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The struggles of Philip Quaque, the first African to be ordained minister by the Church of England in 1765

April 09, 2019 at 12:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Staff Writer

April 09, 2019 at 12:00 pm | History

Philip Quaque's Day celebrated at the Cape Coast Castle. Pic credit: masemtsiaba.wordpress.com

Philip Quaque was in his teens when he was taken from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to England for education by a missionary from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1754.

Quaque would, after a decade, become the first African to be ordained as a minister of the Church of England. He also became well-known for being the first African Anglican missionary in the Gold Coast, having returned to the Gold Coast to serve for fifty years as the society’s missionary and chaplain at the Cape Coast castle.

Though his missionary efforts, according to historians, did not yield the desired results, he would provide a unique perspective on the effects of the slave trade and its abolition in Africa through a series of letters he wrote to London and North America during his period of work in the Gold Coast.

He revealed his opposition to slavery at a time when people hardly questioned the trade in their writings, and even when his employers supported and facilitated the trade.

In 1752, the first SPG missionary to West Africa, the Rev. Thomas Thompson, arrived in Cape Coast after being instructed “to make trial with the natives and see what hope there would be in establishing among them the Christian religion.”

According to Amissah, G. McLean, Cape Coast in Historical Perspective, 1994, Cape Coast was then described as a town of “heathens, steeped in fetishism and idolatry.”

Thus, Thompson, who was chaplain to the garrison at the Castle, found it difficult converting the local people to Christianity.

Four years after his arrival, he became ill and made preparations to leave the Gold Coast. Anglicanism had then begun to grow in Cape Coast, so, before leaving, Thompson selected three young men from the town for education in England at the expense of the SPG. The hope was to later train them for ordination into the priesthood to “form the nucleus of priests for the local Anglican Church.”

Quaque was among the three young men chosen. Born as Kweku in 1741 in Cape Coast, Quaque was the son of Birempon Cudjoe, a successful chief of Cape Coast.

Quaque would become one of the young people educated by Thompson who had then opened a school in Cape Coast for the town’s children. In 1754, Quaque became one of three young men (from the Fante tribe) to be sent to England to be educated.

Of the three – Quaque, Thomas Cobbers, and William Codjoe – only Quaque survived, completed his education and priestly training. Cobbers died in 1758 and Cudjoe suffered a mental breakdown and died in 1766. Cudjoe had, before his death, been baptized alongside Quaque at St Mary’s Church, Islington in 1759, which the two had attended for four years.

Quaque took the name Philip and went on to study theology in London before being finally ordained in 1765 by the Bishop of London in the chapel of St. James. The same year, he married Catherine Blunt, an English woman, and the two returned to Cape Coast the following year, where Quaque became the society’s missionary and also a chaplain to the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa (CMTA) at Cape Coast Castle, the principal slave-trading site of the CMTA.

With a salary of £50 per annum, Quaque opened a small private school for mulatto children in his own room in the Cape Coast Castle. The pattern of education was based on the English charity school system of Islington. Quaque gave religious instruction and taught reading and writing; the children were taught arithmetic only when they could read very well, according to accounts by the Dictionary of African Christian Biography.

It is reported that the only black children who were in attendance were mostly children of wealthy Africans. The school was maintained jointly by the Committee of Merchants and the SPG through its committee in London.

However, maintenance of the school was later given to a local educational authority called the Torridzonian Society which was formed in Cape Coast in 1787, and to which Quaque belonged. Under the society’s administration, the school became the first on the Gold Coast to introduce school uniforms for its pupils.

Set up with the aim to also train clerks to the Public Office, the school, by 1797, had three of its students working as writers for the Committee of Merchants in Cape Coast. It would, in subsequent years, produce a generation of students who would rise to prominence in Gold Coast society. 

But the school could not flourish as expected due to disagreements between members of the society maintaining it and tensions between the British authorities and the local people.

Children started roaming in town instead of being in class and this began ruining the efforts and work of Quaque. Besides, he was having a hard time connecting with the natives as well as officers in the Castle and even his own relatives.

Having stayed in England for most of his years, he could no longer speak his local dialect, Fante, and had to speak through an interpreter. Being married to an English lady was also a source of his conflict with the local people. By 1774, he had only baptized 52 persons, few of whom were African.

Officers in the Castle where he worked usually ridiculed his work and religion and his church services were hardly attended because of the colour of his skin. According to the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, there were certain officers who refused to attend services because they were being conducted by a “black man.”

His salary was also almost always in arrears and he was not regularly compensated by either the SPG or the merchant group that ran Cape Coast castle. This compelled him to accept remuneration partly in goods for barter and partly in food and clothing.

“This proved to be more than just inconvenient, as both organizations accused him of either focusing too much on commerce or too little on his mission,” said the Edward A. Ulzen Memorial Foundation. At the time of his death in 1816, it is said that the S.P.G. owed him arrears of £369.

Throughout his years of missionary work, Quaque sent more than fifty letters to his employers in London and North America – between 1765 and 1811 – touching on his successes and failures, his trials and relationships with European and African authorities, and his observations on the effects of the American and French revolutions on Africa.

During the 50 years spent as a missionary, Quaque witnessed fatal outbreaks of malaria, smallpox, and yellow fever and other epidemics. His first wife and baby would die during childbirth before the end of 1766 largely due to some of these harsh conditions, scholars write.

His letters also gave a vivid description of the kind of life on the West African coast during his time there, including the politics and trade relations taking place.

What has been the most important is his perspective of the transatlantic slave trade which he condemned in his letters.

Having lived much of his life with Europeans in the same building that was used to house thousands of slaves before being shipped to the West Indies or North America, his writings of the slave trade offered “a fascinating perspective on transatlantic identity, missionary activity, precolonial European involvement in Africa, the early abolition movement, and Cape Coast society.”

Today, his grave can be found in the centre of the courtyard at Cape Coast castle – yards from the dungeons in which the slaves were kept. Much of his writing have also been preserved by the SPG’s archive, now held by the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House in Oxford.

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