Category Archives: Africa
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.
European museums are under mounting pressure to return the irreplaceable artefacts plundered during colonial times. As an archaeologist who works in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research. I benefit from the convenience of access provided by Western museums, while being struck by the ethical quandary of how they were taken there by illegal means, and by guilt that my colleagues throughout Africa may not have the resources to see material from their own country, which is kept thousands of miles away.
Now, a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has recommended that art plundered from sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era should be returned through permanent restitution.
The 108-page study, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, speaks of the “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent” by which colonial powers acquired these materials. The call for “restitution” echoes the widely accepted approach which seeks to return looted Nazi art to its rightful owners.
The record of colonial powers in African countries was frankly disgusting. Colonial rule was imposed by the barrel of the gun, with military campaigns waged on the flimsiest excuses. The Benin expedition of 1897 was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, famous not only for its huge city and ramparts but its extraordinary cast bronze and brass plaques and statues.
The city was burnt down, and the British Admiralty auctioned the booty – more than 2,000 art works – to “pay” for the expedition. The British Museum got around 40% of the haul.
None of the artefacts stayed in Africa – they’re now scattered in museums and private collections around the world.
The 1867 British expedition to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia – which never fully acceded to colonial control – was mounted to ostensibly free missionaries and government agents detained by the emperor Tewodros II. It culminated in the Battle of Magdala, and the looting of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from the Ethiopian church, which reputedly needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them all away. Most ended up in the British Library, the British Museum and the V&A, where they remain today.
Bought, stolen, destroyed
Other African treasures were also taken without question. The famous ruins of Great Zimbabwe were subject to numerous digs by associates of British businessman Cecil Rhodes – who set up the Rhodesia Ancient Ruins Ltd in 1895 to loot more than 40 sites of their gold – and much of the archaeology on the site was destroyed. The iconic soapstone birds were returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa in 1981, but many items still remain in Western museums.
While these are the most famous cases, the majority of African objects in Western Museums were collected by adventurers, administrators, traders and settlers, with little thought as to the legality of ownership. Even if they were bought from their local owners, it was often for a pittance, and there were few controls to limit their export. Archaeological relics, such as inscriptions or grave-markers, were simply collected and taken away. Such activities continued well into the 20th century.
Making them safe
The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity – if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away. This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.
Colonial powers had a patchy record of setting up museums to preserve these objects locally. While impressive national museums were sometimes built in colonial capitals, they were later starved of funding or expertise. After African countries achieved independence, these museums were low on the priority list for national funding and overseas aid and development, while regional museums were virtually neglected.
Nowadays, many museums on the African continent lie semi-derelict, with no climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. There are numerous examples of theft or lost collections. No wonder Western museums are reluctant to return their collections.
If collections are to be returned, the West needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs and invest in the African museums and their staff. There have been some attempts to do this, but the task is huge. It is not enough to send the contentious art and objects back to an uncertain future – there must be a plan to rebuild Africa’s crumbling museum infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.
The rightful owners
Will the Musée de Quai Bramley, that great treasure house of world ethnography in Paris, which holds more than 70,000 objects from Africa, be emptied of its contents? Or the massive new Humboldt Forum – a Prussian Castle rebuilt at great cost to house ethnographic artefacts in Berlin which opens early in 2019 – be shorn of its African collections? There are already fears at the British Museum that a very effective campaign may lead to the return of its Rapu Nui Moai statues to Easter Island.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala, and the V&A Museum has entered into worthy discussions to return its treasures to Ethiopia. But there are reports this would be on the basis of a long-term loan, and conditional on the Ethiopian government withdrawing its claim for restitution of the plundered objects. The Prussian Foundation in Berlin entered into a similar agreement, unwilling to cede ownership of a tiny fragment of soapstone bird to the Zimbabwe Government in 2000.
The report by Savoy and Sarr offers hope that such deals could become a thing of the past and that Africa’s rich cultural heritage can be returned, restituted and restored to the brilliant cultures that made it.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
It was a well-kept secret among historians during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the practice of magic was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean. Historians wanted to keep the activity low-key because it did not support their idealised view of the Greeks and Romans. Today, however, magic is a legitimate area of scholarly enquiry, providing insights into ancient belief systems as well as cultural and social practices.
While magic was discouraged and sometimes even punished in antiquity, it thrived all the same. Authorities publicly condemned it, but tended to ignore its powerful hold.
Erotic spells were a popular form of magic. Professional magic practitioners charged fees for writing erotic charms, making enchanted dolls (sometimes called poppets), and even directing curses against rivals in love.
Magic is widely attested in archaeological evidence, spell books and literature from both Greece and Rome, as well as Egypt and the Middle East. The Greek Magical Papyri, for example, from Graeco-Roman Egypt, is a large collection of papyri listing spells for many purposes. The collection was compiled from sources dating from the second century BC to the fifth century AD, and includes numerous spells of attraction.
Some spells involve making dolls, which were intended to represent the object of desire (usually a woman who was either unaware or resistant to a would-be admirer). Instructions specified how an erotic doll should be made, what words should be said over it, and where it should be deposited.
Such an object is a form of sympathetic magic; a type of enchantment that operates along the principle of “like affects like”. When enacting sympathetic magic with a doll, the spell-caster believes that whatever action is performed on it – be it physical or psychic – will be transferred to the human it represents.
The best preserved and most notorious magical doll from antiquity, the so-called “Louvre Doll” (4th century AD), depicts a naked female in kneeling position, bound, and pierced with 13 needles. Fashioned from unbaked clay, the doll was found in a terracotta vase in Egypt. The accompanying spell, inscribed on a lead tablet, records the woman’s name as Ptolemais and the man who made the spell, or commissioned a magician to do so, as Sarapammon.
Violent, brutal language
The spells that accompanied such dolls and, indeed, the spells from antiquity on all manner of topics, were not mild in the language and imagery employed. Ancient spells were often violent, brutal and without any sense of caution or remorse. In the spell that comes with the Louvre Doll, the language is both frightening and repellent in a modern context. For example, one part of the spell directed at Ptolemais reads:
Do not allow her to eat, drink, hold out, venture out, or find sleep …
Another part reads:
Drag her by the hair, by the guts, until she no longer scorns me …
Such language is hardly indicative of any emotion pertaining to love, or even attraction. Especially when combined with the doll, the spell may strike a modern reader as obsessive (perhaps reminiscent of a stalker or online troll) and even misogynistic. Indeed, rather than seeking love, the intention behind the spell suggests seeking control and domination. Such were the gender and sexual dynamics of antiquity.
But in a masculine world, in which competition in all aspects of life was intense, and the goal of victory was paramount, violent language was typical in spells pertaining to anything from success in a court case to the rigging of a chariot race. Indeed, one theory suggests that the more ferocious the words, the more powerful and effective the spell.
Most ancient evidence attests to men as both professional magical practitioners and their clients. There was a need to be literate to perform most magic (most women were not educated) and to be accessible to clients (most women were not free to receive visitors or have a business). However, some women also engaged in erotic magic (although the sources on this are relatively scarce).
In ancient Athens, for example, a woman was taken to court on the charge of attempting to poison her husband. The trial was recorded in a speech delivered on behalf of the prosecution (dated around 419 BC). It includes the woman’s defence, which stated that she did not intend to poison her husband but to administer a love philtre to reinvigorate the marriage.
The speech, entitled Against the Stepmother for Poisoning by Antiphon, clearly reveals that the Athenians practised and believed in love potions and may suggest that this more subtle form of erotic magic (compared to the casting of spells and the making of enchanted dolls) was the preserve of women.
Desire between women
Within the multiplicity of spells found in the Greek Magical Papyri, two deal specifically with female same sex desire. In one of these, a woman by the name of Herais attempts to magically entreat a woman by the name of Serapis. In this spell, dated to the second century AD, the gods Anubis and Hermes are called upon to bring Serapis to Herais and to bind Serapis to her.
In the second spell, dated to the third or fourth century AD, a woman called Sophia seeks out a woman by the name of Gorgonia. This spell, written on a lead tablet, is aggressive in tone; for example:
Burn, set on fire, inflame her soul, heart, liver, spirit, with love for Sophia …
Gods and goddesses were regularly summoned in magic. In the spell to attract Serapis, for example, Anubis is included based on his role as the god of the secrets of Egyptian magic. Hermes, a Greek god, was often included because as a messenger god, he was a useful choice in spells that sought contact with someone.
The tendency to combine gods from several cultures was not uncommon in ancient magic, indicative of its eclectic nature and perhaps a form of hedging one’s bets (if one religion’s god won’t listen, one from another belief system may).
Deities with erotic connections were also inscribed on gems to induce attraction. The Greek god of eroticism, Eros was a popular figure to depict on a gemstone, which could then be fashioned into a piece of jewellery.
The numerous erotic spells in antiquity – from potions to dolls to enchanted gems and rituals – not only provide information about magic in the ancient Mediterranean world, but the intricacies and cultural conventions around sexuality and gender.
The rigid system of clearly demarcated gender roles of active (male) and passive (female) partners, based on a patriarchy that championed dominance and success at all costs, underpinned the same societies’ magical practices. Yet it is important to note that even in magic featuring people of the same sex, aggressive language is employed because of the conventions that underlined ancient spells.
Still magic remains, in part, a mystery when it comes to erotic practice and conventions. The two same-sex spells from the Greek Magical Papyri, for example, attest to the reality of erotic desire among ancient women, but do not shed light on whether this type of sexuality was condoned in Roman Egypt. Perhaps such desires were not socially approved; hence the recourse to magic. Perhaps the desires of Sarapammon for Ptolemais were also outside the bounds of acceptability, which led him to the surreptitious and desperate world of magic.