Ghana’s first multi-millionaire
Jacob Wilson Sey (10th March, 1832- May 22, 1902) aka “Kwaa Bonyi”, The man who saved the Entire West Africa from their lands being seized by the Queen of England and the President of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society. The first real architect and financier towards Ghana`s independence.
He was the first Gold Coast (Ghana) millionaire. Personally I see him as the Greatest of Ghanaian leaders and Africa in general as history below will prove to you. He is not celebrated that is why you may never have heard of him!
Image from “Political History of Ghana”, by David Kimble, Oxford Press, 1963. Used with permission.
“The high tides of the sea have nothing to do with a crablet.”~ Jacob Wilson Sey.
THERE were many great people who were the honour and leaders of their generations but who died unsung and their memories forgotten by posterity, so is that of Mr. Jacob Wilson-Sey, popularly known by his nick-name “Kwaa Bonyi”.
This nick-name he earned from his light hearted jokes which made many people consider him merely as a joker who should not be taken seriously. These people nicknamed him “Kwaa Aboan’nyi” which literally meant – there is Kwaw the ‘joker’. Wilson Sey of Anomabo, in Gold Coast now Ghana was one person who gave his all for his country and yet has not been properly rewarded. He was the first Gold Coast millionaire! His singular act of financing Gold Coast deputation to England to debate the Land Bill of 1897 saved the the entire West African coast from their land being ceased as the Queen`s property.
Jacob Wilson-Sey was born in Asafura-Biriwa, a fishing village near Anomabo to a poor and illiterate couple on 10th March, 1832. His father was Paapa Saah – a Carpenter and his mother Maame Abadua – a Farmer. Kwaa Bonyi belonged to the Akona Ebiradze family of Anomabo.
Jacob did not have any opportunity for formal education and right from childhood, he was compelled to pursue his father’s calling and he also sold palm-wine for many years. Jacob was a neglected child and apart from about seven pounds which his mother gave him and which he used to purchase a farmland at Asafura village near Biriwa, he received no other help of any kind from any member of his family.
Later, Jacob studied joinery and became a coffin vendor. Many people flocked to buy coffins from him, because he used his great sense of humour and his jokes to create laughter ad thus lightened the grief of bereaved families at his workshop. He was noted for coining his own version of the English language spicing it with Fante words. For example:
“The Epo Prams of the sea has nothing to do with Akesaw’s Podise” – meaning – the high tides of the sea have nothing to do with a crablet.
Whenever he found the going tough with his coffin trade because of lack of money to fund it, he always fell back on his palm-wine tapping and palm oil manufacturing trade.
Jacob had two other brothers namely Ewusi – who came to be known as Joseph Wilson-Sey and a younger brother called Kwabena.
Jacob came by his enormous wealth in the manner that looked like a fairly tale, an African ‘Aladdin Cave tale’ and became one of the very, very few multi-millionaires in the whole of Africa.
It is said that one early morning at about 12:45a.m., Kwaa-Bonyi decided to visit a certain farm between Asafura and Egyirfa where he could get excellent palm fruits. He left for this farm when the whole village was still asleep. That day, he did not sing hymns, as was his habit whenever he was working or walking, but he restricted himself to praying silently. Fortunately, it was a bright moon night. When he reached the farm, he saw a very tall palm tree near a hill. He went to the tree and began to climb it, but a snake chased him up the palm tree.
Terrified of the scaly monster, Kwaa Bonyi lost his grip and fell to the ground unconscious. It is said that he heard a voice commanding him to wake up and go in peace and therefore show love and kindness to the needy. On regaining consciousness, his eyes fell on a glittering object. Out of curiosity, he cautiously approached it, took it up and examined it. To his amazement, it proved to be a gold nugget. He also saw in the near-by bush what seemed to be a number of pots filled with pure gold.
He sealed off the place and over a period of time, managed to smuggle the pots of gold secretly to his house. This treasure trove was supposed to be worth about two hundred billion pounds today. From that time onward, his life changed dramatically.
No longer was he Kwaa Bonyi the poor and illiterate; no longer the palm wine seller;
People knew, no longer the carpenter who sold coffin and no more the palm oil manufacturer, he was Jacob Wilson-Sey Esq.
Clothed in expensive silk shirts, tail coats and trousers, top and bowler hats. Jacob was a co-founder and the first President of the Aborigine Rights Protection Society, which was bent on opposing the Lands Bill of 1897. In this connection, Jacob led a deputation to present a petition to Queen Victoria in England and was received at No. 10 Downing Street to parlay with the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies on behalf of the kings, chiefs and the people of the Gold Coast on the abrogation of the notorious Land Bill of 1897 which had appeared in the Government’s Gazette extra-ordinary No.8 dated 10th March, 1897. The only two unofficial Gold Coast members in the Legislative Council at that time were helpless in blocking its passage.
The petition was signed by 15 kings made up of: Amonoo IV, King of Anomabu; Otu IV, King of Abura; Kwame Essandoh IV, King of Nkusukum; Badu Bonsa, King of Ahanta; Hima Denkyi, King Atta, King of Behin – Western Appolonia; Wiraku Atobura, King of Western Wassaw; Kwesi Ble, King of Atoabu, Eastern Appolonia; Nkwantabisa, King of Denkyira; Akyin II, King of Ekumfi; Kobina Kondua, King of Elmina; Kobina Hamah, King of Adjumaku and over 64 Chiefs from the western and Central provinces.
With the legal help of Edward F. Hunt, a solicitor from Sierra Leone who was assisted by a leading London firm of legal practitioners – Messrs Ashurst, Crips Co. and Mr. Corrie, Barrister at Law, the deputation consisting of Jacob Wilson-Sey (leader), Thomas Freemnand, Edward Jones and George Hughes (both merchants at Cape Coast) succeeded in their mission.
They returned to the Gold Coast with a letter from Queen Victoria abrogating the Land’s Bill and a gift of her bust. This was later mounted on a plot of land near the sea which later came to be known as Victoria Park for durbars and other state functions. The bust was unveiled in 1925 by Princess Anne, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
He encouraged the chiefs to build other Victoria Parks in their parts of the country in honour of this illustrious queen. Thus resulted in the building of Victoria Parks in Saltpond, Winneba, Elmina, Axim, Accra, Koforidua and Kyebi, etc. It is note-worthy that all the expenses on the deputation, running into thousands of pounds, were fully borne by Jacob Wilson-Sey alone. It is said that he hired a ship called “Alba” to convey the deputation to and from Britain.
On his return to the Gold Coast from Britain, Jacob Wilson-Sey continued to plan for the betterment of the people of Cape Coast and the entire Central Province. He turned his efforts to the introduction of railway to serve Cape Coast and its environs. In conjunction with his good friend John Mensah Sarbah who was on very cordial terms with Governors White, Griffith, Hodgson and Maxwell, they negotiated for this project.
The condition given to them was that if Cape Coast and its hinterland would be able to produce two tons of cocoa a year, a railway line would be built as an economic proposition. To implement this condition, it became necessary to stimulate and encourage the native farmers to accelerate the growth of cocoa and palm oil. Jacob Wilson-Sey and Mensah Sarbah made substantial cash advances to them in order to achieved this, but the target was unattainable within the time set.
Indeed, if it had bee achieved it would have been the eighth wonder of the world, since in 1919 the entire cocoa output of the whole country was only 80ibs – twenty-eighth of a ton. Each farmer would have had to increase his output fifty-six times over the year. But he was able to bring help of another kind to the people of Cape Coast.
With the building of a wharf at Sekondi, the importance of Cape Coast began to wane. Many of its lawyers, e.g. Casely-Hayford, Riberrio, Charles Bannerman, Hutton Mills, Renner and Sapara-Williams left for either Accra, Axim, or Takoradi. Kwaa Bonyi bought many houses in Cape Coast and entreated these people and others to return and occupy them free of charge.
Among the many houses old Sey bought in Cape Coast for the returnees were Candle House, Commissariat House, de-Graft House, Palm House, Fordgate House No.2, PWD Building, Rose Pillars, Colonial School, Russel House, Standard Bank Building, part of Supreme Court building and many others. On top of these houses, he erected a replica of a pot of palm wine in clay in recognition of his early beginnings and the good fortune which had made it all possible.
Jacob Wilson-Sey (Kwaa Bonyi) was a very staunch Methodist. He was known for his interest in and support of the church, financing the purchase of church; organs, repairing church buildings and providing the choristers with robes and hymn books.
He also paid the salaries of the clergy and other missionary staff. The magnanimity was not limited to the Methodist Church alone. All other churches in Cape Coast derived benefit from it.
He was a good patriot and made generous contributions in support of the moves to return to the Gold Coast Kings in exile – e.g. Kobena Gyan of Elmina and Nana Prempeh I of Ashanti. At last, after a brief illness, Kwaa Bonyi died in his house on May 22, 1902, at the age of 70 years. The bodies of both Kwaa Bonyi, and that of his wife Amba Kosimah, also known as Agnes Charlotte Morgue were buried in the graveyard near the Cape Coast Town Hall.
In conclusion, it could be said that Jacob Wilson-Sey was not only a good son of the Central Province/Region which he used his fabulous wealth to develop, but also a true patriot of the Gold Coast and indeed of the whole of Africa. But for the role he played in founding the Aborigines Right Protection Society and his sponsoring of a deputation to London to persuade Queen Victoria to abrogate the notorious Lands Bill of 1897, the lands of the Gold Coast would have been vested in the Crown and the Gold Coast would have been another South Africa, another Zimbabwe where land reclamation from the Whites have led to violence, anguish and several deaths of both the Blacks and the Whites.
Kwaa Bonyi should be lauded and his name established in the history of the country; for while other heroes’ and heroine’s work affected only their areas of origin, Kwaa Bonyi’s affected the whole of the country and thus saved her from anguish and deprivation which would otherwise have been its lot.