Feature

Women Forgotten In the Shadow Of History: Fathia Nkrumah

“The Marriage That Sent The West Into A Panic”

Dr. Carina Ray, an American historian, scholar and author of the book “Crossing the Color Line: Race, Sex, and the Contested Politics of Colonialism in Ghana” (she is working on her next project titled “Somatic Blackness: A History of the Body and Race in Ghana”), wrote the piece “The Marriage That Sent The West Into A Panic” for the New African Magazine (No. 448, Feb. 2006). 

When Kwame Nkrumah married his Egyptian bride, Miss Fathia Halen Ritzk, in a surprise wedding, British and American authorities were sent into a panic as they feverishly sought to determine what the political implications were. Carina Ray continues her “Tales from the Archives” by exposing the extent to which Western powers were preoccupied with the romantic affairs of the man who took back the first piece of Britain’s African empire.

On 30 December 1957, shortly after Ghana achieved its independence from Britain, the country’s then Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, married a beautiful young Egyptian woman, Miss Fathia Halen Ritzk. At the time, Fathia was a 26-year-old university student, studying Arabic in Cairo. The wedding came as a surprise to almost everyone, Ghanaians and international observers alike, and was the cause of much suspicion amongst the British and American authorities.

Documents declassified in 1989 and 2003 from Britain’s Domestic Office and Colonial Office files, respectively, reveal the extent to which the powers that be were preoccupied with Nkrumah’s personal affairs, and more specifically his marital prospects.

The surprise wedding to Fathia was not, however, the first time the authorities had taken an interest in his romantic life. As early as 1951, Sir Thomas Lloyd, assistant principal at the Colonial Office, dispatched a “personal and secret letter” to Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, governor of the then Gold Coast, to ascertain the veracity of a rumor that Nkrumah planned to wed an English woman.

Arden-Clarke replied in an equally confidential manner that this rumour had indeed been circulating in the Gold Coast, but that Nkrumah was “at pains to deny this publicly.”

The woman in question, Mrs. Florence Manley of London, was alleged to be a divorcee with one child. It was further suggested by Arden-Clarke that Nkrumah and Mrs. Manley “were on terms of intimacy” in 1947 during Nkrumah’s stay in the UK.

According to the governor, Mrs. Manley was “reluctant to marry Nkrumah for fear of ruining his political career,” but added that she had proposed “to visit the Gold Coast with her child to test African reaction and judge the position for herself.”

While suggesting that “the probable effects of such a marriage on [Nkrumah’s] political career must give him pause,” Arden-Clarke plainly admitted that Nkrumah was not the type to be concerned by such considerations: “If he intends such a marriage, considerations of the social consequences of marrying a divorcee will not weigh with him; and, whether he intends it or not, I should expect him to resent any suggestion that he should be guided by them.”

Interestingly, whereas Sir Lloyd appeared preoccupied with the ramifications of Mrs. Manley’s position as a white woman, Arden-Clarke identified her status as a divorcee as being the socio-political obstacle in the way of such a marriage.

Given that no marriage between Nkrumah and Mrs. Manley ever took place, Lloyd and Arden-Clarke’s concerns, in the end, came to nought. However, they do reveal the centrality with which such officials regarded the romantic affairs of the men who were taking back the empire.

With this background in mind, it should come as no surprise that Nkrumah’s marriage to Fathia nearly seven years later was met with great suspicion. Numerous conspiracy theories abounded about their marriage, particularly amongst British and American officials. Indeed, M. E. Allen of the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) remarked that the “exact implications of the happy event have provided material for much speculation in London and Accra as well as in Washington.”

The US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were rumoured to be primarily concerned with whether the marriage was intended to create a political union between Egypt and Ghana.

British officials sought to alleviate American fears by highlighting the fact that Fathia did not come from a political family in Egypt and that her inability to speak English would make it quite difficult for her to be used as an instrument for “the promotion of Egyptian views.”

While the British high commissioner in Accra, Sir Ian Maclennan, dismissed the possibility that political motivations were behind Nkrumah’s choice of bride, he informed the CRO that there was “no doubt” that Prime Minister Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt hoped to “build something on the foundation of the marriage.”

To support his claim, Maclennan reported that shortly after the wedding, Nasser had “sent a special emissary to Accra to invest Nkrumah with the Grand Cross of the Order of the Nile.” Perhaps it had slipped Maclennan’s mind that Ghana was no longer a colony when he snidely remarked: “It is not to be supposed that Nkrumah sought Her Majesty’s permission before accepting this [Grand Cross].”

In a further indication of the eagerness with which British officials sought to find fault with Nkrumah, Maclennan accused him of hypocrisy for accepting Nasser’s tribute: “It is…amusing that [Nkrumah] should himself become the first exception to the rule which he laid down after independence that Ghanaians were not to accept foreign orders and decorations.”

In a further example of the way in which Nkrumah’s marriage was regarded as a strategic move, the US State Department and CIA sought verification from British officials in Washington of a rumor that “Dr. Nkrumah felt he was getting too tied up with Israel and as a balancing measure indented on Gairo for ‘one bride, sight unseen.'”

They were also keen on determining whether the marriage might serve to weaken Nkrumah’s political power. J. R. A. Bottomley of the British embassy in Washington reported that the two American agencies were “inclined to the view that the marriage may tend to weaken Dr Nkrumah’s mystic union with the women of Ghana (who were as he used to claim, all his brides) and thus his position at the head of the CPP [Convention People’s Party].”

Now no longer officially associated with the administration of Ghana, former governor Sir Arden-Clarke nonetheless told the CRO that he believed the marriage was the “bright idea” of George Padmore, Nkrumah’s long-time friend and adviser. Padmore was believed to have “suggested to [Nkrumah] that a symbolic marriage of this type with an Egyptian girl would be an indication of a unity of interests between East and West Africa, etc.”

According to a CRO memo, Nkrumah’s colleague and close friend at the time, Finance Minister Komla Gbedemah, was of the opinion that Nkrumah, “if he married at all, would not be anxious to marry into a local family because he would have the family round his neck.” Gbedemah reportedly suggested that Nkrumah, in trying to find “the best way out” of marrying a local woman, took his lead from a member of Ghana’s parliament who was married to an Egyptian woman.

More salacious conspiracy theories were also in circulation. Colonel J. R. Lupton of the British high commission in Accra suggested that “the most popular theory is that [Nkrumah’s] juju priest advised him to marry an Egyptian and that his son would be a ‘messiah.'”

The racist undertones of this rumour serve as an indication of the way in which many Europeans continued to make sense out of the actions of Africans: Here was the highly educated and articulate leader of Sub-Saharan Africa’s first independent country and the prevailing theory adopted to understand his choice in bride was that he was following the advice of what Europeans undoubtedly regarded as a religious quack.

In his assessment of the reaction of Ghanaians to Nkrumah’s marriage, Lupton found that they were perplexed by the secrecy surrounding the marriage and wondered why Nkrumah could not find a “suitable Ghanaian lady.” Yet, he went on to belittle the complexity of their alleged concerns by reducing them to being “done out of a justifiable reason for a national holiday and a jolly good party.”

Of all the various theories concocted about the marriage, it would seem that the British authorities, despite their denial, believed the union was a political weapon that could be used against them.

In a confidential telegram to the CRO, High Commissioner Maclennan noted that “in normal circumstances presumably [the British] prime minister and secretary of state would send messages of congratulations to a Commonwealth prime minister on the occasion of his marriage.”

He continued, however, that the “hole and corner way in which [the] wedding has been arranged” and more to the point, “the Egyptian nationality of the bride” would discourage them from conveying their congratulations to Nkrumah.

Given the focus on Fathia’s nationality, it would seem that the British were reluctant to offer their congratulations and by extension their approval of a union they felt threatened by. In the end, the secretary of state had Maclennan convey his “good wishes” to Nkrumah, but avoided contacting him directly.”

Article first published in https://www.ghanaweb.com/

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