A blue plaque marking the house in Camden where Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana, lived for 2 years. Photo: K Smith
People from the Gold Coast have been coming to London since the 16th century. As Ghana celebrates 50 years since independence, we asked Dr Hakim Adi to tell us more about these West Africans in Britain.
As we'll discover, much of the earlier history in still hidden in archives, but books written by some Gold Coast men tell us about their political views and what they made of London.
Although modern Ghana is only fifty years old, Africans from that region have been arriving and living in London since at least the mid 16th century. At that time there were many Africans living and working in the capital, free rather than enslaved people, some of whom were based at the royal court. Even Shakespeare, it is rumoured, sought the company of an African lady, Lucy Morgan.
The records show that in 1555 John Lok, a London merchant and alderman, brought five Africans from the town of Sharma, in what is to day Ghana, to London to be trained as interpreters in order to assist England’s trade with the west coast of Africa.
Although the names of three of these men, Binne, Anthonie and George are known to us, and the fact that they did not find England’s weather to their liking, their exact status is not, and in some accounts they are described as slaves. It is clear though, that if this is the case, they were not enslaved by anyone in England and three of them returned to Africa within months, to assist in encouraging their compatriots to trade in gold with English merchants
Trade, then slavery
From that time onwards economic links were established between West Africa and England. At first, the English were most concerned to acquire gold from the region that came to be know as the Gold Coast. Pepper and other spices were also much in demand in Europe and in 1562, John Hawkins had organised the first voyage to West Africa to acquire African captives. By the middle of the following century English traders and financiers had become increasingly concerned with trafficking in human cargo from the Gold Coast. England’s relationship with West Africa would be largely determined by the trafficking of human flesh for the next two centuries.
The enslavement of Africans on the Gold Coast led to some of them being brought to England as personal servants as slaves. It is difficult to establish how many people were brought to London in this way because one of the characteristics of slavery was the renaming of those enslaved and therefore it is usually impossible to establish the original homeland of most of those Africans who lived in London in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The title page from Quobna Ottobah Cugoano's book attacking the slave trade - the first African writer to do so. This copy is translated into French. Courtesy of the Museum of London.
Education and kidnap
The relationship between African rulers and merchants and their English counterparts was such that some African children were actually educated n London and other English cities during this period, so that they might learn ‘white man’s book. Others were simply kidnapped and held as hostages in London by the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, in order to facilitate trade.
In 1753 for example, two African boys, Acqua and Sackee were kidnapped from the Gold Coast and brought to London as hostages. They stayed in London for two years but were apparently well looked after and educated during their two year stay in London, at a cost of some £600. When they left London to return to Africa, a farewell dinner was arranged at the Kings Arms, Cornhill.
Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, playbill for a production of Oroonoko, November 1817. Courtesy of City of Westminster Archives.
The most celebrated kidnap victim from this part of West Africa was William Ansah Sessarakoo, the son of John Corantee, the Fante ruler of Anomabo. His father had intended to send him to England with another young man to be educated but he was kidnapped during his voyage and was sold into slavery in Barbados. The king therefore declared a cessation of all trade with England until his son was released.
The British Government then stepped in and ransomed William and his companion. William’s brother Frederick was sent to Barbados to free him and the two brothers subsequently came to London where thy instantly became celebrities. William Ansah was placed under the care of the Earl of Halifax, first Commissioner of Trade and Plantations, received at court by George II and baptized. He also attended a production of Oroonoko at Covent Garden.
His portrait was painted by the London artist Gabriel Mathias and a pamphlet on his life, The Royal African; or Memoirs of the Young Prince of Annamaboe published in London in 1750.
Detail of a picture of William Ansah Sessarakoo, drawn by Gabriel Mathias. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
The most famous student of this period was Philip Quaque, son of the Fante king Birempon Cudjo, who was sent to Britain with two other boys from Cape Coast in 1754, when he was about thirteen years old, to be educated at the expense of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He lived with a school teacher in Charterhouse Square, and was baptised at Islington Parish Church in 1759. In 1765 Philip Quaque was ordained in the chapel at St James Palace, and became the first African to become a priest in the Church of England. He subsequently was appointed a missionary to the Gold Coast, given a salary £50 a year and was chaplain at Cape Coast castle from 1766 until his death in 1816.
St James Piccadilly, baptismal register, 20 September 1773: "John Stuart, a black, aged 16 years" [Ottobah Cugoano]. Courtesy of Westminster Archives.
There are many other examples of both students and the enslaved from this part of West Africa residing in London in the 18th century. One of the most notable personalities was Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, the former slave, abolitionist and writer, who in 1787 published his "Thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species".
Cugoano was the first published African critic of the trafficking of Africans, but one who also called for the enslaved to rise up and liberate themselves. He lived at addresses in both Pall Mall and Grosvenor Square and was a leading member of the Sons of Africa, the African abolitionist organisation based in London, along with Olaudah Equiano and others. He actively campaigned to free other enslaved Africans in London and publicly opposed the deportation of London’s ‘Black Poor’ to Sierra Leone.
St George's Chapel, Mayfair, baptismal register, 24 April 1743: "Philip Deal about 22 years of age, born in Golden Coast in Guinea a Blackman belonging to Gov. Ogle"Courtesy of Westminster Archives.
In the 19th century many Africans from what came to be Britain’s Gold Coast colony were present in London. One of the most interesting was John Ocansey, who came to London to pursue a legal case and left his impressions of the capital in his book "African Trading; or the trials of William Narh Ocansey which was published in 1881". Ocansey, the tourist, not only viewed all the landmarks of London during his eight day visit but also saw some of its great poverty too.
Others from the Gold Coast who experienced this poverty at first hand were the many seafarers who resided in London’s dock areas from the 18th century onwards but especially after Britain established its Gold Coast colony in 1874. Some of these seamen from Accra and Sekondi had themselves originally migrated from Liberia.
However, many other ‘Gold Coasters’ were in London during the 19th century and from 1880-1919 historians estimate that there were around 150 from the regions of Cape Coast, Accra and Akropong who either visited or lived in London during these years. Many were students from privileged families on their way to schools such as Dulwich College or various colleges. Some were members of delegations petitioning the government or were pursuing legal cases or business interests.
Many of the Gold Coast’s early nationalists were in London during these years, including Kobina Sekyi, John Mensah Sarbah and J.E Casely Hayford. Sarbah’s Fanti Customary Laws and Casely Hayford’s Gold Coast Native Institutions, two of the earliest modern historical studies of the peoples of modern Ghana were partly written and published in London in the first years of the twentieth century.
The house where Kwame Nkrumah lived in London. Photo: K Smith
Those from the Gold Coast were also associated with the African political and welfare organisations that were established in London in the early 20th century, such as the African Progress Union and Union of Students of African Descent. They were also instrumental in the founding of the famous West African Students’ Union in Ladbroke Grove in1925 and the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931. It was also in this period that the Gold Coast Students Association was formed. Through these and other organisations, those from the Gold Coast campaigned to end colonial rule and to fight against racism and the colour bar in London.
The most militant of these students were people like Desmond Buckle, one of the first Africans and the first from the Gold Coast to join the Communist Party. Another was Kwame Nkrumah, who also studied in London from 1945-1947 and lived in Burghley Road in Tufnell Park.
While in London, Nkrumah with others from the Gold Coast such as Bankole Awwoner-Renner, Kojo Botsio and Joe Appiah established the West African National Secretariat, with its base in Grays Inn Road, order to campaign for independence in West Africa. After Ghana’s independence in 1957, Nkrumah and the government of Ghana opened Africa Unity House in Collingwood Gardens as a centre for all Africans in London.
Ghanaian students in London. Courtesy of the Museum of London.
In the period since the formal independence of Ghana in 1957, the Ghanaian population in London has grown considerably and is not estimated to be over 500,000.
Ghanaians live all over the capital but there are significant population concentrations in Lambeth, Brent, Haringey and Camden. Even though residents from this part of Africa have been living in London for over 500 years, it is still rare to see much about the fascinating and important history of their presence in the capital.