How Foreign of a Country is the Past? Colonial Archives, Customary Law and Land Transactions in Ghana

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This paper looks at a set of documents produced in the early 1950s in the Gold Coast to establish land boundaries in a region and to contribute to the crystallization of customary law for future reference and use. The material is placed in a longer historical flow and seen as one of the results of transformations in the metropole, in the colony, and in their relationship over the first decades of the century, and as a significant landmark collection that has been used in land transactions ever since. The analysis pleads for treating the archives in an ethnographic and not just in an extractive manner (Stoler, 2002, 2009), suggesting that the making, the form, the authors’ stances and the use of the documents can be useful supplementary tools in making sense of the already heavily edited representations of the past that we have access to. The focus on this particular archival material contributes to the discussions about the pitfalls of basing land management on, as Sally Falk Moore would put it, “customary” law.

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