Ghana's Golden Coast: This West African State Was a Focus of the Slave Trade for Centuries, and the First African Colony to Win Independence, Exactly Fifty Years Ago. Graham Gendall Norton Finds Lots of History to Explore

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THE FIRST OF THE AFRICAN MEMBERS of the Commonwealth to become independent--on March 6th, 1957--the former Gold Coast colony took a new name, Ghana, from one of the ancient empires of West Africa.

To Prime Minister (later President) Kwame Nkrumah, the name was a symbol for a new, proud, pan-African movement which he saw as throwing off the colonial chains thoughout the continent, resulting in an Africa peaceful, prosperous and united in its main purpose. This was not to be. Increasingly dictatorial, he was himself deposed by a coup in 1966. Ghana then zigzagged between elected civilian governments and military leaders, though, unlike elsewhere in Africa, little blood was shed. Central to its problems were the economy, especially when the world price of cocoa dropped (Ghana had been the world's largest supplier), policy failure and some corruption. But the past fifteen years have seen free and fair elections, and power passing constitutionally from one party to another. Things are better economically: more gold is exported than from any other African country except South Africa, and, with diamonds, provides most foreign revenue. After that, cocoa and, surprisingly perhaps, tourism. Significantly, the ministry of Tourism is also that of Diasporan Relations. More than anywhere else in Africa, Ghana's tourism is history- and culture-based.

The world's most dramatic monuments to the slave trade are probably the castles and forts every few miles along Ghana's coast. But alongside these are the vibrant, colourful, tradition-centred festivals, the Durbars, the installations of local rulers, or other events which visitors can see. And the visitor might also glimpse groups of hundreds in traditional dress, surging to funerals. Usually held after forty days of mourning for the death of an important figure, these are a lively commemoration of the departed.

For the first-time historical traveller, it is on the coast that the main attractions lie. Much of Ghana's appeal today is a balm to the Afro-Americans seeking some palpable memory of the slave diaspora. Voluntary Ghanaian expatriates and their children, who left more recently to better themselves in Britain, Europe or North America, also come back to connect.

But those who venture inland will also want to visit Ashanti, the formidable and culture-rich kingdom which Britain fought throughout the nineteenth century, the capital Kumasi was burned to the ground by Sir Garnet Wolseley in 1873, but a late nineteenth-century fort inside which a foolish British governor got himself besieged in 1900, has a good military museum, The palace of the Asantehene (the king), who is a powerful figure in Ghana, can also be visited, and on festival days he appears in full state, wearing his multi-coloured silken Kente cloth, and a profusion of golden ornaments.

Sir Garnet began his expedition from the then British seat of government, Cape Coast castle. It is a huge white-washed pile, the centre for British trading activities on the Gold Coast from 1664, and the seat of the government of the colony which it formally became in 1843 (until 1877, when this shifted to Accra). But the beginnings of the European involvement with the Gold Coast can be found at another castle ten miles further east, Elmina, 'The Mine'. Originally named the Castle of St George, it was founded by the Portuguese as they ventured down the coast of Africa looking for the route to the east. They had first landed in 1471, and in 1482 built the castle by agreement with the local ruler--the Europeans paid an annual rent for all these forts. The oldest European structure surviving in sub-Saharan Africa, it was visited by Columbus.

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The Portuguese were primarily looking for gold, of which the region had a ready supply, obtaining it from the interior in exchange for salt. The sea from which that came still dominates Elmina, with its fine narrow harbour, today crowded with gigantic colourful fishing canoes, that leads to a lagoon. …