GHANAIAN SLAVE DUNGEONS
"Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors, for they knew death was better than bondage"
Along the coastline of Ghana you can find a collection of grand castles and forts set next to beautiful sandy beaches and tropical palm trees. Despite the picturesque surroundings, many horrors transpired within the walls of these buildings and they were often the last stop for many thousands of Africans before they were ripped away from their homeland.
"The governor stands, sanctified.
Calls his guards to the courtyard
To play him another song
of blood and screams and naked bodies."
"Grey Walls" is a cinematic poem written and narrated by writer, poet and educator, Nana Nyarko Boateng and filmed & directed by cinematographer Michael Kunke. Using powerful visual and sound effects, It describes the horrendous conditions that enslaved people had to endure while locked in the dungeons of these forts. The video features drone footage shot in and around Elmina Castle, a former slave fort built by the Portuguese in Ghana.
The first Portuguese ships to explore the African coast were sent by Prince Henry the Navigator in 1418. He had heard stories of fertile African lands that, as well as being rich in gold and ivory, provided a southern route to India, enabling Portugal to establish direct trade with Asia. It is also suggested that he was intrigued by tales of the legendary Prester John, who was believed to be the leader of a great Christian nation somewhere in Africa. After fifty years of coastal exploration, the Portuguese finally reached Elmina in 1471 and the area was put under the control of explorer and trader Fernão Gomes who discovered a thriving gold trade among the native people. He established his own trading post, and it became known to the Portuguese as "A Mina" (the Mine) because of the gold that could be found there.
Built in 1482, Elmina Castle - also known as 'Castelo de São Jorge da Mina' (St. George of the Mine Castle) - was the first European building to be constructed in Sub-Saharan Africa and was initially established as a settlement for gold trading. The Portuguese authorities determined that the Castle would not engage directly in any slave trade, as they did not wish to disrupt the gold mining and trade routes however, by the seventeenth century, most trade in West Africa concentrated on the sale of slaves and Elmina went on to become one of the most important stops on the route of the Atlantic slave trade, acting as a depot where enslaved Africans were brought in from different West African Kingdoms. While Europeans oversaw this brutal traffic in human cargo, they had local collaborators with many of the enslaved people being sold to Portuguese - and later to Dutch traders - in exchange for goods such as textiles, tools and guns. Records from the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database show that the majority of captives brought to the U.S. came from Senegal, Gambia, Congo and eastern Nigeria, as well as the Slave Coast of Benin.
"The organization of the slave trade was structured to have the Europeans stay along the coast lines, relying on African middlemen and merchants to bring the slaves to them."
Toyin Falola - Professor of African studies at the University of Texas
After an unsuccessful attempt to seize Elmina castle in 1596, the Dutch finally succeeded in 1637, before taking over all of the Portuguese Gold Coast in 1642. During the period of Dutch control, new, smaller fortresses - including Fort Coenraadsburg - were built on nearby hills to protect the castle from potential inland attacks. The Dutch continued exploiting the triangular Atlantic slave route until 1814, when they abolished the slave trade and, in 1872 the British took over the Dutch territory. In 1957, having gained independence from Britain, Ghana took control of the castle and it was extensively restored by the Ghanaian government in the 1990s. These days, Elmina Castle is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and the local economy is sustained by tourism and fishing.
WHERE THE SOUND OF DEATH LIVED
My visit to Cape Coast Slave Castle
At the height of the slave trade there were over sixty such castles and forts crammed together on a stretch of coast less than 300 miles long. The remains of about thirty can still be seen today. While on my second trip to Ghana, I visited the former slave fort at Cape Coast, about seven miles along the road from Elmina. Like Elmina, the first building on this site was initially intended as a base for trading goods. Established by the Swedish Africa Company in 1653, Carlusborg Fort was seized in 1657 by the Danish West India Company and the following years saw ownership jump back and forth between the Danish, Dutch, and Swedes. In 1663, the Dutch briefly gained control before the British took over in 1664, renaming it Cape Coast Castle. It went on to become one of the main centres for the transatlantic slave trade.
There are various ways to get to Cape Coast from Accra. I decided to take the bus from the Intercity STC bus station in Kaneshie as I wanted to leave early and wasn't sure when the first trotro would be heading out that way. The public transport infrastructure in this part of the world runs on what people like to refer to as 'Ghana time' - i.e. you'll get there when you get there. Although I had booked the 6.30am bus, I was still standing in the queue over an hour later. However, unlike in the UK (and other places) where this might cause annoyance, people are pretty laid back about it and it's really just a case of going with the flow. Everyone always gets to where they want to be...eventually.
I took my seat on the coach, next to a young teenage boy who smiled politely and we soon got chatting. I told him about my trip to Ghana and other places I had travelled to, and he told me about his family and his hopes to go to university when he got older. On arrival at the bus station in Cape Coast (which is a sandy parking lot a few miles from the town) we said our goodbyes and I found a taxi to take me to my accommodation at the Orange Beach Resort which is situated practically next door to the Castle. The resort certainly lived up to its name, with everything in sight being painted a bright orange colour. The reception is located at the bar which sits on a platform on the beach and has direct access onto the sand and down to the water. After checking in and being shown up the wooden stairs to my room, which had a treehouse feel about it, I dumped my bag and went out to wander through the town.
The name Cape Coast derives from Portuguese navigators who christened the place Cabo Corso, meaning "short cape". In the city centre stands a statue of a crab which refers to the older traditional names of the city - Oguaa and Kotokuraba - meaning "River of Crabs" or "Village of Crabs". Attractions in the area include a series of Asafo shrines, the Cape Coast Centre for National Culture, and a market full of stalls featuring locally made art however the main draw for visitors is Cape Coast Castle, which dominates the coastline.
As I walked past the entrance to the castle, one of the workers waved at me and started chatting. He told me that the last guided tour of the evening would be leaving in half an hour from the inner entrance so I paid my fee and was pointed towards a door across the courtyard and up the the stairs to a museum that told the story of the slave trade from a West African perspective. As well as exhibits featuring chains, and posters advertising slaves for sale, there was also information about the lives of the people who lived in the local area. A particularly fascinating section for me featured tales of Akan funerary practices and examples of funeral pottery. What was surprising to me was that the museum also discusses the positive social, cultural and political aspects of the Europeans settling in the area - crediting them with bringing more structure, education and literacy to the people as well as religion and a political and judicial system tailored to the needs of the nation. Of course they also acknowledge that the memory of the slave trade casts a dark shadow over these achievements.
Suddenly aware of the time, I rushed down to the meeting point where a group of around fifteen people were waiting along with the guide, Richard, who introduced himself and set the scene for the tour. The first place we were taken to was the male dungeon, which consisted of 5 high-ceilinged chambers, each holding around 200 captives in cramped conditions. After stumbling down a stone walkway into the gloominess of the first chamber, Richard pointed out a line on the wall, about a foot above the ground level that is thought to have been how high the human waste reached when the dungeons were occupied. A tiny window high up in the wall let in a pinprick of sunshine and this was the only source of light or ventilation. This window was also where captors would throw in scraps of food a couple of times a day. Since there was never enough for everyone, it led the men to fight with each other amongst the excrement, urine, vomit and blood.
Walking through the connected chambers, we reached the final hall that contains a memorial shrine to all of the people who were captured and held there. As well as flowers and various gifts, there was a collection of small wooden stools. Among the Asante and other Akan peoples, stools play an important role in each person's life milestones. When children learn to crawl, they receive stools as their first gift from their father. For young women, puberty rites entail sitting on their stools. A husband presents his wife with a stool when they marry. A deceased person is bathed on a stool before burial. Ceremonial stools are blackened and enshrined after the death of an important leader - an illustration of stools' ability to represent a person's soul. The most important and sacred Asante stool is the Golden Stool. It represents the authority of the Asantehene (king), enshrines the soul of the nation, and symbolizes the kingdom's unity. Made of solid gold, the Golden Stool never touches the ground; it is carried in processionals and has its own throne.
Leaving this room, we walked through a dark corridor and on to the female dungeon. On arrival at the castle, enslaved men and women were separated. As well as having to endure the horrendous conditions experienced by the men, the women also had to contend with other threats including rape and abuse from the guards. Once captive, the slaves could spend up to three months in these dungeons before being shipped off to the "New World" where further grim conditions awaited them. Due to lack of food, water and sanitation, many captives fell seriously ill and died before making it onto the ships. Emerging from the dimness of the underground caverns, we were led toward the 'Door of no Return', a large portal that was built to allow easy access from the dungeons to the sea. It was through here that the slaves were forced onto small boats and sailed out to the large transporter vessels offshore. For those who had survived the confinement of the dungeons, this would be the last time they would set foot on African soil.
Instead of the ominous view of waiting ships, this time the doors opened onto a beautiful bay with a fleet of traditional fishing boats parked up on the sand and children gleefully playing in the water. We spent some time here then, unlike the unfortunate souls from Richard's historical tales, we were able to walk back through the portal to continue the tour.
A few years earlier, the remains of two former enslaved people were flown back to Ghana from the Caribbean, sailed to Cape Coast, and brought back through the door into the museum, in a kind of 'homecoming/remembrance' commemoration.
Heading through the expansive courtyard, we were taken into one of the confinement cells - small pitch-black spaces for prisoners who were seen as rebellious. Up to ten prisoners would be shackled together and crammed into the cell as a punishment for bad behaviour.. If one died, then the others had to remain attached to the body until, eventually, all of them died. In the courtyard itself there are two water wells and four graves. The first grave belongs to the Rev. Phillip Quarcoo, the first black Anglican pastor in the area. Beside him lies C.B. Whitehead, a 38-year old British soldier who was killed by a Dutch soldier in the courtyard, and next to them are the graves of Letitia Elizabeth Landon and her husband George MacLean, the British governor of Cape Coast from 1830 to 1844. Walking past these graves, Richard led us up the stairs to the administrative buildings and living quarters.
While the captives starved and festered below ground, the officers, traders and their families went about their normal day-to-day life upstairs. The quarters of Governors and Officers were spacious and airy, with beautifully designed rooms and scenic views out to the Atlantic. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect was the chapel, which is situated directly above the male dungeons. Worshippers would go here every Sunday to pray, sing hymns and thank God for their own good fortune - fully aware of the depravity that was occurring directly under their feet and the suffering they were consciously inflicting on fellow human beings.
As I walked along the outside wall of the fort, past rows of cannons, the sun was beginning to set over the ocean and the sounds of people laughing and playing football on the beach below travelled up to meet me. Even with the knowledge of the atrocities that happened here, it was a beautiful scene. With the tour coming to an end, we were left to wander here for a while before making our way to the exit.
Many of the visitors to these castles and forts are descendents of the enslaved. This was the case for some of the people on the tour with me who had travelled from Alabama with a hope of reconnecting with their roots. It has been reported that Michelle Obama also considers Cape Coast her ancestral home and brought her family to visit the castle in 2009 where they laid flowers in memory of their ancestors who were victims of the slave trade.
Every country teaches history from its own perspective and in the UK many discussions of the transatlantic slave trade were often framed around the abolition of slavery, with Britain patting itself on the back for being the first colonial power to end the slave trade. Although sometimes uncomfortable, my visit to Cape Coast Dungeons was a great educational experience and was necessary to gain a more rounded understanding of what went on during those dark times.
For more information on Cape Coast click here.