Fort Christiansborg and the Forging of Modern Ghana

The coast of West Africa was littered with a series of European forts in the 17th and 18th Centuries, a fact that is much in evidence when looking through many of Worcester Cathedral Library’s travel books from this period, which are full of illustrations of these structures. There is one particular which stands out – not because of its scale or grandeur – but on account of the remarkably rich and varied history that its walls have born witness to, and which continue to play a prominent role in contemporary African politics.

Located in Osu, now a suburb of Accra, the capital city of Ghana, there is a fort that has changed its name almost as many times as it has changed owners. Originally built by the Swedish in 1652 as nothing more than a sturdy lodge, it was first known simply as Osu Castle. While Sweden today maybe be best known for its tradition of political non-alignment and neutrality in warfare, the Sweden of the 17th Century was one of the greatest military powers in Europe and pursued a ruthlessly aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. It ruled over an empire stretching to both shores of the Baltic Sea, incorporating parts of modern day Finland, Norway and Germany. Not content, however, with being just a European power, Sweden also sought foreign possessions further afield, emulating the other great colonising powers of the day: Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France and Britain. Africa was just one of the places that Sweden turned its attention to.

Yet the Swedish would not be in Africa for long. As European powers vied for supremacy around the world, Osu Castle was captured by the Dutch in 1660, eight years after its construction. The Dutch presence in West Africa would be even more shortly lived than the Swedish – only three years later the fort would be captured again, and this time by the Danish. Denmark may not have been quite as powerful as Sweden in this period, but it was still a serious force to be reckoned with – and coveted colonial possessions overseas for the wealth and the prestige that these would bring. The Danish soon renamed Osu Castle as Fort Christiansborg , in honour of their King, Christian V. Despite a brief interruption in the early 1680s, when the Portuguese took over and temporarily christened the place as Fort São Francisco Xavier (in honour of a prominent Catholic Missionary), and another in 1693 when it was stormed and occupied by members of the local Akwamu tribe, Fort Christiansborg would be in Danish hands for nearly two hundred years, and would form the capital seat for the territory known as the Danish Gold Coast.

Osu Castle Fort Christiansborg

Fort Christiansborg. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The pattern of commerce conducted by the Danish in West Africa would mirror that of the other European colonial powers. Known as triangular trade, commodities manufactured in Europe would be shipped to Africa and sold for slaves, who would then be transported to work in European colonies in the Americas. The raw materials – particularly cotton, sugar and tobacco – produced by these slaves would then be sold in Europe, and the cycle would begin again. While the biggest players in this trade were the British and the Portuguese, the Danish were also involved. Whereas the British would ship their slaves to places like Jamaica or Virginia, and the Portuguese to Brazil, the Danes had their own patch in the New World. The Caribbean territory now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands had in fact been a Danish colonial possession until 1917, when they were sold by Denmark to the Americans. It was to these islands that the slaves bought by Danish traders in the Gold Coast would be sent to work. Much of this human traffic passed through and was administered from Fort Christiansborg.

slave trade Worcester Cathedral Library

Slavery was at the heart of European commercial and colonial interests in Africa. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

With the rise of the abolitionist movement in Europe in the late 18th Century and the subsequent decline of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the Danish Gold Coast increasingly became a commercially unviable colony for its parent nation. In 1850, Denmark sold the territory and it forts to Britain. Fort Christiansborg duly became the seat of the new British administration, and home to the colonial governor.

African forts, Worcester Cathedral Library (UK)

At one time, several European powers had interests in the Gold Coast. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

With an abundance of natural resources, good infrastructure and a well-regarded educational system, the Gold Coast was the first European colony in Africa to achieve autonomy, becoming the fully independent state of Ghana in 1957. As the last British governor, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, moved out of Fort Christiansborg, so the newly elected President, Kawme Nkrumha, moved in – choosing to stick with the fort as the seat of power in the country.

The amount of blood shed in the fort, as well as the number of slaves that passed through the place, may have left its mark. Arden-Clarke had often been kept awake at night by a mysterious knocking sound – after many a frantic search, its source could never be found. Eventually, he was driven to change bedroom trying out several until he found one where he could sleep undisturbed. In Nkrumha’s first few nights of residence in the fort, he was awoken one night by a yelp from his German Shepherd, which fled the room with its hair stood on end and trembling legs. The dog refused to ever enter the room again. Nkrumha’s staff were convinced that the whole fort was haunted, and refused to stay there overnight. Were these the spirits of tortured souls causing such eerie disturbances?

In any event, Fort Christiansborg still remains central to political life in Ghana, although these days it has reverted back to its original name of Osu Castle – often simply known as ‘the Castle’. One of the factors which influenced Nkrumha in making it his seat was the fact that the occupation by the indigenous authorities of a building formerly synonymous with colonial domination would demonstrate the new, bold and self-determining nature of the Ghanaian people. Such a view was shared by one of NKrumha’s successors, John Atta Mills, who also grew sufficiently attached to the fort as to have his ashes interred there upon his death in 2012.

Not every Ghanaian politician has felt this way about Osu Castle. In 2007, a debate was held in the Ghanaian parliament over the future of the fort’s role as a place central to the political life of the country. The New Patriotic Party argued for the construction of a brand new parliament building and presidential palace, on account of the fort’s association with slavery – a dark spell in Ghana’s history that the nation should distance itself from. The motion was opposed by the National Democratic Congress Party, who argued that the money used to meet the cost of construction could be spent on more useful projects. The debate became heated, with various MPs storming out of the chamber in anger. A new presidential palace was constructed in 2008 for John Kufour, but this building was swiftly abandoned when John Atta Mills was elected in 2009, and chose to return to Osu Castle. Atta Mill’s successor, John Mahama, then reverted back to the new palace in 2013.

The fort has, as the foremost address in most of Ghana’s modern history, played host to figures including Richard Nixon, Barrack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II. As a seat of oppressive colonial power, it was occupied at various times by the Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese and British.  Whether it will ever again be used to house Ghana’s President is unclear. What is more certain is that it will remain a prominent feature of Ghanaian politics and heritage for many years to come.

Tom Hopkins

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