Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ghana Day 2: The Cape Coast and Elmina Slave Castles

Cape Coast Castle Slave Trading Post, Cape Coast, Ghana

Blog Entry #15: Dark Tourism: Cape Coast and Elmina Slave Castles

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

One of my colleagues on ship is a cultural geographer who studies Dark Tourism: the phenomenon of people visiting sites of historical tragedy.  Ground Zero in Manhattan has become such a site for many who visit New York.  Yesterday Pat and I visited two such sites whose witness to enormous human suffering over more than three centuries whispers silently quietly from whitewashed walls.

Street vendors & stores, Accra
Gridlock Traffic in Accra
The beginning of our trek to visit Cape Coast and Elmina Castles couldn’t have begun more ironically: busloads of mostly white visitors from the United States in large busses traversing Accra’s gridlocked streets with a police escort so that we could cross this sprawling metropolitan area of 4+ million in “only” two hours.  Accra itself seems to lack any obvious downtown center, and the economic hustle and bustle of its streets and marketplaces give the impression of booming formal and informal economies.
                                                        Like Central America, equatorial West Africa has two primary seasons:

 rainy and dry.  We are in the rainy season currently, so everything is green, green, green in the countryside.  The road from Accra west took us through rolling hills and eventually along the coconut palm-lined
beaches of the Atlantic.  Each small village produced endless streams of small roadside stands offering produce and products from coconuts to pineapples to cassava powder.
Traditional Mud Homes

We arrived at Cape Coast town nearly four hours after leaving the ship.  Cape Coast was the British administrative center and Cape Coast Castle housed the central offices until 1877 when the offices were moved to Accra.  The British influence is obvious, particularly in the legacy of church mission schools left behind; nearly half of the country’s best schools are found here, and many of the country’s elite have been educated here, including Kofi Annan, former head of the United Nations.

Courtyard & Main Building, Cape Coast Castle
Cape Coast Castle, built originally as a fort in 1653 by the Swedes, was taken over by British and owned by a series of British companies, particularly the Royal African Company from 1667-1750, and the British African Company of Merchants 1750-1820.  It was these companies that took advantage of a previous domestic market in slaves in the African interior to develop a new form of human trafficking: slaves as chattel property.  From these shores the infamous “Middle Passage” of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began, taking tens of millions of African slaves across the Atlantic to the Americas.  Millions more died before reaching American shores – some in the dungeons of these slave “castles”, others on the Atlantic itself.

Cape Coast Castle is immediately adjacent to Cape Coast town, and sits on a rocky promontory that juts into the Bay of Guinea and the Atlantic Ocean.  It was protected from the sea by a large armament of cannons; from the sea slave ships anchored and sent in smaller boats to fetch chained slaves who departed through the infamous “door of no return.”

It is hard to convey in words what it was like to visit this site.  As I wrote after in my journal: “It felt rather surrealistic on this beautiful sunny day with our large group of well-fed white Americans to even begin to try to imagine the horrors and immense suffering that went on here from the late 1400s in nearby Elmina Castle until the slave trade was abolished in the early 1800s.  Going into the dungeons in their dark, fetid light and air and trying to imagine these conditions for the 150 slaves per room – day after day, year after year.  One of the guidebooks discussed how many layers of compacted feces, vomit and blood were excavated from the dungeon floors when the castle was restored for public visitation.  These were the “beds” for tens of thousands of slaves – human beings.”

Billboard welcoming the Obamas to Cape Coast.  "Awkaaba" means "Hello!"

Pres. Obama together with Michelle and their 2 daughters visited Cape Coast Castle in July, 2009 – Ghana was the first country in Africa he visited – and left behind a plaque commemorating the occasion.  A billboard with their faces still greets visitors entering the town, and everywhere Ghanaians express pride at the Obamas’ visit.  A parallel plaque is dedicated “In Everlasting Memory of the Anguish of Our Ancestors.”

Map of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade
What follows are some photos of Cape Coast & Elmina Castles.  The text continues after.

Door of No Return, Cape Coast Castle
Contemplating passing through The Door of No Return into the Middle Passage

Death Cell for Rebellious Slaves, Elmina Castle
Inside the Death Cell
Following our visit to Cape Coast Castle, we had lunch at the exclusive Coconut Grove Hotel outside Elmina – an ironic juxtaposition of events, that did, however, allow us to appreciate some of the beauty of the Ghanaian coast line and beaches.

Elmina Slave Castle
Then we entered the oldest and largest of the Gold Coast slave posts: the Elmina Castle, founded by the Portuguese in 1482.  Surrounded by the vibrant fishing community of Elmina, with its colorful and chaotic markets and array of fishing boats, Elmina Castle sits out alone on its rocky point.

Surrounded by a moat for protection from attacks, the first thing that greets visitors to the inner courtyard is the former Portuguese Church – which became the slave examination and purchasing hall once the Dutch took over the castle from the Portuguese in 1637.
Portuguese Chapel, Elmina Castle
The Dutch controlled the castle and the slave trade that originated from it for the next 235 years, until they ceded control to the British 1872.

Cannons on Elmina Castle overlooking Elmina Market

The same features we saw at Cape Coast Castle make up Elmina: dark and fetid dungeons for the male and female slaves, officers quarters in the upper floors, a long, narrow hallway with tiny doors that led to the “Door of No Return” where the slaves were counted one last time as they were placed into boat for transit to the slave ships waiting offshore.  Here, too, was a specially designed cell for rebellious slaves; complete with skull and crossbones, slaves who rebelled were locked into it and given no food or water until they died, a lesson for other captives of what awaited them should they protest their conditions.

Main Courtyard, Elmina Slave Castle
Fisherman, Elmina
Fishing boats at Elmina
Fishing Boats in Elmina town

An even more vibrant and bustling fishing village surrounds the Elmina Castle; some sense of relief from the history contained in its walls and signs that Ghanaians, while remembering the legacy of slavery and its lasting effects in West Africa, nonetheless have moved on.

Fisherman, Cape Coast, Ghana

Several Ghanaians spoke to us with pride about all that Ghana has accomplished and is doing since achieving independence in 1957, and how this is what they want to be known for.

And it is impressive and encouraging.  Yet for those of us who grew up on in the lands of the receiving end of the Middle Passage, pondering this part of our connections to Ghana and West Africa continues to haunt.

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