Movement, both unfettered and brutally curtailed, has long been central to Accra’s urban culture. From its days as a slave entrepot, through its decades as a colonial possession, well into its car-driven post-independence boom years, Accra has always been defined by movement–of the enslaved, by colonial administrators, of goods, and of postcolonial citizens.
Take for example, the Netflix television series The Crown. In episode eight of season two, the series provides a blinkered depiction of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Accra in 1961 wherein the British monarch’s fox trot with then-President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah carries far greater geopolitical importance than it did in reality.
Indeed, the episode opens with an “ersatz orientalist fantasy palace” fictionally located in Accra as Nkrumah (played by Danny Sapani) “screams about ‘a socialist Africa for Africans.’” The scene is crosscut with soldiers exchanging a portrait of the Queen for one of Lenin, notes Yepoka Yeebo—a not very subtle and likely inaccurate indication of the Ghanaian leaders’ socialist leanings. Apparently, the Queen and Nkrumah’s perambulation across the dance floor managed to disengage Nkrumah from the Soviet orbit in which he circulated.
“It’s a lot of bullshit,” former Accra mayor, architect, and amateur historian Nat Nuno-Amerteifio told NPR in 2018. Historian John Parker agreed: “To suggest that [the dance] – or the royal tour as a whole – ‘tipped the balance’ of Soviet power in West Africa is untrue.” In fact, Nkrumah—who would be ousted from power five years later due to a dysfunctional economy and an increasing dependence on a cult of personality—retained connections with the Soviet Union, even while adopting a position of non-alignment internationally. In the end, the episode underscores the ways in which Accra, and other parts of urban Africa, remain static, trapped in amber by colonial politics and imagery, even as the city’s residents move about with no small measure of activity.
Unfortunately, much remains unknown about the Gold Coast’s history before European contact, but we do know that the Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Portuguese, and British all inhabited Accra, at one time or another and sometimes simultaneously.  But European mobility did not necessarily create the same for Accra’s residents.
The Portuguese came first, establishing a fort in 1560, which would fall to an uprising by the local Ga people in 1576. Despite the conflict, trade between the Greater Accra Ga population and Portugal persisted “on the beaches.” Economic activity in Accra led to what some historians describe as an “economic revolution” from 1550-1600, which unleashed the forces of urbanization, population growth, and “the industrialization of the crafts.” Predictably, Accra grew as greater numbers of people moved from the inland to the coast to participate in nascent trading markets or to work as laborers and artisans for the various Europeans residing in the city.
Gold first drew European interest, but soon the slave trade took hold. “[F]rom 1475 to 1540, more than 12,000 people passed through [Gold Coast ports] as human commodities,” writes historian Stephanie Smallwood. During this period, however, the slave trade functioned as an internal market in which “people were among the goods that African merchants wanted to buy from their new Portuguese trading partners.” Later, American and West Indian economies embedded in the Atlantic slave trade required endless flows of human cargo.
Slavery, horrible and profitable at the same time, attracted even more European nations to Accra’s shores. The consequences were devastating. “[S]lavery was the major engine of upheavals, conflicts and social change in all the societies that were touched by its processes,” writes Stanford historian Ato Quayson in his UHA-award-winning Oxford Street Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism. As the seventeenth century ended, war had become a “concomitant and necessary aspect of the slave trade itself.” Europeans channeled guns and ammunitions to Gas in return for land, access to “hinterland markets,” and an expansion of the slave trade.
The “Gold Coast diaspora” of varying ethnic and linguistic groups sold into slavery and cast mercilessly across the ocean was neither uniform nor monolithic. “In fact, the signal feature of the Atlantic slave trade was its creation of not one diaspora, but many, each having its own distinct features, and each taking on a new configuration in the Americas,” notes Smallwood.
Nor did it only blow west to the New World; the Atlantic slave trade also blew east. In 1836, a group of ex-slaves deported from Bahia in Brazil arrived in Accra. Some were Muslims, originally from the savanna in Sudan. Known as Tabons, many settled in Accra, representing a “significant modification to Accra’s increasingly diverse town quarters,” notes Parker. “Within a few years of their arrival a number of Tabons had emerged as wealthy entrepreneurs, having forged commercial links with fellow returnees in the ports of the Slave Coast.” Perhaps as many as 8,000 manumitted slaves from Bahia settled in West Africa between 1822 and 1899–the majority in colonial Lagos but others in Accra and Sierra Leone. “[T]he returnee Afro Brazilians to Accra in the nineteenth century knew of their people in Lagos and Porto Novo [what is today Congo] and actively sought to establish commercial and cultural networks with them,” Quayson asserts.
The Portuguese might have established a monopoly on local trade first, but European conflicts soon enabled the Dutch to muscle in on the profit. By 1598, they had built the first non-Portuguese forts on the coast. Over fifty years later they constructed Fort Crevecoeur, establishing their own trade monopoly in Accra. Others poured in: between 1659 and 1661, the Danes completed Christianborg Castle in what is today Osu; Britain followed in 1672 in what became Jamestown.
Even as late as 1975, the cartography of the slave trade persisted: 40 slave forts dotted the 350-mile coastline of Ghana. During the early 1970s, Christianborg Castle served as “the seat of government for the National Redemption Council, Ghana’s military rulers.” The fort also serves as the resting place of W.E.B. DuBois—an iconic and multidimensional figure.
Ultimately, Britain outlasted their European competitors, triumphing first through treaties with Western rivals and later through warfare with African kingdoms. From 1873-1874, the British warred with the Asante Empire, emerging victorious and thereby consolidating their interests in Accra.
Predictably, the presence of Europeans cast an influence on the city’s landscape. “Accra itself straggled for nearly a mile on the edge of a terrace overlooking the beach, many pretentious houses, whitewashed, attracting attention from their prominence above the clay brown huts amongst them,” Henry Morton Stanley wrote of the city in 1874. Stanley described a large house with “wide verandahs, and abundant grounds,” identifying it as Basile Mission House, part of a Christian missionary organization established in 1815 in Switzerland. Its residents were of “a singular community of religious Swiss and Germans, who have banded together for the sensible purpose of teaching the natives and making money by them from honest trade in palm oil and gold dust.” Yet Stanley’s account “was already being swept into the dustbin of history even as he was penning it,” notes Quayson. The city Stanley described stood divided among three European powers, represented in part by it’s spatial and demographic layout. Soon, however, one nation would consolidate its political power and, by extension, urban planning in Accra.
Three years later in 1877, the British unified their colonial administration in the now capital city, which cemented its commercial importance while also establishing a political role for Accra that would have cascading effects in regards to its demographics, economics, and spatial organization. Organized economically as a central node in the trade network between the African interior and the U.K., Accra was advantageously located, linking up with rail lines and shipping routes. This would prove especially true with the rise of cocoa production during the early twentieth century.
Economic activities in the European sector of the city revolved around trade, distribution, transport, banking and insurance. Building regulations and zoning were imposed as a means to recreate a “European character and atmosphere in the district.” Urban planning by colonial governments—though much more so the British than any of the others—was a tight-fisted process that segregated Accra by form, function, and race, note geographers Richard Grant and Jan Nijman. The British established physical, social, and political spaces of difference between the “European and Native Towns.” In the latter, one found the traditional market and bazaars of native residents.
The new administrative function of the city drove Accra financially. After gold reserves diminished and the international slave and palm oil trade declined, colonial governance buoyed Accra’s economy. In the early 1900s, cocoa production emerged as a critical piece of the colony’s financial activity. By 1910, Accra had become the leading producer of the commodity in the Gold Coast, replacing administration as the city’s “principal generative force.” As a result, “commerce replaced government as the leading sector,” notes historian Jack Arn. In the years following the First World War, the export of cocoa only increased.
Trade in the new commodity reshaped Accra. It had been, notes one 1919 account, “a sleepy, old fashioned hap-haphazard sort of place, an ordinary west coast trading town firmly rooted in the customs and traditions of the past.” “The cocoa romance” changed all that, as the economic processes around its production and export penetrated “the humblest mud hut in the most secluded back street; and the town, awakening from its sleep of centuries, is vibrating responsively to the new life pulsating through all its environs.”
Increasing cocoa production and colonial administration caused the city’s population to boom: it trebled from nearly 18,000 in 1901 to over 61,000 three decades later, as skilled and unskilled labor arrived in Accra from surrounding regions. Incorporating newcomers into the urban body politic proved to be complicated. While British racial policies established segregation between Europeans and their African counterparts, it did little to distinguish between the latter, such that groups would be “ethnicized” into the local population. For example, the Tabons would eventually be assimilated into the then-dominant Ga community by British census takers. When Ghana asserted its independence from British rule in 1957, it largely adopted these British policies, which functioned to “privilege tribes over races even in the constitution of municipal governance,” Quayson points out. “To this day, the mayor of Accra is routinely drawn from among the Ga despite the blatant fact that Gas form less than 15 percent of Accra’s population, down from 60 percent” in 1957.
The wealth created from cocoa production literally spilled onto the streets, as automobility became the vernacular form of transit in Accra. Admittedly, colonial officials first adopted automobiles as a means to demonstrate European “mastery of time and space,” notes historian Jennifer Hart. “Colonial officials and missionaries toured their districts in motor vehicles, displaying the awe inspiring technology to African subjects.”
Automobility in Accra might have begun with colonial occupiers, but Africans themselves embraced the technology and purchased great numbers of cars during the early decades of the twentieth century. Prosperous cocoa farmers were among the earliest adopters, seeing in automobiles a means to increase their control over the industry. The infusion of affordable American Ford lorries after World War I, and later British versions after World War II, also helped to consolidate automobility’s centrality to Accra.
Though most Accra residents experienced this new mobility as passengers, the burgeoning transport industry was in fact dominated by African owner-operators. By the 1930s, colonial Ghana’s roads hummed with traffic, largely from the “African owned and operated mammy wagons” typically located near major markets in urban centers. Such developments created a “mobile capitalism” that incorporated drivers and passengers into various technologies and systems of “twentieth century industrial modernity.” According to historians such as Jan Bart Gewald and John Illiffe, automobiles proved a singularly-influential force in the transformations of the continent’s colonial period that led to independence. “Drivers themselves,” notes Hart, “seized the possibilities of automobility to craft identities as ‘modern men’ in the midst of an increasingly diverse transport scene that now included not only mammy trucks, but also taxis, municipal buses, company cars, and trotros [minibuses].”
By the late 1950s, automobiles had become “the key emblem of modernization,” Quayson writes. Advertising campaigns deployed them endlessly. Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention’s People Party recognized the explicit promise of automobility both in physical and metaphorical terms. The CPP deployed mobile vans with films and political propaganda across the nation, thereby incorporating rural regions into the larger national project. The popular slogan coined by Nkrumah—“Forward Ever, Never Backward,” a clear reference to mobility—served as a metonym for the promise of the same.
Trotros, which derived their name from the three-pence fare charged for travel within metropolitan Accra, emerged in the capital soon after independence. Initially, they catered to “market women” who required transport of their persons and goods to homes and markets. By the 1980s, trotros could be found throughout Ghana’s cities. In addition to their impact on the city’s geography and economy, lorries, trotros, and other forms of mechanized transportation have had a discursive effect as well. “The history of motorized transport in Accra reflects the production and circulation of a demotic expressive form,” writes Quayson. Slogans and mottos abound on vehicles enacting an “urban scriptural economy” which draw upon a constellation of sources ranging from obituary notices to “literary texts that draw upon discursive traditions.”
In effect, the moving language and culture of automobility transformed the streets of Accra, such as Oxford Street in Osu, into living, breathing, kinetic archives of urban life. “The slogans and inscriptions are also often times translations of globalized signifiers onto the local cultural scene,” observers Quayson:
“A barbershop display depicting haircuts of Barack Obama alongside Mike Tyson suggests they both pack a mean punch while also enticing customers for a similarly ‘powerful’ haircut. Images of Kofi Annan, erstwhile President Rawlings, and Princess Diana may also be placed together on the same sign art poster to suggest that they were all three ‘of the people, by the people and for the people,’ problematic as this might seem to ignorant skeptics.”
Granted, a good portion of the messages and slogans one encounters in this way operate in the stead of transnational capitalism. Still, a significant percentage also function as a means of self-expression and even religious prostelyzation—the latter of which has gained increasing currency in Accra and other urban regions of West Africa where Christian evangelicalism has found purchase.
How much of this twenty first century Accra was visible from a 1961 dance floor? Probably not much, particularly since observers at the time noted that no one thought much of the Queen’s foxtrot with President Nkrumah. Still, mobility, be it by foot, ship, or automobile, has always been an ambulatory force at the heart of Accra.
As per usual, below is a bibliography for Accra. We know it’s hardly comprehensive and welcome suggestions in the comments. Special thanks to assistant editor Dylan Gottlieb for his help with the overview.
Ahlman, Jeffrey S. “A New Type of Citizen: Youth, Gender, and Generation in the Ghanaian Builders Brigade.” Journal of African History 53 (2012): 87-105.
Amoah, Frank E. K. Accra: A Study of the Development of a West African City. Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, 1964.
Amos, Alcione M. “’I Am Brazilian’: History of the Tabon, Afro-Brazilians in Accra, Ghana.” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, 2003.
Arn, Jack. “Third World Urbanization and the Creation of a Relative Surplus Population: A History of Accra Ghana to 1980.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center), 19.4 (Fall, 1996): 413-443.
Asante, Clement E. The Press in Ghana; Problems and Prospects. University Press of America, 1996.
Brand, Richard. “A Geographical Interpretation of the European Influence on Accra, Ghana Since 1877.” PhD diss., University of Columbia, 1971.
Dumett, Raymond. “African Merchants of the Gold Coast, 1860-1905: Dynamics of Indigenous Entrepreneurship.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 25.4 (1983): 661-693.
Grant, Richard. Globalizing City: The Urban and Economic Transformation of Accra, Ghana. Syracuse University Press, 2008.
Grant, Richard and Jan Nijman. “Globalization and the Corporate Geography of Cities in the Less-Developed World.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92.1: 320-340.
Grier, Beverly. “Pawns, Porters, and Petty Traders: Women in the Transition to Cash Crop Agriculture in Colonial Ghana.” Signs 17 (Winter 1993): 304-328.
Hart, Jennifer. Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation. University of Indiana Press, 2016.
Hesse, Hermann W. von. “A Brief History of the Afro-Brazilian Community of Accra.” BA thesis, University of Ghana, 2011.
Hopkins, A.G. An Economic History of West Africa. Routledge, 1973.
Kimble, David. A Political History of Ghana, 1850-1928. Oxford University Press, 1963.
Lewis, George H. “The Philosophy of the Street in Ghana: Mammy Wagons and Their Mottos – A Research Note.” The Journal of Popular Culture 32.1 (Summer 1998): 165-171.
Minister of Housing. Accra: A Plan for the Town. Accra: Government of Ghana, 1958.
Ntewusu, Samuel. “The Northern Factor in Accra: A Historical Study of Madina Zongo, 1957-2000.” MA Thesis, University of Ghana, 2005.
Okoye, Victoria, Jahmal Sands, and C. Asamoah Debrah. “The Accra Pilot Bus-Rapid Transit Project: Transport-Land Use Research Study.” Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI). Earth Institute at Columbia University, October 2010, http://mci.ei.columbia.edu/files/2013/03/Transport-Land-Use-Research-Study.pdf.
Parker, John. Making the Town: Ga State and Society in Early Colonial Accra. Heinemann, 2000.
Pellow, Deborah. Landlords and Lodgers: Socio-Spatial Organization in an Accra Zongo. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
——-. Women in Accra: Options for Autonomy. Reference Publications Inc., 1977.
——–. “New Spaces in Accra: Transnational Houses” City & Society 15.1 (2003): 59-86.
Plageman, Nathan. “Everybody Likes Saturday Night: A Social History of Popular Music and Masculinities in Urban Gold Coast/Ghana, c. 1900-1970.” PhD diss., Indiana University, 2008.
——–. Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana. Indiana University Press, 2012.
Pool, Jeremy. “Now is the Time of Youth: Youth, Nationalism, and Cultural Change in Ghana, 1940-1966.” PhD Diss., Emory University, 2008.
Roberts, Jonathan. “Medical Exchange on the Gold Coast during the Atlantic Slave Trade of the 17th and 18th Centuries.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 45.3 (2011).
——. “Memories of Korle Bu: Biomedicine, Racism, and Colonial Nostalgia in Accra, Ghana.” History in Africa 28 (2011): 193-226.
Robertson, Claire. Sharing the Same Bowl: A Socioeconomic History of Women and Class in Accra, Ghana. University of Michigan Press, 1990.
Quayson, Ato. Oxford Street Accra: City Life and Itineraries of Transnationalism. Duke University Press, 2014.
Sackeyfio-Lenoch, Naaborko. The Politics of Chieftaincy: Authority and Property in Colonial Ghana, 1920-1950. University of Rochester Press, 2014.
Shipley, Jesse Weaver. Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music. Duke University Press, 2013.
Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Harvard University Press, 2007.
 Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 12.
 Jack Arn, “Third World Urbanization and the Creation of a Relative Surplus Population: A History of Accra, Ghana, to 1980,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) Vol. 19 No. 4 (Fall, 1996): 415.
 Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery, 15.
 Ato Quayson, Oxford Street Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 114-115.
 Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery, 187.
 Quoted in Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 43.
 Jack Arn, “Third World Urbanization and the Creation of a Relative Surplus Population: A History of Accra, Ghana, to 1980,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) Vol. 19 No. 4 (Fall, 1996): 417; Ato Quayson, Oxford Street Accra: City Life and the Itineraries of Transnationalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 41-2.
 Thomas A. Johnson, “What’s Doing in Accra, Ghana,” New York Times, September 21, 1975.
 Quoted in Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 40, 42.
 Jack Arn, “Third World Urbanization and the Creation of a Relative Surplus Population: A History of Accra, Ghana, to 1980,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) Vol. 19 No. 4 (Fall, 1996): 433.
 Richard Grant and Jan Nijman, “Globalization and the Corporate Geography of Cities in the Less Developed World” in The Global Cities Reader, eds. Neil Brenner and Roger Keil, (New York: Rutledge, 2006).
 Jack Arn, “Third World Urbanization and the Creation of a Relative Surplus Population: A History of Accra, Ghana, to 1980,” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) Vol. 19 No. 4 (Fall, 1996): 430-1.
 Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 55.
 Jennifer Hart, Ghana on the Go: African Mobility in the Age of Motor Transportation, (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 2016), 5.
 Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 131.
 Hart, Ghana on the Go, 7, 9.
 Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 131.
 Hart, Ghana on the Go, 9.
 Hart, Ghana on the Go, 21.
 Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 133.
 Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 133.
 Quayson, Oxford Street Accra, 132.
Featured image (at top): View of Accra courtesy of https://engineered.thyssenkrupp.com/en/accra-the-modern-heart-of-west-africa/