Throughout the British Empire – which ruled half the world between the 18th and 20th centuries – there was an unwritten rule: blacks must not marry white women or make love to them. You can therefore imagine the uproar in 1953 when it was announced in London that Joe Appiah, a Gold Coast student, was to marry Peggy Cripps, the daughter of the then British chancellor of the exchequer and one of the leading lights of the Labour Party.
The informative obituary of Peggy Appiah written by Ivor Agyemang-Duah (NA, March p74) reminded me of her husband, Joseph Appiah, who was one of the most charismatic political figures Ghana has ever seen. “Sir Joseph” – as he was known to his friends – had a wicked sense of humour with which, in Ghana’s first post-independence Parliament, he used to entertain both the government members and the opposition alike. Always clad in cloth, with a chain around his neck and sporting a goatee beard, Joe would stretch the rules of the House of Assembly to a point where the Speaker, Mr Justice A. M. Akiwumi, in his role as headmaster to Joe’s naughty schoolboy, either had to tolerate Joe’s antics or cause a national incident. He chose, rather benignly, to ignore Joe.
The butt of most of Joe’s jokes was the then minister of interior, Krobo Edusei, who had the misfortune of introducing a corrupt Sri Lankan doctor, Dr Emil Savundra, into Ghana as someone who wanted to partner the government in launching several projects. All the projects were questionable and intended to fleece the Ghanaian populace. (Dr Savundra was such a crook that he was later convicted in Britain on charges of committing the country’s worst motor insurance fraud in history).
How Joe Appiah and his opposition colleagues got information about the crooked nature of Savundra’s deals is not known, but get it they did. Savundra was exposed publicly and he left Ghana in a bit of a hurry. After his departure, Joe Appiah used to watch the entrance to Parliament House carefully, and as soon as he spotted Krobo Edusei making his way into the House, would raise his arm, point to Edusei and shout: “SAVUUUUU!” Whereupon the opposition members would yell back in unison, “SAVUUUUNDRA!”
This brought the House down – both government and opposition members would fall about laughing. It was very uncomfortable for Krobo Edusei, but he endured it all in good humour, often joining in the laughter. The good humour of those days was one of the things I, as Radio Ghana’s parliamentary correspondent, missed most when the Preventive Detention Act was passed in 1958, enabling the Nkrumah government to detain anyone it liked for five years without trial. As soon as opposition figures like Joe Appiah were detained under this Act, politics in the National Assembly became rather funereal and bitter, and Ghana has never been able to recapture the good fun that was often present in our politics in those days.
I also enjoyed Joe’s humour when I ran into him one day at the Ghana embassy in Paris. He had been sent to try and convince French opinion that the nkabom aban (union government) which General Kutu Acheampong’s regime was trying to establish in Ghana in 1974-75 was a good idea. But I think he found the salesmanship a bit boring, for when I got there, he was not talking politics but having a drink and telling funny stories. This is one story I still remember: Whilst dating his wife-to-be, Peggy in the early 1950s, he used to go to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, to harangue Britain for its unwillingness to grant independence to its African colonies. If the weather permitted, he always wore his Ghanaian cloth (which is worn at the shoulder, somewhat like a Roman toga) to go and mount his platform and speak. He was in full flow one day when a team from the British newspaper, The Daily Express, arrived. That paper was the most empire-promoting newspaper of its day and when its reporter heard what Joe was saying about the empire, he became interested and asked his cameraman to take some pictures of Joe. The reporter asked a few questions and left. Joe was surprised to see in the next day’s Express, a picture of himself under the banner headline, “BLANKET-CLAD ZULU CHIEF BERATES EMPIRE”. Now, the Ghanaian cloth is not a woollen ‘blanket’ (the heat and humidity would kill them if they wore one in the open sunshine!), and apart from the inaccuracy, Joe was also annoyed by the racist undertones of the article. To The Daily Express, the term “Zulu Chief” was a code for an “uncivilised native” and Joe understood the nuances of the language used perfectly. So he arranged for the editor of the paper to be invited to dinner at the home of Peggy’s father, Sir Stafford Cripps, former chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. Joe turned up at the dinner in his best Moss Brothers lawyer’s outfit, and had a very “erudite conversation” with the editor about the law of libel! Then, on cue, someone produced the offending article in The Daily Express. Pointing to the splash with the “Zulu Chief” headline, he asked the editor: “I say! Doesn’t that Zulu Chief bear an uncanny resemblance to someone in this room?” Whereupon the entire room erupted into boisterous laughter. The editor looked at the picture and then looked round, and then the penny dropped! Said Joe: “When the editor realised it was me, he blushed like red ink”. I can still see his big eyes twinkling with pleasure at the memory.
Now, marriage is usually a matter between individuals: a man meets a woman, falls in love with her, they negotiate the course their affair should take, and if it works, they become man and wife. But throughout the British Empire – which ruled half the world between the 18th and 20th centuries, there was an unwritten rule: blacks must not marry white women, or make love to them. If you have read A Passage To India by E. M. Forster, you will understand the taboos associated with contacts between English women and “colonial peoples”. Actually, the prejudice was in existence even in Shakespeare’s day, which was well before the British Empire had sprouted its teeth. Who can forget Othello and the unbearable tensions that the mere union of a black man and a white woman caused in their society, leading eventually to the destruction of both the man and the woman?
Of course, many people disregarded the racist barrier to sex between people of different colours, that gave the lie to the imperialists’ hypocritical claim that they had brought “civilised” values to the people they ruled. But those who drove a coach and horses through the hypocrisy of the British Empire paid a heavy price. In the colonies, they were usually ostracised by the local “establishment”. In the UK, they sometimes had to endure name-calling, or attacks in the streets or on their homes. But often, these were “low-profile” cases that did not attract media attention. However, in 1948, marriage between the races became a major story in Britain. A prince of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), called Seretse Khama, who was waiting to be proclaimed king and had in the meantime studied at one of the most respected colleges of Oxford University, Balliol, and was in the process of qualifying as a lawyer at the prestigious Inner Temple in London, married a white woman called Ruth Williams. If and when Seretse Khama returned home to Bechuanaland, Ruth would become queen of his people.
Whether Britain, by itself, would have tolerated this high-profile inter-racial marriage is not known, but it just happened that South Africa had voted a party into power, called the Nationalist Party, that was intent on creating a racist society by law (apartheid) in what was then known as “The Union of South Africa”. Bechuanaland was being ruled by Britain mainly from neighbouring South Africa, and the new South African regime brought a great deal of pressure upon the British government not to allow the married couple to return to Bechuanaland and be so close to the apartheid regime, which, of course, had made sex between the races an offence punishable by imprisonment under the law.
The British high commissioner in Pretoria at the time was an awful bigot called Sir Evelyn Baring, who (later in his career) as governor of Kenya, during the nationalist uprising there, described by the British as the Mau Mau rebellion, supervised the massacre of over 30,000 Kenyans. It was Baring who also called one of the most “moderate” of African leaders, Jomo Kenyatta, a “leader unto darkness and unto death”. Baring convinced the British government that it would be a “disaster” for relations between South Africa and Britain if Seretse Khama were allowed back to Bechuanaland. So he and Ruth were exiled to Britain and not allowed back to Khama’s home country!
Then, in 1953, another blow was struck at the empire’s racism. Peggy, the 32-year-old daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps, one of the most senior leaders of the British Labour Party, and who had won notoriety as the chancellor of the exchequer who devalued the pound after the Second World War, announced that she was to marry Joseph (Joe) Appiah, a student from the Gold Coast (now Ghana). The British media went berserk. Even Time magazine in America reported the wedding. (Joe was then president of the West African Students Union, and had met Peggy, then working for an organisation called “Racial Unity” at a students’ dance). It was these two marriages that inspired a Hollywood script writer, William Rose, who lived in London between 1948 and 1957, to write the script for the popular film, “Guess who is coming to dinner”.
Joe and Peggy Appiah settled in Kumase in 1954, and despite the temptations that a polygamous environment must have put in the path of Joe, who was the quintessential Asante man, the marriage lasted all their lives. Politics too intervened sometimes, with Joe in jail at a time when their four children were small and needed care. Joe died in 1990, but instead of packing up and leaving for England, as might have been expected of many other white women, Peggy stayed on in Kumase for another 16 years, before she too passed away on 11 February 2006.
It is rare for a white woman to fall in love with an African city and make it her own to such an extent that she would purchase a plot at a cemetery – next to where her husband had been buried – and insist on being buried there. But that’s what Peggy did, and that’s where she was interred on 18 March 2006.