Surnames and Architecture

It has been 64 years since independence, but the remanence of the British still affects the locals. Surnames such as mine, Wilson, originates from the land that was previously occupied by the British. Common surnames are Johnson, Harrison, Hanson and so on. These British surnames are common to people from Cape Coast. We are the descendants of the Fante tribe, but we had been ‘branded’ by the Obroni (White man in Fante).


Our names are filled with history. The origins of our surnames are already blurry from the lack of communication throughout generations or the lack of curiosity. Some might even falsify the stories to sound better to the ear. It is easy to brush off the story and live by it if we don’t think of the gruesome stories behind it. Is that how it feels to live with a colonial architecture? So common that it is almost invisible? Do the locals now only see it as a way of profit, or can it spark the curiosity?


I interviewed my Father who was born and raised in Saltpond, a town near Cape Coast, to gain knowledge on what it was like to grow up near colonial architecture and what his opinions were on colonisation and its effects.

Words have been modified for shortness and clarity.


As you know, us Ghanaians we pride ourselves in our names. Even my first name is a tribute to my grandfather and yours is too, but our surnames must hold a lot of history. And we have spoken a little bit about this before but where did our surname, Wilson, come from?


Honestly, I don’t know. Basically, it will come from maybe… because my father, your grandfather, was a pastor you see. So, being a pastor maybe those who brought Christianity to Africa or Ghana, maybe I don’t know because your grandfather died 41 years ago… I couldn’t ask him serious questions about his family unfortunately. But it’s my own guess that probably, because of his Christianity roots, he could have picked one good pastor. Because my grandfather, he was a chief and as I was named after him, I know he was a chief. Meaning he wasn’t a pastor, and I don’t think his name was Wilson because I have only his first name. So that is the only thing I know about. Unfortunately, when my father, I mean he died long time ago so I couldn’t ask. And I couldn’t ask my mom also about all of those things so it’s unfortunate.

Why do you think you could not ask about it?


I was young. Didn’t think those things were important at the time – learning my family’s history. And it wasn’t written anywhere, unless you asked no one said so.


This might be a little insensitive since our name might be one of the only remaining connections you have to your father, but have you ever thought of changing our surname?


Oh no, because it’s not only our family that has that British name or any other name and also, it helps identify where even I come from or you come from. Because even in Ghana, if you go to the North, they have their Northerners name, if you go to the middle part, they have their names.  So, people will hear your name and they’ll know you’re from Cape Coast. Just by the name you can be identified. Unlike the other regions or other tribes. They know automatically and for me I think it’s okay.


I mean clearly, it gives a sense of identity, but we could have gotten that from a Fante surname. Does the change of surnames have to do with the British branding the tribe?


I think so, because the British, Dutch or Portuguese came to the coast. Most of those who are in the coastal belt, they have these British names. And if you go to Elmina, they have those who have Dutch and Portuguese names, as of now some families have those names. But majority are from the British. But if you go to the inner lands, they don’t have those names, so it means the role the British played, maybe gave them the opportunity to give their names to those coastal guys.


You always pride in coming from Saltpond. But we never spoke of how it felt for you to live near the Cape Coast Castle, a colonial architecture.


I went to school in Cape Coast, I lived in Cape Coast, I was born in Cape Coast so, I have good memories of the place. Elmina and Cape Coast is more or less like a twin city. It’s about maybe 10km apart. Anytime I go to Elmina, I visited the Elmina Castle. But Cape Coast Castle, I rarely went in there because our church, Methodist Church of Cape Coast, is very close to the castle. At least, anytime you go to church, you can have a quick dash to the castle to see what is happening. And those days, tourist came, and they (locals) will be directing, giving a brief of the castle. They have some cultural display, the culture of Cape Coast or the Fantes. That was more or less a side attraction of the castles. So, they have a lot of activities there.

I have only visited both castles once with my school, so we have never gone together but how many times have you visited the castles?


Oh, I visited more than 10 times. It gives a good memory of history. How the castles were built and the purpose they were built for. Basically, they built it for trade, but they turned it to be a dungeon for slavery. I think that was the bad side of the castles.


Writing these articles, it came into mind that a lot of people focus on the slave trade, but that wasn’t the initial purpose of these castles and I think a lot of people do not focus on that aspect for obvious reasons. So, what do you think these castles signifies today?


Basically, it has a great significance to the locals because it keeps reminding them of the past. The unborn generation maybe will also know because history never dies down. So, it [is] very important that they are maintained for prosperity to judge. If slavery was good or not because sometimes those Americans who don’t know their roots, they come. They come and they pay very good attention to whatever they (locals) tell them about their ancestors because most of them went through the castles, through the slavery. So, it’s good they maintain it, I think it is very important as long as it can be maintained for a longer time. We don’t have many written histories, so the castles at least keep that alive. Even as you said about our surnames, we wouldn’t know all these origins if we didn’t have the castles.


My guess is that Ghana kind of profits out of the imagery or branding of the slave trade though it might be insensitive to say. The castles clearly turned into that and obviously that is more important to note in history than the portrayal of colonists as trades men and erasing the history of slave trading and the effects it even has generations later. So, do you think or how do the castles benefit Ghana and the locals?


It’s a great tourist attraction as you said, because like I said earlier on, every year, they have a number of people who come from US, Latin America, Brazil and all those places. And not only that, many historians from all of the world who are interested in the slavery or the ancient culture also come to visit those places. So, it’s good, even the older forts or the older castles, the government is trying to remodify it to be an attraction to foreigners. Because Ghana we have a lot of the forts. Of course, they couldn’t use the place (the forts) as slavery points but the Dutch, Portuguese and the British, used it for their offices and all those things.

They (locals) also benefit because they sell a lot of accessories, so they (tourists) come, and they buy. And aside from buying, mainly the culture troops, they do a lot of African dancing and all those things. As it’s a generational thing, they have the younger people also learning about the dancing and all those things. So, it’s an ongoing project which I think the locals are also benefiting. Tremendously.


This is more so out of my curiosity but were you taught of the history in school or was it more general knowledge since you grew up there?


Basically, from my school. If you go on tour in the castle also, they will give you a brief of the castle itself, both Cape Coast and Elmina.


Do you think your experience with living near so many colonial architectures had any impact on you today?


Well, yes it impacted a lot because it reminds you [of] your history and the bad side of the slavery and sometimes it gives you [a feeling] that maybe you are lucky that you were not part of the slavery or your family were not part of the slavery that took them to US or the Caribbean countries. Because, if my family had also been part of the slavery, I wouldn’t have known all these things, so I call myself lucky that my family probably were doing great that was why they were not part of the slavery business.


From research I have found many Fante families were actually part of the slave trade as the provider to the colonists which makes me wonder if that is the main reason for the lack of communication. The shame and guilt that comes with why we were not being taken as slaves probably has a deeper meaning that might corelate with our surnames. But that is just my theory.


You work on an international level so maybe colonisation has opened doors for you in a way you haven’t realised. Do you think colonisation benefited you at any point in your life?


I would say yes and no. No means, we lost our culture. Compared to other places, of course not in Africa, [they] still maintain their culture. The Japanese colonised China, Philippines, Korea and all those places but they (Japan) couldn’t touch their culture so, all of them still have their writings. It is still intact unlike ours. I think our culture is basically gone.

But the good point is the language, everybody can speak English in Ghana so internationally it has benefitted the people. That is the only good side I think but our culture is almost gone. Culture, to rebuild is not easy because we don’t have a written culture that people can follow, we have lost it basically. That is the saddest part.


So, from speaking I think I can conclude that colonial architectures aid in keeping culture and even history alive?


Oh yes, yes. That is very important. Important in the cultural aspect.