeans increased.

These racial tensions are revealed in the frank diary and letters of Amelia Jackman, a schoolteacher who went to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1894 to work in a Methodist school. Her documents, deposited in the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society archives in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, show the kind of confusion and ambivalence that may have been widespread in the attitudes of European newcomers to the colonial experience.

Jackman had been an assistant schoolteacher in Tonbridge when she heard Dennis Kemp, the most senior missionary in the Gold Coast, speak of the need for a headmistress for a new girls’ boarding school. Jackman volunteered, aged 31. Her motives may have been humanitarian and evangelical, but Africa offered a senior post and the chance to learn about a different society. Her diary during the voyage reflects the British perception of Africa (‘I am anxious to see the Dark Continent’), but she soon discovered a difference between the rhetoric about Africa and its reality. She went with Kemp and his wife Harriet to the coastal towns of Accra and Cape Coast and met African Christian men who were fluent in English and wore European clothes; they had been educated in European culture, some in English schools and colleges.

As a newcomer and a teacher, Jackman was welcomed, socialised with African Methodists and enjoyed a tea party where, as she noted, she and the Kemps were ‘the only white people’. But she was an outsider and her attitude to Africans was viewed as naive by those who had been there longer and were struggling to maintain their position of authority. Jackman was upset when her ‘little maid’ Margaret disappeared with the frocks she had made for her. She told her parents, ‘All the natives take to me very kindly’, but ‘Mr and Mrs Kemp say it is only for a time, they soon get tired of one and want fresh faces … I am hoping by God’s grace to be able to keep favour in their eyes.’

Chapel services were held separately in English and in vernacular languages and Jackman started to learn the local language. Attending a service in Fante, she commented in a letter to her parents that other Europeans ‘do not care to go … It pleases the people much for me to go. There is a good deal too much friction between the native ministers and the Europeans. Of course I know the natives are very tiresome, and when they get a little power they always want more, but we must make allowance for them. Sometimes Mrs K. gets so annoyed at the treatment they give her husband that she can hardly find words hard enough to denounce them’.

The relationship between Dennis Kemp and the African ministers had deteriorated in 1893, particularly because of his derogatory remarks about the custom of husbands and wives eating separately. Although senior African ministers were supportive of English education for their children, they were also increasingly proud of their indigenous customs and heritage and sensitive to criticism of their way of life, especially when it had no biblical justification. They disliked Kemp’s sermons and resented his appointment as a young and inexperienced minister to the post of chairman of the whole Gold Coast District. Educated, elite Africans wanted more independence and authority, but white Europeans did not intend to relinquish power.

Jackman did not question the superior occupational status of Europeans, but she readily recognised intelligence and education in African Christians. She wrote to her sister that ‘Our native friend Mr Abraham is a very nice man. So well educated.’ She told her family that children learned the catechism there better than in England and that she held a Bible class every Friday, where ‘they ask such intelligent questions’. But she was aware of more racist views and, noting in her diary the beautiful singing of the Africans, demanded: ‘How can we ask the question “Are these people worth troubling about?”’ Her affection for the children in particular was reciprocated and parents were ready to send their daughters to her school, but Jackman, like so many European newcomers, did not live long enough. She survived in Africa for less than three months and died on 13 December 1894 after a short illness described as ‘West Coast Fever’.

The contradictions in Amelia Jackman’s experiences and perceptions reflected a changing, complex society. She enjoyed the company of African Christians, but did not question her role or status as a white principal teacher among them. She saw that some British missionaries had much harsher racial views than hers, but observed continuing socialising of the races in the Gold Coast. It was a place and time in which African Christians increasingly opposed English interventions in their cultural practices, but she may not have been aware of the full extent of this resentment. Hidden beneath the conviviality of Sunday School parties and teas, there were the early rumblings of dissent that would lead to a resistance and independence movement at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century.

Ann Cotterrell researches Methodist missionaries in Ghana at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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