Owusu-Ansa, John (B)
Prince Owusu-Ansa of Asante, Ghana was born about 1823, most likely in Kumase, the Asante capital, the son of the Asantehene or king of Asante, Nana Osei Bonsu (r.1801-1824). His cousin, Prince Nkwantabisa, about two years Owusu-Ansa’s senior, was the son of the Asantehene, Nana Osei Yaw Akoto (r.1824-1834) who succeeded his elder brother, Nana Osei Bonsu, on the Asante Golden Stool in 1824.
In 1831, Nkwantabisa and Owusu-Ansa became hostages in British custody. This new phase in the lives of the two princes was part of the terms of the Maclean Treaty of April 27, 1831 which was meant to bring about a lasting peace and good relations between the Asante and the British in nineteenth-century Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast) after years of hostility. The author of this treaty, George Maclean, was the British Governor of the Gold Coast from 1830 to 1843. He planned to train the two princes to serve as ambassadors of peace between Asante, the most powerful kingdom in nineteenth century Ghana, and Britain, a European nation determined to dominate the population and subvert the political independence of the country. Asante was not part of the Gold Coast that the British claimed as their own in the nineteenth century.
In 1831, with the permission of the Asantehene, Maclean took the princes from Kumase to Cape Coast, which then served as the British headquarters. Joseph Smith, a Cape Coast man, served as the princes’ teacher from 1831 to 1836. During the same period, the two princes embraced Christianity and also came under the influence of Rev. Joseph Dunwell, the first Wesleyan Methodist missionary to the Gold Coast who had arrived in 1834. Again with Nana Osei Yaw Akoto’s permission, Maclean took Nkwantabisa and Owusu-Ansa to London in 1836, along with Joseph Smith, in order for all three Ghanaians to continue their education in Britain.
During their five-year sojourn in Britain, Rev. Thomas Pyne, an Anglican clergyman, served as the chief tutor, advisor and guide for the two princes. They received an elementary education and were strongly imbued with British ideas. Just before they left Britain to return to Ghana, at the demand of the new Asantehene, Nana Kwaaku Dua (r.1834-1867), the princes were taken to see Queen Victoria, the British monarch, to bid her farewell.
They returned to Cape Coast on July 18, 1841 with the Niger Expedition that was en route to Nigeria to explore the Niger River. Nkwantabisa was about 20 and Owusu-Ansa about 18 at the time. The British government undertook to give each prince 100 pounds sterling allowance per year. They were to reside in Kumase and help promote Asante-British peace. They were also to journey from Kumase to Cape Coast twice annually to visit the British governor there.
Although the British were mainly interested in the political and diplomatic value of the princes, for over two decades after their return to Ghana, they had to be content with the princes as promoters of the Christian faith in Asante and the Gold Coast. On leaving Cape Coast for Kumase on November 6, 1841, after a decade’s absence from home, Nkwantabisa and Owusu-Ansa were accompanied by two Wesleyan Methodist ministers, Rev. Thomas Birch Freeman and Rev. Robert Brooking, who served as their guides and advisors. This was all arranged by George Maclean. Nkwantabisa and Owusu-Ansa were to help Freeman and Brooking, British missionaries, to begin missionary activities in Asante. The princes positively influenced King Kwaaku Dua and his people and the missionaries were allowed to set up a Methodist ministry in Asante. A small Methodist school and congregation were started in Kumase but they did not continue for long, not because the princes’ love for Christianity or Methodism grew cold but because Asante-British diplomatic relations were at best lukewarm and sometimes operated on mutual distrust and suspicion of each other’s intentions and plans.
For Owusu-Ansa, the 1840s and 1850s were good years as far as his commitment to Methodism and its progress in Ghana were concerned. Indeed he became an active promoter of that Christian denomination up to late December 1862. For much of the 1840s Owusu-Ansa served as a paid Methodist worker,–officially a catechist– in Asante. The fact that he was African and youthful were two vital assets which the Methodists greatly treasured and utilized for the cause of Christianity. Owusu-Ansa was the main link between Asante and Methodist hopes in that kingdom, as his senior cousin had faded from the scene because of a blunder he had committed in Kumase in 1842. Nkwantabisa also died rather early at Cape Coast on January 8, 1859 at about 38 years of age. Some of the Methodist missionaries Owusu-Ansa helped in Asante were Thomas Freeman, Robert Brooking, George Chapman and Henry Wharton.
George Maclean reported to his superiors in London in September 1842 that the princes’ presence in Kumase had “been serviceable as well to this Government as to the Christian Mission established there.” Eight years later in 1850 when the last European missionary left Asante or Kumase for the coast, Owusu-Ansa was left to carry on single-handedly the work of sustaining the Methodist work there, fragile though it was. It was not until 1852 that Rev. Timothy Laing arrived in Kumase to bring the prince the help he needed.
In 1850 Owusu-Ansa became an “assistant missionary on trial” in the Gold Coast Methodist Church and was subsequently fully ordained into the ministry at Cape Coast in 1852 at the youthful age of about 29. Many observers in both the Gold Coast and Britain were impressed with Owusu-Ansa for the positive impact he exerted “on his people from his connection with the Methodists.”
Owusu-Ansa married a mulatto Fante woman from Anomaabo, Sarah Scott, in 1850. The couple’s first son, John Owusu-Ansa, was born on March 10, 1851 in Kumase while the prince was stationed there as a catechist. Other children followed later.
In April 1853 Rev. Owusu-Ansa was stationed at Abakrampa, capital of the Fante state of Abora, as a full-time Methodist minister in the Gold Coast District of the Wesleyan Missionary Society. In August 1854, Rev. Thomas Freeman, head of the Methodist Church in the Gold Coast, appointed Rev. Owusu-Ansa “superintendent of our Cape Coast schools.” The prince-minister was simultaneously taking a refresher course in preaching, described by Freeman as “a course in the work of preaching.”
In 1857 Owusu-Ansa was stationed at Dominase but the next year he was brought back to Cape Coast. In November 1859, he observed that the frequent health problems of the European missionaries placed more and more burdens on his shoulders as well as on those of his fellow African ministers. But he loved his work and yearned for the salvation of his people. He frequently petitioned the Methodist hierarchy either to relocate him in Asante or to allow him frequent visits there to reassure his people that his heart was always with them and that he had not deserted them, as speculations and rumors to that effect were running wild in Kumase.
With the permission of his superiors, Rev. Owusu-Ansa, accompanied by his little son John, Rev. William West and Rev. Robert John Ghartey (later King Ghartey IV) of Winneba, went on an eight-week mission to Kumase from March 5 to April 29, 1862. On their arrival the prince and his party were warmly and tumultuously welcomed and Owusu-Ansa succeeded in reassuring his people of his love and concern for them. But with the winds of renewed war blowing between the Asante and the British in the Gold Coast in the early sixties, Owusu-Ansa made a momentous decision that completely changed his career.
For the whole of 1862, Rev. Owusu-Ansa was in charge of the Methodist Circuit of Anomaabo, his wife’s hometown. On December 30, 1862, eight months after his return to the coast from his Kumase mission, Rev. Owusu-Ansa formally resigned from the Methodist ministry. The prince’s resignation from the Methodist ministry was a big blow to Methodism in Asante in the 19th century. Earlier, in September of 1957, Rev. Thomas B. Freeman, a mulatto and his former superior, had also broken with the work of the Methodist mission,–a break which lasted for some 16 years. This separation also belonged to the bigger picture of a wholesale resignation of African ministers from the work of the Gold Coast District of the Methodist Church in the 1850s and 1860s. Rev. Owusu-Ansa was simply the last of the pioneer African Methodist ministers to sever his connection with the ministry. Methodist missionary work in nineteenth century Ghana was tainted by racism and the unfair treatment of African workers.
Following his break with the Methodist ministry, Prince Owusu-Ansa became more involved in Asante-British diplomacy and more devoted to the rebuilding of the Asante kingdom and power in the face of the British imperialist juggernaut in Ghana, ever more ruthless in the last part of the century.
Prince Owusu-Ansa died at Cape Coast on Friday, November 13, 1884 of acute diabetes mellitus at about 61 years of age. Methodist history in Ghana, however, still remembers Rev. Owusu-Ansa as a pioneer of Christianity to his people of Asante, his birthplace, and to the people of Fanteland, home of his wife, Sarah.
F. L. Bartels, The Roots of Ghana Methodism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).
Isaac S. Ephson, Gallery of Gold Coast Celebrities, Vol. 1 (1632-1958) (Accra: Ilen Publications Ltd., 1969).
K. Owusu-Mensa, “Prince Owusu-Ansa and Asante-British Diplomacy, 1841-1884,” Ph.D. dissertation (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, May 1974).
K. Owusu-Mensa, “Prince Owusu-Ansa of Asante, 1823-1884,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, Vol. 9, No. 3, December 1978.
Ivor Wilks, Asante in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
This article, received in 2002, was researched and written by Dr. Kofi Owusu-Mensa, Project Luke Fellow, Professor of History and DACB Liaison Coordinator at Valley View University, Oyibi, a DACB Participating Institution in Accra, Ghana.