Today, metro Detroit was blanketed with a pretty thick layer of snow and I was waiting for finals to come in, so I wrote a few overdue emails and then hunkered down in the basement with pillows, blankets, and pizza to binge-watch the newest season of The Crown. I knew from Ghanaian friends on Facebook that Episode 8 featured a storyline with Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, so I worked my way through the episodes looking forward to the end. The show’s actors, directors, producers, set designers, costume designers, etc, had done such a wonderful and thoughtful job of portraying the Queen and her family, complete with historically appropriate décor and clothing. And, while I’m no expert on the reign of Elizabeth II or British politics in the second half of the 20th century, I feel like the show does a reasonably good job at capturing the ambiguities and ambivalences of history. Elizabeth herself often voices this, as she keenly observes that seemingly small actions can have significant, sometimes world-changing consequences. I was excited, then, to see how the show handled this important moment in African history.
While the history of Ghana may not hold a significant place in contemporary popular consciousness, it is entirely appropriate that it would feature prominently in a narrative about the Queen as the sun was setting on the British empire and the United Kingdom sought to renegotiate its position in a new, multi-polar world dominated not by the old imperial powers of the 19th century but rather by the new superpowers of the Cold War. As Jean Allman has argued, in the 1950s and 1960s, Ghana (and other countries around the continent) sat at the center of global politics. It was a time “when radical visions of a new world order were being generated from the streets of Accra to the mountains of Kenya, from the townships of apartheid South Africa to the Qasbah in Algiers.” At the time of the Queen’s visit in 1961, Nkrumah was not only the leader of the newly independent nation-state of Ghana (the first sub-Saharan African country to gain its independence from European colonial rule). He also positioned himself and Ghana as a leader among the continent’s new nationalists – the “Black Star of Africa”. As he declared at Ghana’s independence celebrations on March 6, 1957, “That new Africa is ready to fight his own battles and show that after all the black man is capable of managing his own affairs. We are going to demonstrate to the world, to the other nations, that we are prepared to lay our foundation – our own African personality.” Independence itself was only the first step, he argued: “OUR INDEPENDENCE IS MEANINGLESS UNLESS IT IS LINKED UP WITH THE TOTAL LIBERATION OF AFRICA.” Liberation required political independence, certainly. But, for Nkrumah, it also required radical new visions of the continent’s economic and political future, rooted in African values.
Nkrumah realized that Ghana’s independence was compromised by a global economic system that was premised on the underdevelopment of African countries. Colonialism and capitalism emerged in tandem, after all. Countries in Africa and throughout the Global South provided new sources of primary products or raw materials that fed the machinery and factories of industrial capitalism in the Global North. Those manufactured goods were then sent back to colonial markets, which absorbed the surplus goods and allowed commercial firms to grow in wealth. Africans used the cash obtained through the sale of crops or their wages for work to buy products and pay taxes that supported the political and economic mechanisms of the colonial state. Nkrumah and others realized that changes in political power meant little if these broader economic systems remained intact. Like the banana republics of Latin America or the rubber republic of nearby Liberia, weak, dependent economies undermined political autonomy and created space for neocolonialism to thrive. Nkrumah’s concerns were particularly salient in the 1950s and 1960s, when Cold War tensions elevated debates over economic policy to the center of global conflicts. True independence for Nkrumah required not only the pursuit of systematic industrial development within Ghana, but also political and economic unification of the African continent and a broader union of “non-aligned countries” across the Global South. He was not merely a local leader, in other words. He was in many ways the voice of the continent, a leader in global conversations about the future of newly independent populations. In declaring that the people of Ghana “face neither east nor west; we face forward”, Nkrumah was a threat who understood that Cold War politics and debates about allies and economic philosophy would do little to help his people.
Nkrumah opens Episode 8 making a speech to a group of African leaders, identified by country names, sitting around a table in a room that looks more like ornately decorated interiors of Morocco or India than anything you would find in Accra. I’m still not sure why producers and directors think it’s ok to portray non-western contexts as interchangeable – Ghana looks no more like India than it does Suffolk (which, it turns out was where the scenes were shot). The ornate room from this opening scene is located at Elveden Hall, built in the 1760s and renovated by the Maharajah Frederick Duleep Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire and exiled to England in the 1860s. It was based on the Mughal palaces of Singh’s youth. It does not resemble anything in Accra. At all.
And you might be forgiven for not knowing that except that there are massive numbers of photos and video available of the events in question. Because Nkrumah was a big deal; these events were a big deal.
The timeline of events is a bit jumbled in the narrative. The meeting in the opening scene seems to be from the Positive Action Conference for Peace and Security in Africa in 1960 (I have not gone back to isolate any of the speech Nkrumah gives in the scene). In 1961, Nkrumah did undertake a tour of Eastern Europe, and the Queen did visit Ghana in 1961. But Nkrumah was not awarded the Lenin Peace Prize until 1962. And Ghana had declared itself a republic in 1960. Jumbled timelines are common throughout the series, as events are reordered to heighten drama. So, the Ghana story is not singled out in that way. My personal objections come, rather, from the implications that come out of this particular reordering.
If Ghana was declared a republic in 1960, the removal of the Queen’s portrait, which takes place in the early scenes of the episode, would have certainly happened around this time. But it would not have been replaced with a photo of Lenin. Much more likely, it would have been of Nkrumah himself. The general reordering of the timeline seems to assert more definitively that Nkrumah was conspiring with the Soviets. In reality, there was significant concern among American and British officials that Nkrumah was relying too much on the Soviet Union and leaning too much toward communism. He had, after all, embraced the idea of “scientific socialism” as a guiding principle in the country’s economic policy. But this particular jumbling of events makes a much stronger case for Nkrumah’s eastern-orientation than British and American leaders actually had at the time. And it ignores his very important work in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Prince Philip at one point warns the Queen that Nkrumah is not the same idealistic person she met with before independence – he was now a savvy political operator who was trying to secure the best interests of his country. By and large, however, Nkrumah and Ghana serve as foils for the often petty machinations of the global political elite. While the Queen expresses concern about Nkrumah’s perceived turn toward the Soviet Union, the show ultimately suggests that her actions were a response to personal insults and gossip from Jacqueline Kennedy. In the show, the Queen convinces Nkrumah to turn away from the Soviets through a carefully choreographed charm offensive of symbolic appearances and dances that play on the hypothesized jealousy of other African leaders around the continent (thus boosting Nkrumah’s profile), against the recommendations of her closest advisers. Later conversations between John and Jacqueline Kennedy suggest that Jacqueline never actually insulted the Queen and that the whole thing had been orchestrated by JFK to provoke the Queen to act in US interests. One might miss that this was all about Nkrumah’s attempt to secure funding for a hydroelectric dam, which would not only fuel an important new aluminum plant but which would also provide affordable electricity throughout the country. One also might walk away with an impression that Nkrumah was too easily fooled and manipulated by the wily Queen, tempted by flattery and motivated by jealousy and ego.
On the one hand, I get it. Negotiations over the financing of hydroelectric dams don’t sound particularly gripping for most people. And these kinds of symbolic visits do/did matter on some level. At least Ghana and Nkrumah appear as a prominent storyline in the show – the show’s writers didn’t (and couldn’t) make up a country defined by all of the worst stereotypes of the continent. Maybe some folks will watch the episode and wish to learn more – in which case they should read work by scholars like Jean Allman, Jeffrey Ahlman, Richard Rathbone, Stephan Miescher, Dzodzi Tsikata, and Tom Yarrow. And the show ultimately IS about that global political elite and their perceptions of the “other”, whether that be the British working class or the leadership of former colonies. But I can’t help but be disappointed. I look forward to a day when we spend just as much time and attention to getting the details of African nationalists histories correct as we do to the histories of British monarchies and the global political elite. And I look forward to the day when African figures like Nkrumah are recognized in popular culture as complex and exceptional individuals, rather than as mere pawns in the games of global politics. If the clothes and the scenery of Buckingham Palace mean so much to the overall quality and effect of the show, at the very least we could find a reasonably similar set for the Ghana scenes – not something from India, set in Suffolk.