Thursday, 15 August 2013

Fort Metal Cross

I'm in Ghana for a couple of weeks, for work. Most of that time is on a boat (where, as I write, I currently am) moving around various spots in the ocean and gathering data. There isn't much to see out here - the ocean scenery is great but somewhat repetitive. You've seen one vast expanse of water, you've seen them all. I've been in Ghana a number of times now, but due either to work or lack of transport, I've seen little more than the dim bars and very dirty streets of the oil city, Takoradi. Takoradi is likeable, but it is not remotely noteworthy historically or architecturally.

However, drive along west for a couple of hours, and this changes.

This is Fort Metal Cross, and it's an unexpected surprise. With a free day and a driver at my disposal, two things I've not had during recent work trips, I decided to see what was in the area. And it turns out that right on my doorstep was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the snappily named "Forts and Castles, Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western Regions". This was made a Heritage Site astonishingly early, in 1979: four years before the Taj Mahal and eight years before the Great Wall of China. It comprises of numerous castles and forts built by various European countries centuries ago when they were busy hassling and enslaving Africans and using the land for profit. Not our greatest moment, but let's be honest, the Ghanaians would have done it to us if given half a chance, wouldn't they? Wouldn't they?

So with two colleagues and our local driver, we set about finding Fort Metal Cross. Our driver had never heard of it, but he asked people along the way and it wasn't too difficult to find. A very taciturn fellow who preferred to drive like a maniac than communicate - Ryan Gosling's character in Drive comes to mind - our driver couldn't help but suppress a grin when we arrived at this unexpected fortress, and to my surprise joined us for the wander around. It's now in a town called Dixcove (which the locals, to my ear, call "Disco"; I was very confused for a while when they kept telling the driver, "Go that way for Disco"). Dixcove is an entirely ramshackle Ghanaian village by the coast, connected to the rest of Ghana by a bumpy little road. It wouldn't be entirely different from a lot of other Ghanaian towns, if not for the large white fort that sits on a peak overlooking the town and the ocean.

The angular, white Fort Metal Cross is appealingly incongruous against the mess of squalid colour that makes up the surrounding town. Ghana is still poor and undeveloped, so our 4x4 had to bump along a hard mud track hemmed in by shacks, avoiding goats, chickens, and children that meandered into its path.

Upon reaching the fort, a man dozing against a tree became our guide. His name was Joseph and I have no doubt he was entirely unofficial, but to his credit he knew about the history and was more than just a chancer who pointed at walls and said they were built by 14th Century king's magical doves, or whatever it is that chancers say. He took us into the main courtyard, and explained the the fort was built by the British in 1692 as part of a series of forts and castles built along the African coast. Next to Ghana is the Ivory Coast, and until Ghanaian independence in 1957 it had been called the Gold Coast. These names pretty much explain the colonial motives for moving in - there was also a Grain Coast and, ahem, a Slave Coast.

The courtyard, and the entire fortress, are attractive in their plain and practical simplicity. Its function was for defences, for soldiers barracks, and for trade in slaves and in gold (the former in abundance, the latter less so). The rooms to the side were for soldiers - two to a room - and there was a kitchen, bathrooms, and the usual kind of rooms you'd expect to keep a bunch of soldiers fed and healthy. Oh, and there were slave rooms too - three tiny rooms for 25 slaves each (two for men, one for women). At the top of the room was a small hole, where the soldiers would drop the food and water daily. The slaves were kept there for weeks and months before being shipped off elsewhere. They were branded with the symbol of the fort - a metal cross.

The courtyard had some other, less usual, functions. Our guide claimed it was built upon the spot of a tribal leader's grave, and the stone outline of where this had been lay at the side of the courtyard. And a circular stone was apparently the site of ritual human sacrifice, of young girls. I'm not entirely sure I believe Joseph on these points, to be honest. At least he didn't start talking about magical doves.

(edit: perhaps I do Joseph a discredit - this site corroborates the story of the grave.)

Perhaps the two most striking things about Fort Metal Cross were the large number of cannons all around, and the distinct bright white colour of the walls. Some of the cannons were chunky beasts, original with restored wooden mounts. Cannon balls were still inside some. Joseph seemed to think there had been some battles here, which a look online appears to have been locals unsuccessfully attacking in the early 18th Century, although Joseph suggested the Dutch in the 19th Century (they did briefly take over in 1868, although it doesn't seem to have been by force. Still, I'll give Joseph half marks). A coat of white paint seems to have been applied in the last decade, and it makes Fort Metal Cross clean and distinctive. Walking around it, it looks fresh for being over 300 years old and no doubt not very well treated in that time.

Whether due to UNESCO or due to the government, Fort Metal Cross seems to be getting its act together, slowly, as both a protected site and a tourist spot. This is where Joseph's knowledge was genuinely interesting, and was more than I might have got from an online source. The immediate surroundings used to be covered in shacks and homes for a few hundred people. The "man", as Joseph called the government, came in around ten years ago and relocated all these families to purpose-built homes on the edge of town. I guess at the same time, anyone who was living in the many rooms of the fort was chucked out. Curiously, at the top of the fort is a room, formerly the governor's room, but it is now rented out to a long-term tenant. The rest of the fortress shows signs of habitation too - a functioning kitchen, clothes hanging up - so I think that the "man" is probably allowing a few people to stay in Fort Metal Cross as long as they keep it in reasonable shape and stop it being inundated with locals wanting to house themselves there. And if these people want to charge about £2 to show tourists around, so be it...

As far as tourism goes, I can't imagine Fort Metal Cross attracts much. Ghana isn't a tourist hotspot, but those it does attract will head towards Accra, the many fabulous beaches, or do some kind of eco tourism in the jungle helping villagers build wells while patting children on the head. Fort Metal Cross in the obscure village of Dixcove, an hour along tiny roads from Takoradi, doesn't seem an obvious attraction. Nonetheless, in the grounds a conference centre and some hotel facilities appear to be in construction, perhaps a little too close to the fort for my comfort (but not appallingly so). It's difficult to gauge how long these have been in construction for though. Joseph seemed to think they'd be done by next year, but he said it with something of a wink, to suggest that next year might be a permanent state.

It's true, that as historical buildings go, Fort Metal Cross isn't exactly one that invites great celebration. It reminds us of colonialism and slavery, and if the Ghanaians were a more touchy people they might not like the fact that loads of these reminders dot the coastline. But they don't dwell on it, it's just history; as Joseph said, what our grandfather's grandfather did shouldn't matter to us now. So instead, I can take Fort Metal Cross for its other qualities: sturdy, striking, military architecture. By itself, it's the focal point of a village; with the numerous other forts in the area (most not quite as well maintained), it's an ensemble piece to form the UNESCO World Heritage Site and becomes a fascinating series of linked buildings to visit.

Which I'd love to do one day. But not that day. My two colleagues expressed a far greater desire to go to the beach and drink beer than visit another colonial fort. We'd time for at least two more that day! Never mind: visiting just one fort certainly beat the day's alternative of sitting around a gloomy staffhouse.


  1. I had never heard of this, it certainly seems impressive and has a very interesting (and tragic) history. I notice that one of the canons has GR embossed upon it, so would date from the Georgian period.

    I am glad to hear that the Ghanaian government is looking after it and that the locals recognise its historical and cultural importance; all too often we hear of a nation's heritage, particularly in developping nations, being neglected or even worse (those ancient Guatemalan pyramids being recently turned into rubble in order to make ballast springs to mind). I have always thought that the best protection of a historical monument is the fact that those who live within its proximity have an attachment to it and know its history, so good for your guide Joseph. In many cases it's indifference that leads to the disappearance of our heritage.

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