The Ghana Elmina Castle rests calmly on the central coast of the West African country of Ghana, near the city of Cape Coast. A mighty citadel, overlooking a sleepy old fishing town.
The walls of this former slave castle glow white in the sunlight. It contrasts with the glittering tans of the sand, the greens of the palm trees, the blues of the sky, and the white foam of the waves. A soft sea breeze continually blows through the village. It creates an idyllic and tranquil setting. Along the coast, fisherman sit in boats. They cast their nets out into the ocean in hopes of catching enough fish to support their families for the day.
Children play carefree along the shores. They follow their mothers as they make their way to the nearby market. The women carry their wares and produce in large metal basins balanced on their heads. I have always enjoyed the beauty of Africa. And at that moment, nothing was more beautiful than watching people going about their daily lives. This was a snapshot of Africa, timeless and enduring.
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Visiting the Ghana Elmina Castle
It has been hundreds of years since the end of the slave trade. And with each passing generation, the story slowly loses its importance in our collective memory. Because, even though we try hard not to forget the lessons learned by our ancestors, we find it’s so easy to let it slip into the category of trivia. Very few people ever get to make a real connection to their culture’s history.
To so many, history consists of merely pages in a book and sentences in paragraphs. History is just facts to be memorized and repeated for tests and exams. So few of us are lucky enough to ever have the opportunity to visit a piece of the past. But those pieces are still there. They are still standing, and still refusing to be forgotten.
For visitors to Ghana, the Ghana Elmina Castle is a must see sight. They offer tours to visitors, where people can learn about what it was like for the Africans who were forced to be there, before being shipped off to the Americas.
During our tour, our guide takes us through the different chambers and passageways of the fortress. Many of the people in the tour group are tourists, like me, who have come to explore a bit history. But there are also some Ghanaian visitors as well.
Castles along the Slave Coast
Elmina Castle is one of many castles that stand along the coast formerly known as the Slave Coast. It was originally created by the Portuguese as a place to store goods for trade. As time passed and European countries learned of the profits to be made in human trade, the castle became one of many collecting points for slaves captured in West Africa.
Men and women, taken from places as far away as Mali and as close as Togo, were forced to make the long journey to these fortresses by foot. Upon arriving, they would await the ships that would carry them to the Americas. The Ghana Elmina Castle was the last stop. This was their last memory of their homeland. There are many such places along the coast of West Africa.
One of the most heartbreaking parts of the tour is visiting the female slave yard. It’s a space approximately 30 feet in length and 15 feet wide. We are at least one or two stories underground. The air inside the chamber smells damp and musty. It feels heavy and burdened. Time can’t wipe away the memory of so many people living and dying within those bare stone walls.
A brutal place for women
Our guide tells us that in the female dungeon, about 150 or more women were held at a time. They stood together for months, crammed in shoulder to shoulder, with no place to relieve themselves except for the floor and in the pots permanently placed in the corners of the chamber. The men’s accommodations are of similar conditions, except a level below.
Above the female dungeon is a balcony overlooking the courtyard of Elmina Castle. This is the governor’s residence. Our guide informs us that from time to time, the governor would call the women out into the courtyard, look down on them, and pick out those he wanted for the night. Those women were then led up a back staircase to be bathed, fed a meal, and taken into the governor’s bedroom where he could have his way with them.
Later on in the tour of Ghana Elmina Castle, we get to visit the rooms that make up the living area of the governor. It is a space roughly similar in size to the female dungeon. The walls are lined with windows with breathtaking views of the sea, and the floors are covered with wood, barely worn from use. The ocean breeze flows through the rooms in a soft and easy manner. A living room, a study, a bedroom. So much for just one man.
Those women given to the governor were the lucky ones, according to our guide. Many of the soldiers who guarded the castle had less refined ways to release their sexual desires.
The cruelness of humanity
Walking through the Ghana Elmina Castle, I can’t help thinking about all the women who were denied their basic right to their own bodies. How can humanity be so cruel to itself? What creates this disconnect that allows someone to see another as a completely different and somehow inferior species? As a servant? As an object? Or as something to be used and thrown away rather than respected and revered?
So much of the injustices throughout history and in the present stem from this disconnect. Consider the Holocaust, the massacres of Native Americans, and even the ethno-political conflicts in the Middle East.
To me, it all stems from a disconnect to each other. And it stems from a disconnect to our history. It stems from the inaccurate belief that this is somehow different than before, a refusal to take away from the lessons learned in the past.
The “Door of No Return” at Ghana Elmina Castle
One of the final spots that the slaves go through at Ghana Elmina Castle is the “Door of No Return.” It is a narrow passageway in a chamber adjacent to the men’s dungeon, looking out into the ocean. The door is less than a foot and a half wide and covered by steel horizontal and vertical bars.
There are no windows for light or ventilation in the men’s dungeon or in this chamber. So we walk through the darkness carefully, trying not to fall. The light spilling into the chamber from the passageway glows brilliantly, contrasting with the heavy blackness of the space.
I peer through the bars and see the waves of the ocean in the distance. The palm trees sway in the breeze and the sea gulls squawk from up above. Lively voices echo from the nearby village.
I think of the slaves who saw this same scene as they passed through the door that signified the tragedy and permanence of their existence. No longer would they be able to return to this land. No longer would they be able to smell the air, walk through the forests, hear the rain and feel the sunlight of this land that they knew and loved so well. To those men and women, the scene was a mean joke, taunting them.
Forgetting is such an easy thing to do
The last spot of our Ghana Elmina Castle is the isolation chamber. It is a tiny cell with no windows. There is a small four inch wide hole for ventilation that leads into another chamber. The door to the isolation chamber is solid wood. And stone carvings of a skull and crossbones hang above the entrance.
Slaves who dared to rebel were sent here. They were locked up and left alone with no food or water. Many went crazy, many died. There are bloody imprints on the walls where slaves tried to scrape their way through the stone. On a white marble slab on the wall next to the isolation chamber are engraved these words:
In everlasting memory/ of the anguish of our ancestors/ may those who died rest in peace/ may those who return find their roots/ may humanity never again perpetrate/ such injustice against humanity/ we the living vow to uphold this
The walls of Elmina exude a cooling sadness. It’s as if the ghosts of those who died within those walls are still wandering the grounds, wondering when they would be returned their freedom.
The fortress reveals to me the disconnect that exists in our world. A subtle dissonance between the relationship of a culture’s history to the present and the future. This dissonance is done by descendents of both the oppressor and the oppressed.
We forget where we have been. And by forgetting, we are thus unable to move forward in a way that will allow us to grow. Instead, we simply run in circles, making the same mistakes over and over.
Our histories repeat themselves, in various forms and various contexts. Nothing is ever truly original, they are only variations. Hopefully someday we will figure it out. Only then can we truly move forward.
Tips to prepare for a visit to Ghana Elmina Castle
If you’re planning a visit to Ghana, make time to tour the Ghana Elmina Castle. But be warned, a visit to Elmina is not for the faint of heart. Here are three ways to prepare for your trip.
Brush up on your Ghana history and culture
The Ghana guidebook from Bradt Travel Guides is quite informative about things to do in Ghana, as well as the culture and history of the country. You can also check out books about Ghana from your local library.
Talk to your family about the slave trade
Discussing the dark parts of our cultures’ histories may be difficult to do, but it’s important to at least discuss it briefly with your kids. Watch videos or read kid-friendly books about the Atlantic slave trade.
Have a back-up plan for visiting Ghana Elmina Castle
If the tour is too heavy for your kids, have a back-up plan. It’s okay to leave the tour early. Take pictures of the castle and the scenery instead. Take a walk around the village of Elmina. Or take a few minutes to talk with your kids about what they might be feeling.
Note: Parts of this blog post was previously published on BootsnAll in May 2007.
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