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27.03.2007 General News

British PM's slave speech angers Ghanaians

By Mary Morgan

Sunday was the 200th anniversary of the slave trade in Britain, and Ghana was the centre of commemorative events, with a concert held at Elmina Castle in the Central Region to mark the occasion.

Within the confines of Elmina Castle, a former Portuguese, then Dutch, and then British slave port, President John Agyukum Kufuor was joined by Baroness Amos, Leader of the House of Lords, and Lord President of the Privy Council in the UK, of African descent, to witness an afternoon of arts and entertainment.

Although the events brought together artists, activists, and politicians from across the Diaspora for a time of reflection on the past, the event was in some ways a divisive one, with the words of the British PM in particular sparking disappointment and anger amongst the Ghanaian crowd when Tony Blair failed to acknowledge the role played by Britain in the slave trade.

The reception among the guests in the castle to Mr Blair"s live message, broadcast live from the UK to the audience in Ghana and around the world, was just lukewarm and slightly embarrassed.

W Nkunu Akyea, one of the consultants behind the event, is President of the Ghana Tour Guides Association and the retired chief executive officer of the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust. He knows a great deal about the slave trade in Ghana and feels that the events of Sunday did not do justice to the truth.

"The speech of Prime Minister Tony Blair was typical; it was patronising,” he said. “To me it was undoing all the hard work and the money spent by the British Council in organising the event.

“The speech lacked substance,” Prof Akyea said. “He spoke as if people here would not understand. It was hypocritical and empty. Sometimes they [the British] forget that we learnt their language. That sometimes we know it even better than them. His words were carefully selected as if people here would not understand. We can tell the difference between what someone is saying and their body language.”

“The speech lacked substance,” he said. “He spoke as if people here would not understand. It was hypocritical and empty. Sometimes they [the British] forget that we learnt their language. That sometimes we know it even better than them. His words were carefully selected as if people here would not understand. We can tell the difference between what someone is saying and their body language.”

In Mr Blair's speech he acknowledged the role played by abolitionists such as William Wilberforce in bringing an end to the slave trade, and of the fight which must continue today against all forms of slavery, such as human trafficking. He said nothing of the role played by the British in instituting the trans-Atlantic slave trade, however.

The reaction amongst the audience was certainly one of disappointment, “disbelief,” according to Prof Akyea. “Everyone turned to their neighbour and said, 'Is he serious?' when he compared the slave trade which existed in Ghana before the Europeans came, to the trans-Atlantic slave trade under them.”

Exfel Clankson, Senior Museum Education Officer at Cape Coast Castle, agreed. “For me, it was political talk. It was just a speech to mark the 200th anniversary because he had to say something. But if you ask me to outline what he actually said there was nothing of value at all.”

The speech of the president also met with some disappointment - the contention that Africans were to some significant extent to blame for the slave trade is a fictitious invention, according to Prof Akyea and Mr Clankson. To them the current government investment of the Joseph Project, the new drive by the Ministry of Tourism to bring African descendents back to Ghana to explore their slave ancestry, embarking on a sort of pilgrimage to Ghana, “is nothing, absolutely rubbish,” according to Prof Akyea, who says that the idea that Africans sold their brothers into slavery is an historical inaccuracy, a shame which should not be felt.

Although domestic slavery had long existed in Africa, “we were never in shackles,” as Prof Akyea pointed out. The concept of Africans raising and training their own brothers was one which was introduced by European slave-stealers – “the supply only came with the demand.”

The real significance of the 1807 slavery abolition act has also been brought into question, because clandestine slave trading continued from West Africa until it was banned in the American colonies in 1833.

Organised by the British Council in conjunction with the [email protected] National Planning Committee and the Edina Traditional Council, the theme of the event was 'Reflection: reflecting the past, creating the future.' It included an artistic portrayal of the slave trade story, told through poets and musicians from across the Diaspora.

Those participating in the creative display included Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican born poet and activist, and Ghana's celebrated poet, Kofi Anyidoho. Other musical and dance performances included Hugh Masakela, Agya Koo Nimo, Yossou Ndour, and Obour. There were vocal ensembles from the London Community Gospel Choir and the Winneba Youth Choir, whilst a string quartet including the young British fiddle-player Eliza Carthy was a beautiful representation of the present-day interweaving of influences, traditions, and cultures across the commonwealth.

The celebrated National Dance Company of Ghana gave a spirited and meticulously choreographed representation of the rise and defeat of the slave trade.

The concert was free, and people from across the Elmina and Cape Coast area gathered in the grounds of the castle, atop the sea cliffs, to watch on large screens the events going on inside.

The concert attracted media and participants from around the world and was part of a series of events being organised this year by the British Council to commemorate 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade in the UK.

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