Why European Castles Stick Out Like Sore Thumbs in Ghana?

In the tussle over what Ghanaians should call their high seat of government – Flagstaff House or Jubilee House – we have seen the replay of an old drama: history-baiting.

It recalls the fight over the country’s first Presidet’s decision to relocate his personal residence to Fort Christiansborg (the property rechristened as “Osu Castle”). The Opposition at the time denounced the action, believing it to represent a symbolic move to show that Kwame Nkrumah had finally stepped into the shoes of the departed colonial overlords. Later, stories would circulate that the castle was haunted, and its occupants were enduring sleepless nights from the howls and moans of the ghosts of desecrated slaves.

In 2005, the matter sprung up again. This time over a decision by the Government of the day to borrow $50 million from the Indians to construct a new, “more befitting”, presidential palace to replace the Osu Castle, and thereby mark a symbolic close to a sordid colonial chapter. The Opposition stormed out of Parliament in protest.

There is indeed a general sense that the “forts and castles” dotting the country’s coasts (the 40 or so remnants that remain in Ghana represent the largest concentration of European fortifications in Africa) are haunted by the savage humiliations of our past. That they are merely a scar of European subjugation, and their only utility now lies in serving as a constant reminder of the brutality of a bygone era.

But what if things are more nuanced, as true history usually is? What if these structures instead represent a towering monument to the collective Ghanaian disinterest in the complexity of the country’s history? Ghanaians’ sheer lack of familiarity with the important details of how the society has traveled to where it is now on the 500 year-old road of intercourse with the Europeans?

I am provoked to ask because of a niggling confusion I have endured for many, many, years. It is simply this: the major castles that have come to dominate our consciousness are architectural oddities.

Their emergence is said to have begun in the High Renaissance period with the building of the fortification which would later come to be known as “Elmina Castle”. Yet the structures jarringly fail to resemble any of the forms of castellation derived from the European traditions of the period and the succeeding epochs when they were built.

Take Christiansborg, for instance. Take a careful look at the picture of Christiansborg attached. It is usually said to have been constructed by the Danes in the year that Frederick III declared himself absolute Monarch of Denmark (1661). And yet it bears the monogram of Christian VII, the troubled Danish King who ruled from 1767 until his death in 1808 (“ruled” being a euphemism, as he spent most of his days drugged). Why is that?

The truth is that there really DOESN’T EXIST *ONE CHRISTIANSBORG* castle.

What we call Christiansborg castle has a past shrouded in some mystery. It is more accurately dated to 1640, when the Portuguese are said to have constructed a battlement at its current location after they had been dispossessed of encampments elsewhere. But as historian Walton Claridge modestly acknowledges: “important forts or castles are
suddenly mentioned as being in existence at Christiansborg and Cape Coast, but of their origin next to nothing is known”.

The record does show that the Swedes were in possession of this fortified base in 1645, and seem to have held it until a turncoat called Carlof secured a commission from Frederick III in 1657 – a few years before this strong-willed Danish monarch disbanded his Parliament and tore apart his country’s version of the Magna Carta – to seize Swedish possessions on the Gold Coast, following the defeat of Frederick’s forces by the Swedes in the European theater.

The Danish conquest of this Swedish fort – Ursu Lodge – and subsequent enhancements to its battlements began a process of permanent association of the structure with Danish design. Never mind that it changed hands numerous times ((including at one point to the shrewd Akwamu Chieftain, Asamaning), and most times the different powers made extensions, modifications, and renovations to its essential design.

In short, like so many of the European forts and “castles” in Ghana, Christiansborg is an architectural mongrel. Its design is “local”, in the sense that it reflects unique historical and geographical conditions prevailing in historical Ghana over a long period of time. It has literally “grown” in this soil. And though heinous crimes did occur in them, that alone does not make them totally alien impositions on our landscape.

It is not too hard to see that most of the European forts that remain show the same mongrelised features, as if pandering to the whims of some lost architectural school. How much of this character was influenced by native builders and artisans though? We know that with the exception of Elmina Castle (the Fort of St. George of the Mine), there are no significant records of pre-fabricated structures having been brought to build most of these structures. A good deal of the stonemasonry happened locally. Was the foremanship entirely European over the many centuries that these structures evolved, given how much they have evolved, and how eclectic their features are?

We know from European imperialistic experiences elsewhere that native artisanship is usually crucial in erecting these stone structures. The common anti-period and anti-style feel and look of the European fortifications that remain on our shores, despite the hundreds of years and divergent national origins that separate them, are made all the more peculiar by the consistency of the “mongrel” method that generated them.

One merely has to contrast this emergent motif with the Renaissance forts we find in Europe (see pictures), and even those constructed in other spheres of imperialism for the same rough and dirty purposes for which those here were apparently constructed (see the attached pictures). And one can only conclude that these structures are unique creations of our own soil, bearing in their rugged veins the clots and fluids of many stories of contest and intercourse, in some of which we were more, far more, than merely victims and bystanders.

Or, maybe, it is simply that History is not so easily appropriated for simplistic political narratives.