Benjamin Knowles v Rex: judging murder, race and respectability from colonial Ghana to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, 1928–30

Chapter 6
Benjamin Knowles v Rex

Judging murder, race and respectability from colonial Ghana to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, 1928–30

Stacey Hynd


On 20 October 1928, Dr Benjamin Knowles, a colonial medical officer, and his wife, Harriet, hosted a luncheon party at their house in Bekwai, a small station in Ashanti, and then retired to rest.1 At 4.30pm, Sampson and Bongo Fra Fra, two of the Knowles’ African servants, heard a gunshot from within the house and their mistress cry out. Sampson ran over to the local District Commission Thorlief Mangin’s house to report the incident. Mangin drove over to the Knowles’ house to offer assistance, but Knowles appeared from the bedroom assuring Mangin that everything was fine and he could return home. Still worried, Mangin returned the following afternoon with Provincial Commissioner Applegate and Kumasi’s surgeon specialist Dr Gush. They found Knowles in his pyjamas, ‘mentally confused and suffering from old standing effects of alcohol’. Knowles acknowledged there had been a ‘domestic fracas’, and showed Gush bruises on his left leg which he claimed were caused by blows from an Indian club wielded by his wife. He added that Harriet had been nagging him the previous afternoon and he had told her that if she did not leave the room he would put a bullet in her. Gush entered the bedroom to treat Mrs Knowles and discovered her bleeding heavily from a bullet wound from her left buttock to her abdomen. When Gush questioned Harriet about her injury, Benjamin told her to ‘Speak the truth’, to which she replied ‘Shut up Benjy. You don’t know what you are talking about’. Harriet was taken to Kumasi hospital but died of septic peritonitis at 1am on 23 October having made a dying declaration that:

There was a revolver standing or lying on a bookcase; it had been cleaned, I took it up and put it on the table near the bed, the boy came in with the afternoon tea, I put the revolver carelessly on a chair, near the bed, I took a cup of tea, sitting on the chair; I sat on the gun, as I got up it caught in my dress with a lace frill, I tried to take it away from the lace, and suddenly it went off, the bullet passing through my leg….

Despite Harriet’s statement, Knowles was charged with murdering his wife. And that was where the controversy began. As British colonial law was formally colour-blind, Knowles was tried in the Chief Commissioner’s Court at Kumasi under local Ashanti regulations following the same procedures used for accused African murderers. This meant that he was tried without defence counsel, without a jury, and without right of appeal. After nine days of trial, on 23 November 1928, Acting Circuit Judge Frank McDowell found Knowles guilty of murdering Harriet and sentenced him to death.

Knowles’ conviction sparked an outcry in both Britain and the Gold Coast. How, people asked, could an Englishman abroad be sentenced to death in a British court without a jury?2 African commentators in the Gold Coast meanwhile highlighted that Africans were routinely convicted in such a fashion, and called for widespread legal reform. The case generated such interest from both the metropolitan and colonial press that the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Leopold Amery, personally intervened, ordering the Governor of the Gold Coast, Alexander Ransford Slater, to inform Knowles he had the right to appeal to the highest court in the British Empire – the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.3 Although all British subjects had a formal right to apply for leave to appeal to the Privy Council, applications in criminal cases were rare as the Privy Council maintained that it deliberated on points of law only, and refused to act as a court of criminal appeal.4 Certainly, no African accused of murder in the Gold Coast had ever been informed of this right to appeal. Instead, it took the conviction of a white man to shine a light on the state of criminal justice in ‘darkest Africa’, belying the ostensibly colour-blind nature of colonial law. In November 1929, Knowles’ case became the first criminal appeal to be heard from West Africa by the Privy Council, with leave to appeal explicitly granted on the grounds that his case had been heard without a jury. This raised the potential spectre for the Colonial Office that if the imperial appeal were allowed, it would effectively force the colonial administration to reform the system of criminal justice in Ashanti. As the rest of British Africa did not allow trial by jury for Africans either, believing Africans incapable of interpreting colonial justice, this would set a dangerous precedent.

Law was a cornerstone of colonial rule, and criminal justice was at the core of law.5 But this core was fractured along multiple social and political fault lines, most prominently race and gender.6 Criminal law was inherently political and proved central to both the reforming project of empire and the maintenance of colonial authority, but the imperial and colonial dimensions of law often came into tension, just as colonial conceptions of justice came into tension with those of African communities.7 At the level of individual colonies, criminal law in Africa was marked by a persistent dichotomy between ‘due process’ – the strict application of criminal codes that legal officials held as essential to the provision of the rule of law and equality for all British subjects – and the ‘administrative justice’ preferred by many colonial officials, which pragmatically adapted common law-based criminal codes to best suit local conditions. This tension was replicated at the imperial level between universalist and particularist models of colonial justice. While the nineteenth century had seen the exportation of English common law to West Africa, more recent experiences across the empire had convinced London of the need to adapt criminal law to local conditions, and devolve control of criminal justice to colonial authorities.

Equality before the law of all British subjects had long been a projected ideal of the rule of law across the British Empire. But when this rhetoric of equality collided with the reality of racialized laws and justice, tensions often emerged.8 Contentious criminal cases became lightning rods for wider concerns about colonial justice, and Knowles’ case attracted considerable interest with its combination of sordid domestic drama and an exploration of one of the key principles of English law: the right to trial by jury. What the records from the multiple legal arenas involved in this case reveal are the shifting discourses of justice, race and respectability that shaped the reception and transmission of knowledge about this intra-racial murder trial and its legal impact. More than other high profile criminal cases in colonial Ghana, such as the Kibi and ‘Bridge House’ fetish murders, Knowles’ case helped to create ‘a wave of judicial reform’ in the colony.9 The Privy Council, Colonial Office and the Gold Coast government’s responses to the case exposed the tensions surrounding criminal justice in the imperial appeal system, and the supposedly ‘colour-blind’ nature of British colonial justice. Knowles’ trial and subsequent appeal highlight the politicized nature of criminal justice in Britain’s colonies, and the symbolism of murder and the death penalty within imperial discourses. Scandals such as the Knowles case acted as a form of public theatre in which the content of justice, violence and citizenship were debated. British ‘justice’ and ‘civilization’ were supposed to be the moral underpinnings of colonial rule, serving as a discursive and cultural counterbalance to the fundamental injustice of colonialism; but what such legal scandals revealed was that this counterbalance did not work.

Courtrooms were arenas in which legal, political and social contests were played out, the ‘contradictions of British law were exposed and the empire itself put on trial’.10 Each level of the judicial archive offers different possibilities for the writing of history, exposing the legal, political and moral economies of colonialism – particularly in murder cases where the evidentiary requirements for a capital conviction generated detailed records of the lives and identities of those involved. Legal, administrative and media coverage of Knowles’ appeal offer a detailed insight into racial and gendered discourses of respectability in inter war West Africa and Britain. The depictions of Benjamin and Harriet Knowles during the initial trial reveal significant tensions regarding the construction of ‘whiteness’ as well as ‘justice’ in the Gold Coast. Significantly, Knowles was not in fact ‘an Englishman abroad’: he was a Scot, with an acknowledged tendency towards ‘drink and drugs’, whose wife, far from being a respectable colonial spouse, was an Irish former music-hall artist, and regarded as drunken, hysterical and bigamous. Such disreputable traits ensured that the appeal moved from the law pages of The London Times to tabloid front pages. This chapter draws on media accounts and archival records of Knowles’ initial trial and appeal before the Privy Council to explore the colonial and imperial dimensions of the case.11 Original trial records could not be located in the National Archives of Ghana, but the case will be contextualized within the wider Gold Coast legal archive. The chapter will begin by establishing the bifurcated criminal justice system in the Gold Coast, before analysing the legal and political debates that formed around the case. Ultimately, this chapter explores the essential pragmatism and contingency of colonial criminal law in British Africa, and highlights the tensions between its principles of legal equality and the practice of racialized, administrative justice.

Criminal law in the Gold Coast: An ‘atrophied remainder of the cave man’s justice’ 12

The system of law and justice in colonial Ghana was a complicated affair. As a result of the protracted conquest and colonization of the colony, the Gold Coast was split, administratively and legally, into three regions: the coastal Colony of the Gold Coast; the Protectorate of Ashanti, the former Asante Empire finally pacified in 1902; and the Protectorate of the Northern Territories. In the Colony, English common law was directly imported and the court system closely modelled on that of England, with the Bond of 1844 establishing that ‘murders, robberies and other crimes and offences [should] be tried and inquired of before the Queen’s judicial officers and the chiefs of the district’.13 A Supreme Court – which held jury trials for serious offences, including capital offences – was formally established in 1853, in addition to the Native Courts and District Commissioners’ Courts which tried less serious offences. Ashanti, on the other hand, was a Protectorate annexed during the apex of ‘High Imperialism’ and its legal system consequently followed a model of administrative colonial justice. A jury system was deemed not practicable given weak colonial hegemony in the region and a lack of literate potential jurors. Instead, a bench system was instituted whereby the Chief Commissioner, or his duly appointed representative, sat in judgment aided only by three assessors to advise on points of local customary law. Under the 1906 Courts Ordinance both defence and crown counsels were also prohibited from appearing before the courts in Ashanti to avoid introducing ‘among a primitive race argumentative, and sometimes dishonest and ignorant legal practitioners [who could be]… an agency for serious mischief’.14 In addition, no appeal was possible for criminal convictions and the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction in Ashanti, although the Chief Commissioner could transfer cases to the Supreme Court if he saw fit.15 The criminal justice system in Ashanti was based upon the need to establish and maintain colonial authority over the African population, not to try its own white officers – and certainly not to withstand direct comparison with the justice system in England itself.

R v Benjamin Knowles: ‘As a British citizen he protests against being tried without a jury’ 16

After a preliminary investigation, Knowles was committed to trial in the Chief Commissioner’s Court on the authority of the Colonial Secretary. The trial lasted from 13–23 November in a Kumasi courtroom packed with both Africans and European officials in ‘circumstances painful to them as men, and embarrassing as officials’.17 With no qualified judge available, the presiding judge was Frank McDowell, a Police Magistrate and Acting Circuit Judge, who lacked experience and training for such a high-profile case. With lawyers barred from Ashanti courts, the role of the Crown Prosecutor was filled by the Commissioner of Police. Knowles conducted his own defence, calling no witnesses but testifying at length and undergoing cross-examination. With limited police facilities and expertise, the forensic evidence presented was partial and perplexing. Although only one shot was heard, two bullets were discovered at the scene. The prosecution failed to establish firmly the ballistics of the shot that wounded Harriet, and the lace-frilled dress she claimed her husband’s revolver had become entangled in disappeared. The prosecution asserted that Knowles had drunkenly shot his wife after a quarrel, admitting to witnesses that he had threatened ‘if she did not leave the room he would put a bullet in her’.18 Knowles’ defence was that he initially tried to protect Harriet by taking the blame for the shot because she feared she would be stigmatized by the local European community for apparently attempting suicide, but that he now denied shooting her. After deliberation, McDowell determined that ‘although the real evidence is very confusing… there can be no reasonable doubt of the guilt of the accused’. McDowell found Knowles guilty of murder and sentenced him to death, despite the doctor’s plea that ‘[a]s a British citizen, he protests at being tried without a jury’.19

Knowles’ protests soon found a wider audience as news of his conviction spread from the Gold Coast to a metropolitan audience, and Knowles’ sister and university friends led the campaign against his sentencing.20 Across the British Empire, the final decision in any capital case came through the royal prerogative of mercy which was invested in a colony’s governor, making the death penalty ultimately as much a political tool as a judicial penalty.21 Hoping to bury the case, Governor Ransford Slater promptly commuted Knowles’ sentence to life imprisonment on 4 December 1928 and had him transferred to England to serve out his sentence. As Ransford Slater informed London, ‘my chief concern has been to do nothing which should expose government (whether local or imperial) to charges of racial discrimination’. The governor argued that while he knew his decision to commute Knowles’ sentence would ‘draw sarcastic comments of “what would have happened if the prisoner had been an African”’, he treated this case like any other.22 The historical record however belies such claims, as Africans were routinely executed after being convicted of spousal murder.23 The rate of conviction and execution of Europeans in Africa for intra-racial murders (as opposed to the inter racial murder of Africans) was relatively high, particularly among ‘poor whites’ in South Africa and Kenya, as Europeans tended to be held to strictly ‘civilized standards’ of behaviour and not awarded mercy.24

The racialized nature of colonial justice strongly informed media discussions of the trial. While populist metropolitan papers such as the Daily Express initially focused on ‘whether a man who leaves these islands in the service of empire is not fairly entitled to the same legal safeguards that would have protected him had he remained at home’, wider questions of law in Africa were also raised.25 Even the conservative Daily Telegraph noted that if ‘trials without jury are a part of the law in Ashanti, and have been held in “hundreds of cases” on the capital charge itself, most people will agree with Dr Knowles’ leading counsel that “it is shocking what a state the laws are in”’.26 Back in the Gold Coast, African audiences and legal commentators saw in the Knowles trial a chance for judicial reform.27 Criticism of the colonial legal system had mounted steadily among political and legal elites during the 1920s.28 The editor of The Gold Coast Independent, a leading nationalist newspaper, bemoaned the administration of justice in Ashanti, asserting that it was ‘incompatible with British justice’ and calling for legal reform to bring Ashanti in line with the Colony ‘so that the unfortunate [Ashanti] peoples [might] enjoy the full benefits of their status as British subjects’.29 J. B. Danquah, a lawyer who would become one of Ghana’s leading nationalists, informed the Independent’s readers that an ‘atrophied remainder of the cave man’s justice’ rendered the peoples of Ashanti subject to greater state force than those in the Colony. Danquah highlighted the fact that in 1927–8 more people had been sentenced to death in Ashanti – twenty-three as opposed to six in the Colony – despite Ashanti’s population being one third that of the Colony.30 In contrast, twice as many criminals in the Colony were found guilty of manslaughter, demonstrating ‘the greater advantage of being defended by learned council… trained in the intricacies of English law’.31 As Gocking argues, the introduction of jury trial long remained the sine qua non of judicial reform in Ashanti, and legal reform was inextricably linked with defending the political rights of the Gold Coast peoples under British colonization.32