Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The “High Life” in High Society: The Queen’s Iconic Dance in Ghana


Queen Elizabeth II’s iconic dance with the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, on her 1961 tour is one of my favourite scenes in the series“The Crown”. The real Queen Elizabeth’s dance with a black African leader created headlines around the world, and she received high praise for changing the course of history by turning Nkrumah away from linking with the Soviet Union, and sending a powerful anti-racist message. However, controversy remains, especially amongst some Africans, about whether the dance really was such an important event.

The Queen wanted to visit Ghana in 1959, seeing it as her duty to the Commonwealth. However, her pregnancy with Prince Andrew put paid to that visit. Nkrumah was very upset. He told Lord Charteris that: ‘I put all my happiness into this tour. Had you told me my mother had just died you could not have given me a greater shock’.1. It was a different story in 1961. Macmillan, concerned about Nkrumah’s closeness to the Soviet Union and the possibility that he might even use her not going to leave the Commonwealth, advised her to visit Ghana. There were also concerns about anti-British feeling growing stronger if President Kennedy withdrew financial support for the Volta Dam, a huge hydro-electric project vital for Ghana’s economy, and the likelihood of the Soviets funding it. There were even fears that she ‘might throw in her hand’ if her activities were restricted.

President Kwame Nkrumah was the first black African leader to lead his country to independence, but he also installed a dictatorship, and single party rule. The Queen’s proposed trip to a dictatorship where there was much anti-British feeling caused consternation in the government. The Left was concerned about Nkrumah’s government’s lack of concern for human rights, and the Right feared that the Queen would be attacked. Winston Churchill even strongly suggested to Prime Minister Macmillan that he should advise her not to go, for both these reasons. He wrote that he had ‘the impression that there is widespread uneasiness both over the physical safety of the Queen and, perhaps more, because her visit would seem to endorse a regime which has imprisoned hundreds of opposition members without trial, and which is thoroughly authoritarian in tendency.’ 2.

Five days before the visit, there were explosions in Ghana’s capital, Accra, and a statue of Nkrumah was hit. However, even this didn’t put the Queen off the trip, and doing her duty to the Commonwealth, and she was growing impatient with the situation. According to some journalists, she had told Cabinet ‘with some vehemence, that she ‘did not know how she could carry on if they did not allow her to go’.3.  She also said: ‘How silly I should look if I was scared to visit Ghana, and Khrushchev went and had a reception’.4.

In Akkra, the Queen told Nkrumah that nations of the Commonwealth could disagree without having to leave. Looking regal and beautiful in her white gown and tiara, the Queen danced the traditional Ghanian dance, the ‘high life’ with the President, and pictures of the dance appeared in newspapers across the world. Some South African journalists were especially shocked.

Opinions differ about the effect of the dance. According to architect and historian Nat Nuno Amertiefo  the dance didn’t really change history. People were tiring of Nkrumah’s socialist government anyway because of the terrible economy, and corruption was so entrenched that there was even a state-run company set up to collect bribes from foreign businessmen. Also, the ties with the Soviet Union weren’t that close.5.

However, journalist Merriem Amellal Lalmas told France24 that ‘This image seems mundane today but, in this context, it was extremely avant-garde. It was a white woman dancing with a black man, it was the ruler of an empire dancing with a subject, as he was then considered, even if he is also the father of Pan-Africanism and Ghanian independence’.

After the Queen returned to England, Prime Minister Macmillan rang Kennedy about the Volta Dam. He said that: ‘I have risked my Queen. You must risk your money’. Funding soon came through for the dam, stymieing the Russians.6.

Arguably, the Queen’s visit did indeed play an important role in the history of Ghana

1. Lord Charteris: Interview quoted in Pimlott, Ben. Queen Elizabeth II and the Monarchy. Harper Collins, 2002. p. 305

2. (2022). Retrieved 21 September 2022, from Ghana Stories

3. Fairlie, H. (1963). Sunday Telegraph, quoted in Pimlott, Ben. Queen Elizabeth II and the Monarchy. Harper Collins, 2002. p.308

4. 2022). Retrieved 21 September 2022, from Ghana Stories

5. McDonnell, T. (2022). 'The Crown' Says One Dance Changed History. The Truth Isn't So Simple. Retrieved 21 September 2022, from Vetting the Crown: Did Queen Elizabeth II's Dance With Ghana's President Really Change History?

 6. (2022). Retrieved 21 September 2022, from Ghana Stories




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