On November 22, 2019 | 0 Comments

The Crown: African fact versus fiction

As devoted fans watch the Netflix third season of The Crown, Wikipedia “second-screen research” concerning historical aspects of British royalty has spiked. Viewers of the royal saga appear genuinely keen to compare weighty events in the show to what happened in reality. For example, already in the early episodes of Season 3, the horrific 1966 SouthWales Aberfan coal mining disaster has been portrayed. To its credit, The Crown highlighted this heartrending tragedy that relatively few remember or know about: A rain-sodden slag-pile slid into the village, killing 144 people including 116 children. After an 8-day delay, the Queen, played masterfully this season by Olivia Colman, finally visited Aberfan.

But returning to Season 2 of The Crown for a bit, one episode continues to draw comment: the November 1961 visit of Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to Ghana during which she danced with then President Kwame Nkrumah (Danny Sapani) at a goodbye ball held in the Queen’s honor. Ghana had become independent from Britain in 1957 and Nkrumah, a visionary who had been imprisoned by the British colonials, brought that independence to fruition.

It’s unlikely that anyone would have paid the slightest attention to a relatively trivial occasion had The Crown not had a scene in which the Queen danced the foxtrot with Nkrumah. (As uncomfortable as it is to see, there’s quite a record of the royals dancing with indigenous people throughout the world.)

But in the court of African fact versus fiction, there are a number of reasons why the “dance episode” stirred some controversy. The show got some things right but a lot wrong. That’s television, I suppose.  As The Crown correctly portrayed, trouble was in the air that 1961 year in Ghana. Some British members of parliament (and others) recommended that she not fulfill a previously planned visit to Accra, Ghana’s capital. Nevertheless, the Queen insisted. At the time, Nkrumah was leaning toward socialist ideology. In the Cold War era, the specter of socialism in a leading African country such as Ghana was alarming to both the Americans and the British, who, after all, still possessed colonies in the 1960s. Losing Commonwealth countries to Russia was not an appetizing prospect. John Parker, a historian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said, “The British government was certainly concerned to limit Soviet influence in ex-colonies. Overseas tours by the queen were designed broadly to strengthen Commonwealth links.”

The dance didn’t magically snatch Nkrumah from the jaws of the communists back to the loving arms of the West and certainly was not a critical moment in the arc of Nkrumah’s political philosophy. He continued to adhere to socialism in subsequent years, even earning the Lenin Peace Prize the year after the queen’s visit. In an online NPR articleTim McDonnell quotes Nat Nuno-Amarteifio, an architect and amateur historian who was mayor of Accra from 1994-98: “I still don’t know why that stupid dance is so important.”

I suspect Queen Elizabeth attached a lot less significance to the dance than The Crown suggests. In photographs and footage of the occasion, she seemed to be simply having a grand time away from stuffy old England dancing with Nkrumah while Prince Philip danced with Nkrumah’s wife, Madam Fathia. If the real Queen Elizabeth has ever watched The Crown (another controversial topic) and the Nkrumah episode in particular, she probably thinks it was much ado about nothing.

AFRICAN FACT v FICTION: Queen Elizabeth dances Highlife with President Nkrumah

AFRICAN FACT v FICTION: Queen Elizabeth dances Highlife with President Nkrumah (AP Photo)


Other aspects of the show’s dance scene are cringeworthy. The depiction of an ecstatic Ghanaian press watching the dance is patronizing, and the overacted scenes in which supposedly bewildered British bureaucrats express horror that the Queen was “dancing with an African” are distasteful and hardly realistic. The implication of the The Crown‘s dance episode was that the Queen was playing Nkrumah. However, as Yepoka Yeebo points out in an excellent article, it might well have been the reverse. Nkrumah, adept at pitting the US and Britain against the Soviet Union (Nkrumah had met President Kennedy a mere 8 months before the Queen’s visit to Ghana), might well have been playing the Queen. Don’t forget, Nkrumah was the man who had wrestled his country out of the death grip of British colonials and was no stranger to political maneuvering. I surmise that he would not have tolerated “dancing with the oppressor” unless it made political sense.

Finally, let’s set the record straight: the Queen and the President did not do the foxtrot; it was Highlife, a time-honored musical genre of Ghanaian creation, specifically a piece composed, we’re told, specially for Queen Elizabeth’s visit. Nor did she and Nkrumah take the dance floor as a solo pair. They danced among a good crowd of other presumably important guests as shown by the footage below, courtesy of British Pathé Prince Philip Archives. In the clip, notice the odd diction typical of both British and American newsreel narrators of the time.

Hopefully we can now put the topic of the dancing queen to merciful rest. And as for the accuracy of The Crown–well, as a fiction writer myself, I can’t get too self-righteous about it.

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