The idea of establishing a collegiate school to raise educational standards on the Gold Coast was first proposed in 1865, but it was not realized until 1876 when the Wesleyan High School in Cape Coast was founded with donations from local businessmen and the support of the Methodist Missionary Society in London.
The school was founded to train teachers and began with 17 students. It was originally planned to be located in Accra because the British Government had decided to relocate the Gold Coast’s capital from Cape Coast to Accra by 1870. However, local agitation and the pressing need to put the idea into action after eleven years of debate compelled the government to allow the school to open, but with the understanding that it would later be relocated to Accra, which never happened.
Mfantsipim’s original name was Wesleyan High School, and it was founded on April 3, 1876. In 1905, a graduate of the school, John Mensah Sarbah, established a rival school called Mfantsipim; the name is derived from “Mfantsefo-apem,” which literally means “thousands of Fantes” but actually means “the gathering of hosts of scholars for change” as originally conceived by the Fantes. In July of that year, the two schools merged under the supervision of the Methodist Church, and the name Mfantsipim was retained. The school’s founder, John Mensah-Sarbah, stated at its inception that its goal was “to train up God-fearing, respectable, and intelligent lads.”
The school was classified as a grammar school because Latin and Greek were taught there in the beginning, though other disciplines such as carpentry, art, and crafts were also available. It is a boarding school for boys only, with seven dormitories or houses.
In 1907, Reverend W. T. Balmer arrived in Mfantsipim on a mission to inspect the state of colleges and collegiates throughout West Africa. When he arrived in Mfantsipim, he felt compelled to stay for some reason. To his surprise, he only met eight boys in the entire school, and there was no teacher or headmaster, as the previous headmaster had left for the United Kingdom. They were dubbed the “Faithful Eight” by Balmer. Kobina Sekyi, one of those boys, went on to become a well-known lawyer, statesman, and writer. To honor them, a monument has been erected between the Administration Block and the Assembly Hall.
Reverend R. A. Lockhart arrived in 1925 and laid the groundwork for the school’s growth. He constructed classrooms and dormitories on Kwabotwe Hill before relocating the school to its current location in 1931. He was also a driving force behind the introduction of the Cambridge School Leaving Certificate Examination to the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
Lockhart was a strong-willed, principled Irishman who was critical of Gordon Guggisberg’s administration and Gold Coast secondary education ideas. Guggisberg proposed reducing the school to a basic institution, but Lockhart persuaded locals to enroll more of their children.
Lockhart’s administration oversaw the construction of the majority of the school’s buildings and structures. On their graduation, he encouraged some of the school’s brightest students to become teachers. For example, he mentored F. L. Bartels in this direction, and as a result of his efforts, Mfantsipim received its first black headmaster.
Dr. Francis Lodwic Bartels, the school’s first black headmaster and a product of the school, took office in 1949. From 1942 to 1945, he was acting headmaster, then became main headmaster and served for another 11 years, retiring in 1961.
Dr. Bartels was notable for his close relationship with the boys, encouraging them to face the world, but only with discipline. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who attended the school, recalled, “I was one of a group of boys who sat on the floor of his office for our weekly lesson in spoken English.”
Many influential school graduates have served not only their country and continent of Africa but also continents outside of Africa and numerous international organizations. Many alumni of Mfantsipim School have gone on to careers in medicine, science, engineering, education, architecture, and a variety of other fields.
The school relocated to its current location on Kwabotwe Hill in the northern part of Cape Coast on the Kotokuraba road in 1931. Because of its location on that hill, the school has been referred to as Kwabotwe or simply Botwe.
Notable Alumni of Mfantsipim School
Alumni of the school include Kofi Annan, 2001 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Secretary-General of the United Nations
Kofi Abrefa Busia, former Prime Minister of Ghana
Kobina Sekyi, lawyer, writer, nationalist
J. E. Casely Hayford, journalist, and politician
Alex Quaison-Sackey, diplomat, and first black president of the UN General Assembly
Joseph W.S. de Graft-Johnson, former Vice President of Ghana
Kow Nkensen Arkaah, former Vice President of the Republic of Ghana
Paa Kwesi Amissah-Arthur, former Vice President of Ghana
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, former president of ECOWAS Commission
Kobina Arku Korsah, first Chief Justice of Ghana