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33 footholds and a bit of black gold

published: 2014-05-09

I am at Fort Apollonia on the West coast of Ghana. It marks the last fort I’ll visit, as it is the most Western fort. It was also the last one the British built: 1756 (their first was in 1631).

I might be overstating things with the following, but I feel it’s a part of history that remains relatively hidden and about which people speak in generalized terms.
So here to comes.
On studying various sources and having a look for myself, I have counted a total of 12 original forts built by the Dutch along this coast and 10 lodges of which there are hardly any remains.
Besides these forts and lodges, the Dutch conquered another 9 forts, plus 2 castles which had been built by other European nations (Sweden, Portugal, UK).
This means my country had -give and take- a total 33 footholds here on the coast of what is now Ghana, stretching over approx 300 km westwards. So let’s say: 1 Dutch castle, fort or lodging for every 10km of coast.
Am I the only one who finds this quite baffling?
On top of it, our presence here lasted for over 250 years.

The Western part of coastal Ghana has made a lasting impression on me. A dense green carpet rolls out over hills and valleys and ends where the sea starts. Coconut trees jut out of this forested blanket, like broken springs in an old mattress. There are birds and frogs and lakes with lilies. Estuaries of traquil rivers work their way along sacred mangrove and into the Atlantic. There are wetlands too, and sparrows dance over our heads. Stout families of banana trees. Raffia palms from which the monkeys eat and which villagers use to build their roofs. And the majestic Wawa trees that rise up above all of it, proud and elegant, branching out against the skies. Even the clouds are thick here. It is also where most of the gold was found.
Gold. As trade stalled in the 18th Century and power-struggles between varying European countries aswell as Ghanaian tribes ensued, the Dutch shifted started focusing more on this region. They hoped to revive the trade in gold (which is how it all started in the 16th C), but failed. Hundreds of years of trade in slaves, arms and the corruption between allies had ruined the gold infrastructure. The focus, therefore, remained on slaves.
There’s more to this region. This is where the famed African leader – Kwame Nkrumah – was born. He brought Ghana to independence from colonization in 1957. In doing so, Ghana was the first independent African country. Nkrumah fought long and hard to repair Ghana’s battered ego and aimed to create a unionized, empowered Africa.
At Fort Apollonia, the guide shows me what state the fort was in before its restoration in 2006. The difference is spectacular. I discover the restoration of this Fort was of Italian initiative. This surprises me. As far as I know, Italy never had any dealings here. More specifically: fort Appollonia was British, then Dutch.
Why the Italians?
A poster explains it: Nkrumah had established friendly relationships with the Italian university of Pisa and actively promoted their visits to Ghana for research and study. In his will, Nkrumah expressed the wish that Ghana should maintain its cultural heritage. He specifically included the forts. The Italian University of Pisa simply did what it felt it should: respect this heralded man’s will.
At the end of my tour in the fort, the guide shows me a maquette of this region. It is of the deep green that is so characteristic of this area and is dotted with friendly little flags demarking villages. He points out the thumbnail-sized bridge. Because of it, certain villages are now connected, he proudly states.
I’m wondering how old this maquette must be. Because today, this landscape is rapidly changing. Every single road in this foresty region has been released of its old asphalt, flattened and doubled in size. Soon, a fresh layer of asphalt will be slabbed over them. These new highways cut straight through villages and branch off into the green carpet. Countless construction trucks drive in front of us, behind us, aside from us and are parked by the road. We passed about five large construction sites on a stretch of only 50 km. Acres of trees have been blown away for them. Entire plots of land have been stripped of their trees, leading straight to the sea and platforms. You’d never think this area of Ghana rolls into the “Ankasa Protected Area”. They are building row upon row of houses and barracks, right next to gas and oil manufacturing containers. These sites have signs saying “Proposed LPG Terminal” or “Danger high pressure natural gas pipeline.” I can’t read the signs over the entrance gates as they are written in Asian symbols. Chinese? Korean maybe? Indeed, it’s Asian men that stand by the road overseeing the sites, hands on the hips.
A few Ghanaian women from the villages have set up shop outside these sites. They display their goods on wooden tables: watermelons, water, bread, pineapple, groundnuts. Perhaps they’ll make a dime or two off this blast of activity.
So here it is: once upon a time, gold and slaves were the desired commodity here. Now it’s black gold.
As we drive into Nkrumah’s home town and I am asked -once again- for some money to buy food or a pen or for school, I can’t help but wonder: “what would Nkrumah have made of all this?”

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