Neighbourhood history lessons of a sneaky black chief who tricked the Danes for a while – a visit to Osu Castle in Accra, Ghana.

A long time ago on this beach in Accra….

I look at the photo of the beach that I had taken the previous day and I picture Nicholas, our art teacher standing there over 30 years ago. A young student taking photos of the castle for artistic inspiration, with his film camera. Innocently considering the angle and focus of the shot when he was approached by the castle guards and told that he was taking forbidden photos! How bewildered he must have felt when they took his camera away, accused him of being a spy and threw him into a cell!!

A view of the township of Osu and beach from Osu Castle.

A trip to the Osu castle, formerly known as Christiansborg castle

A group of us ladies recently visited the Osu Castle, which is only 4km from our home but with Accra being so flat in many parts it is often difficult to get a sense of what your neighbourhood comprises of without looking at Google maps or getting an aerial view from a high rise building. Ghana isn’t a place where things will jump out for you to do, but so often there is fascinating history on our doorsteps wherever we are living that is waiting to be discovered if you just look a little harder and seek out opportunities to learn more.

The Osu castle was formerly called the Christiansborg castle. It was built by the Swedes in 1652 as a lodge for storing goods but in 1661 the Danes purchased the land beneath the lodge from the Ga Paramount Chief and the Osu area that those of us living here are familiar with, was in fact Danish owned. This is always quite interesting to learn of when you are living here as we predominately hear of the Portuguese, Dutch and British when learning of the history of Ghana.

Ghana’s tragic slavery history

When we moved here I had no idea that Ghana had the greatest concentration of castles and forts along its coast than any other African country. Some of these are in severe forms of dilapidation but there were more than 80 of these structures along its 540km of coastline, all built by Europeans in the colonial era. Up until 6 March 1957 when the country gained its independence from Britain, Ghana was known as the ‘Gold Coast’ due to the abundance of gold that was discovered here from the 15th century, and the lucrative trade that followed, with several European countries constantly competing for a stake in it. The people of the Gold Coast traded gold and ivory and enslaved Africans in exchange for Western items like guns, ammunition, liquor, cloth, glass beads and iron tools. All of these forts and castles along Ghana’s coast are now UNESCO World Heritage Properties. Along with nine other forts and castles Christiansborg allowed the Danes to have a near Monopoly of trade between 1694 and 1803 and even their ducat coins in those times had the castle in Ghana on them. The Danish transatlantic slave trade transported approximately 100 000 Africans to the Danish West Indies.

Picture of the Ducat coin from http://www.coinworld.com

Our family has visited the Elmina and Cape Coast Castles and the San Antonio fort and I hope to soon write more about these as these visits were emotional and eye opening. These structures all have characteristic thick white walls that are mottled with algae and somehow seem to still hold the smells of the horrors they have enclosed. If these walls could talk they would tell such tremendously complicated, long and tragic stories of the trans-atlantic slave route and the millions of Africans who were forced into slavery, sold and sent across the seas to work, never knowing where they were going or died on route due to the abhorrent conditions in which they were kept.

A castle that has housed presidents

This visit to the Osu castle felt different, perhaps because the buildings have had many functional uses since the days of slavery. Post independence in 1960 the castle became the seat of governance and was renamed Government House, it was also the official residence of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana. (To read my post about the Kwame Nkrumah memorial that was built after he died click here) President J.J Rawlings also served his term from here and during the tour we go into his office which we are told he liked due to all the windows around it and being able to see everything that was going on! From 2009 there was debate amongst those in government as to whether they should be governing from a place that held such a heavy history of slavery and they moved back and forth to the Flagstaff house. But since 2013 the government has been based at there and it is now called Jubilee House and is also very close to our home here.   In 2014 the Danish Christiansborg Archeological Heritage Project was granted permission to start excavating at the Osu Castle and they found African trade beads, pottery, European glassware, numerous clay smoking pipes and cowrie and other shells. A canon that had been buried in the sand was also retrieved and an entrance to an underground tunnel that led to a nearby house was discovered!  

President J J Rawlings office
Jubilee House – the current house of governance on Independence Avenue

In 2017 Osu Castle was opened for the public with plans to create a Presidential museum but it is a pity that they haven’t gotten further with these renovations, although there was evidence of some work currently being done.

The pretty gardens at Accra’s Osu Castle

The beautifully manicured gardens to the left as you enter the grounds catch our eyes immediately, so different from any other gardens here. They remind me of Paris gardens with an empty fountain, long pretty vine lined passages and cherub statues and have a Secret Garden feel to them a big black door on the one wall. Beautiful trees with knobbly branches and thick trunks that are hidden behind gorgeous tropical leaves. The British tended to the garden during their ownership of the castle and used imported and local trees. The British abandoned the castle from 1890 – 1901 and during this time it was also used as a psychiatric asylum! I found it quite strange that there 3 of the old presidential cars are still on display in the gardens.

Ah! it’s the place that we see on the Ghana bank note

Upon walking into the courtyard of the castle there is a large cistern inscribed with the name of a Danish governer from the 1700’s, and a pretty fountain on the right that you would expect to see on the Instagram feed of someone who is currently visiting Portugal or Morocco! The red staircase in the middle has a separate middle section that is gated off and only opened for the president to walk through! This staircase and a building that we walked past before we entered this area appear on the 50 cedi Ghana bank note and us bunch of ladies thought that was pretty cool!

Chief Assameni – the black chief who took control of the castle and never returned the keys!

The dining room area where Barack Obama ate when he came to Ghana in 2009 is currently under renovation but at the foot of the staircase leading to it, is a portrait of a fascinating man – Chief Assameni of the Akwamu people. In 1693 Assameni headed up a mutiny against the Danes and him and his men took control of the castle. He had gained prior insider knowledge by working as a cook and had thus learned about the workings and intricacies of the castle, and he used this to his advantage to stage the revolt. Whilst in power for a year he profited by trading globally, and then sold the castle back to the Danes in 1694 for 50 marks of gold. But he never returned the keys and these are still today a property of the Akwamu Chiefdom property! Fascinating!!

Chief Assameni of the Akwamu people
President Obama’s visit to Osu Castle in 2009

Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ghana in 1961

On route to the bedroom where Queen Elizabeth slept in we take a moment to admire the prettiest shimmery pink and delicate teal circular wall tiles, before being shown the bed she slept in and the wardrobe she used during her visit to Ghana in 1961, a few years after independence. I was interested to read about how she almost cancelled this trip due to unrest and rising tension in Ghana at the time under the first black president Kwame Nkrumah, and Winston Churchill expressed his concern and reservations as to whether she should go. Five days before her she was due to leave England, bombs went off in Accra with a statue of Nkrumah being the target. However she still insisted on making the trip and her response was “How silly I should look if I was scared to visit Ghana and then (Soviet leader) Nikita Khrushchev went and had a good reception. I am not a film star. I am the head of the Commonwealth – and I am paid to face any risks that may be involved. Nor do I say this lightly. Do not forget that I have three children”.

Queen Elizabeth dancing with President Kwame Nkrumah in Accra in 1961
Photo from The Washington Post
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/01/13/fact-checking-the-crown-was-jackie-kennedy-high-as-a-kite-in-britain/

We visit the Catholic Chapel which is in a rather poor state of disrepair. There are some busts of men in the corner that I presume are for future museum plans. Our tour guide reiterates the sentiment that each of these castle visits brings about – how could men who called themselves Christians and praised God do so while there were Africans directly beneath them starving and sitting in their own vomit, excrement, blood and left over food!? Human behaivour and atrocities in history will forever remain a conundrum to those viewing things in restrospect…  In this room there is also a fabulous dark wood chest and the carving of the crocodile with his wide open mouth somehow immediately brings to my mind reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness many years ago and his journey up the Congo river.

The empty swimming pool was built in the days of Ghana governance but is now empty and abandoned. With a view to the beach and village below I ponder on what it was like when in use for a cool-off in the relentless heat of this country, who used it and what were their thoughts looking down at the poverty of the township below?

Down the staircase to the dungeons and the ‘door of no return’

We make our way down to the underground store rooms and dungeons down a circular staircase that when looked at from the top, is like the inner of a beautiful shell that Dave once brought home from his port work at the Tema beach. The rooms are oppressive and musty and we feel an immediate sense of claustrophobia as there are very few light sources down there. These areas have been rebuilt with bricks now. Intererestingly in 1862 around the time when slavery had started to be abolished in places, an earthquake destroyed the upper parts of the castle and these were then rebuilt in wood. We walk through the Door of No Return, the same door that thousands of slaves walked through never knowing where they were headed before they got onto the slave ships.

Daylight feels bright on the beach after being in the tiny areas the slaves were kept. Remnants of colourful fishing nets are scattered along the sand as well as big bags of water bottles and it looks like there is some sort of recycling project going on, this is encouraging as the seas here are generally so horribly polluted with plastic.  

The Door of No Return

…a returned camera

The day after visiting the castle my friend Sue and I are painting in East Legon with artist Nicholas Kowalski. When Sue tells him of our visit we are truly amazed at his story that unfolds about him being arrested in the 80’s. After being locked in the cell at Osu Castle for some time, President J J Rawlings personally came to talk to him and released him and gave his camera back once he realised the spy allegation couldn’t be further from the truth, and that he really was just a harmless student with a camera strolling along the beach !

Nicholas brings out a photo taken several years later at his university graduation and President Rawlings is there shaking his hand and presenting his certificate to him! Nicholas asked him if he remembered who he was and what had happened, and sure enough it turns out he did !  

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