Monthly Archives: December 2018
As a Ghanaian archaeologist, I have been conducting research at Christiansborg Castle in Accra, Ghana. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle is a former seventeenth century trading post, colonial Danish and British seat of government, and Office of the President of the Republic of Ghana. Today, it’s known in local parlance as simply “Osu Castle” or “The Castle”.
My research is the first archaeological excavation of the castle. I became interested in the history of the castle when several years ago, my aunt remarked,
Go to The Castle and see your surname inscribed on the castle wall.
I was confused. The story I’d grown up with was that my family – the Engmanns – descended from a Danish Christian missionary stationed on the coast. As I discovered after taking my aunt’s advice, there was a great deal that I did not know.
When visiting the castle, I noted a water cistern in the courtyard inscribed with the name “Carl Gustav Engmann”. This led me to the Danish National Archives, where I studied boxes of archival manuscripts written by Engmann. What I learnt during this early part of my exploration was that Engmann – my great great great great great grandfather – was in fact a Governor of Christiansborg Castle from 1752 to 1757. He later became a board member of the Danish Slave Trading organisation between 1766 and 1769.
What is more, oral and ethnographic accounts in Ghana revealed that during Engmann’s time on the coast, he married Ashiokai Ahinaekwa, the daughter of Chief Ahinaekwa of Osu, from whom I am descended.
The Castle is situated on the West African coast, formerly and notoriously known as the “White Man’s Grave”. The castle’s origins can be traced to a lodge built by Swedes in 1652. Nine years later, the Danish built a fort on the site and called it Fort Christiansborg (“Christian’s Fortress”), named after the King of Denmark, Christian IV.
Over time, the fort was enlarged and converted into a castle.
An impregnable imperial fortification, the castle contained a courtyard, chapel, “mulatto school”, warehouse storerooms, residential quarters, dungeons, bell tower, cannons and saluting guns.
The Castle was so vital to the Danish economy that between 1688 and 1747 Danish coinage depicted an image of the castle and the inscription, “Christiansborg”. The castle operation included a governor, bookkeeper, physician and chaplain, alongside a garrison of Danes, in addition to Africans, known as “castle slaves”.
Between 1694 and 1803, guns, ammunition, liquor, cloth, iron tools, brass objects and glass beads were exchanged for gold and ivory, as well as enslaved Africans. Approximately 100,000 enslaved Africans were transported to the Danish West Indies, comprising St Croix, St John and St Thomas islands.
The Danish Edict of 16 March 1792 officially marked the end of the Danish transatlantic slave trade, though it was not enforced until 1803.
Apart from a few brief periods, the site remained occupied by the Danish. In 1850, Denmark sold Christiansborg Castle to the British for £10,000.
At the castle, we adopt a collaborative, democratic approach to archaeology, working with local communities. The team includes Danish-Ga direct descendants whose ancestors lived close to the castle during the eighteenth century, and who continue to do so today.
Its focus on an archaeology “for, with and by” direct descendants emphasises its decolonising agenda. For these reasons, I use the term “autoarchaeology”.
Ultimately, it contests archaeologists’ legitimacy, authority and self-proclaimed exclusive rights as stewards, interpreters and narrators of the material past.
Prioritising direct descendants’ narratives and the histories they reconstruct, sheds light on little-known episodes in the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. At the same time, it reveals the complexities of the politics of the past in the present.
Together, we are rewriting history.
Words and Things
As a historical archaeology project, we employ a “multiple lines of evidence approach” to research. We combine several sources – objects, texts, oral narratives and ethnography since there are multiple, often competing understandings of the past.
In this way, our work challenges traditional historical interpretations of the transatlantic slave trade based on European colonial written accounts. Such sources present history from a European (often white, male, elitist) colonial perspective, frequently marginalising or disregarding African and Afro-European experiences.
We have excavated an extensive pre-colonial settlement. This includes the foundations of houses and what is tentatively thought to be a kitchen since it contains three stones (for balancing a cooking pot) and charcoal, in keeping with local cooking area design.
We have also retrieved what are commonly known as “African trade beads” that were produced in various parts of Africa, as well as Europe, including Italy and Holland. Ceramics include Chinese and European ceramics (Wedgewood and Royal Doulton), alongside local pottery.
An African smoking pipe and numerous Dutch, English, German and Danish clay smoking pipes were recovered from the site. European glassware ranges from every day usage to refined, luxury ware. There are a number of other small finds including a slate fragment, typically used for writing, as well as faunal remains, seeds, metals, stone, daub, cowrie and other shells.
With the assistance of local fishermen, we even excavated a canon immersed in sand that had fallen from the castle above on to the beach below. Under the castle, we also discovered the entrance to an underground tunnel that led to the nearby Richter House, formerly owned by a successful “mulatto” Danish-Ga slave trader. This tunnel meant captive Africans could be transported from the house directly onto slave ships at sea without much opportunity for escape or drawing the attention of others.
We plan to continue with the archaeological excavations, artefact analysis and educational outreach. The project has received generous support from all the current and former presidents of Ghana, the national government, Osu chieftaincies, Osu Traditional Council and the Osu community – without it this project would not have been possible. The excavated artefact collection will contribute to plans to develop the castle into a museum.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to wonder which one of these thousands and thousands of artefact fragments once belonged to my great great great great great grandfather.
More than 200 years after Woollarawarre Bennelong’s death, the NSW government has purchased the land where he is buried. On the north side of the Parramatta river, the unmarked grave site will be turned into a memorial to the great Wangal leader.
But Bennelong is not the only person interred at the spot. Boorong, his third wife, lies alongside him. She has intrigued me for years, since I first began researching the role of Christianity in the encounter between Eora and Europeans. She is not famous like Bennelong, or his second wife Barangaroo. So who was Boorong? And why should we remember her too?
Colonial sources only give us a few glimpses of Boorong. She is discussed briefly in letters by the first chaplain, Richard Johnson, and his wife Mary, with whom she lived for about 18 months in 1789-90.
Other first fleet officers and a few later colonists also mention her in their journals, using a range of names including Abaroo, Araboo, Aboren and Aborough – as well as Booron or Booroong. These mainly incidental references are coloured by the Europeans’ perspectives and agendas. There are no surviving records produced by Boorong herself – no equivalent to Bennelong’s letter.
Still, pieced together, these fragments suggest Boorong played a significant role in the initial interaction between black and white Australians. She was the first Indigenous person to have a substantial encounter with Christianity and its Bible. She was also a political go-between, a cross-cultural broker, and a survivor.
Boorong was the daughter of Maugoran, a Burrumattagal elder, and Goorooberra, whose name means “firestick”. She belonged to the Parramatta area, “the place where eels lie down”. Born there in the mid-1770s, she was about 12 when European colonists arrived.
Boorong caught smallpox during the epidemic of autumn 1789. Some of Governor Phillip’s men found her sick and brought her into their camp for attention. She was nursed by Arabanoo, an Eora captive at Government House. Arabanoo caught the disease and died – along with as many as half the local Eora, including Bennelong’s first wife, whose name is lost to history.
Boorong, like Bennelong, was one of the survivors. According to Lieutenant Watkin Tench, she was then “received as an inmate, with great kindness, in the family of Mrs Johnson, the clergyman’s wife”.
We don’t know what Boorong thought of the Johnsons, what her agenda was, or how free she felt to stay or leave their hut. But Richard and Mary encouraged her to wear clothes, to speak English and to make herself useful around the house. The clergyman – an evangelical – taught Boorong the Lord’s Prayer and tried to convey an idea of “a supreme being”. His hope, he wrote to a friend, was to see “these poor heathen brought to the Knowledge of Christianity”.
The Reverend Johnson also “took pains” to instruct Boorong in reading, presumably using the Bible as a text for lessons. She thus encountered a new language, a new kind of literacy, and the technology of books and writing. These language skills meant she later got caught up in the political negotiations between black and white.
Early Sydney politics
By 1789, Governor Phillip had made virtually no progress in understanding the Eora – and had resorted to kidnapping people to establish a channel of communication with the local tribes.
After Arabanoo’s death, Phillip’s officers took in two more warriors by force. Coleby soon escaped his shackles, but Bennelong stayed longer – gathering information about the colonists and forging strategic relationships with Phillip and others around Government House. But then Bennelong, too, escaped – dashing English hopes that he would broker some kind of understanding between the two sides.
In this context, Phillip’s officers turned to Boorong, as well as a boy Nanberry, to act as go-betweens. On and off, between May 1789 and November 1790, they reluctantly relied on her as a translator and mediator with the Sydney tribes.
Boorong also accompanied the officers on several visits to Bennelong during the spring of 1790, and conveyed their repeated requests that he come back to the British camp.
In late October, Bennelong indicated a willingness to go and visit Phillip. Barangaroo, Bennelong’s wife at the time, opposed the trip so strenuously that the officers offered a guarantee of safety: “Mr Johnson, attended by Abaroo (i.e. Boorong), agreed to remain as a hostage until Baneelon should return”.
Boorong rejects white society
There was a rapproachment of sorts between Bennelong and Phillip. And by late summer 1791, numbers of Eora were routinely staying in the town. The Rev. Johnson thought this new state of affairs had been “principally brought about” by Boorong, the “little girl” he had taught.
Boorong herself did not stay in the English camp. In October 1790, she returned to the bush neither converted to Christianity nor convinced of the colonists’ way of life. She continued to visit the Johnsons occasionally for at least five years after that, but in Mary Johnson’s words she did so “quite naked” and “evidently preferred [her] own way of life”. An image of Boorong, now held by the Natural History Museum in London, depicts her at her brother Ballooderry’s funeral in December 1791.
By 1797, Boorong was married to Bennelong. Barangaroo had died a few years previously, and Bennelong had survived a round trip to England. Boorong and Bennelong lived together with a band of perhaps 100 Eora survivors on the north side of the Parramatta river.
Around 1803 they had a son, known as Dickey, who as a young adult converted to Christianity, received baptism, and became probably the first Indigenous Australian evangelist.
We do not know the details of Boorong’s death, sometime around 1813. But in 1815, an Aboriginal elder known as “Old Philip” told ship’s surgeon Joseph Arnold that Bennelong had “died after a short illness about two years ago, & that they buried him & his wife at Kissing Point”.
In 1821 Nanberry, by his own request, was also buried alongside Bennelong – but that’s another story. In the meantime, let’s not memorialise Bennelong in a way that erases Boorong and her contributions as a negotiator and survivor.
When the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’s report was tabled in 1991, it was not the first official inquiry into this tragic phenomenon. The disproportionately high rate of mortality among Aboriginal convicts in colonial New South Wales had triggered an earlier investigation in 1850.
The problem is, of course, still with us. This year a Guardian investigation found 147 Indigenous people have died in custody over the past ten years, and 407 since the end of the Royal Commission.
In my research into the transportation of Aboriginal convicts in the 19th century, I uncovered a government circular, a formal letter, written in 1851. It set out detailed instructions about watching and reporting on the health of Aboriginal prisoners. And it recommended that if an Aboriginal prisoner’s life was in danger, he might be released from gaol.
When Aboriginal convict Jemmy died in custody in 1850 soon after being transported to Cockatoo Island in Sydney, the Native Police Office wrote to let the colonial secretary Edwards Deas Thomson know. Thomson reacted by asking for a report of the number of Aboriginal convicts who had died on the island over the past five years.
It revealed that of the 19 Aboriginal men transported there between 1845 and 1850, 12 (63%) had died there or in Sydney’s general hospital.
Jemmy, along with at least 60 other Aboriginal men from NSW (which at the time included Queensland and Victoria), was transported following his involvement in Australia’s 19th century frontier wars. Some of these Aboriginal convicts were sent to Norfolk Island and Van Diemen’s Land.
Others languished on Goat Island, Sydney, and, later, Cockatoo Island. The most high profile Aboriginal captive was Musquito who was banished from NSW to Norfolk Island in 1805 and later hanged in Hobart in 1825.
Why the deaths?
Most Aboriginal convicts simply did not survive for very long in captivity. In their first year of incarceration, Aboriginal convicts died at ten times the rate of male convicts shipped to Van Diemen’s Land from Britain. Speculation about this at the time mostly hinged around the idea that they died from pining for country.
Other contributing causes included untreated injuries following violent arrests and crowded, unsanitary living conditions, which led to chest infections. Aboriginal poor health in custody was exacerbated by colonial diets and hard labour.
The disturbing trend of high death rates amongst Aboriginal prisoners is evident in archival records from the early decades of the 19th century. Yet until the 1840s Aboriginal convicts were spread out across a range of different probation and penal stations.
When Thomson heard how many Aboriginal convicts were dying in custody at Cokatoo Island, he set up a board of enquiry to consider alternatives to confining them there. This board comprised the medical adviser to the government Dr Patrick Hill, the surgeon at Cockatoo Island Dr O’Brien, and the island’s visiting justice, H. H. S. Browne.
The most significant outcome of the inquiry was a remarkable document that went beyond the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission almost 150 years later. An official circular instructed surgeons visiting colonial gaols to report to justices any cases involving Aboriginal prisoners whose lives could be endangered by longer confinement.
The upshot of this was that, providing it was not considered contrary to the public interest, the suffering prisoner might be released from custody. With the restoration of his freedom, it was hoped he would return to full health.
While this initiative arose out of the convict system, the instructions were circulated more widely and applied to Aboriginal prisoners generally.
The gaol at Bathurst, a town north west of Sydney, was among the institutions to which the circular was sent in March 1851. In the early 1850s, Godfrey Charles Mundy visited Bathurst Gaol as part of a tour of NSW with his cousin, Governor Charles FitzRoy.
Mundy wrote about a man known as “Fish-hook”, who had been locked up for cattle stealing and showed signs of reduced mental function. Returning a month later, Mundy noted a marked deterioration in Fish-hook’s mental and physical wellbeing.
FitzRoy ordered Fish-hook’s immediate release. When Mundy saw Fish-hook a third time, after the Aboriginal man had become a colonial servant, he wrote how the former prisoner’s mental health had been perfectly restored.
Despite the transformative outcome for Fish-hook, it seems unlikely many Aboriginal prisoners were freed. To the contrary, some were considered too sick to be released, as it would almost certainly lead to their death.
The 1851 Circular and the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody shared a common concern, to reduce the mortality rate of Aboriginal prisoners. The 19th century solution was to initiate, where possible, their early release. By the end of the 20th century, the Royal Commission’s focus was on strategies to lower Aboriginal incarceration rates. However, 27 years later, many of its recommendations are yet to be implemented.