Cape Coast Castle is one of more than thirty forts which European trading companies erected on the coast of modern-day Ghana between the fifteenth and the nineteenth century. The castle has long been a symbol of one of the most heinous crimes in history: the Atlantic slave trade. Visitors who tour the building in the twenty-first century often project their feelings of anger, grief, and regret onto the inert structure. Some of them are even convinced that spirits roam the slave dungeons, courtyards, and parapets.1 One of these spirits is the Reverend Philip Quaque, the first person of African descent to ever be ordained in the Anglican Church. Quaque is buried in the fort’s courtyard under a couple of stone slabs bearing his initials. His story, or at least a version of it, features in every guided tour.2
Philip Quaque is also one of the protagonists of my Ph.D. thesis about missionaries on the early modern Gold Coast. I am not the first researcher to devote a lot of attention and careful research to reconstructing Philip Quaque’s life. The basic facts have been established for over fifty years: Quaque was born in the vicinity of Cape Coast in 1740 or 1741. In 1754, he was chosen by the Anglican missionary Thomas Thompson and the local power broker Cudjoe Caboceer to be educated in London. In 1765, he was ordained and sent to Cape Coast as a missionary, schoolmaster, and chaplain to the garrison. Apart from a brief interim in 1783/4, Quaque spent the rest of his life in this hub of the Atlantic slave trade trying, and often failing, to build a Christian community.3 In recent years, this biographical framework has been enhanced by assessments of Quaque’s missionary work, his interactions with the Atlantic world, and the way in which he presented himself in his letters.4
Still, a lot of work remains to be done. For example, I think a lot about the question how the version of Philip Quaque I can reconstruct from written sources fits into the building of Cape Coast Castle. Sometimes this question is literal. One of Quaque’s lifelong projects was to build a chapel at Cape Coast, as the fort did not have one. In theory, Quaque could have held Sunday services in the great hall, but in practice, he was often denied the privilege of officiating there. During one rainy season, the roof leaked so badly that soldiers of the garrison feared their uniforms would be ruined. At other times, the governor simply refused to let the chaplain use the hall, without giving any reason. The official practice of Christianity at Cape Coast Castle was thus confined to Philip Quaque’s private quarters for long periods of the eighteenth century.
Other underexplored questions include how Philip Quaque positioned himself within Cape Coast society. As a consequence of having been born near Cape Coast and being a relative of the local ‘big man’ Caboceer Cudjoe, European patrons expected Quaque to act as a broker figure and ‘native informant’ who could mediate between the European Christians and the local Fante population. In correspondence with Europeans, Quaque accepted the basic premise but often rejected the specifics of this expectation. Instead, he tried to present himself as a peer of other Anglican missionaries in the Atlantic world by styling himself as an orthodox Anglican who was fighting to preserve and enlarge an embattled local Christian community. In the long term, this framing seems to have prevented him from making meaningful connections with many of the Fante of Cape Coast, but it also never allowed him to fulfil the expectations of European correspondents, who could not refrain from casting Quaque as a ‘native’.
Scholars have tended to overlook the fact that, despite all this, Quaque clearly found his place in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Cape Coast. ‘Parson Quaque’ was a fixture of coastal society for over fifty years and thrived economically, at least for a time. From the 1770s onwards, he seems to have been on good terms with the Brew family, who were descended from the Irishman Richard Brew and one of the most powerful Euro-African slave trading dynasties of the Gold Coast. Their lifestyle combined European amenities (such as a stone house or a well-stocked library) with institutions which were specific to the Gold Coast (for example, a large number of enslaved household servants). Quaque aimed to imitate this lifestyle. He tried to profit from the coastal trade by both buying and selling goods from European ships and going into business with his fellow employees of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. He was a founding member of the ‘Torridzonian Society’, a charitable organization which hosted banquets, financed the establishment of a school, and lent its name to the first freemasons’ lodge on the Gold Coast. In the early 1790s, he built a residence for himself, his wife, his five sons, his daughters, and his household servants in Cape Coast village. As the patriarch of this household, Quaque led the life of a fairly well-off Europeanized Gold Coaster, complete with books, musical instruments, and European household items. When he died in 1816, a tombstone for the chaplain was ordered from England and he was buried in the courtyard of the castle.
Despite his economic dependence on the Atlantic slave trade, Philip Quaque gave many indications throughout his life that he was weary of the institution. Not least, he was unconvinced that the Gold Coast could be Christianized if the Atlantic slave trade remained in place in its current form. This weariness did not, however, stop him from becoming personally involved with the many forms of bonded labour which prevailed on the early modern Gold Coast. On the coast, African people were pawned for debt, privately owned by Europeans, held in a kind of wage slavery as ‘company slaves’, and bonded in the households of Fante and other wealthy African individuals.5 Philip Quaque is on record as buying at least five enslaved people from his colleagues in the African Company, and in his papers he mentions at least three enslaved persons he owned.
All of these aspects enhance our understanding of Philip Quaque. Nevertheless, the picture remains incomplete. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect about peripheral and marginalized figures of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world is the sheer number of things we cannot know about them. Was Philip Quaque genuine in his correspondence with Europeans, or did he simply embellish the details of his life on the Gold Coast when he felt the need to? Did he ever give up on actively working as a missionary? Did he ever fully rekindle his connections with eighteenth-century Fante society? Sometimes, I catch glimpses of answers to these questions. More often than not, I do my best to let the questions themselves remind me of the limitations of my work. I am forced to fill the gaps with informed speculation or present readers with degrees of plausibility. In this way, piecing together the life and work of Philip Quaque has taught me an academic language of controlled uncertainty, which I will value and try to incorporate into my work far beyond the current Ph.D. project.
The featured image shows the seal, bearing his initials, that Philip Quaque used to mark his letters in the 1780s. Philip Quaque to the Committee of the CMTA, Oct. 11, 1784, The National Archives, London, T70/1551A. Photograph by the author.
- Bayo Holsey, Routes of Remembrance: Refashioning the Slave Trade in Ghana (Chicago and London, 2008), 151–95.
- Ibid. 186–7.
- The most detailed biographical account is still Francis Lodowic Bartels, ‘Philip Quaque, 1741–1816’, in Transactions of the Gold Coast & Togoland Historical Society,1/5 (1955), 153–77.
- Travis Glasson, Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World (Oxford/New York, 2012), 172–96; Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́, ‘Writing Africa under the Shadow of Slavery: Quaque, Wheatley, and Crowther’, in Research in African Literatures, 40/4 (2009), 1–24.
- Rebecca Shumway, ‘Castle Slaves of the Eighteenth-Century Gold Coast (Ghana)’, in Slavery and Abolition, 35/1 (2014), 84–98; Akosua Adoma Perbi, A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana: From the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Century (Accra, 2004).