Ulrike Sill: Encounters in Quest of Christian Womanhood. The Basel Mission in Pre- and Early Colonial Ghana

PhD-thesis, Department of History, 2007

The contemporary mass movements of women in African churches are a phenomenon of which there are many examples, but no single or simple explanation. Case studies for the early stages of this development, i.e. how African women came to embrace the Christian religion, are still rare. The dissertation explores the beginnings of one such story: how African women on the Gold Coast (today: Southern Ghana) encountered Basel Mission Christianity over the years 1843-1885. Thus it also looks at the beginnings of an important Protestant mainline church in Ghana today, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG), which traces its foundation back to the activity of the Basel Mission.

The dissertation describes how the mid-19th century Basel Mission attempted to disseminate overseas what it saw as Christian femininity. But Ghanaians in the areas where the Mission was first active regarded gender as a less pervasive factor for shaping norms and values governing women’s life than the missionaries presupposed. And where gender did play the key role there existed different frames of reference whose relevance had often to be negotiated afresh as specific situations arose. Therefore on the Gold Coast one can speak of local quests for ‘proper’ womanhood which encountered the intention of the Basel Mission to spread a Christian femininity. The choice of the term ‘encounter’ to designate the locus of the ensuing quest for Christian womanhood also reflects the way that relations between the Basel Mission and the local social and political environment in these early decades can be characterised as being not so much dichotomous as dialectic. This was due to the pre- and early colonial setting, which lacked the coming asymmetries of high colonialism.

The Basel Mission and its initiatives for women’s mission were part of a broader development in Europe drawing on the notion of a universal humanity in which women were a prominent site for ascribing recognition to non-European societies and polities – or denying it. The situation on the mid-19th century Gold Coast, however, turns this relationship on its head. There the Basel Mission depended on being given recognition by local societies and polities, in their terms, in order to be able to propagate its notions of proper Christian femininity. It thus depended also on Ghanaian women - both as decision makers at the various levels of state and society, and as persons interested in entering into processes of exchange and negotiation with the missionaries.

The concept of femininity the Basel Mission leadership intended to implement was mainly urban middle-class and thus one intrinsically related with ‘modernity’. Indeed, as the 19th century progressed, the Home Board’s policy intended more and more clearly to make the mission station the focus of exemplary middle class homes. With this end in view it increasingly tended to select future missionary women from a middle class background. It subscribed to female education as a combination of formalised institutional instruction in schools and informal training in households. But the women joining the Basel Mission and going to the Gold Coast came from a background with its own ambiguities. Many were prepared by their Wuerttemberg background (which for the greater part of the 19th century was still a largely rural area); they had notions and practical abilities which provided contacts with situations of the Ghanaian women around them.

The analysis of the issues which had to be negotiated with regard to differing notions of ‘proper womanhood’ between the Basel Mission and communities on the Gold Coast substantiates the idea that initially such negotiations went on in two distinct, but inter-related frameworks – at first associated with the distinct spheres of coast and hinterland. On the coast a willingness to co-operate with the missionaries was initially due to the interest of substantial parts of the Euro-African community. The Basel Mission was one protagonist among others in local moves for modernisation, in a situation where women became markers and makers of social boundaries. Female respectability in this situation eventually turned into a potentially politicised issue as European colonial hierarchies began to dominate society. But the specifically Basel Mission idea of respectability was also contested locally by the pursuit of wealth and general temporal success as ‘Ghanaian’ criteria for recognition.

In the hinterland, in the Akan state of Akuapem, the willingness to co-operate with the missionaries appears to have been related to moves for innovation on the part of one faction of palace officials in its capital, Akuropon. They strove to fit the Basel Mission into existing patterns of absorbing new population groups (settlement in ‘quarters’ under subchiefs) and new deities (new shrines with new observances for their adherents). So in Akuapem the Basel Mission project was shaped as part of, and accommodated within, familiar structures, while it also was associated with innovation and modernisation. Thus the emerging mission community turned into both an additional and an alternative framework, its norms and values both converging with pre- and extra-mission ones and challenging these. Women were central actors in this process. As the dissertation demonstrates, their participation and incorporation was a conditio sine qua non for the recognition of the new community by existing societies. Conversely women by their innovations in instances regarded as belonging to their domain created the prerequisite for local norms and values to appear as compatible with notions of universal humanity, as in the case of opposition to infanticide of so-called six fingered children. Also as in the case of clothing, in the context of the mission community women created a new domain of ‘proper womanhood’. In this new domain clothing had significance ranging from being a medium of expression to a field of commercial opportunities and a new way for women to accumulate inalienable property for themselves. They did this in ways which again can be read as representing continuity of an ‘African-ness’ or ‘Ghanaian-ness’, while being compatible with notions associated with an at least putative universality - here of propriety.

The encounters caused by the presence of the Basel Mission on the Gold Coast were partly shaped by long-standing relations and influential personalities. Catharine Mulgrave-Zimmermann founded the very first Basel Mission girls’ school in West Africa in 1843 in the coastal mission station in Christiansborg. With her African birthplace and her upbringing in Jamaica she also stands for the Basel Mission’s link to the Black Atlantic missionary movement. She in turn trained Regina Hesse, a young woman from an influential coastal family. Both women married Basel missionaries and thus were templates for linking ‘old’ and ‘new’ patterns of female respectability and recognition. They entered into a relationship with a European man – which conformed to a then customary pattern on the coast -, but they did so in a Christian marriage and not in a ‘marriage according to the country’s custom’ (or by European legal standards in ‘concubinage’).
Rosina Widmann as a missionary wife in Akuropon, the Akuapem capital, became, in the course of time, a senior woman from an Akuapem perspective and developed into a locally influential actor. But while episodes recorded in the fragmentary sources make it clear that she must have had established links to the palace, their precise nature remains elusive. Friederike Dieterle and even more so Julie Mohr were instrumental in establishing the first Basel Mission girls’ boarding school in Aburi in Akuapem as an innovative space in the context of local patterns. Rose Ann Miller, a daughter from one of the West Indian settler families during the headship of Julie Mohr in Aburi established a relationship of mutual respect with the latter, and is remembered locally as ‘headmistress’ herself which can be seen to reflect her prominent role in the school.
Some Ghanaian women come to the surface in the sources and enable us to trace at least fragments and episodes from biographies. Examples are the story of Sara Wulff and her daughter Wilhelmine securing respectability in the changing framework on the coast first with the help of the Basel Mission and later by resorting to local patterns of female career. Then there are the fragments of the biography of Sophia Afua Nyam from the Akuapem royal lineage: she was sent by her ‘family’ to be trained by the Mission, worked as a teacher and later married Theophil Opoku, one of the first Ghanaian pastors. Wilhelmine Kade and Maria Gyamea from Mamfe (Akuapem) represent the agency of young women engaging with the Basel Mission of their own accord – even in the face of massive local opposition – including opposition by senior women. Finally there are the ‘slaves’ Rosina Opo and Yaa who used the Mission station as an additional legal framework and recourse.

From the late 1850s the Basel Mission girls’ boarding schools were focal spaces for encounters and central, too, for negotiations about Christian womanhood. While girls in the day schools remain, because of lack of source materials, background figures, the boarding schools were places where constant relationships are visible, even if one cannot trace many individual lives. They were also places of innovation. Classes in sewing and dressmaking played a key role in the general creation of dress as a women’s domain in Southern Ghana – where sewing up to then had been taboo for women. These schools were also important as places shaping the lives of pupils, enabling them to move between existing structures and new ones. They were places where ‘belonging’ was negotiated – between the claims of the social networks from which the pupils came, the pre-Mission norms and values to which the pupils still retained links, the claims of the headmistress as patroness, and more generally those of the ‘new’ community of the Mission. They were also places where the transition from ‘informal’ training in households to institutional education becomes visible as a layered process.  

The newly established mission communities emerged as spaces where modernisation could be negotiated and experimented with in the context of existing polities and societies. Within these communities, Christian women’s meetings or ‘classes’ over the decades evolved as a key space where this could happen among women. Although the sources on them are fragmented it appears that they drew on pre-Mission situational gatherings of women, as in the case of nubility rites or during war. Like the pre-Mission gatherings these classes were integrally associated with securing the resources of spiritual power by women. The women’s classes certainly did offer women a space to negotiate among themselves over what constituted proper Christian womanhood.

In the period under research here Akuapem history points to one important root of the present-day mass movement of women in Christian churches. With its use of ‘Twi’ (Akan) as its main language in church and school, the Basel Mission in Akuapem, became visible as a community linked both into local modernity and into ‘tradition’. Already in this period it appears as a locus not only for contentious debates and heated conflict, as in the time of the Basel Mission’s ‘slave emancipation’, but simultaneously as a locus of organic development

Thus, when, towards the end of the 19th century major change began to set in, in the very areas in  which the Basel Mission had been active for several decades there was already a discourse in Twi which was established for handling impulses coming in from outside and affecting the whole community, including the women. The idea of ‘Christian womanhood’ - although not reducible to a single model and at times contentious - already had a basis not only in the mission community, but also in the complex political, social and religious landscape of some areas on the Gold Coast. From its very beginnings this was not an achievement of European intervention or of Western missionary enterprise alone, nor was it due to a local resistance to an overriding pattern of women’s oppression in pre-colonial societies. Right from its beginnings Ghanaian women were participating in variegated ways in shaping a Christian community, not least creating a place for themselves within it.

To sum up: the quest for Christian womanhood formed part of trans-national discourses and exchanges, of discourses about the particular and about the universal. As such it was and is simultaneously a process of reconfiguring womanhood which locally was not least shaped by the agency of Ghanaian women.