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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Manu Herbstein


Manu Herbstein

Manu Herbstein, who has dual Ghanaian and South African citizenship, lives in Accra. His novel, Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book. (Companion website: www.ama.africatoday.com)

 Reflections in a Shattered Glass

In Ghana the British Council celebrates the Bicentenary of
the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade

The effects of enslavement have lasted this long because of the silence that surrounds its history . . . The power of the fetish of slavery is enhanced by keeping it hidden . . . To dissolve the fetish it is necessary to keep the story of slavery and the slave trade open-ended and to avoid closure; to clear the way to debate and to perpetually initiate rather than conclude the argument so that every new generation may visit it to quarry its lessons. Kwadwo Opoku-Agyeman

After an abortive attempt to mark the Bicentenary by having Oprah Winfrey beam her television chat show from Ghana the Ghana@50 Secretariat is reported by the British Council to have asked the same British Council to collaborate with it in developing a program for an event at Elmina Castle on 25th March 2007.



All at sea in Cape Coast

John Prescott came to Ghana to launch the British Council’s programme. Then Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, Mr. Prescott was also the chairman of the UK national Advisory Group on Commemorating the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

On 14th February 2007 he visited Elmina Castle, of which he said later, “(It) stands as an evocative monument to the inhumanity of slavery . . . a monument of man’s inhumanity to man. It should be a place of pilgrimage for us all.”

The British bought Elmina Castle from the Dutch in 1872, 65 years after the Act of 1807. They did not ship a single slave from Elmina Castle.

Mr. Prescott spent the next morning in Cape Coast, which is just 15 km from Elmina.
He did not visit Cape Coast Castle.

The British were intimately connected with Cape Coast Castle through a period of nearly 300 years, from 1664, when they captured it from the Dutch, until Ghana’s independence in 1957. Indeed from 1874 to 1877 it was the seat of the colonial government. More to the point, in the years up to 1807, it was the centre of the British slave trade in West Africa. Several hundred thousand enslaved Africans were at one time or another incarcerated in its underground dungeons, chattel cargo awaiting shipment. In the last twelve years of the legal slave trade, the British government paid over one million pounds to buy some 13,400 African men, who became the slave-soldiers of the West India Regiment. They went so far as to delay the implementation of the 1807 Act in order to make one last legal purchase. These are mere fragments of a brutal history.

One can only speculate on the reasons for Prescott’s failure to visit Cape Coast Castle.

The British Council T-Shirt

Free baubles and the symbolic nature of maps

Next stop for Mr. Prescott was the British Council headquarters in Accra, where he launched a programme called Africa 2007 before a large audience of invited guests, including Ghana’s Vice President, Alhaji Aliu Mahama. Every guest was presented with a package of gifts: a key-ring, a cheap plastic desk-tidy and a tee-shirt. Each of these bore the programme’s brand icon, an implied map of Africa inscribed with the red letters africaUK07.

The tee-shirt’s label showed that it had been manufactured in Nicaragua by a firm which has in the past been criticized for unfair labour practices. No doubt the Council tried, but failed, to identify a suitable supplier within the African continent.

The image calls to mind European explorers’ obsession with mapping the African continent. We owe our knowledge of the outline shape to Portuguese mariners. The mapping of the interior was an essential prelude to the imperialists’ appropriation of territory which was not theirs.

At the turn of the last century, this obsession was famously captured by Edward Linley Sambourne’s 1892 Punch cartoon, The Rhodes Colossus, in which a giant Cecil John Rhodes, with his head in the clouds, plants his right boot firmly on the Cape and the left in Egypt. This Cape to Cairo image was proudly displayed in colonial school textbooks.

In another Punch cartoon of the period, the British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, is seen triumphantly celebrating the British victory in the war to control the sub-continent’s gold and diamond resources, by inscribing his signature across the map of South Africa.

Was the British Council aware of the ideological antecedents of its africaUK07 brand image? Again, one can only speculate.


The Elmina bash

In the invitation to the second event in the British Council’s programme, the letters inscribed in the imaginary map have changed: they now read “reflections.”


“Reflections,” the reverse side explains, “commemorates the two hundredth anniversary of the Act passed by Parliament in the UK to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, the start of a long road to abolition. It explores the relationship between the UK and Africa over the past 200 years and looks towards positive future relationships.”

The venue is the courtyard of Elmina Castle, the date 25th March 2007, two hundred years to the day after the passing of the Act. The special guests of honour are John Agyekum Kufuor, President of the Republic of Ghana, and Baroness Valerie Amos, Leader of the British House of Lords. We are promised “a creative and shared artistic experience that reflects on the past, the present and the future.”

I wrote to the Director of the British Council in Accra, declining to accept the invitation on two grounds. Firstly, given that this was a celebration of British history, the venue should have been Cape Coast Castle, not Elmina. Secondly, limiting consideration to the “past 200 years” gave the British Council’s guests little choice but to participate in, and so condone, an act of collective amnesia. In his reply the Director regretted that I had “translated (the) invitation text literally.”

What television viewers saw was a variety concert, beamed from start to finish. Speeches by the guests of honour were followed by a succession of performances, some by celebrities, some by lesser-known artistes.

On a large screen an image of the British Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, delivered his much-criticized recorded address.

The concert continued after dark, outside the castle walls, for the benefit of those for whom there was no space in the courtyard.

Elmina, June 13, 1873:
“Here and Now – We have returned! We have arrived!”

The British Council chose Elmina Castle as its venue. It then proposed to “explore the relationship between the UK and Africa over the past 200 years . . .”

Its exploration revealed little or nothing. In particular, no mention was made of two critical events which marked the imperial history of this site during the period selected by the Council.

Two illustrations from the Illustrated London News recall the scene on June 13, 1873.

Christopher DeCorse describes the first of these pictures:

“This view is looking east from the inside of the Benya lagoon. Elmina Castle and the town appear on the right and Fort St. Jago on the hilltop to the left.”

DeCorse explains the background:


“The Dutch decided to give up their Gold Coast possessions in February, 1871 . . . When the transfer to the British was effected in 1872, much of the Elmina population refused to recognize the British authority. The situation reached a crisis in June, 1873, when the Asante moved to the coast, defeating the Fante.

“Dutch, and hence Elmina’s, trade alliances had long been with the Asante. Britain, on the other hand, had actively encouraged Fante independence from the Asante.”

A contemporary report picks up the tale:


The British “sent messages to the native King of Elmina and principal chieftains ordering them before a certain hour to give up their arms. They would not obey the Governor’s order. It was therefore determined to inflict a severe chastisement on the rebellious town.”

“ . . . when the signal for bombardment was made, a storm of shot, shell, and rockets, both from the boats and the Castle batteries was poured into the town. In less than ten minutes it was on fire in several places.”

A British squad “ . . . passed with burning torches along the beach, and set fire to the thatched roofs of all the houses on that side. In half an hour the whole “Kings Town” of Elmina was in flames. Its destruction . . . was summary and complete.”

This illustration, dating back to the seventeenth century, shows that the Edina the British razed was a town of some antiquity and substance. At the time of its destruction its population was about fifteen thousand.

The British exiled the Omanhene of Edina, Nana Kobena Igyan, to Sierra Leone for refusing to recognize their authority.

The area where the town once stood has remained bare since that day. The outdoor seating for the March 25th function was placed where houses of the town once stood.

The only mention the British Council made of these events was a report in its on-line newsletter dated April 31, 2007:


“History was made at the Elmina Castle, 25 March, 2007 as the Union Jack, which had been banned from the town of Elmina since 1873 was once again hoisted. Nana Conduah VI, paramount chief of Edina, used the occasion of Reflections, part of Africa 2007, to announce the reversal of a ban put in place after the British troops bombed Elmina as they tried to quell rioters.”

The British Council named the final section of its programme, “Here and Now - We have returned! We have arrived!”

Guests at Elmina
Elmina Castle, mid-17th Century
The Bombardment of Elmina

Barbarous chiefs, savage rulers, great assassins and
ix million ounces of gold.

On the flat roof of Elmina Castle there are two small, separate rooms, which the tour guides refer to as Prempeh’s apartments.

In 1895, the Asantehene, Prempeh I, sent an embassy to London under the leadership of the brothers John and Albert Owusu-Ansah, in a desperate attempt to bypass the hostile Governor at Cape Coast and persuade Queen Victoria’s government not to invade his country. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, refused to see the delegation. The British subsequently imprisoned the brothers, back in the Gold Coast, on a trumped-up charge of forgery. The invasion went ahead. The Asante, weakened by years of civil war and intimidated by the reputation of the Maxim gun, did not resist. The expeditionary force entered Kumase and on Monday 20th January, 1896, abducted the Asantehene. Prempeh was brought to Elmina Castle, together with an entourage of family and elders.

Asante was an independent state. It was not at war with Britain. The British described their action as arrest and deportation; but how did they justify it in law?

They could not. Three days later, on 23rd January, the Governor of the Gold Coast Colony, William Edward Maxwell, Esquire, C.M.G, caused to be passed in the Legislative Council, Ordinance no. 1 of 1896, conferring on himself “the necessary power for the detention and deportation of certain Political Prisoners.”


“Whereas it is expedient that certain Political Prisoners . . . should be detained during Her Majesty’s pleasure; and, if necessary, that they or any of them should be deported from the Colony, etc. etc.”

Clause 1 legalizes acts “done, permitted to be done, or sanctioned by the Governor . . . prior to the passing of this Ordinance.”

“No proceeding,” it tells us, “calling in question the legality of such acts shall have any effect whatsoever.”

Maxwell did not sign the Ordinance until 3rd February, 1896, two weeks after the abduction.

The British subsequently sent Prempeh to Freetown and then to the Seychelles. They did not allow him to return to Kumasi until 1924.

The Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain described these events thus:


“You cannot exercise control over savage countries which, previous to your arrival, have been in a state of constant anarchy and disorder without occasionally coming into conflict with these savage rulers and having to shed some blood . . .

“During the past twelve months we, the present Government, have redeemed from barbarism in Ashanti and in the Soudan, with a small expenditure of life and treasure, by expeditions which have been admirably planned, splendidly led, and successfully prosecuted, two provinces where previously trade was impossible, because no man could call his life or his property his own, or consider himself to be safe from the tyranny and cruelty of his native rulers . . .

“These countries were ruled by two princes, whom I think I may describe as ‘great assassins.’ ”

He told his Permanent Undersecretary, Sir Robert Meade,


“The attempt to excite English sympathy for the King of the Ashanti is a fraud on the British public. He is a barbarous chief who has broken the Treaty, permitted human sacrifices, attacked friendly chiefs, obstructed trade, and failed to pay the fine inflicted on him after the war.”

That is not the end of the story.

Edward Ayensu tells us:


“Late in 1897, the principals of the newly formed Ashanti Goldfields Corporation led a team that dragged and carried 40 tonnes of equipment nearly 200 km from the coast to begin exploitation of their new property at Obuasi.”

The Ashanti Goldfields Corporation shipped the first consignment of gold from its Obuasi mine in July, 1898. During the following fifty years the mine yielded some six million ounces of the precious metal.

An Amazing Disgrace:
Sufferings No Tongue Can Express and Home-Made Buttered Popcorn.

The movie Amazing Grace was made by Walden Media. Walden Media is owned by Philip Anschutz. Forbes magazine rates Anschutz as the 31st richest man in the United States of America. He is worth at least five billion U.S. dollars, spread through some 100 companies in land, oil, farming, railroads, telecommunications, gambling, newspapers and entertainment. He is a strong supporter of George W. Bush and the Republican Party, opposes gay and lesbian rights and supports the teaching of “intelligent design” in American schools. Anschutz controls some six thousand movie screens in the U.S (nearly one-fifth of the total) and determines what may or may not be shown on them. Forbes rates him the “greediest executive in America” and the BBC has described him as a “corporate vulture.” He is a strong supporter of conservative Christian causes.

The movie Amazing Grace purports to show how the great white Christian hero, William Wilberforce, almost single-handedly, against great odds, freed Africa from the scourge of the slave trade. It is a clever confidence trick, a piece of propaganda masquerading as history but so full of falsification that it is best regarded as fiction.

The historian Peter Linebaugh has demolished any pretensions this movie might have had to historical accuracy. I have borrowed my sub-heading from his review, which deserves a lengthy quote:


“Far from being a majestic human drama involving millions of human beings on three continents in the protracted and mighty struggle of greed and cruelty against liberation and dignity, Amazing Grace presents an English story of pretty people either having tedious tea-parties at various country estates or compromising with one another in boring rhetoric in that exclusive British men's club, the House of Commons . . .

“This movie omits drama because it avoids the historical conflicts: the primary conflict was between the slave in the plantations and the master, the secondary conflict was between the worker in the factory and the boss. You wouldn't know that from this whitewash.

“The two historical faults with the movie are, first it does not show us that the English abolitionist movement owed its beginning, its thrust, and its ending to the activity of the slaves themselves. The second fault is that it does not consider the historical proposition that the abolition of the slave trade could only succeed at the moment in economic development when other sources of exploitation became available to English capital, namely, the working class in England. . .

“This movie is part of the self-congratulation of the English ruling class excusing itself for the most odious and reprehensible crimes in history.”

The third British Council event commemorating the 1807 Act was billed as the African premiere of Amazing Grace.

At the request of the British Council, Walden Media supplied the film free of charge and sent the reel direct from U.S. The net cost of the screening at the National Theatre was about £4,500.

Walden Media explains its generosity thus:


“Mr. Philip Anschutz's hope to bring about social impact through filmmaking could not have been more powerfully demonstrated through this momentous cultural moment.”

In his introductory remarks, the Director of the British Council expressed the hope “that tonight we will inspired by the film to make Amazing Changes, first and foremost in our own lives (as individuals), then our families, our communities, our nations and who knows, the world.”

He expressed his thanks to Walden, “whose passion and vision for what Amazing Grace represents led to the donation of the film.”

The British Council’s Communication Manager introduced her report of the function with a quotation from Wilberforce:


“Africa, your sufferings have been the theme that has arrested and engaged my heart . . . Your sufferings no tongue can express, no language impart."

“Tickets for the show,” she tells us, “were sold out by noon on the day of the premiere leaving the Accra National Theatre, with a seating capacity of 1500, packed beyond our wildest dreams. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house! . . . For the audience . . . the film provided a strong narrative of the life of the once young politician turned radical God-centered Christian and how his deep spirituality helped to change the moral outlook of Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. Clad in Hollywood style frocks, tuxedos and black ties, guests were treated to a red carpet entrance, home-made buttered popcorn, ‘New York’ style hotdogs and creamy vanilla ice-cream to add to the evening’s authentic ‘going to the pictures’ feel.” “At the end of the evening . . . the audience held hands with baited breath. . .” and resolved “ . . . to change the world we live in and leave it a much better place than we met it.”

Many of the audience were schoolchildren. Given that history is now merely an optional subject in Ghanaian senior secondary schools and subsumed in other disciplines at junior secondary level, Amazing Grace may be all that many of these children will ever learn about the slave trade.

Evasion, concealment, propaganda and false modesty.

John Prescott dodged an encounter with the harsh reality of British history. The Council went further: in at least two cases it concealed shameful aspects of that same British history and in a third it went out of its way to propagate a sanitized lie.

Did the British Council bureaucrats know what they were doing? Shall we be charitable? Were they perhaps the unwitting victims of their own ignorance, so that we may fairly charge them with no more than insensitivity or, perhaps, intellectual sloth?

The truth is rather that their actions were fully consistent with the ideology of their employer (and by extension, with that of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office; and by further extension, with that of the former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his New Labour Party and government.)

The British Council is the UK's principal agency for cultural relations abroad and an integral part of the UK's overall diplomatic effort.

The Secretary of State for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is answerable to Parliament for the policies, operations and performance of the Council; the appointment of the Director-General is subject to the Secretary of State’s approval.

Apart from acting as an evangelist for the English language through the provision of libraries, the Council’s functions include:

  1. enhancement of the United Kingdom’s reputation in the world as a valued partner
  2. increasing the impact of and respect for British policies and values overseas, and
  3. promotion of the export of British educational and cultural goods and services.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office provides strategic guidance to the Council and ensures that the Council’s objectives and priorities are compatible with its own. It partly funds the Council’s activities

Research commissioned by the Council reported finding “. . . evidence that perceptions of the UK among young people in sub Saharan countries is dated and negative.” The Council’s consultants recommended activities that would, “reinterpret and celebrate the shared heritage between the UK and Africa.”

The Council’s target audience is “teachers and youth community leaders able to influence interests and development of young people” and “those in positions of influence and power” who, the Council hopes, “will be inspired . . . to advocate further change and partnership with the UK.” These “leaders and influencers” are expected to collaborate with the Council in implementing project activities, from which they may expect to be direct beneficiaries.

“Relationships brokered by the British Council broaden the international view of young people.”

The Council will measure its success by the extent to which it succeeds in effecting a “change in understanding of young people in Africa of the UK and of those in the UK of Africa.”

The Council plans to

  1. radically challenge existing perceptions of the UK and “. . . stereotypes based on old development models that assume human dependency and need”
  2. stimulate “ . . . reflective but forward-looking debate about shared African-UK heritage” and “ . . . interest in recent African-UK history and in social and democratic processes in the UK . . .”
  3. “. . . contribute to a reappraisal of past and current realities in the African-UK relationship in a non-confrontational way . . .” and
  4. offer “greater understanding of and new insights into recent African-UK history.”

The Council assures us that its project “. . . does not offer a triumphalist approach – look how well the UK did . . .”

But the truth is that the UK did do extremely well, out of the slave trade and out of its Empire.

I give Jacques Depelchin the last word:


“A system which is rooted in crime and destruction would prefer to be seen as a system which is responsible for all the comforts of the present, as well as containing the seeds of a more comfortable future.”

The Punch Rhodes Colossus
Day After
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