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Colonial ecologies – A few impressions from a recent field trip to Ghana

Seed Box PhD Lene Asp Frederiksen recently came back from a field trip in Ghana, tracing the impact of Danish coloniality and experincing life in Ghana today. Here are some of her thoughts after the field trip.

“To travel is to move into new spaces with eyes already written over …” [1] Ina Ferris

Traveling with literary companions

February, 2019. (According to the Gregorian calendar.) I’m in Ghana for the first time, on a fieldtrip which will take me up and down the old Guinean gold coast, where the Europeans placed their ‘feitorias’ or factories and slave forts, and further inland, all the way up north to Bolgatanga, where I’ll visit a present-day gold mining community. My aim is to trace the impact of Danish coloniality but also to get an impression of what life is like in Ghana today. I’m curious to see and experience firsthand the country I have been reading so much about lately as part of my PhD research in colonial (media) ecologies, in lieu of the Seed Box initiative.

I had previously visited the US Virgin Islands, the former Danish West Indies, which led me to create the prototype digital mapping project Mapping a Colony that would show how places on the three continents – Africa, the Americas and Europe – were inherently entangled through colonial encounters.

My initial idea was to follow in the footstep of the colonizers who documented their travels to the Danish outposts, i.e. Ludewig Ferdinand Rømer and Paul Erdmann Isert, as well as the colonial critics who came later, such as the Danish docu-fiction writer Thorkild Hansen who wrote the book Coast of Slaves after his visit to Ghana in the mid 1960s[2]. Coast of Slaves is the first volume in a trilogy on the Danish triangular trade, and one of the first head-on critiques of the Danish national historiography about the country’s role under colonialism.

I was curious to explore in a similar fashion the landscape as prism and archive. Indeed, my urge to visit the culturally composite places marked by the early Transatlantic globalization had taken a hold of me exactly after reading Thorkild Hansen’s works. I wanted to see for myself what was still there to be seen, what was left of the historical imprint, and find out how it is possible – or perhaps not – to relate to the remnants today, physically as well as by imagination.

However, when Hansen came to see the former Danish plantation Frederiksgave, it was a ruin. Recently it has been renovated with support from the Danish National Museum[3], and today – since 2007 – it stands completely rebuilt, following historical drawings, on a steep hill with a view on a clear day to Legon Hill on the outskirts of Accra about 25 km away. Nothing remains the same.

Before visiting the restored plantation of Frederiksgave I had to present myself and describe my errand to the local chief.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Nsuiban shows me remnants of a Tamarind allée that used to stretch all the way to Christiansborg. The enslaved would carry the colonizers in hammocks in the shadow. Today there are 17 trees left at this particular spot. The sign has been put up by the National Museum in order to help preserve the allée.

I had other more contemporary literary travel companions with me as I journeyed through the changing landscapes. The American professor at Columbia University Saidiya Hartman has written a capturing book about her process of finding ways to relate to the afterlife of slavery within a North American context in Lose Your Mother – A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route from 2007.

I also carried a copy of Stones Tell Stories at Osu – Memories of a Host Community of the Danish Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by Henry Nii-Adziri Wellington, a now retired professor of archeology from the University of Ghana, who in his turn had also been inspired to write about the shared history after reading Thorkild Hansen. In Wellington’s docu-fiction about the Danish influence in Osu stories are told from a local perspective and with an emphasis on oral history as he remembers it from his childhood and through the stories he was able to collect as part of his research.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Professor Wellington shares anecdotes from Osu on a tour of the slavefort Christiansborg, today known as Osu Castle.

Narratives and encounters in the digital age

In Ghana scenes of daily life combine with impressions from visits to historical sites, all of this I access in two ways simultaneously: Mentally, informing my imagination by reading how others have previously related to the places I go, and with my body – sensuously overloaded the first couple of days with unfamiliar sounds and smells, foods and views. All the while I am constantly engaged in a struggle to determine a proper solemnity at sites of mass murder. In other words, I experience the places I go in two rather distinct and what you might even think of as mutually exclusive ways, as both a revisit and a very first encounter.

My fieldwork encompasses interviewing pundits, travel companions and people I meet while also collecting ambient recordings for an audio paper in the making. I’m interested in the perception and creation of history in the different narratives I read and hear. Are they media-dependent and context as well as site-dependent, if so to what extent? And how does the erosion of the landscape tell stories in its own right?

I hope the ensuing acousmatic document can provide new ways of relating to the places and (his)stories of colonial ecologies. As listeners we are presented with sonic details often glossed over in written travelogues. Distances and proximities can be relayed and felt differently. These contingent and unfiltered details in combination with the idiosyncrasies of where I decidedly choose to point the microphone can perhaps demonstrate the complexity of a history comprised of ‘multiple protagonists, narrators and material agencies’. This is something the sound medium is particularly well-suited for argue Sanne Krogh Groth and Kristine Samson in their “Audio Paper Manifesto” in Seismograf[4].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A village of landless farmers in Koforidua, Ghana. We were all, visitors and villagers alike, equipped with mobile phones which we used to digitally document our meeting.

Where we speak from, and who we speak to

I came to Ghana with a – at least sort of – clear concept of history, an interest in exploring what a multi-perspectival approach to a shared colonial heritage would do, but as I progressed the concept of history itself – that had cut out my path – seemed to slowly erode under my feet. Could I ask landless farmers struggling to live off the land about colonial history? Did it make any sense?

Why did I lack the courage? One important aspect being the obvious issue of livelihood (and hinged upon it, levels of education and cultural orientation), and also the fact that Ghana has only existed as an independent nation since 1957, with its borders laid down by the colonizing European nations in 1885 at the Berlin Conference. The national perspective on history, as an integral part of the long humanist tradition that is the science of history in the Western world, is itself a construct deriving from an era of nation and civilization building, inseparable from the imperial drive. Did it resonate in these remote areas?

In addition, Ghana is a country consisting of multiple peoples, speaking up to 96 different languages with their own histories of exploitation and slavery surrounded by an air of taboo. Hartman’s personal story is really about coming to terms with this particular aspect of negotiating rather diverging views on the history of slavery from each side of the Atlantic.

In an empty national museum currently under reconstruction, due to asbestos found in the ceiling from 1957, I interviewed William Nsuiban from the National Museum of Ghana. Here a new exhibition is on the way. The first to be curated by Ghanaians and not the colonizers. It served as a particularly well-suited backdrop for some of the fundamental questions that govern my research:

How do we negotiate and bridge the histories we have inherited, and how should some of the above factors play in to contemporary discussions of for instance repatriation of cultural heritage? Where do artifacts of shared culture belong, when the sharing was never one of mutual agreement, and when identities of various peoples today are no longer comparable to those of yesterday[5]?

References

Esping-Andersen, Gøsta (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Ferris, Ina (1999). “Mobile Words: Romantic Travel Writing and Print Anxiety” in Modern Language Quarterly – A Journal of Literary History. Vol. 60, issue 4. Duke University Press, https://doi.org/10.1215/00267929-60-4-451

Hansen, Thorkild (1967). Slavernes kyst. Copenhagen: Gyldendal

Hartman, Saidiya (2007). Lose Your Mother – A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sebro, Louise (2013). “The 1733 Slave Revolt on the Island of St. John: Continuity and Change from Africa to the Americas” in Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity – Small Time Agents in a Global Arena. Springer

Wellington, H. Nii-Adziri (2017). Stones Tell Stories at Osu: Memories of a Host Community of the Danish Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Amerley Treb Books Canada (First published in 2011 at Sub-Saharan Publishers)

[1] “Mobile Words: Romantic Travel Writing and Print Anxiety” in Modern Language Quarterly – A Journal of Literary History. Vol. 60, issue 4, 1999. P. 468.

[2] I wonder what it must have been like to experience the country in the early 1960s (when Ghana’s GDP was on the same level as that of South Korea, see here: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.KD.ZG?locations=GH-KR) and under the influence of the first president Kwame Nkrumah’s advocacy for pan-Africanism. An era marked by a widespread economic upturn after WWII, paving the way also for the Scandinavian welfare state model with a high degree of wealth distribution which forms the backdrop of Hansen’s thoughts and travels (Esping-Andersen, 1999).

[3] https://natmus.dk/historisk-viden/forskning/forskningsprojekter/ghana-initiativet/frederiksgave-projektet/

[4] http://seismograf.org/fokus/fluid-sounds/audio_paper_manifesto

[5] Louise Sebro shows in her study of the St. John slave revolt in 1733 how the Transatlantic entanglement created new creole identities.