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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 April 2011

Mercy College
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In keeping with the law in place in the Colony of Ashanti in 1928, Dr Benjamin Knowles was tried and convicted for the murder of his wife without the benefit of a jury trial or the assistance of legal counsel. His trial and sentencing to death created outrage in both colonial Ghana and the metropole, and placed a spotlight on the adjudication of capital crimes in the colony. Inevitably, there were calls for reform of a system that could condemn an English government official to death without the benefit of the right to trial by a jury of his peers and counsel of his choice. Shortly after the Knowles trial, the colonial government did open up Ashanti to lawyers, and introduced other changes in the administration of criminal justice, but continued to refuse the introduction of jury trial. Nevertheless, the lasting impact of the Knowles trial was to make criminal adjudication in Ashanti, if anything, more lenient than the other area of colonial Ghana, the Gold Coast Colony.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 ‘Homicide by European government official’, Gold Coast Independent, 3 Nov. 1928, 1391.

2 For a description of this murder, which gave rise to an extended controversy in the Colony from 1944 to 1947, see R. Rathbone, Murder and Politics in Colonial Ghana (London, 1993).

3 W. C. Ekow Daniels, The Common Law in West Africa (London, 1964), 50.

4 A. Lieck (ed.), Trial of Benjamin Knowles (Edinburgh, 1933), 1–2.

5 In contrast, the Kibi murder trial lasted 28 days, but in this case establishing guilt was far more complicated and involved eight accused persons. Rathbone, Murder, 81–97.

6 There are between 83 and 85 volumes of this series. They are catalogued in Notable British Trials and War Crimes Trials (London, 1954). The case also continues to excite interest in Ghana, as witnessed by Fred Agyemang's Accused in the Gold Coast, which was first published in 1970 and was reissued in a third edition, enlarged and illustrated, in 2001. The work contains a long section on the Knowles murder case. F. Agyemang, Accused in the Gold Coast [Now Ghana] (Accra, 2001), 106–45.

7 Lieck, Trial, 1.

8 ‘The domestic tragedy in Ashanti’, West Africa, 24 Nov. 1928, 1614.

9 In 1918, the government appointed a professionally trained circuit judge, and the chief commissioner was relieved of his criminal and civil jurisdiction except in cases where customary law was concerned. Daniels, Common Law, 46.

10 Lieck, Trial, 10.

11 Daniels, Common Law, 46.

12 J. J. Crooks, Records Relating to the Gold Coast Settlements from 1750–1874 (1923; reprint, London, 1973), 296.

13 Ibid. 24.


14 Ibid. 30.


15 Public Records and Archives Administration Department (PRAAD), Accra, ADM 1/2/85, Governor Frederic Hodgson to the Secretary of State, 22 Feb. 1898. Juries were not always seven men; sometimes they consisted of only five persons (‘Kofi Teni and others in Weishang case acquitted’, Gold Coast Independent, 20 Aug. 1938, 779), while in other cases as many as ten men could be impaneled: PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/180, Rex v Dogbley Agbo alias Atta, 20 Mar. 1940.

16 This area was formally referred to as the British Forts and Settlements on the Gold Coast until 1874, when it became the Gold Coast Colony.

17 David Kimble, A Political History of Ghana 1850–1928 (Oxford, 1963), 68–71.

18 A picture of the Cape Coast Bar Association taken in 1923 shows this. There are seven African lawyers in the picture and four officials, three of whom are European. This photograph hangs in the search room of the Cape Coast Branch of PRAAD.

19 Jearey, J. H., ‘Trial by jury and trial with the aid of assessors in the superior courts of British African territories: I’, Journal of African Law (1960), 142Google Scholar.

20 This Congress, which brought together Africans from the four British West African colonies, was primarily the idea of J. E. Casely Hayford, who in the 1920s was the Colony's most prominent lawyer and politician. He was also the owner and editor of the Cape Coast newspaper, The Gold Coast Leader. For a description of the congress see Kimble, Political History, 374–89.

21 National Congress of British West Africa: Resolution of the Conference of Africans of British West Africa. Held in Accra, Gold Coast, from 11th to 29th March, 1920 (Accra(?), n.d.), 2.

22 ‘Justice in Ashanti’, Gold Coast Independent, 1 Dec. 1928, 1520. The Gold Coast Independent was an Accra-based weekly newspaper owned by Dr F. V. Nanka-Bruce, who was sometimes its editor. He was one of the few African doctors in the colony, and one of the few non-lawyers to hold an executive position in the NCBWA. He was its joint secretary along with L. E. V. M'Carthy, a lawyer from Sierra Leone.

23 ‘Law and justice in Ashanti’, Gold Coast Independent, 8 Dec. 1928, 1553.

24 From an editorial in The Observer cited in ‘The Knowles case’, West Africa, 15 Dec. 1928, 1719.

25 Lieck, Trial, i.

26 Cited in ‘The Knowles case’, West Africa, 8 Dec. 1928, 1683.

27 Cited in ‘The Knowles case’, West Africa, 15 Dec. 1928, 1719.

28 Cited in ‘The Knowles case’, West Africa, 8 Dec. 1928, 1683.

29 Between 1920 and 1929, 38·9 per cent of death sentences in the United Kingdom were commuted or respited as a result of this review process. Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1949–1953 (London, 1953), 13.

30 ‘The case for Dr. Knowles’, West Africa, 1 Dec. 1928, 1648. The standard practice in colonial Ghana was to have the hanging take place within two weeks of the passage of sentence.

31 ‘The Knowles case: the prisoner reprieved – Privy Council to be approached’, West Africa, 8 Dec. 1928, 1686.

32 ‘The Knowles case’, West Africa, 6 Apr. 1929, 432.

33 There had been several much earlier civil appeals from colonial Ghana, beginning with the Ex Parte Renner appeal, 19 Nov.–9 Dec. 1896: The Law Reports: House of Lords, and Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, and Peerage Cases (London, 1897), 218–26.

34 Lieck, Trial, 130.

35 Re: Abraham Mallory Dillet, in Law Reports, 1887, 467. This principle was reaffirmed in the 1914 appeal of Ibrahim v. the King, which involved a murder conviction from the Supreme Court of Hong Kong. In the 1914 appeal of Channing Arnold v. King, a criminal libel case from the Chief Court of Burma, the principal was expanded to include ‘interference with the elementary rights of the accused … [to place] him outside the pale of regular law’. Law Reports, 1914, 299.

36 ‘Why the Knowles conviction was quashed by the Privy Council’, Gold Coast Independent, 15 Apr. 1930, 460.

37 Cited in Lieck, Trial, 183.

38 ‘Dr. B. Knowles’, West Africa, 4 Nov. 1933, 1105.

39 Daily Telegraph, 20 Nov. 1929. Cited in Lieck, Trial, 210.

40 ‘A domestic tragedy in Kumasi’, West Africa, 17 Nov. 1928, 1577.

41 Lieck, Trial, 20.

42 Ibid. 93.


43 She survived for almost two and a half days after the shooting before she succumbed to what the autopsy determined was septic peritonitis. Ibid. 50. The judge in Ashanti believed that Knowles, in a fit of anger, had fired a bullet at his wife with the revolver that they kept in their bedroom for protection from burglars. There was evidence that the couple had fired bullets at one another in the past as bullet marks were found in the mosquito netting and furniture.


44 ‘The Knowles case and after (part I)’, Gold Coast Independent, 19 Apr. 1930, 506.

45 Lieck, Trial, 8–9.

46The Times, and the jury system in Ashanti’, Gold Coast Independent, 19 Apr. 1930, 506.

47 Lieck expresses these opinions in his introduction to the Trial of Benjamin Knowles, although he recognizes that ‘the impact of European ideas … [had] brought about very great changes’. Lieck, Trial, 6.

48 ‘The Knowles case’, Gold Coast Independent, 19 Apr. 1930, 506.

49 Ibid.


50 Ibid.


51 In the question and answer period in the House of Commons Parliamentary Debates, 4 Dec. 1929, the colonial secretary had defended the use of a police magistrate as a circuit judge in Ashanti who, ‘by his acquaintance with native modes of thought’, was ‘the best available, and possibly the intrinsically best tribunal for dealing with native cases’. Cited in Lieck, Trial, 11.

52 ‘The visit of Mr. G. H. Bushe to enquire into the administration of justice’, Gold Coast Independent, 2 Jan. 1932, 14.

53 Ibid. 15.


54 Legislation establishing this court was passed in 1 Nov. 1928. There had been a short-lived court of appeal from 1867 to 1877. Daniels, Common Law, 72–3. In 1933 Nigeria also became a member of the WACA.

55 For example: PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/14, Rex v Kwabena Mensah, Sept. 1932.

56 ‘Judicial reforms’, Gold Coast Independent, 9 Jan. 1932, 42–3.

57 ‘Mr. T. B. Barrett's Gold Coast conviction’, West Africa, 2 Aug. 1930, 1022. Captain Barrett eventually received £1,500 in compensation. ‘Captain Barrett gains the King's pardon’, Gold Coast Independent, 24 May 1930, 665.

58 ‘Judicial reforms’, 43.

59 Daniels, Common Law, 51.

60 ‘Joyful news of opening of Ashanti to lawyers’, Gold Coast Independent, 10 Dec. 1932, 3094. Lawyers were allowed to practice beginning in 1933.

61 ‘Death of Mr. Justice Woolhouse Bannerman senior puisne judge’, Gold Coast Independent, 13 Nov. 1943, 281.

62 ‘Mr Woolhouse Bannerman's appointment’, Gold Coast Independent, 8 Apr. 1933, 329.

63 ‘Dr. Knowles and Ashanti justice’, Gold Coast Independent, 8 Dec. 1928, 1588. Danquah was the paternal half-brother of Nana Sir Ofori Atta I, the Okyenhene, or king, of Akyem Abuakwa, the most important indigenous ruler in the colony. Danquah had also acquired a doctorate in philosophy.


65 ‘Conditions in Ashanti’, West Africa, 22 Dec. 1928, 1753. At this time, executions for murder in Ashanti were carried out in the Sekondi prison.

66 Gold Coast Leader, 23 Aug. 1919. For a description of the origins and development of asafos (earlier spelled asafu) or military companies, see Datta, A. K. and Porter, R., ‘The asafu system in historical perspective: an inquiry into the origins and development of a Ghanaian institution’, Journal of African History, 12:2 (1971), 279–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Gold Coast Leader, 23 Aug. 1919. In contrast, after a riot in Cape Coast in 1880, four rioters were hanged. The National Archives, London, CO 96/130, Governor Ussher to the Secretary of State, 15 March 1880, CO 96/130. Five years later, ten rioters were hanged in Winneba. Cited in PRAAD, Accra, ADM 11/1136, Secretary of Native Affairs to the Colonial Secretary, 6 Dec. 1941.

68 Gold Coast Leader, 12–22 Apr. 1916.

69 Johnson, Terence, ‘Protest, tradition and change: an analysis of southern Gold Coast riots 1890–1920’, Economy and Society, 1:2 (May 1972), 171CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 ‘Riot at Essikuma’, Gold Coast Independent, 22 Feb. 1930, 239.

71 ‘Serious riot in Appam’, Gold Coast Independent, 4 Oct.1930, 1273.

72 As a result of this later riot, the Gold Coast administration commissioned the assistant secretary of native affairs, J. C. de Graft Johnson, a native of Cape Coast, to conduct an investigation of the asafos and to make recommendations on how deal with them in the future. His study was later published as ‘The fanti asafu’, Africa, 5:3 (July 1932), 307–22.

73 ‘Serious riot in Appam’, 1273.

74 Such ‘transactional’ disputes involved revenue from the rent or sale of stool lands, the revenue of native tribunals, tolls from ferries and fishing beach usage, and the possession of permits for purchasing gunpowder, which was an integral part of local celebrations. Gocking, Roger, ‘Indirect rule in the Gold Coast: competition for office and the invention of tradition’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 28:3 (1994), 434Google Scholar.

75 These camps were eventually to divide into political parties. In Cape Coast they were known as the Ratepayers and the Oman Party, which later on became the Independents. In Accra there was also a Ratepayer Association, and their opponents were the Mambi Party. For a description of these developments, see Roger Gocking, Facing Two Ways: Ghana's Coastal Communities Under Colonial Rule (Lanham, 1999), 181–200.

76 For a description of the reaction to this ordinance, see Kimble, Political History, 441–6.

77 William Brandford Griffith, The Far Horizon: Portrait of a Colonial Judge (Ilfracombe, Devon, 1951), 72. Brandford Griffith earned a fifty-guinea fee, a considerable amount of money at that time.

78 Shaloff, Stanley, ‘The Cape Coast asafo company riot of 1932’, International Journal of African Historical Studies, 7:4 (1974), 602CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Gold Coast Times, 23 Nov. 1933.

80 ‘Our jury system’, Gold Coast Independent, 14 Jun. 1930, 762.

81 Ibid.


82 ‘Law and justice in Ashanti’, Gold Coast Independent, 9 Aug. 1933, 779.

83 Lieck, Trial, 212.

84 ‘Law and justice in Ashanti’, 779. This was the Criminal Procedure Amendment Ordinance of 6 October 1932. It did contain a long list of exemptions that would have significantly limited the number of people in government service who could have served on juries.

85 The criminal court system in colonial Ghana was patterned after the assize court system of the metropole: courts were convened periodically and held in different locations, with judges moving from one to the next.

86 It is difficult to determine the exact number because a few of the files are disorganized and it is not clear to what case they refer.

87 It is difficult to determine exactly how many homicides were reported to the police in colonial Ghana during this period because there are gaps in the official record. I have not been able to find Blue Books for 1938–1940 and the publication ceased after 1943. From 1930 to 1937 there were 751 murders reported by the police, which meant an average of 94 a year. However, beginning in 1937 and in 1941, 1942, and 1943 the annual homicide rate averaged slightly over 200. If one assumes that this was what it was during the war years and that it remained at this rate after the war, this would mean that the total number of homicides from 1930 to 1948 would have been a little less than 3,000. On average, from the statistics that do exist, we see that 43 per cent of them were tried in the superior courts. From this admittedly rough estimate, the 220 cases in PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3 would be about 7·5 per cent of the total number of homicides in colonial Ghana and about 17·4 per cent of those that were tried in the superior courts.

88 However, there are some significant gaps. Beginning with the Second World War, the collection becomes erratic; furthermore, the paper shrunk dramatically in size from a high point of over fifty pages in the late 1920s to six pages during the war years. In the smaller paper there was much less local news.

89 ‘Dr. Knowles and Ashanti justice’, 1588.

90 There are no cases in CSO 15/3 for the Northern Territories before 1933.

91 For example, there was a riot in Nsuta, a small village 38 kilometers north-east of Kumasi, in 1933, where six people were killed. Gold Coast Independent, 1 Jul. 1933, 610. A week later there was a fight between Hausas and Krobos at Jumapo, in New Juaben, that left one person dead. Gold Coast Independent, 8 Jul. 1933, 634. In 1938 there was a riot over a stool succession dispute in the small coastal town of Nungua, 18 kilometers to the east of Accra, in which one person was killed. Gold Coast Independent, 9 Jul. 1938, 638. Individuals were tried in the Colony's courts for such murders. For example, Kofi Anno was executed for shooting an opponent in a riot arising out of a succession dispute: PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/116, Rex v Kofi Anno, 1–5 Apr. 1937.

92 One in 1933 involved the leader of a ‘religious cult’ who, in an altercation with an African superintendent of police, had thrust a spear through the latter's body (PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/77–9, Rex v Kofi Dankor). Another, in 1937, had resulted from a shooting after a riot (PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/116, Rex v Kofi Anno), and then there were the two celebrated ritual murders: the Kibi and the Elmina murder cases of 1943 and 1945 respectively (Rathbone, Murder; Gocking, R., ‘A chieftaincy dispute and ritual murder in Elmina, Ghana, 1945–6’, Journal of African History, 41:2 (2000), 197219CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

93 The appeal had to be done within ten days of the conviction and there were several cases where court appointed lawyers failed to meet this deadline.

94 ‘Death of Mr. Justice Woolhouse Bannerman’, 281.

95 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/21, Rex v Kofi Fofie, 23 May 1934.

96 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/122, Rex v Kugblena Akwasi, 16–17 Aug. 1937.

97 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/37, Rex v Imoru Wangara, 4 Feb. 1937.

98 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 76.

99 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/40, Rex v Adama Walla, 1 Jul. 1937.

100 Gold Coast Independent, 3 Jan., 6 Feb., and 30 Apr. 1932.

101 In the CSO 15/3 file, 9·1 per cent of those accused of murder in the Colony were northerners.

102 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/26, Rex v Deshati Lobi, 24 July 1935.

103 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/32, Rex v ? Dagarti, 23 Jul. 1936.

104 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/261, Rex v Ganda Moshie, 1 Sep. 1946.

105 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/22, Rex v Amadus Moshie, 6 July 1934 and CSO 15/3/130, Rex v Mankani Dagarti, 18 Apr. 1939.

106 ‘Habitual criminals’, Gold Coast Independent, 16 Oct. 1943.

107 Gold Coast Independent, 17 Aug. 1935, VI; May 1933, 490; 28 Sep. 1935, 303; and 7 May 1938, 452.

108 In general, northerners were more likely to be hanged than indigenes: 66·7 per cent as opposed to 58·2 per cent.

109 In the case of Rex v Imoru Wangara, 4 Feb. 1937 (PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/37), E. O. Asafu-Adjaye, the first Ashanti to qualify as a barrister, appeared for the crown, but in Rex v Atta Yaw, 27 Oct. 1937 (PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/44) he appeared for the defense.

110 Report of the Commission on the Marketing of West African Cocoa (London, 1938), 19.

111 He retained A. L. Bryden & Co. in London as their solicitors. They had been the solicitors in the Captain Barrett case and had continued to be involved in civil appeals from the Gold Coast. PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/42, Rex v Kwame Bempah, Kofi Donkor and Kojo Poku, 29 Jun. 1937. The colony's attorney general felt that the defense should have ‘raised manslaughter as a defense’ and eventually the governor did commute the death sentence on this ground.

112 The same situation existed in the Colony, as indicated by a case in 1934 involving three men who had killed in the course of a burglary, had been sentenced to death, and sought to appeal to the Privy Council. Their lawyer, the well-known Cape Coast barrister P. Awooner Renner, tried to get the government to ‘award pecuniary assistance for the appeal’, without success. Two of the three were hanged and the third had his sentence commuted to life on account of his youth. PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/92, Rex v Kofi Mensah, Gbodeka Nutsuvi and Kwadjo Alloysis, 23 Apr. 1934.

113 ‘Privy Council on poor person cases’, West Africa, 5 Aug. 1944, 739. The first case from the Gold Coast to take advantage of this option was that of Rex v Kwaku Mensah, 10–15 May 1943 (PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/213), which had been unsuccessfully appealed before the WACA. ‘Successful appeal against a death sentence’, West Africa, 20 Oct. 1945, 1009.

114 Gold Coast Independent, 16 Sep. 1933 and 23 Feb. 1935. For example: ‘Coming home to roost: crime and vice on the steady increase’, Gold Coast Independent, 11 June 1932, 659, and ‘Report of the Gold Coast police: increase in crime’, 11 Dec. 1937, 1133.

115 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 303.

116 PRAAD, Accra, CSO 15/3/98, Rex v Ahuna Bahah, 15 Apr. 1935.

117The Times, and the jury system in Ashanti’, Gold Coast Independent, 19 Apr. 1930, 506.

118 ‘Gold Coast Assembly diary’, West Africa 14 Nov. 1953, 1061.

119 A. N. E. Amissah, Criminal Procedure in Ghana (Accra, 1982), 122.

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