At Osu Castle, New History With the Old
By Jiahui Hu
Four hundred years after being built by the Dutch, Osu Castle on the shore of Accra is again a work in progress. Peeled white paint reveals dark walls, and papers, dust and broken wood are strewn over the floor of the chapel. In a reception room overlooking the green-grey sea, a decades-old wooden table, which has entertained dignitaries such as Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II, is covered in a makeshift plastic table cloth that has trapped in rain water.
Unlike other castles on the coast of Ghana, such as Cape Coast and Elmina, Osu Castle is just now transitioning into monument status. Up until last year, the old stone halls had served as the seat of the Government of Ghana, where administrators worked and Presidents could toil and live. But this year, the new President, Nana Akufo-Addo, officially moved the seat of the government from Osu Castle to the Flagstaff House – commissioned in 2008 when President John Kufuor argued that the government should not be seated at a building once used to administer the slave trade. Since Akufo-Addo’s announcement, the National Museum of Ghana has been tasked with renovating the site into an exhibition that “pays homage to our forebears whose blood, sweat and toil, won us our independence,” the President said in a March announcement.
On our tour, a guide named Francis began his narrative in the courtyard, built in 1661 by the Dutch. The walls shone with a seamless coat of white paint, next to a blue sky, two palms and a pathway the same shade of red as Ghana’s soil. In sweltering weather, the guide recounted the castle’s occupation by the Dutch, Portuguese, Dutch again and then British. He showed our tour group — a young Ghanaian couple, another Globalist traveler and I — the stone den where Europeans had stored liquor and guns to trade for slaves with West African leaders.
The guide then led us up the stairwell and a spiral staircase to a makeshift museum. Here was Akufo-Addo’s monument to Ghana’s “forebears.” The story there began not in 1661, but 1948. On the first panel, the curators displayed portraits of three Ghanaian veterans of WWII. After being denied their pension by the British government, these soldiers marched onto Osu Castle to impending bullets from British soldiers, leading to riots and intensifying demands for independence. A dozen other boards featured other heroes of Ghana’s heritage, such as poets, politicians and the “Big Six,” a group of leaders who pushed for the country’s independence in the 1940s and 1950s. We walked through the exhibit, in the governor’s old quarters, while the guide identified the portraits we passed. This room transformed the castle into not a vestige of a European past, but rather a Ghanaian triumph after its fraught history.
The tour ventured through the rest of the castle, treated to views of Accra’s coast, an old pool overlooking the sea, and the cliffs dangling beneath the castle. Just outside the castle entrance, we descended a spiral staircase to the underground. There the guide pointed to a gap in the wall, Osu’s “door of no return,” through which many enslaved people had passed on their way to be shipped overseas. Switching on the flashlights of our phones, we stepped into the dungeons where thousands of slaves had passed before us, seeing the low-ceilinged dark stone rooms where they had been held. At Osu, these remnants of Ghana’s past will be preserved and shown, in tandem with the new and victorious.
Jiahui Hu ’18 is a History Major in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.