In 1961, Queen Elizabeth II planned to go to Ghana, a former British colony that had gained its independence in 1957. But before she left on the trip, which was to take place on November 9 to 20, members of Parliament and the public didn't want her to go due to rising tensions in a country where President Kwame Nkrumah was well on his way to becoming a dictator. They were wary of the visit becoming too dangerous. On October 19, Winston Churchill expressed these sentiments when he wrote to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, saying in part: "I have the impression that there is widespread uneasiness both over the physical safety of the queen and, perhaps more, because her visit would seem to endorse a regime which has imprisoned hundreds of Opposition members without trial and which is thoroughly authoritarian in tendency."
To aid growing tensions, five days before Elizabeth's trip was to begin, bombs went off in the capital city of Accra. A statue of Nkrumah was hit, which showed the president was a target. Concerns about the queen possibly becoming collateral damage while with him were heightened.
Queen Elizabeth insisted on going to Ghana despite the danger involved
But Elizabeth had always been intent on making the trip to Ghana, and the bombings didn't alter this determination. One reason she was reluctant to reschedule was that she'd already canceled on Nkrumah in 1959 when she became pregnant with Prince Andrew. And though Ghana was part of the Commonwealth, along with other nations that had been part of the British Empire, she knew Nkrumah was getting restless. As head of the Commonwealth, the queen didn't want to insult or embarrass Ghana by postponing the visit, which could push Nkrumah into leaving the group altogether.
In addition, the queen was aware that Nkrumah was getting closer to the Soviet Union, which wanted to expand its foothold in Africa amidst the Cold War. The Ghanaian leader had even traveled to Moscow that October. Soviet attentions toward Nkrumah apparently led to Elizabeth feeling a bit competitive; at one point she declared, "How silly I should look if I was scared to visit Ghana and then [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev went and had a good reception." Elizabeth also told her prime minister, "I am not a film star. I am the head of the Commonwealth — and I am paid to face any risks that may be involved. Nor do I say this lightly. Do not forget that I have three children."
Her visit was a success from start to finish
From the moment Elizabeth arrived in Ghana, along with Prince Philip, she was surrounded by crowds and excitement. Post-independence, the country had embarked on a program of "African socialism" in an attempt to strengthen its economy after years of colonialism. A neo-Marxist Ghanaian paper found Elizabeth to be "the world’s greatest Socialist Monarch in history." It was an unusual description for an enormously wealthy hereditary head of state, but indicated how popular she was.
At a state dinner, Nkrumah toasted Elizabeth by saying, "The wind of change blowing through Africa has become a hurricane. Whatever else is blown into the limbo of history, the personal regard and affection which we have for Your Majesty will remain unaffected." The queen's reply touched on the fact that nations of the Commonwealth could disagree without members needing to leave.
Elizabeth also captured attention by dancing with Nkrumah. Having the queen and a former colonial subject arm-in-arm on the dance floor was a way to demonstrate her acceptance of a new footing between their countries.
The trip had lasting effects on the Commonwealth
Nkrumah wasn't happy when Elizabeth went to visit the young son of an imprisoned opposition leader during her time in Ghana. But this didn't affect the overall impact of her trip. With the goodwill she'd generated, there was no more talk of Ghana leaving the Commonwealth.
Elizabeth's journey also helped Ghana get highly sought-after funding for the Volta Dam, a hydroelectric project that was a centerpiece of Nkrumah's economic plans. Once she'd returned, Macmillan contacted President John F. Kennedy to say, "I have risked my queen. You must risk your money." Financial backing from the Americans for the project soon came through, which cut off a potential avenue of influence for the Soviets.
Elizabeth's dedication to the Commonwealth meant that this trip would have been a success simply for helping to hold that organization together. However, the visit also demonstrated how, even as a monarch with limited powers, she still had a role to play on the world stage.