Crafting the Field of Common Heritage

Fig. 1.0 Emergent Danish traces in a field, 2006, north of Sesemi, Ghana.

Why and on what grounds did Frederiksgave even become a heritage project? What were the project planners’ cues for designing a collaborative reconstruction of buildings from a shared past? In this chapter, I turn to some of the relations that explicitly made up and came to shape the background against which the Common Heritage Project emerged. These relations include histories and monuments referencing the transatlantic slave trade, which often featured as part of the background for the project makers. I will also look at the politico-cultural environments in both Denmark and Ghana that paved the way for the project planners’ initiation of the project. Embarking on the project of analysing Frederiksgave, it became clear to me that the heritage work invoked a specific context and transnational history, which accordingly became part of my field as I went along, as I discuss in the following.

The process of initiating the Frederiksgave project included several visits by Danish delegates to forts and castles in Ghana, infamous for the role they played in the slave trade. In the literature that the project planners continually referred to,1and through their visits to the forts and castles, it was made clear that along the 300 km Ghanaian coastline, more than sixty European-built edifices testify to the major and longstanding presence there of various European nations.2In the fifteenth century, Portuguese vessels began heading for the West African coast, soon to be divided and named according to its attractive exotic resources, for example the Pepper Coast, Ivory Coast, Gold Coast and Slave Coast. In the early period of European expansion, Portuguese merchants traded with a variety of West African kingdoms along the coast. Among other things, the Portuguese acted as middlemen by shipping prisoners of war from the present-day Benin region to the local kings ruling coastal states in present-day Ghana.3 These prisoners of war, or enslaved people as they are also called, worked in mines extracting gold, which was sold to the Portuguese traders in exchange for beads, brassware and textiles.4 A century later Dutch, British, French, Danish and German traders, to mention but the most active, chased the Portuguese out of the region and took over the trade that soon became supplemented by a large-scale inhumane trade in humans, supplying the Americas and the islands of the Caribbean with African enslaved labour, as requested by the Europeans there.5 According to documents found in the Danish National Archives by a Danish historian who was consultant to the Frederiksgave project, the Danes were deeply involved in this trade, exchanging beads, brandy, cowries, metal goods, textiles, guns and powder for gold and slaves.6

Taking a cue from the project planners, I read that the ban on the transatlantic slave trade gave rise to the construction of plantations ‘on location’ in the coastal area of present-day Ghana. In his introduction to a book on the files of the last Danish Governor on the African coast, historian Per Hernæs, who occasionally gave advice to the Frederiksgave project, writes that the Danish efforts to establish plantations on the coast never really came to much, since this required a stability, authority, peace and control that the Danes lacked.7 As an explanation for the fairly unsuccessful attempt to manage plantations in West Africa, the Danish historian hired as a consultant for the Frederiksgave project told me that the Danes did not invest in the manpower and economy that it took to manage plantations in the region. In these historical interpretations, Denmark appears as a failing small-scale coloniser – often as explicitly opposed to the British colonisers who assembled, controlled and exploited African natural as well as human resources through racial laws, violence and displacements throughout the late 1800s and the first part of the 1900s. This contrast between the British and Danish presence was also aired by an official in hypothesising why the British could never embark on a project similar to the Danish Frederiksgave project. After 1850, when the Danes sold their buildings to the British – who by the 1880s had colonised what they termed the Gold Coast – the Danes’ plantations were no longer maintained. Consequently, the Frederiksgave plantation soon became dilapidated, and was overrun by trees, flowers, insects and, particularly, dangerous snakes, as the people living close to the site would tell me during my fieldwork in Ghana – thereby positing Frederiksgave as perhaps more than an overgrown ruin between the village and its agricultural fields, and instead as a haunted and dangerous place.

As I talked about my fieldwork to friends, family and colleagues in Denmark, I learned that many were unaware that Denmark had officially taken part in the slave trade, or that the Danes had established plantations in Ghana. Before the Director of the National Museum of Denmark visited some of the former Danish forts and plantations in Ghana in 2003, only a few Danes had come to the sites since the Danes officially left the coast in 1850. This limited knowledge about the Danish engagement in the transatlantic slave trade and use of enslaved people as a workforce on the West African coast was very common in Denmark, according to the project planners, and yet another reason to embark on the project.8In light of this, the relatively small amount of literature on the subject was meticulously read and commented on; some publications were rejected for being nationalistic and unscientific, while others were continually referred to in conversations and meetings about the project. In this sense, the literature and historical records certainly created a background against which the project planners envisioned (and edited) the common heritage site, and this material fuelled an explicit and growing dream of ‘updating’ the knowledge, as it was formulated by some of the project planners. In 1917, the very same year as the Danish state sold its possessions in the Caribbean to the US – today’s US Virgin Islands – two books were prepared for publication. Based on written sources hitherto largely unknown to the Danish public, they both related to the former Danish presence on the West African Coast. One book was a compilation of a diary and letters written between 1836 and 1842 by Joseph Wulff, an official working for the Danish state, published after Wulff’s death under the title When Guinea was Danish (1917).As we will see later, the house Wulff constructed came to figure as a material heritage indicating a ‘Danish trace’ in Ghana. The other book, The Danes in Guinea (1918) by lay historian Kay Larsen, was based on original source material. Published right after the sale of the Caribbean possessions, it was obviously much inspired by this event – too much so for the Danish historian involved in the Frederiksgave project, who thought that the history presented was distorted by being interpreted through this event taking place in a different part of the world. Some decades later, after her voyages to India, Ghana and the Virgin Islands during the 1930s, geographer Sophie Petersen wrote in the preface to her book Denmark’s Old Tropical Colonies, published during World War II, ‘What a great solace in these times of darkness with their bitter solemnity to be able to gather around and explore a subject from Denmark’s past, a subject reviving memories of experiences in tropical regions that once were Danish’.9The former Danish presence in the tropics was, in Petersen’s framing, an occasion to bring the nation together in difficult times.10 The Danish project planners and the Director of the National Museum were very much aware and critical of this kind of tropical nostalgia, and refused to play along these nationalistic lines. Seventy years on, exactly the same tropical regions that Petersen had travelled to were visited by the Director of the National Museum, in order to assess the potential for heritage reconstruction in the Danish traces. However, for decades in between, in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, a period of change and decolonisation in many colonised countries had created a new interest in the Danish involvement in its former colonies. Prominent among the outcomes of this interest was a seven-volume publication named Our Old Tropical Colonies (1952) edited by the former Director of the National Museum, Johannes Brøndsted, in which the tropical regions controlled by Denmark are addressed one by one.11This huge effort to collect the sum of Danish colonialism in one publication has recently been updated in a new edition, with contributions from a new generation of historians.12 Also inspired by the decolonisation movements was the Danish historian hired for the project, who focused on life on the coast. In this period, a Danish writer and traveller, Thorkild Hansen, wrote a popular trilogy on Danish participation in the slave trade that relates a story of the past quite different from Petersen’s nostalgia. Rather than being something that could bring Danes together around shared memories and experiences of lost possessions, Hansen’s trilogy – particularly the first volume, Coast of Slaves (1967) – blames and criticises the Danish nation for having officially approved of and participated in the slave trade. Hansen had studied written material found in the National Archives, and his work collects long quotes from letters and official documents and diaries from the period when the Danes were officially present in West Africa, this collection being augmented by his own normative comments. Like Petersen, Hansen visited the ruined Frederiksgave and wrote that the plantations in general were based on slave labour ‘to give the Danish piece of Africa some export commodities that were not slaves. Coffee, cotton, and maize for the ships instead of men, women and children’.13 In Denmark, the trilogy immediately became popular. In the early Frederiksgave project phase the project planners and some of the visiting Danes read Hansen’s books with great curiosity, and it was referred to during my fieldwork in Ghana every now and then. But, in spite of their popularity in the 1970s, Hansen’s books did not inspire curriculum planners in Denmark to include Danish involvement in the transatlantic slave trade in history classes – an omission that fuelled the Frederiksgave project. In Ghana, the trilogy has recently been translated into English (2005) and, judging from the piles appearing in the university bookstore at the University of Ghana, it is accessible and can contribute perspectives on postcolonial discussions about the former Danish involvement on the West African coast.

Almost simultaneously with Hansen, Danish geographer Henrik Jeppesen surveyed and photographed the former Danish plantations located in the Akuapem Mountains. Forty years later, his work, too, was studied enthusiastically by the Frederiksgave project planners. Shortly after I became acquainted with the project, I was given a copy of Jeppesen’s article from 1966 summarising the results of his survey, along with another piece written by one of the Danish coordinators and the Danish archaeologist14 who was involved in the project during the excavation, as well as copies from a volume on Danish establishments on the West African coast.15 Furthermore, my attention was drawn to two newly published volumes on Danish written sources from 1657-1754, regarding the area that makes up present-day Ghana.16 The two volumes were edited by a Danish associate professor in history with expertise in the National Archives’ documentation of Danish involvement on the West African coast – an expertise that eventually led him to be employed as a consultant when the exhibition at Frederiksgave was set up. A copy of the Ghanaian coordinator and archaeologist’s PhD thesis about the excavations he had conducted in 1992-3 in the slave village close to the Frederiksgave site also became part of our shared library informing the heritage work.17In addition to Wulff’s diary and letters mentioned above, I was alerted to another old record, namely from the last Danish Governor, Edward Carstensen,18 which also became part of the project’s source base. Through reading these sources, and discussions with the project planners, what I became exposed to in these early stages was particular historical material that others around me also drew on in conceptualising and substantiating the project. What interests me here, in line with my overall ambition to explore collaboration across difference as generative of Frederiksgave, is that crafting a background for the project was a very specific activity. This compilation of background literature created a particular context within which the Common Heritage Project was figured, even as it was naturalised as description and historical knowledge.

Early on in my fieldwork, I learned that shortly before the Common Heritage Project was initiated, a group of archaeologists and geographers from Denmark and Ghana co-authored an article on the agricultural experiments at the Frederiksgave plantation.19In addition to the Ghanaian archaeologist mentioned above, one of the other authors of this article was a Danish professor in geography with research interests in Ghana. Importantly, this professor was also in contact with the Director of the National Museum, with whom he shared an interest in Danish history. Together, the Ghanaian archaeologist and the Danish geographer invited the Director of the Danish National Museum to visit the former Danish sites. I was later told that the visitors’ enthusiasm about the sites fostered the idea of seeking grants with which to reconstruct the Frederiksgave plantation and turn it into a place for commemorating ‘our common past’, as it was repeatedly framed.

In sum, a whole battery of reading materials testifying in various ways to the Danish presence in West Africa over the years was circulated among the Danes about to embark on the reconstruction project at Frederiksgave. All of these writings, it seemed, were part of the heritage, and were seen as equipping the people involved in the reconstruction process. During my fieldwork these written documents – which were recommended to me by the project manager in Denmark, and labelled as the source material for the Frederiksgave project – were just as much part of the ethnographic material of the site as were the buildings and construction materials, showing ways in which common heritage appeared in the project design – as a problematic history of slavery, as guilt, as a national bastion in times of war, as archaeological excavations, as archival documents securely stored in Copenhagen, and so on. The texts also make visible how entities such as ‘Denmark’, ‘Ghana’, and ‘The Gold Coast’ are understood and presented, and they thus carry with them their own important context for my work on the Frederiksgave reconstruction project. In this light, the common heritage that the project intended to preserve was not simply a building, but a heavily and variedly theorised object that even contributed to creating how units such as Denmark and West Africa might be understood. This ties in with the particular political climate in Denmark at the time of the project’s initiation, which came to be crucial for its realisation.

Common Heritage as Cultural Politics and Economic Potential

Like other public institutions in Denmark, the Danish National Museum had, shortly before the Director’s trip to Ghana in 2003, been hit by rather large cuts that had severely affected the Ethnographic Collection at the museum.20This was one of the political backdrops against which the Frederiksgave project was initiated. The new liberal-conservative government that came to power in 2001 was pursuing a policy of no tax increases, since, as the slogan went, ‘Money is better kept in the pockets of the citizens’. The government’s platform stated that the public sector should be reformed in order to ‘stimulate private initiative and a culture of independence, generally rewarding people who make an extra effort’.21Public resources were not to be simply handed out as before, but should increasingly be won through competition by those who deserved it. The new Minister for Culture from the Conservative Party encouraged public institutions to seek grants from private funds in order to mitigate the cuts and, in general, he encouraged greater collaboration between public institutions and the private sector.22

In this period of transformation in Danish politics, a small group of Danes took the initiative to whitewash a former Danish fort on the Southeast coast of India for free, as stated in a Danish newspaper.23The fort was located in one of the places that Petersen had visited in the 1930s, and for the last twenty years plans to renovate it had been discussed in Denmark, although nothing had been done. Now, action had to be taken since the fort was in ‘a sorry state’, as one of the initiators from the small private group put it.24A few months after taking office, the Danish Minister for Culture was quoted in the same newspaper as saying that the idea of whitewashing the fort in India was ‘A grand initiative, and I would like to recommend the project’.25 In support of the project, the Minister gave the fiery Danish souls engaged in the project a letter of recommendation to use in India.26After all, this was an example of private initiative, just as requested in the government’s platform. At the same time, the newly appointed Director of the Danish National Museum had to implement staff cuts at the museum and, simultaneously, seek grants for new projects. After his visit to Ghana, as mentioned above, the Director communicated the idea of engaging in ‘the hot colonies’ to his staff at the museum. But people in the Ethnographic Collection at the National Museum, as I have been told by several employees, were not particularly keen on the idea of directing their sparse resources towards these places. It was not expected that collections staff seeking a specialisation should prioritise the study of regions having a former Danish presence. After the cuts in the Ethnographic Collection’s staff, it was feared that other parts of the world that had not been visited by the Danes in the past would then be neglected. Furthermore, the position of Inspector-in-charge of the African region had been cut some years before, and there was therefore no permanent staff member available to coordinate and follow up the project in Ghana on a daily basis. As a result, the head of the Ethnographic Collection was, alongside managing the collection in Denmark, engaged in activities in parts of India, Ghana and the Virgin Islands. Eventually, the museum’s activities in the Virgin Islands were abolished since a delegation headed by the Director from the National Museum realised that the former Danish structures could be taken care of by the heritage sector in the US if they wanted to. The museum’s activities in Ghana and India, however, soon became officially known as ‘the Ghana Initiative’ and ‘the Trankebar Initiative’.27 An application for the Frederiksgave project under the Ghana Initiative was sent to a Danish fund, and a grant was awarded. At the beginning of the project, there were many ideas of what to do with the Ghana Initiative. For instance, a collection in Ghana and a subsequent children’s exhibition were planned in order to communicate a contemporary perspective about life in Ghana.28Some items were collected, but apart from that and a proposal for an exhibition, the ideas were gradually dismissed.29It turned out that there was plenty of work involved in the reconstruction of the Frederiksgave plantation alone, and furthermore, changes in directors, heads of departments, heads of collections and coordinators in Denmark had challenged the project and threatened its continuity on several occasions.

The project’s official partner in Ghana was the University of Ghana. Unlike the many new faces that were introduced into and subsequently left the project from the Danish side, the Ghanaian partner remained very stable. In practice, the University of Ghana was singularised into one man, one of the initiators, a coordinator and archaeologist with a PhD based on an excavation of the Frederiksgave plantation, and later a board member of the site. In addition to him, an accountant, a technician involved in the archaeological excavations, some drivers and a Head of Department who approved the project were also involved from the university. The Ghanaian coordinator facilitated all communication with officials in Ghana, and advised the Danish National Museum about the best people to talk to. Through his job as a lecturer at the University of Ghana, he was the anchor man securing the necessary institutional affiliation for the bilateral project to operate in Ghana. He presented the Danish heritage workers to the Chief in the village of Sesemi, paid the salaries of the local workers, was invited on several trips to Denmark and was, in general, strongly encouraged to participate in all decisions regarding the project. Furthermore, as mentioned, the public institution Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB) was involved, since the board ‘is the legal custodian of Ghana’s material cultural heritage (movable and immovable)’.30 They had to give permission for the reconstruction. An architect from the GMMB was therefore hired by the project to assist the Danish architect in charge of the reconstruction of the ruin. Symptomatically of the increased international interest in the physical heritage of Ghana, the Ghanaian architect had previously been occupied with several other international heritage projects. Before being appointed to the Frederiksgave project, he had accompanied and assisted a group of Dutch heritage workers in renovating an old Dutch cemetery near the famous Elmina Fort. This increasing international interest took up much of the small GMMB staff’s time, and according to a Danish professor in archaeology who was not involved in the Common Heritage Project, this interest contributed indirectly to the neglect of other non-European Ghanaian heritage sites.

Several times during my fieldwork in Ghana, various people working in the Ghanaian tourist industry told me that stories about the transatlantic slave trade had until recently been ignored.31 Some elaborated that UNESCO’s inclusion of the Ghanaian forts and castles on the world heritage list in 1979, and the UNESCO Slave Route Project initiated in Benin in 1994 on the transatlantic slave trade,32 had led to a wave of renovations and also tourists, among them Ghanaians as well as Europeans and people from the African Diaspora.33 The initiative to place all the European-built forts and castles in Ghana on the UNESCO world heritage list in 1979 did not guarantee the maintenance of the sites, as the Ghanaian architect from GMMB told me.It did indicate, however, their significance as cultural heritage ‘of outstanding value’34 – or as the review sheet from ICOMOS35 states, ‘The Forts in Ghana constitute an early evidence of the joint activity of the Africans and Europeans, and deserve consideration’.36 The UNESCO Slave Route Project, which explicitly aimed ‘to break the silence’ around the transatlantic slave trade, generated a growing interest, particularly among the African Diaspora, to visit the forts from which their enslaved ancestors had once been shipped away.37 Their interest ignited a new tourist industry along the West African coast, one that had the effect of reversing the historical flow of money and resources away from Ghana. As a result many of the remaining forts have, over the last few decades, been turned into historical sites or ‘tourist attractions’ as they are laconically called by many of the Ghanaians with whom I talked during my fieldwork. But even before these initiatives, many of the forts and castles along the Ghanaian coast were used as prisons, state offices, and even a presidential palace, due to their robustness.38 Demolition of these infamous historical sites has to my knowledge never been publicly discussed in Ghana; instead, a ‘relentless pragmatism’39 has characterised the uses and purposes of the buildings in an economically hard-pressed country. And yet, in 2007, the then-government initiated the construction of a new presidential palace called the Golden Jubilee House in Accra. Funding came from a fifty billion dollar Indian loan, and in response to the many criticisms of such expenditure in a poor country the initiators argued that the president could not be based in a castle in which slaves had been kept.40 Indeed, the old palace and its relations to slavery were increasingly foregrounded. The growing interest in Ghana in and from the African Diaspora was also reflected when the Ministry of Tourism, established in 1993, changed its name in 2006 by adding ‘Diasporan Relations’.41 This addition was discussed in Ghana and, according to an article published on one of the most popular Ghanaian online news sites, ‘Modern Ghana’, a critical commentator in Ghana thought that such a diasporan ‘concern’ should simply have a desk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, if indeed it was necessary at all.42 However, as the commentator also argued, linking up with the African Diaspora is much in line with the thinking of the African Union. It is also an echo, as I understand it, of the ideas of the nation’s first president after independence from the British colonial regime, the celebrated and cherished father, Kwame Nkrumah, and his ideas of pan-Africanism.43 The forts, obviously, were not only an internal affair, but of growing concern for an African Diaspora nurturing a new tourist industry in Ghana.

Commercial interests were not a prime motor for the Danish project planners. For example, in the very first application to the fund that eventually granted money to the project, an economically sustainable plan for the future of the site was not built into the project design. The non-profit character of the site was often stressed by the planners. Again, as we shall explore in the following chapters, the Ghana Initiative was set up to rescue a material history that, if no action were taken, was in great danger of being lost. Nonetheless, in 2003 the Ghanaian coordinator explicitly wrote in a project description to the GMMB: ‘The Common Heritage Project: Developing the Danish Plantation Sites along the Foothills of the Akuapem Mountains for Cultural Tourism’. The coordinator linked the project with tourism, and saw the Frederiksgave project as related to the UNESCO Slave Route Project,44 which indeed has brought thousands of relatively wealthy overseas tourists to Ghana. And in another letter written to the Minister for Tourism the coordinator wrote: ‘The Project is a cultural heritage developments initiative’,45 thereby also linking the project to the many so-called ‘development projects’ in Ghana having the same set-up, with an international donor and a Ghanaian collaborator. In this way, however innocently the Common Heritage Project was drafted, in the actual life of it there was a potential tension: on the one hand it was meant to do nothing but inform about a common past, but on the other hand it dealt with the contentious theme of slavery and was a possible way to make money from tourism for the villagers living close by. Indeed, the project’s accomplishments were not pre-empted by its design.46 In this line, many of the Ghanaians I talked to about the project said, ‘it’s good, it brings development to the village’. And, similarly, one could say, the project was also creating jobs in the economically challenged National Museum’s Ethnographic Collection in Denmark. Nevertheless, these opportunities were seen, at most, as ‘side-effects’ by most of the Danes involved in the project, who foregrounded the project as a matter of knowledge sharing on the basis of an allegedly impartial science, whereas in Ghana these opportunities were seen as vital parts of the project. This was a difference that at times created tensions and awkward moments, as we shall see, particularly in Chapters Four and Five. As we shall also explore in the following chapters, it would be difficult to make any clear-cut distinctions between (proper uses of) heritage and economical profit in the Common Heritage Project of Frederiksgave.47

With the increased interest in promoting the histories of the forts and castles, and particularly the wretched and horrible story of the transatlantic slave trade emanating from these buildings, the managers of the sites were perhaps unwittingly following what various heritage scholars characterise to be a much broader trend. As Logan and Reeves (2009) argue, over the last three decades there has been increased interest in preserving the more unpleasant sides of heritage.48 This may reflect an incipient curiosity, but as stated above, heritage-making is also an industry that can potentially bring money to the sites through tourism.49 Over the last two decades this tendency to display unpleasant heritage has attracted an increased number of scholars to investigate these places and the attendant processes of making economic profit through ‘dark tourism’, ‘thanatourism’50 or ‘horror tourism’, as it has been conceptualised by Tunbridge and Ashworth.51 ‘Heritage of atrocities’,52 ‘negative heritage’,53 ‘‘heritage that hurts’’54 and‘difficult heritage’55 are all concepts and approaches that in different ways investigate ‘a conflictual site that becomes the repository of negative memory in the collective imaginary’56 or, put more simply, ‘the ugly side of history’.57 This ‘difficult heritage’ is often understood as a necessary counterweight to formerly prevalent uncritical understandings of heritage as a positive resource,58 and as a matter of protecting the ‘great and beautiful creations of the past’.59 For good reasons, the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade dominate Ghana’s ‘dark heritage’. However, throughout the project the planners in Denmark stressed that rather than being a story of the transatlantic slave trade on par with that which is communicated at the forts and castles, the Frederiksgave site should tell about enslaved people working on Danish-managed plantations in Ghana. As we shall see, even though the Frederiksgave project was thought of as a different story from the transatlantic slave trade, it was continually linked to it. Further to this, by focusing on slavery in Ghana the Frederiksgave project came to address what had only recently begun to be discussed publicly in both countries. For the project planners, the chosen strategy to deal with this difficult heritage of masters trading and owning enslaved plantation workers was to resort to seemingly apolitical science, building the reconstruction on facts and accuracy.60 However, in actual practice the project planners could not, of course, depoliticise their scientific project, nor disregard or control the ways in which Frederiksgave, for all its commonness, came to work. I will return to this more explicitly, particularly in Chapter Two and Chapter Five. I soon learned that it is only in recent decades that the trade in slaves has been publicly discussed in Ghana,61 and some claim that even today it is a delicate matter to bring up, in particular the indigenous slavery within Ghana62 such as that which the Frederiksgave project addressed. The Ghanaian coordinator was very much aware of this new tendency of more open debate, and told me that in Ghana they were ‘ready to heal the wounds’, as he framed it. In a Danish newspaper he elaborated the recent shift in sentiments in the Ghanaian public debate, which is now seemingly much more inclined to address the hurtful history of slavery: ‘If one does not learn from the past, how can one know which way to go? If we just leave it be, wounds will fester that will only get worse’, he explained.63

A Ruined Planter’s House

So what was the site of these development-cum-preservation ambitions like? After having read all the literature, and talked to the Danes involved in the project at the National Museum, I went to the site where the reconstruction was taking place in the village of Sesemi. Scattered fields and huge trees and bushes dominated the landscape, making up small patches of tropical rainforest in which various bush animals lived. Carved out of this green landscape, halfway up the hill, I encountered a field with a cluster of ruins in the process of being reconstructed. Further up the hill, spread out in the forest, were the villagers’ farmlands and the treasured Source of Hope, or Sasemi, as it is called in the Ga language spoken in the area. Out of the Source of Hope springs fresh drinking water that is still used by the people living in the village when they have problems with their rather newly established well. In the 1830s–1840s, the Danish historian once told me, the Source of Hope was treasured by the often sick Danes, and also used to water the small coffee plants.

Fig. 1.1 The covered ruin in 2004, Sesemi, Ghana. Courtesy of Jørgen Frandsen and the National Museum of Denmark.

In 2004, when the Frederiksgave project was launched, the 130 m2 main building, or planter’s house, as it was also called, was covered with plants from the nearby forest. Two huge fig trees had embraced the south-western end and thereby partly protected the building from collapse, but they had also destroyed it with their roots, which sought nourishment and water in the muddy mortar holding the stone building together.

Fig. 1.2 A fig tree entangled with the Frederiksgave ruin in 2005, Sesemi, Ghana. Courtesy of Jørgen Frandsen and the National Museum of Denmark.

The roof of the planter’s house had collapsed, and this made the building even more vulnerable to the burning sun, heavy rain and expanding plants. A small plant had kept a small part of the original floor intact by protecting it from the sun and rain with its leaves. The Danish architect talked about these plants and roots that had simultaneously protected and destroyed the site with great affection, as we shall see later on. Termites had eaten all the wooden parts of the building, and apart from stones, only old iron parts such as nails, hinges and a few utensils were found during the excavation. Indeed, it took a great effort to disentangle the buildings from the soil, the plants and the debris. Frederiksgave had, quite literally, to be carved out of the landscape in particular ways in order to be shaped as a heritage site of common interest. After the main building had been excavated and the soil had been removed, the ground-plan measured 16 x 9 metres; the Danish historian told me that it had been a small plantation in comparison to the Danish West Indian plantations, with only three rooms and a rather large roofed terrace. At some stage the terrace had been divided into three, creating two small rooms and an entrance, which indicates that the Frederiksgave plantation was well-visited by the expatriate Danes living in the forts along the coast, mainly Christiansborg, located only 30 km away. A few steps from the main building in a north-easterly direction, archaeological excavations revealed a small construction that was soon labelled the bath-house or toilet. Some twenty metres down the slope on which the main building and bath-house were located, the ground-plan of another small building was found. The purpose of this building was unclear, but the heritage professionals told me that it might have been a kitchen and/or stable and sleeping place for the overseer of the site. This last construction was not reconstructed on the ruined ground-plan by the Common Heritage Project, but excavated, secured and kept as an exemplar of what the three ruins disentangled from vegetation life had looked like when the Frederiksgave project was initiated – an exemplar which in 2008, after the inauguration, was apparently again slightly overtaken by the green germinating forces. A few metres further down the hill, an almost similarly sized small house had been erected out of concrete blocks in 2006-7. The main house and the bathroom were reconstructed on top of the ruins. This was a decision that was discussed among the project planners, since it contravened the Venice Charter on reconstruction, as the Danish architect explained to me – a point I will return to later. He also told me that due to the income gained from collecting the stones from the dilapidated buildings and breaking them into smaller pieces for sale, the villagers’ collection of stones from the houses was ‘a primary destruction factor’64 – a factor that was brought to a halt in the early 1990s by the Ghanaian archaeologist. In consequence, the main building was supplied with new stones from a quarry nearby for the reconstruction – a continuously expanding low-tech quarry that supplied the growing construction business of the still expanding capital city by its demand for cheap labour.

Fig. 1.3 A photograph of the only known map of the Frederiksgave Plantation. Courtesy of the National Museum of Denmark and the Danish National Archives.65

Since the inauguration of Frederiksgave in 2007, two mud huts have been constructed at the site, this being made possible by supplementary funding from the Danish grant givers. These huts – which were erected after I had concluded my fieldwork at the site – have been erected close to the bath-house and opposite the remaining ruins, and bear a poster informing readers that it was in such huts that the enslaved people used to live. Since there are no remaining traces of the enslaved people’s actual houses, which were made of highly perishable material such as clay and wood, the actual size and appearance of the original huts is not known – much to the regret of the project planners. However, an old plan of the Frederiksgave plantation and its land was found in the Danish archives. It indicates some constructions that might have been the enslaved people’s houses.

Meticulously, the Danish architect measured the scaled-down drawing, and from his measurements he was able to reconstruct the sizes of what were likely the mud huts. The location of the huts was briefly discussed, since the slaves most probably did not live as close to the main building as the newly constructed mud huts suggest. The old plan, however, suggested a location 500 metres from the main site in the middle of the village, which was also where the Ghanaian archaeologist made his excavations of the enslaved workers’ remains. This location, however, was seen by the project planners as too far away from the main heritage site. In addition, reconstructing the huts there was seen as interfering too much with present-day village life. Once again, this was not just an uncovering but a creative carving out that shuffled around particular bits to make up a common heritage.

Indeed, as these early impressions show, the Frederiksgave project presented itself to me as a highly composite and selective background, comprising Danish cultural politics, museum priorities, colonial styles of governance, popular Danish critical literature, school curricula, diaspora tourism, architectural and archaeological expertise, debates in Ghana about enslaved workers, fig trees, and the value of brick stones, among many other things. Agreeing with Sharon Macdonald, I can thus readily state that ‘heritage management is fraught with multiple dilemmas’.66 It is part of the often contested cultural politics of the partners involved, even if they agree to speak and work together on a common project. What is important here is that Frederiksgave was shaped by the provisional, multidirectional and commonly created backgrounds that I have outlined here, and which I will qualify further in the following. Through acutely detailed analyses of particular situations in the course of the heritage work that bring out the sameness and difference of such collaboration, I offer a perspective on commonness in the chapters to come.