‘The Crown’ Says One Dance Changed History. The Truth Isn’t So Simple

It was a highlight of the latest season of the Netflix series The Crown, which chronicles the early years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign: The year is 1961, the Cold War is heating up and the queen (played by Claire Foy), feeling self-conscious after learning that First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) called her "incurious" at a dinner party, decides to take a more proactive role in dealing with Ghana, a former colony whose new leader, Kwame Nkrumah (Danny Sapani), appears to be getting too cozy with the Soviets.

Her solution: A dance with Nkrumah at a ball in the capital, Accra. The foxtrot, specifically, to the extreme, hilarious consternation of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser).

It's a high-stakes political gamble that could decide the balance of Soviet power in Africa, which in the early 1960s was fast emerging as a Cold War battleground. To everyone's relief, the dance is a success. The implication is that, in exchange for his photo op dancing with the queen, Nkrumah will "come back to the fold" and squash Soviet hopes for Africa. Later, JFK (Michael Hall) crows to Jackie that her jab at the queen precipitated a major foreign policy victory for the U.S. and U.K. It's the foxtrot that changes the course of history.

"Well, that's nice," says Nat Nuno-Amarteifio, an architect and amateur historian who served as mayor of Accra from 1994-98 and remembers the queen's supposedly fateful visit from when he was a teenage student. "It's a lot of bulls**t."

It turns out The Crown got a lot wrong about that dance, according to Nuno-Amarteifio and other Ghanaian history experts.

There's no dispute that the Ghana visit happened, or that Nkrumah and the queen shared a dance, as shown in the photo above. But the dance wasn't exactly a pivotal moment for Nkrumah's political philosophy, which continued to adhere to socialism in subsequent years, even earning him the Lenin Peace Prize the year after the queen's visit.

"I'm surprised that the dance has attained this retroactive reputation," Nuno-Amarteifio says. "Nobody talked about it then."

At the time, Nkrumah was likely Africa's most influential leader. As a young man in the mid-1930s, he had scraped together enough cash from his farming family in what was then the British colony of Gold Coast to travel to the U.S. for an education. He worked his way through philosophy and theology degrees at Lincoln College and the University of Pennsylvania, followed by two years in London forming alliances with other anti-colonial organizers who were poised to dislodge Britain, France and other colonial powers from their seats in Africa. In 1947, when a pro-independence party began to gather momentum in Accra, its members recruited Nkrumah as their leader. He returned to Gold Coast, but soon found himself imprisoned in a converted British beach fort after a strike he helped organize turned violent. Still, at the next election in 1951, he ran for office from his cell and won a seat in Parliament. As his party's leader, he was installed as prime minister, and the British had no choice but to release him.

Over the next several years he helped coax the country toward independence, under the watchful eye of a British governor. During that time, he nurtured a cult of personality, promoted by newspapers as a kind of towering superhero who would soon vanquish the imperialists who had occupied the country for nearly a century. Sure enough, in 1957 Nkrumah succeeded in passing legislation granting Ghana full self-government, making it the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa to gain independence. The independence celebration in Accra was attended by political leaders from across the globe, including Vice President Richard Nixon (according to historian Martin Meredith's The Fate of Africa, Nixon infamously asked a black guest at the party how it felt to be free, to which the man reportedly replied, "I wouldn't know, sir. I'm from Alabama.").

That party featured another royal dance, a prelude to Nkrumah's encounter with the queen several years later. Meredith recounts that Nkrumah was warned he would need to dance with the Duchess of Kent, who would be there to represent the Crown. But Nkrumah was ill-trained in Western dance and only felt comfortable with highlife, a West African pop style. It fell to another guest, Louis Armstrong's wife, Lucille, to teach him the foxtrot.

During the country's early years, Nkrumah committed to the socialist sentiments he had first picked up in the U.S. and London, with the belief that a centrally planned economy and state control of cocoa and other valuable industries — what Nkrumah and others took to calling "African socialism" — were essential for the new country to shake the chains of colonialism. This was very concerning to President Kennedy, who in 1962 called Africa "the greatest open field of maneuver in the worldwide competition between the communist bloc and the non-communist." But it was not unique; several other newly-independent African nations, including Kenya, Mali and Tanzania, took guidance from the USSR, which, according to Meredith, "seemed to show that socialism produced rapid modernization."

In The Crown, that embrace is dramatized by a scene in which a portrait of the queen is taken down in the Ghanaian parliament building and replaced with one of Lenin. But although Nkrumah did tour Eastern Europe, his attachment to the USSR was never so extreme, Nuno-Amarteifio recalls.

"Our roots with Russian communism were more intellectual than anything else," he says. "There was nothing visceral about it. Lenin wasn't a personality that we associated with liberty or freedom. If anything, 99 percent of Ghanaians wouldn't have known who Lenin was."

John Parker, an historian at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, agreed that Nkrumah's ties to socialism were mostly ideological and detached from specific foreign policy agreements with the USSR. Still, Nkrumah was seen as a wild card by the U.S. and U.K., and the queen's visit was part of a broader strategy (not an individual impulse, as represented in the show) to corral him and other rogue leaders.

"The British government was certainly concerned to limit Soviet influence in ex-colonies," Parker says. "Overseas tours by the queen were designed broadly to strengthen Commonwealth links."

Meanwhile, African socialism wasn't exactly working the way Ghanaians hoped it would. By the time of the queen's visit in 1961, the economy was crumbling, bribes were routinely collected by government officials at every level of the system (including by Nkrumah himself, who, according to Meredith, even set up a special state-run company to facilitate bribe collection from foreign businessmen) and political opponents were frequently jailed.

"There was a lot of unhappiness, and Nkrumah's position was already delicate," Nuno-Amarteifio says. "If the queen was brave to come to Ghana, he was also brave to welcome her, because it exposed him to tremendous embarrassment should anything happen. The whole world would be watching."

Fortunately, the event seems to have gone off smoothly. As for the dance itself, Nuno-Amarteifio says it barely registered with him and his friends at the time. If anything, he says, The Crown's depiction of the ecstatic Ghanaian press and bewildered British bureaucrats, shocked that the queen would deign to dance with an African, comes across as paternalistic.

"It was a young white woman dancing with an African," he says. "What do you expect me to do, applaud?"

Did the visit accomplish anything? The big hydroelectric dam referenced in the episode was eventually built, not by the USSR but by an Italian company with financing from the U.S. and U.K. But "Ghana did not 'sever links' with the USSR," Parker says. "To suggest that [the dance] — or the royal tour as a whole — "tipped the balance" of Soviet power in West Africa is untrue."

Nkrumah would remain a proponent of socialism the rest of his life. In 1966, while on a trip to North Korea and China, he was deposed in a military coup that was likely orchestrated by the CIA.

In other words, the episode not only makes much ado out of a forgettable moment but uses that representation to manufacture a victory for the U.S. and U.K. that never really happened. Or, as Nuno-Amarteifio puts it: "I still don't know why that stupid dance is so important."

Tim McDonnell is a journalist covering the environment, conflict and related issues in sub-Saharan Africa. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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