September 4, 1887: Arrival of John Mensah Sarbah, first Ghanaian called to the English Bar

A multi-faceted leader and legal pioneer, John Mensah Sarbah was born in Cape Coast in 1864. Sarbah was the eldest son of John Sarbah, a successful merchant, and was subsequently well-educated. As the third child and a male born on Friday, he was called Kofi Mensah at home and by close friends. He attended Cape Coast Wesleyan School (later to be renamed Mfantsipim) and completed his secondary education at the Taunton School in Somerset, England. From Taunton he matriculated to Lincoln's Inn to train as a barrister. In 1887 he was called to the bar and qualified as a barrister. He became the first native-born Ghanaian to accomplish the feat.

 John Mensah Sarbah, CMG

John Mensah Sarbah, CMG

After qualifying in his profession, Sarbah returned to the Gold Coast and founded his own private legal practice. He became disillusioned with what he deemed to be injustice in governance from the British Crown toward the Ghanaian people and felt that the actions of the colonial system should be checked. In 1897 he worked with JE Casely Hayford, JP Brown, JW de Graft Johnson, and others to form the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society (ARPS). The mission of ARPS initially was to protect the traditional land tenure practices of the Indigenous Gold Coast peoples and more concretely to ensure "that every person may understand [the Lands Bill of 1897]." Sarbah was chosen by his peers to present the indigenous case against the Lands Bill to the Legislative Assembly, which at the time was composed only of British Crown representatives. Sarbah failed to sway the opinon of Governor Sir William Maxwell, however, his action sparked fervor among his colleagues. In 1898 ARPS sent a delegation to London and successfully got the Lands Bill overturned. ARPS successfully defended the interests of native African people against colonizers for decades and began to form an early forum for sentiments of independence. Publications such as Gold Coast Nation and Gold Coast Times came from this organization.

Sarbah's intellectual leadership was recognized amongst his countrymen, Africans across the continent, and even the Crown. He was eventually honored with the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1910, months before he suddenly died at the age of 46. Contemporaries such as Reverend Attoh Ahuma lamented that Sarbah's work was not appropriately appreciated in his time as he "did not strive for popularity nor was he vainglorious nor egotistical." Sarbah also took an interest in the advancement of secondary education in Ghana and was instrumental in the development of his alma mater, Mfantsipim.