The Origins of Ghana’s Iconic Black Star Line

The focal point of the African nation’s flag was inspired by the name of its first shipping line.

Published February 3, 2017

Ghana was celebrating in 1957. The people had formed an independent nation after more than a century under colonial rule. Among the newborn country’s ventures was a government-owned shipping company, the Black Star Line (BSL). It was not the first shipping line to bear that name.

American civil rights leader Marcus Garvey started a shipping company called the Black Star Line in 1919, the name being a take on the White Star Line, which included the infamous RMS Titanic. Garvey’s vision was for a line owned and operated by black people that would link America, the Caribbean, and Africa, giving the people direct access to shipping and tourism opportunities that were largely off limits at the time. Initial financing was through affordably priced US $5 shares, and although the company’s first ships were in ill repair—and there were allegations of mismanagement, thievery, and sabotage on the ships during the company’s operation—the line managed to operate until 1922. It became a symbol of pride not only for African Americans, but also for black people at all ports of call.

When Ghana began its shipping venture nearly 40 years later the government named its fleet in honor of Garvey’s line and even added a black star to the center of the country’s new tricolor flag, with its yellow, green, and red stripes. The line’s initial plan was to run ships between Ghana and Europe, importing machinery, cement, and other cargo to Ghana and exporting Ghanaian produce such as cocoa beans.  

The Volta River, pictured here, was the first ship to sail on Ghana’s BSL. It left Liverpool, England, in late November 1957, and arrived at Ghana’s Takoradi Harbour in early December. Eventually, BSL ships also traveled to North America and around the Mediterranean.

In the end, trade volumes didn’t justify the number and capacity of the BSL’s ships. The company began selling its fleet and exchanged its remaining four ships for smaller ones in 1993. The ships were eventually sold in the late 1990s, but the black star lives on. It still adorns Ghana’s flag, and the country’s national soccer club is nicknamed “the Black Stars” for the flag’s central feature, which is displayed on its uniforms.