Osu Area, Accra

Today the workshop visited the Osu area of Accra, site of the 17th century Danish fort and its associated town (Christiansborg). Our guide for the tour was workshop participant Henry Ni-Adziri Wellington, professor emeritus of architecture and foremost researcher on the architectural history of Osu (see his 2011 book Stones Tell Stories at Osu). We visited several sites in the area with preserved Danish colonial architecture dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Though each building was certainly historic, many workshop participants wondered whose heritage was on display, and how well did this material heritage match the typical “Slave Route” narrative—that is, that these sites represent the historic locations of the transport, housing, and sale of enslaved peoples?

At the Richter house site, an arched doorway, a staircase, a galleted wall, and a paved stone courtyard are the most visible remains of what was once the compound of a prominent Danish trading family. Worn away into the repurposed ballast stones that make up the courtyard are many circular impressions arranged into a number of oware game boards. Based on his research, Dr. Wellington states that these game boards were created and used by enslaved peoples that spent long periods in the courtyard, waiting for slave ships to call at the port. But, as William Gblerkpor points out, it is difficult to ascertain when these grooves were created. Though evocative of how enslaved peoples retained their identities through horrible circumstances, the compound has been continuously occupied for hundreds of years—the game boards may belong to another era. Mark Horton noted that the value of heritage must certainly suffer if it loses it credibility, even if the overarching narrative is important. Far from abandoned, the Richter house site has been redeveloped into numerous small compounds and apartments. As the workshop group took pictures of the architecture, several residents approached Dr. Wellington and loudly rebuked him for not compensating them for allowing us entry into the site. Dr. Wellington expressed skepticism about their demands, but they claimed to be descendants of the very people who had been enslaved by the Richter family, now officially squatting on the property the Richters had abandoned. Later in the evening, the group discussed this as an example of difficult set of issues: Who controls heritage resources? Who uses heritage resources? Who defines what is heritage? Who gains from these definitions?

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The Richter house site becomes a space of contested heritage, as Dr. Wellington and residents negotiate differing visions of the space–one as a heritage site of a shared, national history and one as a personal site as an familial home.

At the Wulff house site, much the structure dating back to 1840 is still standing. Wulff Joseph Wulff was a Danish Jewish trader who initially resided in the Osu castle. However, Wulff was persecuted by the other Danes over his faith which led him to build a new house in the adjacent town. Wulff’s life represents the blending of cultures in the coastal contact zone. He married a Ga woman from the town and was buried beneath the house floor, wrapped in cloth, and standing upright—the burial customs of the time. Workshop participants noted how the Wulff site and its narrative blur the line between African heritage and European heritage. University of Michigan professor Raymond Silverman suggests it goes beyond these two, as the Wulff house can also be experienced as a Jewish heritage site. This is a fair point, as the monoliths “African” and “European” can be further broken down or transformed. Indeed, the workshop was received at the site by Leslie Wulff Cochrane (the sixth generation descendant of Wulff Joseph Wulff) who proudly claimed the house as representing his “mulatto heritage.”

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Dr. Wellington and Leslie Wulff Cochrane explain the significance of the Wulff house site.

One final landmark to remark on is Osu castle itself. We were not able to visit inside, but we did view it from the beach, where we could see how successive Danish, British, and Ghanaian additions that were brought together. The castle seems to lend itself to a typical “slave castle” narrative, complete with a door of no return from the dungeon. Modern fishing boats were nearby that could serve as stand-ins for the transports that would have taken Africans out to the European ships off the coast. While the workshop group was not concerned with the veracity of this narrative, we did wonder what other narratives were precluded by this. The Osu castle was used by the British as a trading fort after abolition, and later as a colonial administrative center. After independence, the Ghanaian government also used it as the seat of power, and it continues to be used by governmental services to this day. The beach itself was once home to an artificial lagoon that housed productive fish hatcheries, but has since degraded through waste dumping and sedimentation. Are these stories of history, nationalism, and ecology overshadowed by slavery? Are different narratives more salient to different audiences?

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The fishing beach and Osu Castle (Christiansborg) in Accra.

The first day of the workshop has already posed some challenging questions, leading in to many animated discussions. We will continue our exploration of heritage, history, and archaeology over the coming week as we visit more sites in southern Ghana.

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