Catalysts of Concealed Change: Channappa Uttangi and Theophil Opoku as Go-Betweens in Local Interaction with the ‘Exotic’ Basel Mission1


Paul Jenkins




By definition, the arrival of an exotic Christian mission2 with the capacity to be

a stable and innovative presence sets off processes in its surrounding indigenous

societies. The mission’s effort to tell Christian stories, translate Christian concepts,

offer Christian explanations of people’s experiences with the world around

them, and demonstrate Christian patterns of ethics and social life, will all necessarily

call forth processes in indigenous intellectual and social history as people

set out to understand in their own terms what is being communicated, and evaluate

it for themselves.


Caveats have to be registered here, of course. Not all Christian missions will

have told the same stories or explained the same concepts in the same way. Some

missions will have brought a scientific worldview with them, others not. And

their patterns of social life will often have been stamped by distinctive patterns of

social organization in their home cultures.




Footnotes: 1

I am very grateful to the members of the Rostock graduate school “Cultural Encounters and

the Discourses of Scholarship” for having invited me to take part in the Rostock conference

and for the investment of editorial work that has been made in this essay. Both have

caused me to think, I hope constructively. I would also like to explicitly thank Dr. Michelle

Gilbert of Trinity College, Hartford, CT, and Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, for the

many years of Ghana-orientated cooperation and friendship, out of which the discussion

of Theophil Opoku in this essay has emerged. Yale Divinity School and the Overseas

Ministries Study Center, both in New Haven, the Pew Charitable Trust, and the Freie

Akademische Gesellschaft in Basel have all, at different times, supported the research we

have done on Opoku; and Dr. Patricia Purtschert did vital work for us as research assistant

in the German manuscripts from Akwapim housed in the Basel Mission archive. I would

also like to thank the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (CISRS)

Bangalore, and its recent director, Dr. Godwin Shiri, for their diligence in making sure I

was informed of and involved in the revival of the memory of Chinnappa Uttangi; Dr. S.R.

Gunjal (Dharwad) for his enthusiasm and the quality of his work; and Bishop Prabhakar

Rao, (also Dharwad), for his interest and support.


2 I am referring to the Basel Mission as “exotic” on the premise that it must have seemed

strange to the members of the receiving societies or cultures.



190 | Paul Jenkins


Maybe missions will not everywhere meet or have met cultures articulate

enough to demand dialogue and hold up their own end in discussion and interaction

– though that is a caveat I prefer to mention as a possibility only. Some missions

have a good track record for conducting the serious linguistic work necessary

to communicate in indigenous languages. Others have tended to rely on the

language of the colonial power. The quality of their relationship to environing

cultures can, therefore, be very varied. Mission history in Africa has, after all, a

long way to go in researching cultural interfaces. It has scarcely ever integrated

into its analyses that final pragmatic exploration, in twentieth-century Anglophone

colonial anthropology, of the contrast between the history and dynamics of cultures

with powerful centralized monarchies, and those in less politically articulated

“tribes without rulers” (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard; Bohannan). Where the

courts of powerful kings and chiefs provide(d) a clear focus for dialogue and

intellectual process, the more diffuse centers of segmentary societies may not

have done, though Jan Vansina’s analysis of the intellectual history of the central

African rain forests suggests that this would be a major underestimate of their

functioning. And it seems to me, anyway, that an enlightened insight among missions

with long experience should be that our common human inheritance makes

every human culture potentially as complex and as intellectually rich as every

other. And therefore, in the presence of exotic missions, interaction and dialogue

may be expected to have happened everywhere, whether they have been documented

or not.


Of course, the history of these intellectual and social interactions may well

end with a receiving society building a blockade that at most allows exotic missions

to exert influence through education focused on what is judged to be useful

knowledge in local terms, with no particular religious reference. This is, in a sentence,

the history of much of modern Christian missionizing among Islamicized

peoples. At the other end of the continuum of power, in situations where there

was a close hegemonial relationship linking missions and colonial governments,

the ability of indigenous societies to enter into dialogue with missions may have

been debilitated – in King Leopold’s Congo, for example (Vansina 239-48).


But there are many parts of the world where the indigenous processes initiated

by impulses originating in the interaction with exotic missions in the fields

of religion, general education, economic activities and social change have been

complex, open-ended and an important part of the whole history of self-driven

modernization, not to mention a basis on which indigenous communities have

adjusted their own systems and values. These interactions, however, and the persons

actively engaged in them, are not easy to define in specific local cases. One

major problem is the missions’ own historic propaganda and identity

historiography.3 In the decades of their greatest overall power, – i.e., the high colonial



3 Mission historiography – not least in celebration of missionary anniversaries (and this

includes major works like their official histories, often published to mark the centenary

of their founding) – was aimed at articulating the leadership’s policies and writing up the


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 191


period, from the mid-nineteenth century to the Second World War – their impact,

(and potential as generators of archives), was supported by masses of donors who

were united in a view of the world that gave their own detailed convictions and

patterns of life unique authority. Literature about nonconforming ideas and attitudes

in their “mission fields” scarcely existed – or reports about such things were

used to emphasize how strong the powers of darkness were there. This means that

work in mission archives, searching out indigenous, nonconforming elements in

local Christian history, is difficult and onerous. In Basel it means trying to find

documents in a large and relatively opaque archive that are capable of furthering

more than impressionistic research, and of being integrally read “against the



Modern reassessments of the intellectual and social history of indigenous

Christian movements are also hindered by more recent factors. There is the need,

in principle, to be able to use one of the score or so of non-Western languages

in which the interaction between local communities and Basel missionaries has

been conducted.4 Ironically, all Basel missionaries in the colonial period had

to become fluent in one of these tongues, but as archivist in the Basel Mission

House in the era of independence I rarely met a nonnative speaker who was competent

in Twi or Kannada, the languages relevant to this paper.5 In the present day

successor churches, there is also a lack of sensitivity to the continuities of the

patterns of intellectual and social life that existed before the arrival of missionaries.

The U.S. Tea Party approach of implacable Christian conservatism is a factor

in many non-Western churches and, for example, buries the history of interaction

in which indigenous roots play an active and nonconforming role in the firm

belief that since they were not part of the missionaries’ public description of what

they were doing, they are not part of positive church history. Further, in many

parts of the world, an anticolonial nationalism still exists that has no interest in

formulating a balanced assessment of what is asserted as a movement of promoting

a colonizing ideology.6 The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) insistence that all


Footnote 3 contd.

organization’s achievements in terms of its superior truth and morality, with its supporters

as target readership. Heterodox contributions to the mission, in the view of the leadership,

were understressed, and as long as a mission was operating according to the terms of a

colonial paradigm the contribution of non-Westerners to the mission’s work was also


4 The Basel Mission is one of the classical Pietist-Protestant missions founded c.1800.

Its main support was drawn from Switzerland and southwestern Germany. In the period

up until 1914 it concentrated its overseas work in southeastern Ghana, Cameroon,

southwestern India, and South China. Miller provides the best available introduction to the

organization in English.

5 The main exception in relation to Kannada is the Tübingen cultural specialist Katrin

Binder, who has learned to take part in Yakshagana performances, the popular theater of

the coastal region of Karnataka, and has written a doctoral thesis on Yakshagana. She has

also published on the history of the Basel Mission in Karnataka, for example, Binder, “The

Ravana Digvajaya.”

6 The three other substantial studies that have been carried out by non-native speakers able to

communicate in the local language with populations living in areas where Basel Mission

work has been important are Constable, a study of Hakka-speaking populations in the


192 | Paul Jenkins


real Indians are Hindus is only a particularly persistent and powerful example of

the wish in many parts of the world to squeeze Christianity out of regional and

national histories as part of a continuing resistance to Western influence.7


In this general context the search for people who act as catalysts, “carrying”

the indigenous intellectual and social processes initiated by the presence of an

exotic mission, is important, but difficult. The term ‘go-between’, therefore, is

very useful when it comes to helping us focus on this field. It is no theory-determined

neologism but an old expression8 and, as befitting a term from common

speech, highly ambivalent, with significances ranging from ‘honorable negotiation’

to ‘betrayal’. Both may well have been applied, by different parties, to the

individuals we are concerned with here. Moreover, it is clearly a term denoting

concrete interaction between real existing entities, and thus draws scholarship’s

attention to a deeper and more extensive consciousness of the nature and historical

development of the non-Western entity (or entities) involved. One result of

this is to make it more clear than it usually is that while missions tended to write

history tracing the progress of their orthodoxy, there must be, everywhere where a

missionary society had a substantial presence for some decades, a fascinating and

‘other’ history, with indigenous roots, of acceptance and rejection.


I have highlighted here two go-betweens for whom my own incapacity with

the relevant languages is to a significant degree overcome. In the first case, Indian

speakers of Kannada9 have mounted a campaign to make Channappa Uttangi’s

life history and writings available in English (Gunjal, Life and Work; Wesley).


In the case of Theophil Opoku, the second go-between under consideration,

his reports to the Mission headquarters in Basel were in English, and I am

involved in a project with Michelle Gilbert, an American anthropologist, which

will publish these reports with commentaries. In Basel we supply knowledge of

flanking archival material in German, and Gilbert brings to the project a quarter

of a century of experience in social and intellectual research in the ambient lan-


Footnote 6 contd.

New Territories of Hong Kong, Klein, and Heinrich Balz’s massive and innovative three-

volume study of cultural change in and around Basel Mission work in the last century in an

ethnic group in the rain forests of West Cameroon. Balz’s work was, however, facilitated

by linguistic change in Cameroon in which Pidgin English has become a general medium

of communication, much reducing the need to be able to conduct research in ancient ethnic

languages like Duala or Bakossi.


7 The Hindu Nationalist attitude to Christian missions is pointedly documented in Arun

Shourie’s publications on this theme. The fact that, on the other hand, a vigorous Indian

reaction against the BJP “saffronization” of Indian history has prompted a strong interest in

an innovative history of missions and churches there has, I suggest, not yet made an impact

in Western circles, which should really be interested in the opportunities for bicultural

research this offers.

8 According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first mentioned in 1598.

9 Kannada, Uttangi’s mother -tongue, is an Indian regional language spoken by about thirty-

five million people in Karnataka, a state founded in 1966 (originally under the name of

Mysore) to bring speakers of that language into one political unit. They had previously

been divided up among three states of the Indian Union.


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 193


guages of the region of Africa concerned (see, e.g., Gilbert, “Christian Executioner,”

“Sudden Death,” “Cimmerian Darkness”).10


I intend to show that in these specific cases, publicly accessible sources in

English are strong enough to support nonorthodox presentations of the dynamics

of change that are otherwise concealed by orthodoxy in our sources. Though

it will also become clear that – not surprisingly, in view of the great differences

between the regions of Africa and Asia where the Basel Mission worked in the

colonial period – Uttangi’s and Opoku’s roles as go-betweens were rather different

from one another.


Channappa Uttangi (Karnataka, 1881-1962),

a Forgotten Intellectual Go-Between


The potential that a mission’s identity historiography has to suppress unorthodox

figures and reduce them to silence is well exemplified by the changing historical

significance of Channappa Uttangi, who was, as far as we know at the moment,

the earliest missionary of the Basel Mission – indigenous or expatriate – to articulate

a dialogical approach to other religious communities.


Uttangi was born into the third generation of a Kannada-speaking Christian

family in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in the region around the twin

cities of Dharwad and Hubli in Northern Karnataka, India. He studied in the

Basel Mission’s theological seminary in Mangalore (capital of the district Dakshina

Kannada) in the early years of the twentieth century. He then became an




10 In respect of Opoku this paper is a direct descendant of an essay published by Middleton

(1983), a liberating analysis for the present writer, written by a practising anthropologist,

of relations between “Presbyterianism” and “Akropong tradition” in the late 1970s.

Middleton’s study was the first one of which I was aware, in which a secular anthropologist

took an unbiased, open-ended look at relations between a mission’s long-standing successor

church and its environing culture, and communicated types of observation which were quite

novel to the academic world. His paper, incidentally, was first presented as an academic

lecture in Basel and Tübingen in December 1979 to mark the 150th anniversary of the

arrival of the first Basel missionaries on the Ghanaian coast.

Middleton observed and analyzed complex interactions between the two entities which

were overlooked by the then expatriate members of the church staff, and which were

regarded, in the dominant Ghanaian intellectual discourse of the time, as separate,

dichotomous and conflicted. His results emphasized the point – frequently not stressed

enough in the academic literature – that traditional communities are often energetically

inclusive by nature, while missions with a colonial paradigm tend to work by creating

social dichotomies. At any rate from his basis in the then contemporary world Middleton

hypothesized – unrolling history back into the past, as it were – that already in the

nineteenth century there must have been the kind of substantial mutual adjustments between

the two sides which are now confirmed in documentary fashion by the report of Theophil

Opoku discussed here.


194 | Paul Jenkins


evangelist with some additional administrative duties in the Basel Mission’s local

schools and hostels, probably serving later as a pastor, and then retiring in 1942.11


In the substantial official history of the Basel Mission in the interwar years

Uttangi is mentioned once, in the kind of short phrase devoted to a marginal figure,

as having put out a Kannada publication on Saddhu Sundar Singh (Witschi

280).12 In fact, he is probably the first member of the Basel Mission, at any level,

to have formulated the principle of dialogical relationships with adherents of

other religions. This first public statement of this intention about which we know

occurred during a speech delivered in Ranebennur/Karnataka in 1918 to

Hindu notables to celebrate Christmas. In it Uttangi cited an ironic Indian nickname

for missionaries – “those-who-praise-only-their-own-religion-and-damn-all-the-

others.”13 His self-appointed task, he declared, was to abandon this dichotomizing

discourse, and instead, to speak and write in appreciation of the other

religions he was encountering, indeed to praise his own deity, Christ, not least

in terms that could be derived from his hearers’ existing values and patterns of

thought. He went on to tell his audience in Ranebennur that:


I have been struggling to arrive at the truth concerning Christ […] I

would even be ready to follow Hindu philosophy and accept Christ as

one of us, as a common man and not God incarnate if Hindu philosophy[,]

which excels in its strides [sic], can unravel the mystery of Christ

basing its conclusions thus on the Gospel accounts. (Uttangi, “Bethlehem”



Later in that same lecture of 1918, after a critical review of some Western philosophical

concepts applied to Christ, he undertook a dense exploration of the way

a whole cluster of Hindu concepts like Guna (virtue) could be profi tably applied

to understanding the person of Christ (Uttangi “Bethlehem” 27-49, here 37-44).14


My attention was drawn to Uttangi in the early 2000s. In my thirty years

of trying to promote, from my position as Basel Mission archivist, innovative

research and writing on the history of the organization, I had never heard mention

of him. But after I retired, a trenchant Indian colleague, Godwin Shiri, asked

if I would be interested in joining an effort to revive Uttangi’s memory among

Indian Christians, providing an urgently needed nonconflictual model for their




11 The recent literature about Uttangi usually designates him as “Rev[erend]”– i.e., with the

rank of an ordained pastor. I have, however, so far not seen any evidence that he was

ordained above the rank of catechist or evangelist. This distinction says nothing about the

quality of his work, but it is conventional in English to reserve the title “Reverend” for

those with the rank of pastor.

12 Sadhu Sundar Singh (1888-1929?) was a Christian prophet with Sikh background, a famous

promoter of Christianity in an Indian mode, who disappeared while on solitary retreat in the

Himalayas in 1929.

13 Uttangi, “Bethelehem” 31.

14 At a more general level, Gunjal is also interested, for example, in Uttangi’s unpublished

exploration of the Lingayat ethical term kayaka, denoting on the one hand “occupation” or

“profession,” but on the other an economic situation of communal adequacy in which there

are neither beggars nor the compiling of wealth. Gunjal, Life and Work 136-37.

Catalysts of Concealed Change | 195


relations with adherents of Hinduism and Islam.15 Shiri was the director of a leading

Christian think tank in Bangalore that proposed to publish material on or by

Uttangi, translated from Kannada into English, with this in mind. Even if I had

not been interested in the idea in principle, the next thing he told me would have

stopped me in my tracks: a good biography of Uttangi existed already, published

in Kannada by a leading Lingayat, – i.e., Hindu – intellectual, S.R. Gunjal. Shiri

proposed having this work translated into English as the first step in his campaign

to revive Uttangi’s memory and make material about his accomplishments

more generally accessible.16 And so it became clear for this European observer

that someone who had been conveniently forgotten in the oral and written identity

historiography of the old Basel Mission, and most of its successor congregations

in India, was remembered with devotion in circles in Northern Karnataka

that adhered to an ancient Hindu reform movement.17


Lingayatism in this part of India traces its history back to its founding there in

the twelfth century. It is a reform movement in the sense that it arose from criticism

of the worship of the many deities of orthodox Brahminism and teaches the

worship of one deity (Shiva).18 From the beginning it has also been committed, in

principle, to the abolition of the caste system: Uttangi quotes a Lingayat saying


Whether a Brahmin or a Ksatriya or a Sudra or whatever caste one is

born in – once, by the guru’s grace, he wears a Linga on his person, he

becomes a man [sic] of virtuous conduct, and the Lord of the World, Oh

Akhandesvara. (Uttangi, “Lingayatism and Christianity” 146)


Although in India it is easier to talk about abolition of caste than to carry it

through, it is well understood on both sides that these two postulates generate a

persistent potential state of conflict between Lingayats as reform movement and

Brahmins as the custodians of Hindu orthodoxy. Currently, the Lingayats constitute

a major segment of the population in Northern Karnataka, and as a result,

exercise significant influence in the politics of the state.19




15 At the time I was working as a retired scholar with an official commission from Mission 21

to encourage Indian scholars to incorporate the Basel Mission archive in their research


16 Gunjal, Life and Work, and Wesley, Reader, both appearing in 2007, are the published

results of this effort.

17 I also learned that for many years – and probably still – the day of Uttangi’s death has been

celebrated in Lingayat circles in Dharwad.

18 Monotheistic, but in a Hindu mode, and with Hindu modes of worship.

19 For a summary article on Lingayatism in general, see Bowker 581. Gunjal, Lingayat

Bibliography, includes interesting material in its introductory section and appendices,

including a text by Uttangi, “Anubhava Mantapa. The heart of Lingayat Religion” (171-88).

It seems from this text (182n) that Uttangi’s interpretations of St. Paul were discussed

during his lifetime by – presumably – theologians at the universities of Zürich and Bern.

The Economist (11 May, 2013, 51) has a report on the recent Karnataka state election in

which the Lingayats feature as a group large enough to swing the result from the BJP to



196 | Paul Jenkins


There is no space here to try to describe in detail Uttangi’s lifetime achievements

in relation to Lingayatism. Indeed, since Godwin Shiri’s aim was to revive

his memory among Christians, little discussion of his actual impact on issues

of daily life between Christians and Lingayats has emerged from the publications

listed here. The general assumption is that an appreciative and supportive

approach to Lingayatism will have contributed to creating a better climate for

relations between the two religious communities, and indeed, considering the

harsh ‘attack’ approaches of much traditional missionary evangelism in India –

well remembered by the contemporary Indian public – this assumption is surely



Gunjal’s biography of Uttangi, however, adds a very important element to

this general view of relations between Uttangi and Lingayats, especially for the

Western reader, in that he writes in an only partially Westernized intellectual and

social context. Rather, he utilizes a familiar Indian mode that takes care to promote

and retain traditional cultural patterns alongside western patterns of thought.

His Life and Work is shot through with references to a quality of contact between

Uttangi and non-Christian intellectuals mediated through indigenous etiquette and

patterns of emotion, which are in themselves evidence that Uttangi’s go-between

role was, socially, and in relation to matters of piety, a reality. Gunjal recalls, for

instance, that in the late 1920s a Hindu literary intellectual, Devudu,20 wanted to

compliment Uttangi by inviting him to his home for a meal, and felt constrained

to ask his own guru how one receives a Christian. “The Guru said ‘Welcome

him as you would welcome Christ’.” “I was ready that day [Devudu wrote in his

diary], after completing my morning rites and puja. As he came I moved to wash

his feet. At first he drew back. Then I did it by force. Then we took food. He

sat facing East and I facing North.” The complexity of the surprise that Uttangi

encountered on this occasion can be sensed when one remembers that, while the

incident of Christ washing his disciples’ feet is a well-known story in the gospels,

in India, bending down to touch someone’s feet is a traditional way of expressing

reverence to a person of high caste – and in their attacks on Lingayatism,

the missionaries had made much of the way devotees were allegedly expected to

drink the water in which their personal guru’s feet had been washed.21


So in the literature on Uttangi in English it is evident that the dialogical principles

he had articulated in a general sense early in his career were then lived out

by him, over the decades, in relations with this major presence in his environment

around Dharwad and Hubli. And we know, because of the negative reactions

of his more orthodox Christian fellows, that Uttangi was quite prepared to

emphasize his devotion and reverence both to Christ and to Basava, the founder





20 No further details are given on this man.

21 Gunjal, Life and Work 130-31. The biblical story is in John, chapter 13. Long passages in

Gunjal’s Life and Work are also interesting for the way they give us an approving Lingayat

view of Uttangi’s approach to being a missionary; see 14-33. In this passage Devudu and

Uttangi face east and north, I presume, as a sign that Uttangi is open to truth from the east,

Devudu to truth from the north, i.e. Jersualem.


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 197


of Lingayatism. Godwin Shiri summarizes this aspect of Uttangi’s attitudes.

Uttangi apostrophized Basava as light (Jyothi) “indeed as light of the world.” And

he castigated the Lingayats around him for having falling away from Basava’s

teachings: “‘Go back to the fundamentals of Basava’s religion’ was Uttangi’s oftrepeated

appeal to Lingayats” (Shiri, “Dalits” 77-79).


Moreover, to this day many Lingayats remember that on occasion Uttangi

wrote in the regional press defending Lingayatism against Brahmin attacks, one

example being the Brahmin assertion that major parts of the Lingayat history of

the movement’s origins was, in fact, unhistorical (Gunjal, Life and Work 93-96;

105-11; Gunjal, “Bridge” 84-86). It was important in this connection that he was

a scholar who could do this in terms of the excellent knowledge he had built

up of the sources on Lingayat history, as well as being someone famous for his

eloquence and style when speaking or writing in Kannada. In the culture of all

speakers of Kannada, true scholarship and eloquence are admired and treasured.22


Uttangi’s scholarship was also important in another field. Lingayat piety lives

not least through a poetry of popular epigrams, the vaçanas. Working his way

through palm leaf manuscripts, Uttangi recovered many lost poems by their most

famous writer, Sarvajna.23 Having established a much larger oeuvre than had previously

been known, Gunjal reports that:


[Uttangi] would tour towns and villages and address people on

Sarvajna[’s] Vachanas explaining and interpreting them and then expounding

on him as the man and saint that he was… [Another observer

said that] ‘if he started speaking about Sarvajna there was no sense of

time – day into night, night into day…’ (Gunjal, Life and Work 81)


Because of the complex involvement with Lingayat piety implied by his work

with Sarvajna, his Lingayat biographer asserts that Uttangi came to have the status

of a guru among Lingayats. It would be good to hear this claim expounded in

detail one day since among Lingayats ‘guru’ is no vague honorific, but an indication

of considerable authority: every believer has a guru and is committed to serious

obedience to him.


It will be evident that Uttangi was in close contact with people fi rmly lodged

in the Lingayat tradition, and the fact that I look at him with European eyes

should not be allowed to divert our attention from deeply characteristic indigenous

elements in historical Lingayatism that are opaque or difficult for me, but

in which Uttangi could move, and from which he drew inspiration for his work.

Basava, for instance, was a high administrator in a twelfth-century Deccan king



22 As an indication of his general status in Kannada literary studies, it can be added that

Uttangi was elected president of the Kannada Literary Conference when it met in Galburga

in 1949 (Gunjal, Life and Work 150; see also 19, where Gunjal records that Uttangi was

accorded the title of “Pandit” at a Bangalore Literary Congress in 1934).

23 The most accessible documentation on Sarvajna for those in the West is the Wikipedia

article (accessed for this paper on September 10, 2012) and its links. Uttangi’s first and

basic publication on Sarvajna appeared in Kannada in 1924. There is no translation.


198 | Paul Jenkins


dom. His foundation of Lingayatism was linked to the anubhaava mantapa he set

up, evidently in the context of the life of a provincial court and capital (though

freely open to people of all castes, and to women), a point of assembly where

Basava’s critical religious dialogue and his socially progressive spirituality were

developed. So in Lingayatism’s background there is more than a hint of the features

of the high Indian culture of royal courts and urban political centers. It is

also clear that Uttangi could move sure-footedly through the complicated relationships,

in Lingayatism, between what we would regard as the historical and the

mythological, the latter often involving elements that are quite strange to foreign

eyes. For instance, he found and published what now seems to be regarded as the

most original text about the events that gives the Lingayat opposition to the caste

system its authority as a postulate derived from Basava himself. It is the story of

a marriage that Basava encouraged between a Brahmin girl and the son of an outcaste

leather-worker. It is exclusively the pious fathers who are named, not the

bride and groom. And in one key episode early on, the outcaste leather worker

and his wife, in an act of reverent abasement, are said to have made a pair of

slippers for Basava out of the skin of their own thighs, a gift that Basava, driven

by an emotional insistence on the equality of all devotees, is depicted as refusing

to accept (Uttangi, “Basaveshwara” 50-88; the story itself is on 62-76).


Even if we can only point to a handful of concrete interactions or attitudes

in which the forgotten figure of Uttangi took up a pro-Lingayat stance or demonstrated

a deep understanding of Lingayat history and belief, there is a strong

case for regarding him as a notable cultural broker between the Christian missionary

presence and the powerful and extensive Lingayat movement in his immediate

environment. This can be pointed out, moreover, by reference to the long and

dense lecture text that he apparently put together for a further education session

with other Kannadiga catechists – clearly the work of an intellectual go-between

of high competence and with a far-reaching agenda (Uttangi, “Lingayatism and



Are we to regard Uttangi, however, as completely unique in the Basel Mission

in the South India of his time, or rather as an indicator of probable grass

roots developments among other indigenous local leaders? Did perhaps Uttangi’s

uniqueness consist in his ability to articulate his knowledge and thought at a

level that was of more than local importance? In other words, could we argue that

the potential challenge of grass roots conflict between Christians and other religious

communities, plus the impact of the growing nationalist movement and the

influence of Gandhi, were leading to the development of some kind of dialogical

relationship with local religious organizations and local pieties, which may have

moved others in a direction similar to that of Uttangi? My conclusion is that we

can. In view of the way Uttangi, as a very notable regional figure in the history of

the Basel Mission in Northern Karnataka, could be forgotten by his coreligionists,

it could very well be that, protecting themselves as far as possible from the negative

judgements of the fathers of orthodoxy in the geographical centers of Chris-


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 199


tian authority in India and Europe – and ignored as much as possible by them –

there could have been other grass roots pastors, teachers, catechists, and evangelists

who may have developed as open a social and intellectual boundary with

their non-Christian neighbors as Uttangi did, and were go-betweens in a similar

dialogical sense.


Kofi Theophil Opoku (1842-1913), an Akwapim Pastor as Go-Between

Part 1: The Interpenetration of ‘Church’ and ‘State’ in 1906


Akropong is the capital of the small Akan kingdom of Akwapim, in southeastern

Ghana, and the seat of its king. It is also the inland town where the Basel Mission

first began work in Ghana, initially in the 1830s, and in a consolidated form from

the mid-1840s. It came to be the center of the Basel Mission’s educational efforts,

and its seminaries for pastors and for teachers were founded there in the middle

of the nineteenth century.


One of the early graduates of the pastors’ seminary was Kofi Theophil Opoku, who was also born in Akropong. As a pastor he had the unusual gift of being not only famously eloquent in his mother tongue, Twi, but also possessed a command of English that allowed him to write long and vivid annual reports for the leaders of the Mission in Basel. Something like thirty-five of these documents exist, covering the years roughly between 1870 and 1910. Here, I will concentrate first on his Annual Report for 1906, which tells us a lot about the kind of issues in which Opoku was involved concerning relations between ‘church’ and ‘state’, but more

strikingly, provides a picture of the intensive interpenetration of the two sides that

had evolved in the preceding half-century.24


In his 1906 report, Opoku writes in detail about a conflict that had arisen

between the Mission church and the King of Akwapim, Nana Kwasi Akuffo, concerning

a close and influential servant of his, Kwasi Fianko. Fianko was a wealthy

merchant who was also a “King’s Soul” (Twi: okra). “Souls” in this sense were

named members of a court bound to the King by their birth on the same day of

the week (indicated here by the day-name, Kwasi, Sunday-born, which they both

held), and who were chosen for mystical protection and, if adults, potentially for

intimate friendship and support. In the Akan world they were (and in some places

still are) marked by the wearing of a pectoral ornament, a decorated circular gold

plate. In Akropong they sat in formation with the King on formal occasions to



24 The first part of this examination of Opoku’s role as go-between is based on reports of

developments in 1906, texts that were published in 2008 as transcripts, as a ‘taster’ to

raise interest in the entire intended publication (Gilbert & Jenkins). This reference also

includes our own critical introduction to Opoku’s text and the translated transcript of a

supplementary report on the Kwasi Fianko case by the biracial missionary Wilhelm




200   Paul Jenkins


defend him from evil, and they dined with him on their common weekday birthday.25


One of the important by-products of the reports we are sourcing here is that

they give us a lot of flanking detail, in this case on the role of an okra, and on

the biography of Kwasi Fianko as a successful but illiterate merchant who came

of age around 1870. We know that he had been baptized in 1866, but his church

membership had, for reasons that are not stated, lapsed soon after. In a severe

personal crisis in Nigeria c. 1890, during which he was seriously ill and faced

with big financial losses,26 he had sworn to return to the Church if God brought

him safely back to Akropong. But on arrival there he was tempted to forget this

oath and instead joined the inner circle of Akwapim’s newly elected king, Kwasi

Akuffo. As Opoku put it:


Benjamin Fianko accepted and addicted himself to all worldly pleasures

and ambition which human and depraved heart could dictate which connects

to this [Okra] position, forgetting his prayer and his vow made

years ago, until lately by the strong Arm of the Lord that brought another

serious illness on him by which he thought his end had come….


In 1905-6, Fianko had once again fallen dangerously ill, and resolved to carry out

his former promise to rejoin the church if he recovered.


This set off the conflict with Kwasi Akuffo (Gilbert and Jenkins 377-78). It

had, in analytical terms, two levels. There was, obviously, the dissolution of his

relationship as okra, a position which, traditionally, was for life (although there

were evidently exceptions in which an okra had been allowed to resign from his

office). This side of the conflict does not play a part in our analysis here. The

aspect of the conflict that opens up an interesting insight into complex interrelations

between ‘church’ and ‘state’ in Akropong is the resolution of Kwasi

Fianko’s marriage status. And behind that lay the question of the King’s access to

Fianko’s wealth.


To take the question of Fianko’s wealth first: Kwasi Akuffo was an ambitious

king who was apparently interested in reviving the status of the Akwapim kingdom.

We know, for instance, that he spent heavily on new regalia. Akwapim was

small, with few of its own resources, and Kwasi Fianko was a signifi cant source

of financial backing for the King (he complained that loans to a King are basically made

à fonds perdu) (Gilbert and Jenkins 366, 387-88). Leaving the King’s intimate

circle and joining the Christian community would put Fianko at some real



25 The concept of “souls” in this sense is discussed both in the introductory material to Gilbert

& Jenkins, and in the early twentieth-century texts published there (Opoku in Gilbert and

Jenkins 376-77). See the same text for introductory material on 365 and material from

Wilhelm Rottmann on 385-88.

26 He had attempted to profit as a merchant from the collection of wild rubber in the

hinterland of Lagos, had fallen ill there, and was responsible for paying off his debt to the

young men from Akwapim he had taken to work with him. He had been unable to pay the

agreed upon daily wage (Gilbert and Jenkins 375-76, 383-85).


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 201


distance from the court and would seriously reduce the King’s ability to persuade

him to loan him money.


The marriage question came up because mainstream Protestant missions in the

modern colonial period usually demanded that upon conversion, polygamous men

enter the church as husbands of only one wife. Kwasi Fianko had marriage or

quasi-marriage relations with three women (Gilbert and Jenkins 377-78, 389-95).

The oldest relationship was with Akosua Ampoma, and was seemingly resolved

with no difficulty; I will return to her briefly at the end of this discussion. Wife

number two was the King’s candidate to become Fianko’s single Christian wife,

Victoria Adwoa Obuo. Wife number three, Susanna Ayebea, was the legitimate

candidate as far as the church’s leadership was concerned, and apparently preferred

by Fianko himself. The justification for rolling out this conflict – sub conspectu

aeternitate, perhaps, a mere storm in a teacup – is that Opoku’s report

demonstrates in a specificity that we can rarely attain in African church history

the way ‘church’ and ‘state’ can come to understand each other’s organization

in detail, and use their respective knowledge to reach into the other’s system in

order to manipulate the outcome of cases in which each have strong but conflicting



The first key point in the arguments brought to bear on this case was that

evidently, different grades of traditional marriage were recognized on both sides.

A fully formal traditional marriage was finalized, after a series of interchanges

between the families involved, when in front of witnesses ‘drinkables’ were

brought and handed over to the King with the oral information that the marriage

had taken place. On conversion of the husband, the church gave preferential recognition

to the most formally concluded traditional marriage. Since Fianko’s wife

number three, Susanna Ayebea, had, according to the church, been formally married

in this sense, she was the wife who had the right to be regarded as the proper

Christian wife of the (now) reconvert. And no one seems to have asserted that

wives number one and two had this status – they were part of more informal relationships,

that is, from the church’s point of view, quasi-marriages. While these

liaisons may have been stable middle-term relationships based on agreements

between individuals and their families (we have no information on this point in

this case),27 everyone seems to have agreed that they had not been given the final

indigenous blessing of the highest formality.


The King tried to throw doubt on the formal status of the marriage with

Susanne Ayebea, but what came to light at this point served instead to confirm

the formality of marriage number three. When this matter was first discussed,

Susanne Ayebea’s matrilineal uncle tried to bear witness that the presentation of

‘drinkables’ either had not happened or had signified something other than his

niece’s marriage to Kwasi Fianko. But it seems the general opinion quickly came




27 There is a delightful Ghanaian phrase “I have resigned from marriage” – for example, when

a woman is no longer capable of having children. This is to say that these partnerships are

neither ephemeral nor necessarily eternal.


202 | Paul Jenkins


to be that he had been suborned by the King into making this declaration (Gilbert

and Jenkins 392-93). And there was a powerful case for arguing this. Before

the marriage, Susanne Ayebea’s family had incurred a substantial debt. When her

then husband was invited to contribute to covering this debt, as he would traditionally

have been expected to do, he refused and instead dissolved their relationship.

Kwasi Fianko then offered to cover the debt, taking the woman as pawn

or collateral, a form of security that allowed him to use her labor while the debt

remained unpaid. It had been the King who had advised his trusted okra to marry

the woman instead. Under these circumstances, according to traditional rules, if a

male creditor had sexual relations with the a female pawn, the debt was regarded

as having been repaid. If he loaned the money and married her, he would enjoy

both legitimate relations with her and maintain his claim on the repayment of the



The King’s motivation for casting doubt on the formality of that marriage was

to press the case of wife number two to become Fianko’s proper Christian wife.

And this was intended to tie Fianko’s wealth closely to the king himself, or at

least to his extended family, his abusua. Wife number two was Victoria Adwoa

Obuo. She is described as a sister of the King, which probably means a classificatory

sister or, in simple English terms, a cousin on his mother’s side. At any

rate she was an odehye, a member of the royal family, and thus a member of

the extended matrilineal royal family or clan – the abusua – which held significant

amounts of property in common and exercised common control over family



The point at issue in 1906 concerned the King’s attempt at an elegant combination,

to his own advantage, of the provisions of the Basel Mission’s congregational

regulations applicable to the family, with the way an abusua conducted its

affairs. According to the Gemeindeordnung:


Any form of wealth a [male] member of our congregations possesses at

his death should be left to his widow and children. Each child should receive

an equal part. The property should not be left to more distant relatives.

[…A]s is the case with the heathen. (Ordnung für die evangelischen

Gemeinden […] Ostindien und Westafrika; my translation)


This paragraph was aimed at the abolition of the abusua and matrilineal inheritance,

an attempt to reorient family life to what the Basel Mission regarded as the

proper biblical patrilineal-patriarchal form,29 as opposed to the indigenous matrilineal

systems. But in this case, if Kwasi Fianko was once again to be accepted

into the Christian community and be joined there by his Christian wife Victo-



28 This whole complex issue is flagged by Opoku in Gilbert and Jenkins 378, with more

flanking detail offered on 389-95.

29 The Gemeindeordnung cited here was in force from the 1860s not only for the Basel

Mission congregations in West Africa, but for South India as well, where the Basel Mission

also dealt with communities organized according to traditions of matrilineal descent.


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 203


ria Obuo, on his death his wealth would accrue to her, and thus to the common

wealth of the royal abusua. And this was likely to happen soon, since he was an

old man suffering from a severe illness. Moreover, no offspring, with whom she

would have had to share the bequest, according to Basel Mission rules, are mentioned

in these reports. And if, against all likelihood, he were to have future offspring

with Victoria Obuo, they too would, as children of a mother of the royal

clan, belong to the same abusua.


The struggle over the future of relations between Victoria Obuo and Kwasi

Fianko, should the latter rejoin the church, has a further important feature. When

it became clear to Kwasi Akuffo that he was not going to get his way in establishing

the primacy of the marriage with Victoria Obuo he changed course very

quickly, accepted that Susanne Ayebea would be the future wife, but insisted that

Victoria Obuo be paid compensation for her lost marital status at a rate commensurate

with her position in the royal family – £25, or even £50, should be handed

to her (and therefore to the abusua). Opoku writes


Considering that our Rule allows £5 in such cases in [i.e., of] unlawful

marriages [which] are to be dissolved we thought and advised the

£6 should be given for the separation; but this [the king] rejected with

much disdain, urging that £25 at least ([if] not £50] should be given. But

as we have to stick firmly to our Rule we could not yield to this wish or

demand. This our consistency or unwillingness to yield [to] this wish

or demand on the one hand and our approval to the marriage of the one

who is more entitled to it by legal custom and ceremony incensed him

highly and brought a very sharp dispute between himself and us. After

all, (after this hot dispute) after much deliberation, for peace sake [we]

concluded that £10 should be given to the sister and at any cost the one

who is entitled to the marriage […] should be reaccepted into the congregation

with the husband. (Gilbert and Jenkins 378; emphasis added)


The £10 was their final offer, and it was ultimately accepted. Two general points

are raised by this detailed account of a clash between ‘church’ and ‘state’ in

Akropong in 1906.


The first point goes back to the passage in italics quoted above from Opoku’s

Annual Report for 1906: “our Rule allows £5 in such cases.” He writes as if regular

rules about financial compensation were applied to the resolution of marriage

cases that came before the Akropong Presbytery, not least when marital status

had to be resolved before baptism (Opoku, “Annual Report” n.p.). This is, so far,

the only reference I have ever found to payment of compensation according to a

fixed scale by the husband to a wife in a case of divorce involving the church. A

parallel offer of compensation at Fianko’s separation from the fi rst wife, Akosua




30 In presenting Opoku’s texts, insertions in square brackets have been made in order to clarify

ambiguities and otherwise make for smoother reading. The frequent use of synonyms or

parallel expressions is typical for Opoku, and this more than likely reflects the practice of

eloquence in Twi among ‘Speakers’ (linguists, akyeame) in traditional courts.

204 | Paul Jenkins


Ampoma, is also mentioned, with no indication that something unusual was happening.

It is stated specifically to have consisted of an offer of £2.50 and the gift

of a piece of land, and was evidently unproblematic and ”quickly agreed” (Gilbert

and Jenkins 390). That the interpenetration of the two systems had developed

to the point that compensation was part of the range of measures the church

could take in this sort of case should not really surprise us – a monetarization of

traditional court procedures through hearing fees, fines, and monetary compensation

was very well established in this region by the end of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, Gilbert believes that fees from fines and arbitration were a major part of

the Akwapim state’s income.31 So it would actually be surprising if the church

did not use this sort of customary mechanism to attempt to assuage any sense of

injury there may have been when marriages were dissolved upon the conversion

of the husband, and to ensure that the husband took proper care in the reorganizing

of his marital status.32


So in 1906, the church was relying on established procedures that must have

evolved some time before. The primary importance of Opoku’s 1906 report for

the investigation of his position as go-between lies in the way it indicates that an

unknown corps of go-betweens had evidently established important and generally

accepted guidelines for the way the Basel Mission’s Ordnung für die evangelischen

Gemeinden was applied in the town, as well as how the church handled the

potential complexities of the traditional family situations that had to be arbitrated

or resolved. Whether Opoku had been involved in the initial development of these

rules is not clear. Apart from in his early autobiographical text – see below – he

only starts reporting on or from Akropong when he is appointed as pastor there

in 1899.33


Secondly, turning our attention back to the situation in 1906 we can see that

there were potentially a number of go-betweens in Akropong. I am concentrating

on the figure of Opoku partly because of our long-term interest in his life and

reports, and partly because examining a key and well-known individual gives us



31 Michelle Gilbert, private communication. Furthermore sales of land in this area, involving

the substantial export of palm oil as a cash crop, were already frequent long before the

advent of cocoa as an export at the end of the nineteenth century. The region had also

known two forms of currency – cowrie shells, and gold dust – before European specie

began to be used.

32 Given the detailed reporting that went on between the Missionaries’ Annual Conferences

in Ghana and the Directorate of the Basel Mission in Basel, Opoku nevertheless opens

up for us here what must surely be a very rich seam in case studies and discussions about

the application of Basel regulations when a man in a polygamous marriage converted to

Christianity and wanted to become a member of the Basel Mission church. Ordnung […]

Ostindien und Westafrika Pt.1 §§92-104 (43-5) covers this situation, as does Ordnung

[…] Goldküste §97-100 (29-31), though not identically. Both sets of rules do refer to the

compensation that must be paid to wives who are separated from their newly converted

husbands (Ordnung […] Ostindien und Westafrika § 95; Ordnung […] Goldküste § 100).

But seeing records of compensation being paid is a step closer to the grass roots than

reading about it in regulations issued in Basel.

33 Gilbert, “Sudden Death,” is a wonderful exemplar of the complexities of marriage systems

and marriage politics within which the Basel Mission operated in Akropong and Akwapim.


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 205


a concrete basis for making sure Eurocentric theory (Christian or secular) does

not gain too much of an upper hand in analyses of what happened. But clearly

the whole presbytery (missionaries, pastor, church elders) was involved on the

church side. Indeed, our published documents on the case also include an English

translation of a long report by the supervising missionary Wilhelm Rottmann,

who would himself be an interesting study as a go-between because of his mixed

parentage, and who seems to have played a leading role in this situation generally,

not least in standing up to the frightening anger of a sacral ruler. Unusual for

the Basel Mission, Rottmann’s mother, Regina Hesse, was effectively an African,

descendant of a Danish-Mulatto trading dynasty based in the Shai Hills, south of

Akropong. (His father was the missionary merchant, Hermann Rottmann).34


On the other side, the King had his formal advisors, his intimate friends, and

the leading voices in his abusua (not least the “Queen Mother,”35 the female head

of the state), who will all have had their ideas about how to handle this particular

case, as well as the church in general. The King had, moreover, grown up going

to Basel Mission schools, so was both literate and had an insider’s knowledge

of the Basel Mission’s presence in his kingdom. But as a symbol of the many

potential but unknown go-betweens who may have been involved in the situation

we can also cite the unknown voice of a man who, at the height of the bitter

and angry discussion about the compensation to be paid to Victoria Adwoa Obuo,

appealed to the King to be more moderate, more calm. The bearer of this voice

is described as a “friend” of the King, and also a member of the congregation

(Gilbert and Jenkins 394). He is another sign during this period of how closely

intertwined church and tradition in Akwapim must have been – the product of

a couple of generations of go-betweens seeking the levels of adjustment possible

between the two sides. As with my conclusion in the case of Uttangi’s position,

it seems to me that people performing the go-between role at various levels

were probably large in number – and that with his report for 1906 Opoku stands

out primarily because of the extraordinary level of detail of his materials housed

in the Basel Mission archive.


I have focused on a specific situation documented in Akropong at the beginning

of the twentieth century. But interaction between ‘church’ and ‘state’ at this

level will have occurred in at least a score of other centers. Southern Ghana’s

dominant traditional model of organization is the Akan kingdom.36 A particularly



34 For the significance of the marriage between Regina Hesse and Hermann Rottmann, see the

many references in Sill and the well-researched short essay by Giorgio Miescher.

35 “Queen Mother” is the translation of the Twi word “Okuapehemaa,” which means the

Queen Mother of Akuapem. In southern Ghana, this is the expression for female heads of

an ethnic group, a ‘state’, or its main divisions. See also Gilbert “Cimmerian Darkness” and


36 Obtaining a firm count of the number of Akropong-type centers in southern Ghana is

difficult. To cite only one problem: in the Asante region, major chiefs are not ‘kings’,

rather they are subordinate to the large centralized kingdom of Asante. But many of these

major ‘wing’ chiefs in Asante will have ruled over populations substantially larger than

that of Akwapim, even though Akwapim counted as independent when subsumed into the


206 | Paul Jenkins


important aspect of the kind of thorough exploration of relations between church

and state in Akropong is that it gives us a standard for thinking about what must

have happened in other less well documented areas. It is certainly profi table to

investigate specific go-betweens like Opoku. But if the go-betweens in Akropong

in 1906 were potentially many, in southern Ghana as a whole they were potentially



Kofi Theophil Opoku, a pastor as Go-Between in Akwapim. Part 2:

His Self-Representation, 1872


To this detailed exposition of Opoku’s report on a conflict in Akropong in 1906,

it makes sense to add a reference to the autobiographical text he wrote in 1872,

a task that was required of both missionaries and pastors of the Basel Mission,

whether white or black, and to be carried out sometime near the beginning of

their careers. This duty was fulfilled by Opoku when he was being proposed for

full ordination as a Deacon. This meant he was moving from the rank of catechist

to that of assistant pastor, deputed to administer the sacraments under missionary

supervision, and set on a career track to become a full pastor and member of the

professional leadership cadre of the coming indigenous church. If Opoku’s reports

on operations like that of the conflict of 1906 put him firmly on the Mission’s

side, his autobiographical text, especially when seen against the background of

the dramatic events in his family history, which he does not mention, but which

emerge clearly from missionary reports of the time, breathes an Akan discretion

and tact toward his past, an effort to avoid the stigma of a problematical heritage,

and, probably, a subtle wish to upgrade his background in the eyes of his superiors

in Europe.37


The autobiographical document38 is a short text – a four-page manuscript –

emphasizing first of all his weak physique.39 He probably did suffer from a con-


Footnotes (36 contd).

British Gold Coast Colony, and was treated as a separate unit, with no traditional superior,

according to the system of indirect rule applied in this region of the Gold Coast.

37 It has been suggested that Opoku’s motivation for failing to mention his father’s fate in this

text could have been a sense of shame acquired through his contact with the Basel Mission,

but I prefer the ‘indigenous’ interpretation. One of the striking incongruencies in the

documentation of the Ghana archive is the way that all the missionaries had written their

own conversion histories (growing sense of sin, then sense of forgiveness and salvation)

in their early autobiographies. But conversion histories in this strict evangelical sense are

characteristically missing from the African autobiographies, as with Opoku, which seems to

me to legitimate an ‘indigenous’ interpretation if we are looking for a more than superficial

understanding of Opoku’s nature. It is true that he does write of his remorse at disobeying

Mader, but in what follows there is no theme of the release from a sense of sin.

38 The term in the Mission archive is “Lebenslauf” (“curriculum vitae”) but obviously the text

contains more information than captured by that generic term.

39 All references to Opoku’s “Lebenslauf” refer to Opoku’s MS in the Basel Mission Ghana

archive, dated Akropong October 5, 1872.


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 207


genital metabolic illness, and argues that it was because of his weakness that his

non-Christian father allowed him to go to school:


I was once dining, and having finished, when carrying the dish to its

place, it fell down from my hands, and shattered to pieces, because I

had no sufficient strength to hold it, my parents being present when this

happened. My father then exclaimed: Oh, my dear son, Opoku! What

could be the very work which thou canst perform in future? For there is

no bone in your body to hold a bill [cutlass, bush-knife] to work with. I

then exclaimed: My father, I could go to school. (Opoku, “Lebenslauf



We can understand that, as a boy, he seemed physically unfit for traditional male

occupations like farming, trading, (which necessitated long journeys on foot), or

soldiering. We should note that this is a phase of Christian history in West

Africa when almost the only effective medical treatment available was that provided

by herbalists and other traditional doctors. And it is also worth noting that during

his Basel Mission training Opoku spent two long periods in treatment with a

“native doctor” in a remote hamlet, apparently with missionary approval (“Lebenslauf

1-3). As a young adult in the second year of his training in the pastors’



I was attacked with a very serious and dreadful malady […] [and] was

in a lingering state till […] I was taken to a native doctor where I had to

stay for 9 months[. Later] I had to return again to the same doctor, who

took me away out of [his] village and confined me a in a very miserable

compound […] for half a year, taking medicine successively three times

every day, drinking no water, but this medicine in lieu […] (2)


In his autobiographical narrative, Opoku recounts how he passed through the

Basel Mission’s educational system, living most of the time in what we might

call a missionary extended family, headed by the Basel Mission’s Inspector of

Schools in Ghana, Adam Mader.40 He also reports that after being sent to his first

posting in February 1868 in another Akwapim town, “I came back [to Akropong],

and got married to Sophia Nyam, my father’s sister’s daughter […] on 21st April

1868”– thus making it explicit that this was, in a strong Akropong tradition, a

cross-cousin marriage (“Lebenslauf” 4).


One crucial passage from the point of view of our consideration of the emotional

basis of Opoku’s stand as go-between comes right at the beginning of the



As you wish to know something of my person and life, I give you therefore

a short sketch of my life-history as follows: I am a native of Akro




40 See Sill 215-41 on the importance of missionary extended family structures in creating

social patterns that indigenous people could understand and manipulate at this early stage

of the Basel Mission’s presence in Akropong.

208 | Paul Jenkins


pong, being born in the year 1842, of noble parents, for my father Dako-

Yao, who died on the 10th of July 1859, was the son of a once-renowned

King of Akwapim called Adow Dankwa (Danqua), and my mother,

Akua Korankma […] was a cousin to that King. (“Lebenslauf” 1)


Opoku was writing for readers in Basel, so the implication is that he was deliberately

gilding his origins and taking advantage of the distance between Basel and

Akropong to do so. As we have seen, Akropong was a town where abusua (matrilineal

clans) ruled. Maintaining a certain discretion ourselves, we can nevertheless

assert with fair confidence that neither of his key female ancestors – neither

his father’s mother, or his own mother – were members of recognized abusua,

but outsiders brought in under one arrangement or another.41 It is true that in the

Akan world the children of Kings were recognized as a class having potentially

an interesting pattern of gifts and very likely to make careers in the traditional

offices open to them. But if their mothers were not members of the relevant abusua,

their children were not themselves members of the royal family, or any other

stool-holding family, and not electable to the stool to which they were claiming

closeness. Rather they look like having had an ambivalent status as a subordinate

category, but nevertheless with good connections.


Opoku makes only one more indirect reference to his father. After reporting

that as a primary school pupil he had joined the family of the missionary Adam

Mader, he writes:


I was very much puffed up and once [resenting some punishment] arrogantly

stood before [the missionary] and said: Am I a slave of yours

[…]? I am going to my father’s house. Not knowing that the world passeth

away with all its vanities […]. The house, which was the habitation

of wives, sons, daughters etc etc has now become the habitation and den

of snakes, lizard, spider […] (“Lebenslauf” 2)


So in addition to appearing to claim a status he did not really have, Opoku mentions

only very indirectly his father’s fate. From the reports of the Akropong missionaries,

we know that in 1855 Opoku’s father was accused of poisoning a large

number of people. (It seems likely that this was an accusation of witchcraft.) The

anger of the young men – the young warriors of the town – forced him into exile.

His opponents appear to have pursued and forced him to return to Akropong in

1859 to face a further charge of murder. He was condemned to commit suicide by

shooting himself, which he did on the date Opoku gives, July 10, 1859.42



41 Michelle Gilbert has conducted fieldwork in Akropong complementing the documentary

materials available for our Opoku publication project, and has found it extremely difficult

to collect genealogical information, whether on Opoku or anyone else who does not belong

unambiguously to an abusua in the town. The implication of this is that Opoku’s paternal

grandmother, and/or his own mother, were war captives, and thus did not possess the full

social profile of women born to an abusua.

42 The narrative of the fate of Opoku’s father has to be pasted together from a number of

missionary reports between 1855 and 1859 by the missionaries Christaller, Mader, and


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 209


The prohibition against mentioning disgraceful or catastrophic events in the

Akan world is strong. The way to summon someone before a traditional court

has been, since time immemorial, to make forbidden reference to a catastrophe –

for instance by speaking the name of the place where a decisive defeat had taken

place or at which a King had been killed. At this point, the speaker of the forbidden

name and the person with whom he or she is in conflict are cited before

the court of the relevant chief and have to pay the appropriate fine to enable the

breach of taboo to be cancelled, after which the issue between them is itself discussed

and judged. In the Akan world, this is what is known as “swearing an

oath” (Rattray 205-15).


It is clear on the one side that a Pietist missionary wish to give an account of

the fatal wickedness of heathenism might have motivated Opoku himself to tell

the story of his father’s death in full dramatic detail. Instead, his account of his

early life reflects his adherence to Akan values of avoidance, a desire to avoid

stigmatizing his father’s descendants and maintaining his father’s reputation, at

least in general terms.


Clearly, a go-between functions at different levels. He may be involved in

negotiations, as we have seen. But he will also be involved on a much broader

plane of communication with the people around him. Indeed, Opoku had a high

reputation as a speaker and preacher – and although the first impression one is

liable to have of him, when looked at from outside, is of an evangelist carrying

out a lifelong attack on ‘heathenism’, we can sense, with his own autobiographical

text in mind, that when he spoke, his construction of the world around him

will have been, as here, in spite of all potential radicalism, recognizably similar to

that of his audiences, and his emotions will often have been congruent with those

they themselves have felt.


If I might be allowed to relay a piece of recent Basel oral tradition to underline

this point: at a seminar involving analysis of this autobiographical text, an

anthropologist colleague in Basel asked what the significance was of Opoku’s

specific mention of his marriage to his father’s sister’s daughter. As was the case

as often as I could arrange it, I had invited someone articulate from the region

of Africa under consideration to have a privileged part in our discussions. This

person was not necessarily an academic or an exponent of a social science discipline,

but was there to offer a kind of reality check as to how modern people

from the region involved would evaluate and understand the text we were analyzing.

In this case it was a Ghanaian Presbyterian pastor, Peter Kodjo, who was

present. I had worked with him on a number of occasions, knew he had a firm

and independent-minded interest in the history of his church and the development

of quality discussion about its background, and that he had been a student

chaplain. He also spoke German. To the question about Opoku’s choice of wife,


Footnote 42 contd

Widmann. The news of the death was sent to Basel by G. Auer, in Quarterly Report.

J.A.Mader, acting in loco parentis to Opoku, has a particularly moving account of the

impact of this death on his relationship with Opoku; see Mader’s Jahresbericht.



210 | Paul Jenkins


Kodjo intervened immediately. Entering a marriage relationship that was familiar

in Akropong, he said, meant that when Opoku went with his wife to visit relatives

(his mother, for example, who maintained her traditional religious identity

until shortly before her death in the 1880s), he could feel relaxed, at least about

his marriage – he had done what was considered in Akropong to be the right

thing. And this insight, that he had and valued a certain emotional congruence

with the people around him, seems to me to be one key to understanding the way

in which he was able to operate as a go-between. Judging by this autobiographical

text, in spite of an intensive Basel Mission education, he resolutely retained

elements of his culture of origin. So that if, on the one hand, he was part of the

mission church’s broad campaign against essential components of the traditional

culture, on the other he still possessed a good deal of that culture’s conventions in

terms of the way he thought and felt. This position frequently supplied him with

a bridge to the sensibilities and thinking of non-Christians with whom he was in



Conclusion A: Opoku, then, a Go-Between?


The term go-between challenges us to develop concrete statements about the

activities of people like Uttangi and Opoku. But a final assessment of the analyses

offered in this paper must be regarded as mixed. In the case of Uttangi we

have probably gone as far as we can without moving into complex research using

Kannada sources. But we do know with a fair degree of certainty that he pursued

unorthodox, open-ended intellectual relations with Lingayats in his vicinity, and

there is enough concrete information available to indicate that his total achievement

in this field, seen from the Lingayat side, was substantial and that this will

have contributed, albeit indirectly, to the surprisingly positive reputation the Basel

Mission and its community enjoy in the minds of many leading Kannadiga non-



With Opoku the answer to the question about the nature of his go-between

activities is, based on the material presented here, less clear. We have indicated

elements of an essential ‘indigenousness’ in his emotional makeup. And

his reporting in 1906 reflects his ability as an informed chronicler to present the

result of go-betweens’ activities in the interpenetration between Christian and

‘traditional’ communities in Akropong at that time. But as a general statement this

demonstrates two serious limitations. Firstly, the degree to which Opoku himself

served as a pivotal figure in developing that interpenetration or how he under




43 Peter Kodjo passed away in the early weeks of 2012, and I am very happy to publish this

memory of his role in making it clear that in Basel we could offer African Studies with

unusual characteristics. He was a pastor – but the students often seem not to have registered

this fact, finding him an urbane figure, with extensive knowledge of his regional past, and

a preparedness to break taboos in his discussions with them. He apparently did not at all

meet their expectations of what a pastor was like.




Catalysts of Concealed Change | 211


stood his own potential role as go-between is by no means clear. Secondly, the

conflict in 1906 is mainly about social/political relations. It offers no reference

to intellectual history, the reception of the Basel Mission’s cosmological/religious

message, and the concerns displayed by Uttangi. But it is real: in the Akan area

of Ghana the Basel Mission had to constantly negotiate relations with centralized

kingdoms which, even up to the present day, have in many cases remained strong.


Coordinating the analysis here with studies by Patricia Purtschert and Sonia

Abunasr which are immediately or closely relevant to Opoku may help us to create

both a more generalized and a more precise view of his go-between activities.

Firstly, the Basel philosopher Patricia Purtschert has published an essay about

another of Opoku’s reports to Basel. It concerned a political crisis in Akropong

in 1907 in which the Queen Mother – the female head of the royal line –spearheaded

the ‘destoolment’ (deposition) of King Kwasi Akuffo and the election of

one of her own sons to this office. From the point of view of the Basel Mission

the explosiveness of this story must have been the fact that the woman involved

was not only the “Queen Mother” of the kingdom, but also the wife of a Basel

Mission pastor – she was both the Okuapehemaa Akua Oye and Rev. Mrs Amelia

Koranteng.44 Having any Christian – let alone a woman – playing any role

in traditional politics was quite contrary to the Mission’s ethos. Opoku takes the

political events of that year as his main theme in the report. And Purtschert’s

assessment of his text is that Opoku subtly but firmly took up a position as go-between between the Akropong congregation and its social and political environment on

the one hand, and the fathers of orthodoxy in Basel on the other. Writing

this report was his way of insisting that realities had to be acknowledged for what

they were, without himself falling under missionary condemnation by being too

adamantly on the ‘traditional’ side.45


This impression of Opoku as a diplomat who moved the pieces on his chessboard

carefully and maintained links to both sides is strengthened when we compare

him with his senior colleague, David Asante, as Asante appears in Sonia

Abun-Nasr’s biography. Asante came from the same social complex of palace life

in Akwapim as Opoku, but was almost a generation older, and was the subject of

an experiment in which three young Ghanaians were taken to Basel in 1857 to

be put through the full course of missionary training there. He was the only one

to return to Ghana in 1862 with the formal status of a full Basel missionary. But

judging by Abun-Nasr’s analysis, he then saw himself more as a principal in his

relations with the surrounding society than as a go-between. The climax of his

career was a clash in Akwapim’s neighboring kingdom of Akyem Abuakwa in

which he went head-to-head with the King not in a single case, but in recruiting




44 I have seen no indication that Akua Oye played an important role in the crisis in 1906. That

year she was presumably building up opposition to the King behind the scenes.

45 This summary is a fair application of Dr. Purtschert’s paper to my argument, but it only

barely does justice to her original and convincing pursuit of philosophical questions,

pragmatically understood, which results in her reading of documents with an unusual

degree of sensitivity to the position and intention of the actors involved.


212 | Paul Jenkins


for his band of followers (i.e., recruiting for the Christian community and assembling

in the Christian quarter of the town) a large number of the King’s servants.

They were ‘slaves’ who, through the Gold Coast abolition of slavery as a

status recognized by the colonial courts (1874-5) (Haenger 113-32) had received

increased social and personal mobility rights. The implications for the stability

of the kingdom were so serious in the eyes of the colonial authorities that they

insisted that Asante be posted away (132-40).


From this point on, Asante lived and worked far from the main Basel Mission

centers. As one example, he reconstructed Basel Mission congregations among

small Guan-speaking communities east of the Volta, which the Mission had been

forced to abandon during the wars of 1869-74, and many of which were later

given up to the Bremen Mission. Judging by Abun-Nasr’s evaluation, Asante’s

post-1877 reports are comparatively banal. Opoku’s career was, in contrast, one

of steady advancement through pastoral responsibility in a number of large congregations,

culminating in his time in Akropong, the place with probably the most

complex relations between ‘church’ and ‘state’ in the Basel Mission’s part of

Ghana. His reports become increasingly significant in revealing interactions that

would otherwise be difficult or impossible to research. This comparison suggests

we see Opoku as a go-between type, though still one whose importance is as a

reporter rather than as someone we can be sure independently exercised much of

a go-between’s creative diplomacy.



Conclusion B: Historical Sources and Currents of Concealed



Once more: the value of the term ‘go-between’ lies not least in the way it

demands that we consider both sides of the specific complex of relations in which

a particular agent has operated. As argued in the introduction to this paper, mission

archives tend not to be places that facilitate a view of ‘the other side’, other

than in orthodox, negative, and old-fashioned mission terms. It is immediately

clear in the case of Channappa Uttangi that Gunjal’s biography ‘from the other

side’ opened up the possibility of studying an almost revolutionary view of what

was happening between local leaders of the Basel Mission church and their surrounding

religious communities in Northern Karnataka.


Like Uttangi, Opoku was a Basel Mission employee, but in Opoku’s case it is

his reports to the ultimate source of authority in the organization that we are studying.

So the question of how far they enable study of the non-Christian side of

the situation in Akwapim during his lifetime is less straightforwardly answered.

One useful point of comparison is provided by Koukou Azamede’s assessment of

the reports written for the neighboring Bremen Mission by twenty men who had

been sent, while still very young, to a pastor’s family in rural Württemberg for

training as mission workers. This training exercise went on from 1872 to 1900.







Catalysts of Concealed Change | 213


These reports are potentially of direct importance to this paper because the area

of the Bremen Mission’s work was not only geographically close to that of the

Basel Mission. Up to 1914, most (white) Bremen missionaries were trained in the

Mission College in Basel, and many of them had been recruited from the same

Pietist families in Württemberg in which the Basel Mission found roughly half its



For this reason it is interesting to observe that while points of tension between

mission Christianity and local culture are an important part of Azamede’s analyses,

one’s impression is that his sources scarcely offer insight into indigenous patterns

of behavior that form the context of these tensions. The emphasis is on the

ways in which such behavior contravened that Mission’s congregational regulations.

Opoku’s report for 1906 offers much more in terms of graphic descriptions

of indigenous institutions and trains of thought, thus offering the basis for a ‘binocular’

view of what was happening. It is true that when he reports on acute conflicts

between church and tradition, Opoku’s active sympathy is usually, if not

always, on the side of the church and mission. But he offers enough flanking

material for it to be possible to often read his concrete descriptions against [this]

grain, to visualize ways in which the development of the Christian and the traditional

community did not correspond with mission orthodoxy, and to develop

what in my experience are some unusually in-depth assessments of what was happening

on the traditional side, as indeed is the case in his reporting on the conflict

we have summarized in this essay.


Is the background to the quality of Opoku’s reports only a matter of his personal

gifts, or can we derive from his case a general guide for researchers seeking

resources in mission archives that enable ‘binocular vision’? Basel is the mission

that trained and employed the first African to have written a substantial history

of a region of Africa – Opoku’s colleague, Pastor C.C. Reindorf (Reindorf;

Jenkins, Recovery). Reindorf’s 1895 History of the Gold Coast and Asante contains

a quantity and a quality of information from oral sources so rich that in

many ways it has not yet been properly integrated into modern historiography. It

is clear that Reindorf was originally encouraged in his historical research partly

by the key Basel Mission scholar of the Akan world, J.G. Christaller, who was

also a close colleague of and source of encouragement for Opoku. By the end

of the nineteenth century, it is true that the Mission’s headquarters in Basel no

longer seemed interested in Reindorf’s efforts (apparently he had to put up the

capital himself in order to get his History printed). Their response to what Opoku

was writing was also feeble. But the ethos of being serious students of the language

and culture of the communities in which they were working seems to have

really taken root in the minds of at least some of those Ghanaians trained by the

Basel Mission in the1850s and 1860s.46 Thus we have to say that probably not all




46 There is also modern literature about the ambivalence that the nineteenth-century Basel

directorate felt toward the broad research their missionaries were carrying out on the

Kannada and Malayalam languages in South India. (e.g. Wendt, with an important



214 | Paul Jenkins


missionary archives will offer materials of the same quality of Opoku’s writings

when it comes to searching for documents one can read against the grain. But

the search for missionary societies that did encourage open-ended research and

reporting, even if inconsistently, is obviously important.


One question underlying this whole paper has concerned the representative

nature of Uttangi and Opoku. Were they unique as go-betweens in and of themselves?

Or are they notable because they left substantial historical traces, some of

which we have introduced here, and which can open up for inspection currents

of concealed change in which many other people were also creatively involved?

If we answer the last part of this question in the affirmative, we would be suggesting

that there was, at least among progressive indigenous colleagues working

in similar situations, a developing consensus about how to conduct relations

between Christian and non-Christian communities. I am inclined to answer this

question positively, although as a train of thought it obviously leads to complications

that cannot be untangled in this paper.


This text has been devoted to establishing that concealed under the blanket of

colonial missionary orthodoxy, people like Uttangi and Opoku lived and worked

as independent-minded local intellectuals. With luck, open-ended analysis and a

determination that all history must be anchored to the study of specifi c situations,

such people can be brought more fully into the center of the contemplation of the

history of the organization and movement to which they belonged.


The possible fruits of this approach are impressive. In the 1970s, John Middleton

observed church elders in Akropong arbitrating in an open-handed way in

many cases when property was to be divided on the death of its owner, between

the claims of members of the modern patrilineal nuclear family and those of

members of the traditional matrilineal clan (Middleton 14). Exploring the historical

background of this observation takes us back to the Basel Mission’s institution

of church elders with the precise role of enforcing, from their strong position

as linguistic and cultural insiders, the patrilineal inheritance rule we have

quoted above.47 In this key aspect of local life, radical change has occurred, concealed

from the outside world by the weight of orthodoxy, past and present.48 But

through Opoku’s 1906 report, informed by his go-between position, we can sense

relations between the two sides in the process of change, change that Middleton

thought, on the basis of his conversations in the 1970s, must have taken place,

but for which he had no documentary evidence. The implication of a discovery



Footnotes (46 contd)

collection of documents). In Karnataka and Kerala their work is now, however, regarded by

most of the population as an outstanding contribution to indigenous development.

47 See Ordnung […] Ostindien und Westafrika 7-9 for the authoritative first Basel definition I

have seen of the Church Elders’ role.

48 Indeed, when I discussed Middleton’s findings in Akropong soon after they were published,

it was clear that while the church elders were flattered by his attention, clergy tended to

follow the orthodox line and feel that lay people had no mandate to negotiate, and should

strictly follow the church’s rules, which still cleave to the notions of nuclear family and

patrilineal inheritance.


Catalysts of Concealed Change | 215


like that is that the Basel Mission Church in Ghana, not to mention its successor

church, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, were and are indigenous institutions to

a degree that neither the insider historiography nor the outsider studies written by

nontheological academics have properly gauged or explored. Following the gobetweens

who present themselves for our study leads us into not only a deeper

understanding of the social environment in which the church operates, but to a

new view of the profile of the church itself.


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This text is the ninth chapter in the proceedings of a conference held in Rostock


and published as


(ed) Sebastian Jobs and Gesa Mackenthun


Agents of Transculturation. Border-Crossers, Mediators, Go-Betweens


315 pp., Waxmann, Münster, 2013.