Joseph B. Danquah (1895-1965) was a Ghanaian political leader and a principal founder of the Gold Coast nationalist movement. As a scholar, he sought to accommodate the best of his country's tribal past to modernity.
Joseph B. Danquah was born in December 1895 into the most prominent family in Ghana, the Ofori-Attas. In 1915 Danquah became secretary to his elder brother, Nana Sir Ofori-Atta, the paramount chief of Akim Abuakwa. In 1921 Danquah went to London for a higher education and by 1927 he had finished his doctorate with the thesis The Moral End as Moral Excellence. He also studied law, which became his principal mainstay and led him to politics in opposition to the British rulers.
After World War II, nationalist sentiment grew. Danquah was instrumental in founding the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), the elite party from which sprang all successive independence movements, until Kwame Nkrumah broke with Danquah in 1949 to found his own party. Danquah spent the rest of his life fighting Nkrumah and providing defense for Nkrumah's opponents. But Danquah won neither in the 1954 or 1956 parliamentary elections nor in the presidential election of 1960, in which he polled only 10 percent of the vote.
Danquah's last 5 years is a story of personal courage with few parallels in modern African history. He had neither the inclination nor the ability to rally his countrymen against the growing tyranny, but always he spoke out and encouraged the younger opposition members. After a railroad strike in 1961, which very nearly toppled Nkrumah's regime, Danquah was detained without charges. He was released in June 1962, but like few others the experience did not silence him. He hung onto his one semiofficial position as president of the Bar Association, and when Nkrumah tried to intimidate—and threatened to overthrow—the popular government of Sylvanus Olympio in Togo, Danquah characteristically protested both the legality and morality of the Ghanaian moves.
After an attempt on Nkrumah's life in January 1964, Danquah was again detained. The notion that Danquah was implicated in the assassination plot was nowhere taken seriously. But Danquah, and all he symbolized, did indeed threaten Nkrumah; and, no doubt, Nkrumah's insecurity explains the isolation and near-starvation diet of Danquah's last year. His only card left was his life, which he unwittingly played perfectly. In response to appeals from Bertrand Russell, Nkrumah planned to release Danquah dramatically to increase support, but before he could do so, Danquah died of heart failure on Feb. 8, 1965. No event did more to silence Nkrumah's remaining defenders or to isolate the regime internationally. A year after Danquah's death Nkrumah's regime was overthrown.
Danquah's scholarly contributions spread throughout his life, and his political career must be seen in terms of his self-identification as a scholar proud of his past. Danquah's preoccupation with Christianity and the need to adapt it to local tradition led to his book The Akan Doctrine of God (1944). His historical research in the 1930s led him to propose that on independence the Gold Coast be renamed Ghana, after the early African empire. Earlier research led to Gold Coast: Akan Laws and Customs and the Akim Abuakwa Constitution (1928). His play, The Third Woman, appeared in 1943.
Danquah's career may be traced in David Kimble, A Political History of Ghana: The Rise of Gold Coast Nationalism, 1850-1928 (1963; rev. ed. 1965), and Dennis Austin, Politics in Ghana, 1946-1960 (1964).