Inside the King’s Inns library, amid the musty aroma of old books, a woman brings out relics of student years and lies them on a table.
They all belong to a family of Black nationalist lawyers from today’s Ghana, what was the Gold Coast before its liberation from British colonialism in 1957.
Lawyers in the Gwira family, two of whom were called to the bar in Dublin, loathed the judicial wigs and robes as reminders of the British way of serving justice, said Kwesi Owusu recently, from his home in London.
Owusu’s grandfather, Daniel Essuon Gwira, and his uncle, Kobina Daniel Gwira, both attended the King’s Inns.
Kobina did a diploma in public administration between 1953 and 1954 at Trinity College Dublin too, shows an academic calendar in the university archives.
Both went on to become activist lawyers in the Gold Coast, yearning for its independence, with successful careers.
When Owusu’s grandfather was accepted to King’s Inns in 1915 at 25, Ireland was still grappling with colonial rule.
Owusu says he remembers his uncle Kobina being fond of Dublin too when he came here in 1953, and bonding with Ireland through a shared struggle. “It was something mutual.”
For students like Kobina, who chose to study in Ireland after World War I, Ireland’s independence-seeking spirit may have been a draw, says Donal Coffey, assistant law professor at Maynooth University.
There was a jump in international students in Ireland during the war when the United Kingdom was a frontline country, Coffey says, forcing some to transfer British scholarships.
But picking Ireland in times of peace can be a more deliberate choice, he said. “The later ones is kind of more interesting because this is a point in time where obviously they could have studied anywhere,” Coffey said.
Now I see me
The Gwira family contributed vastly to Ghana’s fight for independence.
William Essuon Gwira, known as Kobina Sekyi, a revered anti-colonial figure, was the nephew of Daniel Essuon Gwira, who was called to the bar in Dublin.
Sekyi left the Gold Coast and studied philosophy at University College London (UCL) between 1911 and 1914. Gradually, his experiences of England began to reshape his views.
He later wrote about one racist confrontation in the Gold Coast Leader, a newspaper published in the British colony. He made way on the carpet on a corridor at UCL for a “weak looking, rather red-faced professor” – but apparently stepped to the wrong side.
The man roared: “Keep to your side, can’t you!” wrote Sekyi in a December 1921 newspaper column titled “Our White Friends”.
Coffey, the law professor in Maynooth, says that for people who may have bought into the idea that being part of the British Empire meant being equal to British people, it must have been jarring to live in London.
“When it doesn’t match up to what you actually experience, then there can be an intellectual dissonance there,” said Coffey. That may have radicalised some, he said.
Ambreena Manji, Africa Dean at Cardiff University, said that for the British government, the hope was that its elite subjects would return from their London visits more culturally English and help it endorse British supremacy.
But it backfired, she says. Disillusionment induced by the students’ painful experiences often triggered resentment rather than enhancing conformity, said Manji.
There are books detailing snippets of those students’ lives in the Inns of Court in London, she says. “They had to live in really poor accommodation, and they were very much treated as second-class citizens.”
Some had looked up to the British government and sought a place to belong within its empire, says Manji. “And, you know, faced real racism for the first time in London.”
A year after wrapping up his studies at UCL, in 1915, Sekyi wrote a play in English. The Blinkards satirises Africans who drowned themselves in British culture and accepted it as superior to their own.
Manji says it may have been Sekyi’s way of processing how he was made to feel inferior in London. There are clear clues that this may have been the case in his work.
Sekyi seemed to have been preoccupied during this time with the notion that British rule and its “so-called civilizing mission” was toxic for his country, says a paper in the International Journal of African Historical Studies.
He returned to the theme again in 1918 in a short story called “The Anglo-Fanti”, meaning someone of Ghanaian Fante descent with an English education.
It follows a young guy called Kwesi Onyidzin with a scholarship to study law in the British capital, where Londoners ask whether people wear clothes or hang around naked in his country of birth.
Or “whether it was safe for white men to go to his country since the climate was unsuitable to civilised people”, the book reads.
On a quest to belong, the main character wobbles away from his Fante culture and chases what he sees as British values to avoid shame. Then his life unravels.
Says Coffey: “You would have people who were trying hard to fit in as well, you know, like trying to become more British than the British.”
Beware the lawyers
The British government discouraged higher education in its colonies, says Manji, the Africa Dean at Cardiff University.
“Obviously, they realised that if we educate people, we allow an intellectual class to develop, then we will face opposition to the colonial project,” she said.
It was especially against legal education, Manji says. “They realised that anti-colonials are often lawyers,” she said, laughing. Take Mahatma Gandhi, for example.
The small crowd that the British government did allow to study abroad was well-off, Manji says. “It was very much about class.”
After Ghana won independence, the government of President Kwame Nkrumah, keenly aware of the colonial administration’s deliberate neglect of legal education, wanted to reverse that policy and train lots of lawyers fast, says a paper Manji co-authored.
There was a big divide about whether to create a separate law school, or offer courses at the University of Ghana, says the research.
Another thorny issue was the elite Western background of available law lecturers, which made Nkrumah’s government uneasy.
It all came to a head in the early 1960s. “When the American Dean of Law was deported along with other staff on the foot of allegations of their seditious intent,” says the research.
Before all that though, Sekyi had already become a solicitor on a nationalist odyssey.
In the 1930s, he led the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights Protection Society, a group formed to defend Indigenous Gold Coast locals’ land ownership against British usurpers.
Sir Shenton Thomas, a British colonial administrator at the time, having watched the society’s activities and contacts, reported back to the secretary of colonies that “Sekyi was definitely anti-European”.
“Kobina Sekyi walked the talk by always dressing in African cloth, even in court,” writes Owusu, his living relative, in a blog post. “He refused to wear the lawyer’s wig, even at the risk of expulsion from the bar.”
Photos show Sekyi swaddled in flowery African attire that leaves his right shoulder exposed.
Coffey, the Maynooth law professor, says there was similar pushback in Ireland.
Hugh Edward Kennedy, a chief justice of the Irish Free State, campaigned for a change in the country’s judicial attire, he said. “Cause he thought they weren’t sufficiently Gaelic in character.”
He wasn’t successful though, says Coffey. Ronan Keane, the former chief justice, wrote an article in 1996 exploring Kennedy’s efforts and the controversy around it.
Sekyi was also part of the Convention People’s Party, which led Ghana to independence under Kwame Nkrumah on 6 March 1957. Although he didn’t live long enough to see it, dying less than a year before.
Owusu, Sekyi’s relative, said he had been shaped by a long line of activist lawyers in his family, even though he pursued writing and film instead. “It’s in my work.”
Pan-Africanism runs in the family, said Owusu, whose artistic work explores the contours of Black liberation.
Although he’s done the academic bit too. “I went to the London School of Economics.”
In King’s Inns’ library, amidst yellowed academic documents, the reminders of Kobina Sekyi’s family linger.
There are character references to help with the admission application of Sekyi’s relative and Owusu’s grandfather, Daniel, in 1915. One from his professor in England and one from a town council worker in Sekondi.
A blue receipt shows he paid a £25 admission fee.
A handwritten letter from his King’s Inns lecturer says he had passed his exams. There is also the declaration he had to make to the King’s Inns’ society. “I, Daniel Essuon Gwira, a British subject, aged 25 …”.
Owusu doesn’t remember much of his grandfather, he says, but he remembers his uncle Kobina, who lived and studied in the city in the 1950s – and that he had said he was happy in Dublin.