British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Robert Yearley
I remember the Gold Coast
'There's a great chunk of rock on the front seat.'

'Good thing the window was open'.

'And that I wasn't sitting there'.

This was mid-afternoon on 28 February 1948. Arthur and I had been playing snooker in the Accra Club after a leisurely ground-nut lunch. We had heard a lot of shouting and the sound of hurrying feet. We had expected some sort of trouble in the town because of an ex-servicemen's march and the end of a boycott and we hadn't taken any notice.

Now we could see that the car park in front of the Club was strewn with all shapes and sizes of rocks, bricks and stones which the passing demonstrators had thrown at the 'Whitemen's cars'

'Not much we can do,' said Arthur. 'Probably not safe to drive home yet. Let's have another game.'

Ten minutes later someone came in with the news that there had been a shooting at the Castle. The march had 'deviated from the approved route' and attempted to enter the Governor's Residence at Christiansborg. The European policeman on duty had seen the danger and when the crowd refused to disperse he had opened fire. Two men had been killed and others injured in the stampede. The crowd had streamed back to town, the account of the happenings being embroidered on the way and in no time at all the whole town was in revolt.

I remember the Gold Coast
RMSP Almanzora
I had only been in the colony three weeks. I had come out on the "Almanzora ", a former troop-ship, to take up an appointment as an Accountant in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, on secondment from the British Post Office. I was living in the Rest House (transit quarters) at the rear of the Club about a mile from the town centre. I was just beginning to get to grips with the job and with the life-style when, as the Old Coasters described it, the balloon went up.

The Rest House was a Spartan place - a dozen or so rooms on two floors, each with a bed and a mosquito net, a table, two chairs and a cupboard. There was a communal washroom with showers - cold water only, of course. New arrivals had to stay in the Rest House until a bungalow became available and they could arrange to take all their meals at the Club which was, it went without saying in those days, strictly Europeans only. It was a ramshackle structure on a platform a few feet above ground to provide some coolness. There was a lounge, a snooker room, a bar and a dining room.

I had served in the army in the Middle East and India during the war and this had attracted me to the enviable way the British lived in the Empire. An unmarried man of 29,1 was very impressed by my first taste of the colonial life-style on the Gold Coast. It was at once apparent that even as a lowly Government Accountant I was a big fish in a small pond. I was lucky from the beginning when I found that the Chief Accountant, P & T, my immediate superior, was returning from leave on the same ship on which the Crown Agents had booked my passage. Arthur was very helpful, not excessively paternal but very willing to show me the ropes while leaving me to find my own way.

I remember the Gold Coast
I had a pleasant ten day voyage - strange to put into Freetown where I had last been on a troopship in 1940. When we disembarked at Takoradi Arthur's car was waiting for him so I had transport for the 120 miles to Accra. The dazzling orange and green of the Gold Coast is with me still.

In the office, as well as the Chief Accountant there were four Accountants, two white and two African. The junior staff were all African, all very friendly and welcoming and I found the job pleasant and not too demanding. I soon got used to working in shorts and shirt - even in the hottest time of the day we wore ties. Hours were short - 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with mornings only on Saturdays - but they were flexible and, provided the work was done, no one worried unduly about exact time-keeping.

One particular duty I had occasionally was making up the distribution of postage stamps, postage due labels etc., for despatch to the Post Offices and Agencies all over the country: working in an inner security vault with no windows was extremely wearing and handling inter-leaved sheets of stamps very tricky.

We had a number of beaches in easy reach and Sunday mornings were usually spent at Christiansborg or Prampram or Teshie, lying on pure white sand and letting the shadows of the palm trees flutter over our eyes.

I was still enthusing over the delights of this life when 28 February arrived with its barrage of rocks. As the afternoon passed more information came in and rumours spread. It seemed that when the agreement was reached to call of the boycott of European goods in the shops the townspeople had expected that there would be a massive reduction in prices. This was not forthcoming and when the news of the shooting arrived there was an immediate flare-up and looting and arson began.

I remember the Gold Coast
General Post Office, Accra
We stood in the forecourt of the Club and saw people rushing back from town carrying the most incredible loads - rolls of cloth, carpets, radios, cartons of food, crates of drink. Two lone African policemen went through the motions of stopping this avalanche.

There were rumours that Europeans living within two or three miles of the town centre were to be evacuated. Nothing official came through and by midnight most of the inhabitants of the Rest House had gone to bed. But not for long! We were soon awoken, told to pack a minimum of necessities and in no time at all we were in a lorry on our way to Giffard Camp, the Army Headquarters, a few miles out of town.

We spent a very uncomfortable night sleeping, if we could, on tables and chairs and the floor of a large assembly room. In the morning breakfast of sorts was laid on by the Army, a creditable effort in view of the short notice to receive fifty or so guests. I was not looking forward to spending more nights back in army conditions and I was very happy when James, an Accountant colleague, arrived and offered me the spare room in his bungalow and told me I could be his guest 'for the duration'.

The General Post Office Headquarters in Accra was a triangular site in the centre of town. All European staff and most of the African staff came to work and it was clear that there was no reason why we could not carry out our normal duties, although the whole town was out of control - there was no counter service of course.

The Gold Coast African was a cheerful, likeable character and even when the looting was at its height and shops were being set on fire, we did not feel that we were threatened. Inevitably there were Incidents: a crowd racing down the street beside the GPO and throwing stones at the offices on the first floor, the Chief Accountant and staff hastily retreating from the windows; and people who found themselves trapped in their cars in the middle of a sea of black faces with fists banging on the roof to the chant of 'Whiteman go home' didn't feel too happy!

My recollection is that there was a week or so of mayhem. Troops were flown in from Nigeria and we had a young Second Lieutenant with a platoon of the Royal West African Frontier Force guarding the gates of the GPO.

Europeans were formed into squads to patrol the residential areas nearest to town. It wasn't very clear what we were expected to do or what danger someone foresaw. We were issued with pick-helves with handling straps - I have mine to this day.

Living with James was an excellent introduction to Colonial ways. He was a generous fellow and we ate and drank well throughout the emergency. But he liked to drink copiously and I was not used to dinner at 10.00 p.m. or later after innumerable beers and pink gins. One evening I ventured to ask if we were going to have dinner soon. James said, 'I am the host. I say when we eat.' I was shattered. It was perhaps cruel of him to treat a new man in this way but it taught me a lesson which I observed throughout my nine years on the Coast: that there were many points of etiquette and procedure and a code of behaviour which were the basis of the Colonial way of life, and that I was a member of a great Service.

Colonial Map
1954 Map of Gold Coast
Colony Profile
Gold Coast
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 80: October 2000
BBC Witness: 1948 Accra Riots


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