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.
A must see sight in Ghana
“You have to go to Elmina,” my friend, Maggie told me earlier, “it’s going to make you cry.”
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.
“When you go,” Maggie continues, “ask for Kwame as your guide. He’s really good.”
Visiting the Ghana Elmina Castle
We arrive in Ghana Elmina Castle early in the afternoon. Our white Mercedes car pulls into the parking lot. As members of our traveling group spill out of the car, we are immediately accosted by a number of teenage boys selling souvenir sea shells and bracelets. Christoph, our driver and friend of one of my traveling companions, stands to the side and watches. He looks slightly amused.
“Hello, how are you,” the boys say, fighting each other to get to us first, “I want to be your friend. Give me your address.”
We hurry quickly through the entrance of the Ghana Elmina Castle, where they can’t reach us. The tour begins with an introduction and history of Elmina.
True to what Maggie claimed, Kwame is a good guide. He continually demands questions from members of our tour group. There are about fifteen of us taking the tour of Elmina Castle, including the six people in my traveling group. Christoph also joins us.
I glance around at the other faces. Many are tourists, like me, who have come to explore a bit history. There is an American couple, and two twenty-something American men. Two young Ghanaian women and a couple more tourists from other countries finish off the group. We follow Kwame as he takes us through the different chambers and passageways.
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.
“This is the female slave yard,” Kwame says, stopping at an open courtyard bordered by a large chamber, “over there is where the women were kept.”
He points to the chamber, 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
Kwame said 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.
Kwame points to a balcony overlooking the courtyard of Elmina Castle.
“That is the governor’s residence,” he explains.
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.
“From time to time,” Kwame continues, “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.”
Those women were the lucky ones, according to Kwame. Many of the soldiers who guarded the castle had less refined ways to release their sexual desires.
“We will continue on to the men’s slave yard,” Kwame says, as he leads us into the next chamber.
The cruelness of humanity
I am ill with the thought of so many women being 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. I think of the Holocaust. And I think of the massacres of Native Americans. I think of ethno-political conflicts in the Middle East. And I think of the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda.
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”
Kwame brings us to 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.
“The passageway is this narrow on purpose,” Kwame explains, “because they are meant to let only one person out at a time onto the boats.”
By the time the boats arrived to bring the slaves to the Americas, which was often every three or four months, many of the captives were so starved and weak that they could easily pass through the space.
Forgetting is such an easy thing to do
Christoph stands next to the “Door of No Return” and looks out onto the beach. He is an African man of average build, probably about five feet ten. His shoulders are wider than the width of the passageway. He has a government job and lives comfortably with his wife and children. It is his Mercedes that we have taken for this trip.
I try and imagine what is going through his head at that moment, looking out through the passageway that had taken so many of his ancestors away. He told me later that in school in his native Togo, they never spent much time studying slavery. He never even knew that such castles still existed in Africa. I was slightly surprised, but also slightly not surprised. Forgetting is such an easy thing to do.
Kwame takes us to the last spot on our tour, 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.
Our tour of Ghana Elmina Castle ends and I follow the group into the gift shop. I thank Kwame for an amazing tour. He smiles and says to me, “thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Can I have your address?”
As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. – Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Note: This story was previously published on BootsnAll in May 2007. The names of the people in this story have been changed.
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