Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition as designated by UNESCO. Ghana is well known for two former slave trading castles that were built on its shores centuries ago, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I’ve had the chance to visit both the Cape Coast and Elmina castles since I’ve been here and it seems most appropriate to share my experiences today.
I went to Cape Coast first, a few weeks ago and I didn’t know what to expect. My only other experience with a slave trading port was James Island in The Gambia, which I visited in 2009. James Island was small, isolated (I had to take a boat to get there), and more like ruins than an actual structure. It was nothing like Cape Coast. The castle was built by the Swedes in the 16th century and changed hands between European settlers before it was conquered by the British in the 17th century and used for the slave trade.
I expected that I would have time to mentally prepare to see the castle, but instead felt like I almost stumbled onto it. I went into town with friends to get breakfast and there it was with restaurants and shops all around, tourists filing into and spilling out of the entrance, and Ghanaians just going about their business as if this large reminder of the slave trade wasn’t looming over town. I was instantly more emotionally impacted by it than I thought I would be. Just seeing it from the outside made me uneasy. Inside the castle we took a guided tour through the courtyard, dungeons, living quarters of colonialists, and out through the “Door of No Return” where we were assured that unlike those who walked through the same doors towards boats destined for the Americas, we would be able to return. The guide was great and I wondered if they ever get tired of telling the same horrific stories and if they become numb to the awfulness.
I met a woman from Cote d’Ivoire in our tour group who, upon learning that I am from the Caribbean held my hand and commented on how difficult it must be for me. And it was difficult. It felt so real. The most appropriate word I can think of to describe the experience is “eerie”. It was eerie to stand in the dungeons and know that hundreds of people were crammed in there, that you can’t see the bricks on the floor because of the buildup of human waste now hardened to the floor, and that people died in the place where I stood. Even when I was on the beach afterwards, I couldn’t help but look up at it. That castle got to me, it felt like a ghost.
This past weekend I went to the Elmina castle which is just down the coast from Cape Coast. It’s a much older castle, built in the 1400s by the Portuguese. The tour was similar, though the castle is much larger and the architecture very different. It’s strange to find a structure that is the manifestation of such ugliness so beautiful, but it is. Emotionally Elmina was a different experience; I’m not sure if it was because I had been to Cape Coast so it wasn’t as much of a shock or that the group dynamic was different, but I felt less deeply troubled for the most part. One part of both tours that got to me were the stories of rape. At Elmina I stood on the balcony where European colonialists would call the women slaves into a courtyard below and make their selection.
An interesting part of the tours for me was seeing who the other tourists were and how they reacted. In Elmina there was a group of Europeans in my tour group; I think they were Dutch – the Dutch also ran Elmina for a period. I found myself on one hand curious about how the experience would affect them, while on the other wishing that I didn’t have to share my experience with them. That experience being of someone descended from slaves, with ancestry mixed with British and Portuguese a few generations back, unsure of how that mixing came to be; and feeling deeply connected to the history of the place in a pretty troubling way. I know that the Dutch people on the tour (or contemporary Europeans in general) weren’t personally responsible for slavery; but if I feel so connected to and impacted by those enslaved people who are my people, it’s difficult for me to completely separate others from their history. Our history.
If you are ever in Ghana, I would definitely recommend visiting the castles. But the admission charges listed in the above links are wrong!