Stones Tell Stories at Osu: Memories of a Host Community of the Danish Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. By H. Nii-Adziri Wellington. Legon-Accra, Ghana: Sub-Saharan Publishers 2011 (2nd edition in press). Paperback, 342 pp. 76 colour illus. ISBN 978-9988-647-40-7
Denmark’s imperial and colonial history and its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade remains insufficiently interrogated, despite a few recent contributions to the subject: Denmark’s position as a small European nation and its short-lived engagement with the trade belies its significance as a slaving nation and imperial/colonial power during the eighteenth century. Talk of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade is also taboo in Ghana, as alluded to by the main character in Stones Tell Stories at Osu with the words “Atsii mota” (“You do not mention it”).
Stones Tell Stories at Osu emerges out of this context, and provides a fascinating portrayal of how Danish colonials, Ga elites and Danish-Gas as historical agents were central to the making of eighteenth-century Atlantic Africa. It also reveals multiple historical, political, economic and socio-cultural ties, for the most part interpersonal, that went in the face of Danish colonial metropolitan directions regarding the regulation of sexuality, marriage and other social relations. In his preface, the author references Thorkild Hansen’s classic slave trade trilogy, The Coast of Slaves, Ships of Slaves and Island of Slaves as an inspiration, and in keeping with Hansen’s work this book represents an attempt to address scholarly and non-scholarly audiences, possessing an accessible narrative style that is easy to follow but that often lapses into a refreshing Ghanaian parlance – demonstrating the author’s ability to appeal to both Ghanaian and non-Ghanaian audiences.
Philip Laryea’s foreword to the book remarks on the author’s attempts to craft a “creative and imaginative” faction (blend of fact and fiction). The book begins by discussing Osu, Accra, or more specifically the places and spaces currently identified as “Danish-Osu”. It narrates the story of daily life on the West African coast as told by Ataa Forkoyi, a fictitious fisherman and historian, who, we are told, is based on a seventeenth century-mixed race Danish-Ga known as Christian Peterson Witt. The author’s background as an architect enables him to weave a narrative based around Danish-Ga architecture and ancestry, and Laryea notes that “[s]tones left over from the monumental architectural structures, metaphorically provide the archival sources for the author” (ix). Employing the study of architecture, archival writings and oral narratives, this book is an extremely valuable resource for archaeologists, anthropologists and heritage scholars, and represents a substantial accumulation of knowledge. The oral histories informing the work include not just the four quarters of Osu Kinkawe, Osu Ashinte Blohum, Osu Alata and Osu Anahor, but also other historically lesser known areas rarely mentioned in archival sources, such as Awusai Atso, Tolon, Ogbaame Naa, Agblanshie, Agbadza Dzoohe and Blogodo.
After introducing Ataa Forkoyi, the book addresses Osu community origins and Osu relationships with La, Ga Mashie and Akwamu neighbours, before turning to European arrivals in the form of the Portuguese, Swedes and Danes. The author explains how in 1693, an Akwamu named Asameni through subterfuge contrived to seize Christiansborg Castle from the Danish. He controlled the fort for just over a year, during which he dressed in contemporary Danish colonial costume.
The book’s main focus is on the Danish–Ga entanglement, in particular close to the castle, which is today known as “Osu Castle” or “The Castle”. The colonial trading fort was formerly the Danish and then the British administrative centre, and it is today the Office of the President of Ghana and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The book examines the ways in which castle life traversed and was reflected beyond its walls.
Wellington devotes several chapters to cross-cultural contact between slave merchants, slaveowners, the enslaved and other free persons. He explains that indigenous slavery was not common amongst the Ga, but that King Christian VII of Denmark-Norway granted private trading in slaves in 1792, while postponing a ban on trans-Atlantic trading that would come into force from 1803. Former Danish administrators began to settle in Danish Osu as “free traders”, and Danish-Ga creole families emerged as political, social and familial units engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The author identifies how Afro-European inter-racial relationships were not one way: Ga women demonstrated agency in instigating relationships with Danish men on the coast, and at times were themselves engaged in the transatlantic slave trade.
The book describes Danish-Osu social stratification and social and familial relationships during this period, as well as how this affected descendants. For instance, Wellington chronicles Danish provisions made for “mulatto children”, such as the “Poor Mulatto Children’s Chest” (PMCC) to provide financial assistance, along with education at the castle and in some cases travel to Copenhagen, such as was experienced by Frederich Pedersen Svane and Christian Jacob Protten. It would be interesting (and another project) to learn more about the ways in which these “non-black, non-white fellows” were seen in terms of local race designations, to understand the ways in which understandings of race in Atlantic Africa have changed (or not) over space and time.
The book concludes by focusing on the historical and contemporary lives of several well-established Danish-Osu families, such as the Lokkos, Malms, Palms, Briandts, Riemers, Holms, Quists and Meyers, as well as this reviewer’s own, the Engmanns, including their genealogies. The author has skillfully demonstrated his ability to tack back and forth seamlessly between past and present, illustrating the relevance of the past to the present and vice versa.
The new second edition includes select supplementary and revised text facilitated by further research, as well as additional illustrations. It also refers to the United States Underground Railroad. However, I have come to view these additional materials – whilst interesting and based upon the editorial advice of a Ghanaian American-based editor – as somewhat superfluous. The book successfully captured the heritage of Danish-Osu in the first edition.
In his opening remarks, Wellington also speaks to the challenges of conducting research on Danish-Ga history as a Ghanaian scholar in Ghana: the linguistic barriers (Portuguese, Danish and German), poor archival conditions and financial constraints. The fact this research project has come to fruition is thus even more commendable. I would argue, we, outside of Africa would do well to encourage and support Africa-based scholars to assist in making our colleagues’ work better known outside of the continent, and engage in conversations that can only be of benefit to us all.
Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann