The Public Records Administration and Archives Department in Cape Coast, Ghana – Under-explored sources and post-colonial archival challenges

As part of my doctorate on pan-African activism in London during World War II, I was fortunate enough to undertake an archival trip to West Africa in March 2020. In the following, I will present the Public Records Administration and Archives Department in Cape Coast, Ghana, a relatively unexplored archive, which is of particular interest for historians of Western Africa, the British colonial era and the Atlantic Triangular Trade. Additionally, I will outline challenges in archival conservation in Ghanaian state archives.

I conducted the majority of my archival research in the Public Records and Archives Administrations Department (PRAAD) in Accra, Ghana. The PRAAD is the successor of the National Archives of Ghana, renamed in 1997.[1] In addition to documents on the period following the Ghanaian independence from Britain in 1957, the PRAAD holds a rich collection of sources from the colonial era. Therefore, it is an indispensable working tool for historical research on Ghana or the Gold Coast colony. The archive in Accra holds the largest body of documents. However, several regional archives with supplementary material exist across Ghana, for example in Cape Coast, Sekondi, Kofaridua, Kumasi, Tamale, Sunyani, and Ho. Each of these regional sub-archives contain records and correspondence that primarily relate to the administration of the regional provinces, but also personal papers of locals, travel diaries and reports that cannot be found in the main archival deposit in Accra. In short, the regional archives provide an important pool of complementary sources for any historical research on Ghanaian history.

Since the newspapers in the PRAAD in Accra became unreadable due to conservation problems for the pre-1950-period, I have been advised by an archivist to use the PRAAD in Cape Coast instead, as it holds a newspaper collection for the years 1930 to 1950. The PRAAD Cape Coast has been made relatively little use of, due to its low visibility and difficult accessibility: There is no online presence and therefore little information on its collections. Here, the sub-genre of archival literature provides first insights. Fortunately, in the years following independence in 1957, Africa historians published record lists of the newly created Ghanaian archives including the regional sub-archives for their colleagues in peer-reviewed journals.[2] Additionally to the absence of a website, the PRAAD Cape Coast is difficult to reach: The archive has moved several times and the access road to the new location is now occupied by a scrap yard, so that the journey to the new site can only be made with navigation advice from local guides. These difficulties help explain why these sub-archives are untapped sources despite holding vital documents for researchers on the time before, during and after Ghanaian independence. In order to reap these rich sources, one simply needs a lot of time, patience and the help from locals.

Apart from documents on regional government, the Public Records and Archives Administrations Department (PRAAD) in Cape Coast holds rich source material on the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. © Simeon Marty

The holdings of PRAAD Cape Coast consist mainly of regional government documents. These are particularly interesting for historians of the colonial era, as Cape Coast was the capital of the British colony Gold Coast until 1877 and a main hub for slave trade in the Triangular Trade. For historians of the early 20th century, for instance, the personal papers of Kobina Sekyi (1892­–1956), politician, lawyer, poet and mentor to Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, offer a valuable collection of sources.[3] His personal documents give insight into interwar Ghana and the early post-war period when the fight for independence intensified. As a loyal reader of the daily paper, Sekyi donated his personal collection of Ghanaian newspapers ranging from the 1920s to his death in 1956 to the regional archive, which is an especially rich resource as because comprehensive archives of African newspapers are often difficult to find.

However, the promising holdings of the PRAAD in Accra and in the regional archives are critically endangered due to serious conservational problems. A review of the British Library Endangered Archives Programme stated in 2012 that “over 45% of the documents examined are extremely fragile. Unless digital copies are made to preserve these materials, the surviving records will be completely destroyed within less than a decade.”[4] Additionally, the archival holdings are only partially categorised and registers are not digitised, which leads to problems when documents are re-sorted after having been read. The poor condition of Ghanaian archives has become a popular topic in the national press.[6] According to Gregory Setse, Head of the Department at the PRAAD Cape Coast, interviewed about the deplorable state of the archive in 2019, the core of the problem is the lack of funding for renovations to preserve the documents from climatic influences or to provide the technical equipment to digitise the collections.[7]

Deposit of the archival collections of the PRAAD Cape Coast. Finding documents once incorrectly sorted is a challenge. © Simeon Marty

Initiatives to preserve Ghanaian archival collections exist, such as the British Library Endangered Archives Programme, which has begun to digitise certain holdings in the PRAAD sub-archives in Cape Coast and Tamale.[8] However, the problem is greater than a single programme could solve. The majority of archives in Ghana remain at risk. While no archive is ever complete, the degree of absence and degradation in Ghanaian archives is striking. Reflecting on an archival trip in Northern Nigeria in 2014, the US-American historian Samuel Fury Childs Daly came to the conclusion that postcolonial state archives reflect the fragmented nature of African postcolonial states and their history.[9]

Parts of the personal papers of Kwame Nkrumah, covered in book lice. Copies do not exist. © Simeon Marty

For historians of Ghana and Western Africa, this means in practice to make do with less source material for their studies, even when the research period is close to our own. One way of compensating this is to switch to other sources, such as sources that were written by former colonizers and can be found in archives in the Global North. But what has been recorded by the British colonial administration does not necessarily correspond to Ghanaian realities, as the colonial view of the Ghanaian past differs to how Ghanaians perceived the world.  Historians that utilize these sources have to be aware of those sensitivities when using colonial archives and need to be careful not to reproduce colonial perceptions of the world in the 21st century.

Another possibility is to extend the source base to non-written sources. Oral history, the interpretation of material culture or historical ethnography are often used for the historiography of pre-colonial African history and could also be applied to the reconstruction of more recent periods. This brings new opportunities but also new challenges for the historiography of Africa. This process requires a greater reflection on the sources being used. In the words of Antoinette Burton, working with sources of African history therefore requires a lot of “selection, interpretation and even creative innovation”[10].


[1] For a brief history of the PRAAD see Iddirisu, Abdulai: The Ghana Public Records and Archives Administration Department – Tamale: A Guide for Users, in: History in Africa (27), 2000, pp. 449-453.

[2] Henige, David P.: The National Archives of Ghana: A Synopsis of Holdings, in: The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1973), pp. 475-486, Dumett, R. E.: Survey of Research Materials in the National Archives of Ghana, Gmünd, 1974 or Akuassah, Harry: A Calendar of the Kwame Nkrumah Papers in the Documentation Centre of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, 1935-194”, in: History in Africa, Vol. 21 (1994), pp. 389-402.

[3] Doortmont, Michael R.: The Pen-Pictures of Modern Africans and African Celebrities: A Collective Biography of Elite Society in the Gold Coast Colony, Leiden, 2005, p. 394.

[4] Montana, Ismael: Digitisation and preservation of historical archives in the Public Records and Archives Administration (PRAAD) in Tamale, Northern Ghana (EAP541), https://eap.bl.uk/project/EAP541, (accessed 19.05.2020).

[5] Boateng, Caroline: Ghana losing public records – Archival facilities in deplorable state, The Graphic, 10. Octobre 2018, https://www.graphic.com.gh/news/general-news/ghana-losing-public-records-archival-facilities-in-deplorable-state.html (accessed 19.05.2020)

[6] Adogla-Bessa, Delali: Ghana risks losing over 28’000 historical files over preservation challenges, Citi Newsroom, 23. May 2019, https://citinewsroom.com/2019/05/c-r-ghana-risks-losing-over-28000-historical-files-over-preservation-challenges/ (accessed 19.05.2020)

Appiah, Kofi: P.R.A.A.D. and other neglected and relegated to the dustbin?, Ghanaweb, 27. January 2012, https://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/features/P-R-A-A-D-And-Others-Neglected-And-Relegated-To-The-Dustbin-Part-1-228620, accessed 19.05.2020)

[7] Adogla-Bessa, Delali: Ghana risks losing over 28’000 historical files over preservation challenges, Citi Newsroom, 23. May 2019, https://citinewsroom.com/2019/05/c-r-ghana-risks-losing-over-28000-historical-files-over-preservation-challenges/ (accessed 19.05.2020)

[8] See https://eap.bl.uk/project/EAP541 and https://eap.bl.uk/project/EAP474 (accessed 19.05.2020)

[9] Fury Childs Daly, Samuel: Research Note: Archival Research in Africa, in: African Affairs (Vol. 116), p. 313.

[10] Burton, Antoinette: Archive Stories: Facts, fictions, and the writing of history, Durham, 2005, p. 5.


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2 Responses

  1. Gregory Septimus Setse. says:

    The Ghanaian Independence Proclamation seal signed by Queen Elizabeth II is safely kept in our Head Office , Accra. The Graphic reporter wrote a rejoinder to that effect.

    I thought the heading would have read like The Public Records and Archives Administration Department in Cape Coast, Ghana.

    Thanks.

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