…aren’t what they used to be. Once the proud leaders of a country full of promise, these well-to-do fellows are increasingly relegated to Ghana’s collective memory.
The latest (and final) piece of Empire: Migrants looks back at Ghana’s aging elite through the eyes of the Dutch-descended photographer Isaac Vanderpuije, owner of the Deo Gratias photo studio. At its height in the early 20th century, Deo Gratias was the most successful photo studio in Accra. Although the studio has fallen on harder times in recent years, its walls are still decorated with images of the unofficial nobility—including a good number of Freemasons—who came to have their pictures taken. These sharply-dressed men created a hybrid culture that drew from European and African style in equal measure.
A meditation on personal presentation and the power of images, the last section of Empire: Migrants investigates the importance of recording history before it fades away.
Stay tuned for news about the film as it comes together, and for information about upcoming screenings.
For the past 3 weeks, we’ve been hot on the trail of Ghana’s elderly elite, and these gentlemen are it. They come from the highest ranks of academia and civil service. Some are of Dutch extraction, some of British. What they all share is membership in a global fraternal order led by the Duke of Kent, which explains the clothes.
Winneba, a small city on Ghana’s central coast, was a European hotspot during the 19th century. While the African locals earned their living as fishermen, Dutch and British traders grew fat on earnings from the gold and slave trades.
The Europeans may be long gone, but their spirit lives on at the Winneba Fancy Dress Festival, a yearly event dedicated to the mocking/lauding of the long-departed colonists. Participants wear light-skinned masks and flouncy clothes, and dance like there’s no tomorrow. Dancers choose their costumes from a variety of strictly-defined categories: there are Robin Hoods, Devils and, of course, European Masters.
Click through the selection of our video stills on the right to see some of the old guard brought to life.
1859 marked the consecration of the first Masonic lodge on the Gold Coast of Africa.
Of the lodge’s seven founders, six had British or Irish names, while one man, Brother Charles Bartels, did not. Bartels’ name placed him just slightly apart from his colleagues, and marked him as a descendant of C.L. Bartels, former Governor-General of the Dutch Gold Coast.
The late 19th century saw the end of the Dutch empire’s influence over the Gold Coast (current-day Ghana), and the beginning of British rule over the region. The mixed-race traders who controlled the colony’s commerce under the Dutch went with the flow and became anglicized. As time wore on, they mingled with the British and their British-African offspring, and joined their secret clubs. They found positions in the higher ranks of civil service, attended Oxford and Cambridge, and spoke in sparkling Received Pronunciation of the English aristocracy.
Jimmy Phillips, whose portrait you can see in the photo on the right, is one of the last representatives of that era. Jimmy is of Dutch, British and African descent, and is connected to the Bartels family line. He is also the Freemason’s former District Grandmaster For Ghana. We love Jimmy, and are currently spending a lot of time with him and his wife Rachel while shooting Empire: Migrants.
The beach in front of Elmina Castle has been taken over by gold seekers. Young men looking for a quick buck build gold sluices in the shadow of West Africa’s most famous slave fort. They pile the sluices high with beach sand, then drown the sand with buckets of seawater laced with mercury.
We arrived in Ghana four days ago, but we can’t shake the feeling that we’re still in Suriname. The streets are full of faces that wouldn’t be out of place in the gold camps of Brokopondo. Even the language triggers a sense of deja vu—Akan, a local tongue spoken in Ghana, somehow became “Aukan” on its way across the Atlantic, and is still the lingua franca of Suriname’s Ndyuka Maroons.
But the countries share more than a common ethnic heritage. 225 million years ago, during the time of the Pangea megacontinent, there was no division between West Africa and the Guyanas. The soil here is the same as the soil in Suriname. It nurtures similar crops, and holds similar treasures.
But we’re not here to look for gold. We’re here to look for people in power.