Heritage: Kwame Nkrumah, the visionary who took Ghana to independence

Dr Kwame Nkrumah, prime minister of Ghana, with Queen Elizabeth II, and Princess Anne, at Balmoral C

Dr Kwame Nkrumah, prime minister of Ghana, with Queen Elizabeth II, and Princess Anne, at Balmoral Castle. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Many doors were slammed in the face of Kwame Nkrumah, the man who would later become Ghana’s first president, when he first sought rooms in Kentish Town in 1945 due to the colour of his skin. But, as Adam Sonin discovers they were intellectually fruitful years.

British prime minister Harold Wilson (centre) talking to president Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (right) an

British prime minister Harold Wilson (centre) talking to president Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (right) and Mr KJ Holyoake, prime minister of New Zealand, in the garden of Marlborough House, London, when the Commonwealth Prime Minister's conference opened. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Kwame Nkrumah became an international icon of freedom as the leader of the first black African country to cast off the chains of colonial rule.

By the age of 15, and after a modest start in life, he began studying to be a teacher.

He benefitted from a colonial education having been spotted by the principal of a government training college, and later studied abroad.

These experiences, as a student in America, broadened his horizons and led to a belief that there were alternatives to the British tradition of government.

In London, as a post-graduate, he became deeply involved in the anti-colonial movement and was subjected to surveillance by “the authorities”.

Inspired by India’s achievement of independence, in 1947, he proclaimed: “If we get self-government we’ll transform the Gold Coast into a paradise in 10 years.”

Most Read

Returning home, he created a new political party, the Convention People’s Party, eventually triumphing against the British authorities.

He wrote, “We face neither east nor west; We face forward” and “without discipline true freedom cannot survive”.

As head of an elected government he heard the sound of the last “bugle of empire” and declared Ghana an independent nation.

In his capacity as statesman he met with President John F Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King.

He was voted Africa’s Man of the Millennium by listeners in a BBC World Service poll in 2000.

Kwame Francis Nwia Kofie Nkrumah (1909–1972), president of Ghana, was born in a small town in what was then the British colony known as the Gold Coast. As is customary with all Akan people he had a day name – Kwame (Saturday).

Nkrumah went to school in Accra and on graduation became a teacher, for a year, and then a headmaster, for two years.

After accepting a teaching post at a Catholic seminary near Amissano he seriously considered the priesthood. Instead he opted to further his education in Britain.

He sat and failed the London matriculation examinations, finally deciding to study in America, where he was accepted, and offered a small scholarship, at Lincoln University, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

On his application form he wrote: “I neither know where to begin nor where to end because I feel that the story of my life has not been one of achievements. In truth, the burden of my life can be summarized into a single line in The Memoriam [sic] quoted by Cecil Rhodes, ‘So much to do so little done’.”

Nkrumah’s undergraduate years at Lincoln, a small university for black men, supported by the Presbyterian church, lasted from 1935 to 1939.

He was awarded a BA degree in economics and sociology in 1939 and in the same year enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania for a masters degree.

His interests became focused upon anti-imperialism.

It is very likely that his first major publication, Towards Colonial Freedom, not published until 1947, was drafted between 1942 and 1945. During this period it is clear that Nkrumah was becoming more involved in radical black political circles, including organisations of anti-colonial African students studying in the USA.

By the end of his time in the USA he was a committed, radical nationalist.

The reasons for Nkrumah’s move to study in London, in 1945, remain unclear.

Before he left the US, C L R James, the historian and writer, had given him an introduction to George Padmore, the veteran West Indian journalist and activist.

In Nkrumah’s autobiography he claims that he had written in advance, asking Padmore to meet him at Euston station.

In London he swiftly registered for a PhD degree in anthropology at the London School of Economics, for another in philosophy at University College London (where he was supervised by the philosopher A J Ayer) and was admitted as a student by Gray’s Inn, but not called to the Bar.

Prof Ayer recalled that he did not think that Nkrumah was “a first-class philosopher”.

He said: “I liked him and enjoyed talking to him but he did not seem to me to have an analytical mind. He wanted answers too quickly. I think part of the trouble may have been that he wasn’t concentrating very hard on his thesis. It was a way of marking time until the opportunity came for him to return to Ghana.”

Initially, Nkrumah found it hard to secure accommodation. He later recalled that, because of his colour, countless doors were slammed in his face.

Eventually, he found a room at 60 Burghley Road, Kentish Town, where he lived from 1945 until 1947, when he returned to the Gold Coast.

Nkrumah’s time here was happy. His landlady, Mrs Florence Manley, looked upon him “as a member of my family”, and made a point of opening her home to his friends. It was also productive with Nkrumah “always working, till three or four in the morning”.

The address was close to Primrose Gardens, where a number of radical West Africans were living and was about the same distance to the West African Students Union (WASU) hostel in Camden Square.

Nkrumah quickly became absorbed in the activities and discussions taking place around him.

These were exciting days. The war was drawing to a close. The Labour Party, whom WASU supported, was about to win the next general election.

Joe Appiah (who later became a Ghanaian politician and lawyer) remembered that he and his flat-mates often hosted racially-mixed social gatherings which Nkrumah attended.

He also appeared at the dances and social occasions at the WASU hostel, but “was too shy to talk to white girls or to dance with them or even to get too close to them”.

So the Primrose Gardens “gang” decided that he needed a white girlfriend. Nkrumah was introduced to Diana P. [sic], herself a revolutionary Marxist’.

Politics continued to dominate Nkrumah’s life.

He became deeply involved in the increasingly radical African student political groupings, some of which had links with communist organisations in Britain and Europe.

He assisted George Padmore in the convening of the celebrated Pan-African Congress, which met in Manchester in October 1945 and to which Diana accompanied Nkrumah.

In 1947, back in Africa, Nkrumah’s charisma and visionary ideas led him to become a figure of major significance.

In 1957, when – partly through his campaigning – the Gold Coast (renamed Ghana) became the first black African colony to achieve independence, Nkrumah was made the country’s first prime minister.

Three years later, he became president. This period of his career was fraught with controversy, and ended in 1966 with his dismissal from office.

Nkrumah did, however, leave a lasting legacy, providing Ghana with benefits such as free elementary education and a network of roads.

He died in exile in Bucharest, where he had travelled for medical care. An English Heritage plaque, erected in 2005, marks the statesman’s Kentish Town address.