By Sarah Balakrishnan
In present-day Kaneshie, in the centre of the sprawling seaside city of Accra, lies a cemetery known as Awudome. It is a massive plot of land. Once it had been the private estate of the mantse (chief) of Otublohum, gifted by the wulomo (priest) of Korle for acts of bravery during the 18th century war with the Akwamu Empire. Over the 19th and early 20th centuries, it became a site of ritual commemoration and significance for the people in the akutsei (borough) of Otublohum who buried their ancestors on the land.
The practice of burying in wide uncovered spaces—what Christian missionaries and European colonists called “cemeteries”—was relatively new to people in Accra and across the British Gold Coast (southern Ghana). Prior to the 18th century, peasants and enslaved persons were buried in open land, without especial commemoration. Following the 18th century, these traditions changed. Copying chiefs (mantsemei) and military captains (asafoatsei), citizens of the seaside towns were buried under the floors of their family houses—what were called efiase (Akan-Twi), adeboo shia (Ga), and tɔgbuife (Ewe). “The dead are buried in their houses … We cannot dissuade [communities] from this practice, even if we threatened to set the entire town afire,” remarked a Danish officer in 1836.
Cemeteries involved a new ethic of placing and spacing the dead. In 1888, British colonists imposed cemeteries on Accra, challenging the people’s mortuary practices. Public graveyards reorganized the ancestral realm, placing ancestors within the policed zones of colonial necropolises. This meant that important rituals involving the dead—such as in homowo, the annual yam festival—shifted from the private sphere into the governable public.
Cemeteries were undoubtedly a part of British colonists’ bid to reorganize African societies according to Christian schematics of “civilization”—what has been called the “civilizing mission.” But they also had another, more insidious, ambition. Creating private property in Accra required cemeteries. Graveyards relocated ancestors to the public domain, making it possible for Gold Coasters to sell their property to interested buyers.
British colonists had long understood that communities in Accra would never sell their land if it contained the remains of their elders. Public cemeteries thus transferred rituals of social reproduction—celebrating, mourning, and remembering the dead—into the domain of the state, so that private houses could be made fungible and sellable. Like elsewhere in the world, commemorations of death shaped the devolution of property. In colonial Accra, British colonists used cemeteries to enforce private property in land.
But the people of Accra did not take to these policies. Not long after the 1888 law, reports abounded of bodies being unearthed from the cemetery and reburied in the house. Called “midnight exhumations” because they occurred at night, the state responded by dispatching police during the twilight hours. A secret informant system rewarded reporters of illicit burials with sums of £1. The state’s response was militarized; colonial authorities increased the vigilance with which they surveyed the burial of the dead.
But they could not stop the problem. In 1892, the disappearance of Ellen Quartey’s body from the Wesleyan Cemetery in Accra led to a city-wide manhunt for her remains. As the niece of an Accra chief and an early Christian convert, her burial symbolically demonstrated the relative strength (or weakness) of the British government. When police uncovered the remains in Quartey’s mother’s house, the male grave diggers were sent to court, then prison.
Incidents like these continued into the 20th century.
Accra communities rebelled against burying in the public graveyard, which could be pillaged for the treasure that accompanied elders to the grave. Most of all, they refused to bury people who were not eligible for ancestry within the ground of the cemetery’s ancestral community. Children below the age of 7 (who were believed to be spirits that would return) or those who had died “bad deaths” (such as of murder, witchcraft, or disease) were not candidates for ancestry. Consequently, they were secretly deposited in mass graves on the outskirts of town.
In the early 20th century, mortuary practices nevertheless began to change. As is often the case with state repression, Accra people adapted to colonial laws by infusing their own sensibilities of death and memory into the gravesite.
Rituals that had once been conducted in the house now occurred in the graveyard. Homowo featured a community-wide sojourn to “feed” the ancestors in the cemetery. Chiefs developed family sepulchers to keep their bodies away from commoners. These were eventually superseded by royal cemeteries, which held all the chiefs in town.
In this way, cemeteries played an important role in the territorialization of political community. Whereas ancestors had once been celebrated in the household, now elders of many houses, clans, and lineages united in one urban graveyard.
But they were sorely disappointed.
Although Gold Coast communities had been coerced to bury their dead in the public sphere, the colonial state provided none of the protections of a public sovereign. They were not responsive to the people. They betrayed them at first chance.
When Accra’s Wesleyan Cemetery filled, the colonial state barred additional burials even though the policy separated parents from children; it destroyed continuity between generations of kin. Whereas in the household, bodies would be placed on top of other bodies, the colonial cemeteries enforced lateral burial. This meant that graveyards filled quickly.
As protests emerged over the closure of cemeteries in which communities had invested so much significance, another devastation struck. While the state used cemeteries to enforce private property in land, this had come at a cost: the creation of massive “immovable properties.” Whereas chiefs and wealthy “big men” (abirempon) had built many cemeteries in the 20th century by buying expansive estates, the colonial government now wanted to build railroads and thoroughfares through these lands. As the British took hammers and shovels to the graves of ancestors, people revolted. Cemetery strikes occurred throughout the southern Gold Coast during the 1930s and 1940s.
One response by local communities was to distrust the cemeteries built by colonists as well as those by the chiefs, which were prone to many of the same abuses. They began to bury their dead in communal spaces that later became de facto cemeteries. One example is Awudome, the massive—and expensive—terrain in the heart of Kaneshie in downtown Accra. It began as a proletarian burial place for local communities. Against legal injunction by the chief it was recognized as public land in the 1930s. It represents a metamorphosis of burial practices from colonial rule to the present.
Although many British laws are now gone, the cemetery wars remain. Some people in Accra still bury in the house. Others fill the overflowing cemeteries of Awudome, Osu, Achimota, and the like. Remains still regularly go missing. Chiefs sell cemeteries to foreign real estate developers, despite the protests of local communities.
As Ato Quayson once said to me personally, the politics of burial remains ever present in Accra. There are many houses in old James Town and Ussher Town that the state would love to tear down in order to widen the streets, build new infrastructure, and lay out the town. But they will never be able to do this. The houses are immovable because they contain the bones of the ancestors.
Sarah Balakrishnan is a doctoral candidate in African History at Harvard University. Her dissertation concerns changes to human geographies and human-land relationships from the Atlantic slave trade until decolonization in the Gold Coast (present-day southern Ghana). Her work has been published in The Journal of African History, History Compass, Transition, and The Routledge International Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies. She obtained her BA in History and Political Theory from McGill University in 2014.
 Johannes Rask, A Brief and Truthful Description of a Journey to and from Guinea, trans. Selena Axelrod Winsnes (Accra, 2017), 142.
 Wulff Joseph Wulff, A Danish Jew in West Africa: Biography and Letters, 1836-1842, trans. Selena Axelrod Winsnes (Accra, 2013), 95.
 Ako Adjei, “Mortuary Usages of the Ga People of the Gold Coast,” American Ethnologist 45.1 (1948), 87.