The Late Tetteh Quarshie

On a recent trip to Aburi, a small city in the mountains overlooking Accra famous for Botanical Gardens that were established there in 1890, I had the chance to take a side trip to the neighboring village of Mampong. There I visited the late Tetteh Quarshie’s cocoa farm—the first in Ghana. The farm, started in 1879, is surprisingly still in operation. A Ghanaian family now maintains a fraction of the original farm for tourists with the assistance of the Cocoa Board of Ghana. In addition to the two original cocoa trees that Tetteh Quarshie planted and other cocoa trees, there were a number of other trees in the farm—yam, papaya, and bananas—that, as our tour guide explained, provided farm workers with fresh “bush allowance”. A portrait of Tetteh Quarshie looms over the entrance of the farm, welcoming visitors to his notorious estate.

On our visit, 50 Ghana horticulture students from all over the country joined my boyfriend and me on the tour. The group, being quite familiar with cocoa farming and cocoa processing, instead focused their attention on the legend of Tetteh Quarshie, demanding to see the two remaining cocoa trees that he had planted. Our guide, Theo, not letting the rambunctious group take the best of him, ignored their requests, acquired our attention, and began the story of Tetteh Quarshie and the establishment of cocoa in Ghana.

Theo began by explaining that Tetteh Quarshie was a blacksmith by trade and that he had traveled to Equatorial Guinea, then Fernando Po, employed as such to make tools for the farmers there. While he was in Equatorial Guinea he procured a cocoa pod and smuggled it back to Gold Coast. When he returned he looked around for a suitable climate to plant the cocoa seeds. Accra, where Tetteh Quarshie was originally from, was too close to the ocean to be suitable. So he traveled away from the coast, to Mampong where he decided to plant the seeds, successfully starting the first cocoa farm in the Gold Coast. Eventually, cocoa became the most important export for the Gold Coast. Even today Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world.

The horticulture students, however, not content with Theo’s rendering of the Tetteh Quarshie tale, saw room for debate. One horticultural student offered a story reminiscent of US drug smuggling in which Tetteh Quarshie was believed to have swallowed the cocoa seeds, hiding them within his stomach during the long journey back to the Gold Coast in order to avoid the authorities. Theo, immediately refuted this tale, declaring that cocoa seeds that have been swallowed will not be able to germinate properly once they are removed from fecal matter. Another student, calling into question the idea that he “smuggled” the cocoa pods, offered that the pods were given to him as payment for his services as a blacksmith. Theo, again quick to respond, emphasized that he illegally brought the seeds to the Gold Coast even though his procurement of the pods was legal. At this point the group discussion broke into fragments of students jokingly commenting on the process of border crossing and customs officers. I was interested in the students focus on the illegality of Tetteh Quarshie’s act. For the horticulture students, his successes were heightened because they were the direct result of his defiance of the colonial state.

Intrigued by the different rumors surrounding the infamous Tetteh Quarshie story and influenced by Tsing’s narrative mapping project in the last chapter of Friction, I was anxious to see how the same critical events in Ghana’s history were taken up in colonial discourse. Luckily, from previous research on colonial agriculture films shown in Gold Coast cinema vans, I have accrued a small collection of pamphlets and articles relating to cocoa production. In a pamphlet on cocoa farming published by the Information Services Department in 1953 entitled, Golden Harvest, Tetteh Quarshie’s enterprise and daring aversion of state concessions is minimized by the distribution management of the state—the honorable Gold Coast Governor, Sir William Brandon Griffith—and the Basel missionaries’ foresight.

“A book published in 1868 states that the Basel Missionaries were at that time endeavouring to naturalise the Mexican cocoa or chocolate tree in the Gold Coast. In 1878 or 1879 a Gold Coast blacksmith working in “the Bights” (probably, but not certainly, on Fernando Po) [modern-day Equatorial Guinea] came home to the Gold Coast with one cocoa pod, the seeds of which were planted at Mampong, Akwapim. Only one tree grew, but the work of the Basel missionaries had given rise to a heavy demand for seed and the blacksmith, now famous as Tetteh Quarshie, was able to sell the pods from his tree at a price of £1 each. In 1886 the Governor, Sir William Brandon Griffith, procured a large box of cocoa pods from San Thome and sent them to Aburi where a botanical garden was being established. The seedlings grown at Aburi were distributed through the local chiefs and Basel missionaries.” (Golden Harvest, 1953)

The inspirational story of an enterprising African man who went outside of the controls of the colonial state to smuggle in cocoa pods and eventual start the nations most profitable commodity, is subverted in Golden Harvest. Here Tetteh Quarshie’s ingenuity is cheapened, by indicating that the Basel Missionaries had already begun trying to grow cocoa in the Gold Coast; his successes are diminished, “only one tree grew”; and he is characterized as selfishly living off of the hard work that the missionaries had done, selling his pods cheaply for immediate profit. Instead, it is the colonial state’s ability to grow more trees within the nearby colonial Botanical Gardens in Aburi and their ability to eventually distribute the cocoa through colonial networks that is truly responsible for the proliferation of cocoa growing in the Gold Coast.

Can we make sense of these variations in the Tetteh Quarshie tale? If we search each story for a solid measure of truth the legend becomes more elusive. For instance, if we follow the dates, seemingly solid measures of time, we find more uncertainty. Golden Harvest indicates that the Governor acquired “a large box of cocoa pods” in 1886 to be planted in the Aburi Botanical Gardens, which weren’t officially founded until four years later in 1890. What happened between 1879 when Tetteh Quarshie’s farm was started and 1886 when the British Governor of the Gold Coast started growing cocoa and distributing it through local chiefs and missionaries? Are we to believe that in those seven years other Africans didn’t start growing cocoa until the British Governor prompted them to? But also how can we account for the sign under one of Tetteh Quarshie’s original trees that says it was planted in 1870, when under his portrait at the entrance of the farm the text explains that he did not return from Fernando Po until 1876?

One of Tetteh Quarshie's original cocoa trees today.
This exercise quickly reveals the irrelevance of dates and facts. What is important here is how these incompatible, but not conflicting, stories of Tetteh Quarshie reveal how different people invest meaning in the story, taking up different aspects that highlight what each finds most relevant and useful.

On a bit of a side note, in 1953, the same year that the Golden Harvest pamphlet was published, the Gold Coast Film Unit completed a film on the “correct method of harvesting, drying, fermenting and grading of cocoa.” The Information Service Department (ISD) screened the film, Kofi the Good Farmer (1953), for rural cocoa farmers across the Gold Coast through the Cinema Van project. Though the film commentary is in Twi, the first film that the Gold Coast Film Unit completed in a local African language, I found a copy of the film’s commentary in English in the ISD Film Library. [click here to view the document] The film doesn’t mention the legend of Tetteh Quarshie but the final image of Kofi “smiling to himself as he puts his money away” does remind me of the colonial image of a happy Tetteh Quarshie in the Golden Harvest pamphlet selling his cocoa pods for £1 each.

Tetteh Quarshie's farm in 1953.

Image from "Accra-Tema in Pictures" 1969

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This work is licensed under Creative Commons.


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