This weekend, I took a trip over to Cape Coast and Elmina in the Central Region of Ghana. For those of you who are interested, here are the general directions from Anloga:
Grab a tro-tro on the side of the street headed towards Accra around 6-7am, and squeeze yourself in with twelve other good-natured Ghanaians. About two and a half hours later, get off at the always insane Accra-Tema station to find another tro-tro or bus headed towards Caneshie Station, where you’ll alight to more chaos, purchase a ticket off a sidewalk peddler, and walk towards the lines of tro-tros with cardboard signs proclaiming their destination. Hop in one designated towards Cape Coast, and settle in for the two hour journey. Once you see the sandy beaches and smell the salty ocean air, jump off and barter a price with a taxi driver to drive you over the bridge and towards Elmina.
Besides relaxation, the primary agenda for the weekend trip was to tour the oldest and largest slave castle in all of Africa, located on the coast of Elmina. The fortress was built in 1482 by the Portuguese and later seized by the Dutch in 1637, and was also a major stop of the Atlantic slave trade route until the British overthrew the Dutch in 1871 and eradicated slavery in Ghana. Now, the castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and much of the original building materials and architecture remains.
The omnipresent storm clouds and waves crashing against the rocks below makes the castle such a formidable fortress of no return, that one has to wonder if the Portuguese didn’t have a morbid satirical sense when choosing the location.
Inside the slave castle, looking away from the sea.
The Portuguese painted a skull over this door, which was used as a prison cell to punish slaves that fought too hard for their freedom.
Now, the sand below the castle is littered with canoes being built.
The Dutch installed these cannons to protect themselves from enemies.
Another addition by the Dutch – lookout towers to spot approaching slave ships or far-off enemies.
Elmina is a poor fishing town made rich by tourism. Since most of the destitute villages along the Volta coast where I live count fishing as their primary industry, it’s interesting to see first-hand what a considerable effect tourism has on the economy of a formerly poor village. The Elmina slums lie to the west of the castle.
An inscription in Dutch that was hung after the Portuguese were captured. It’s disheartening to see all of the Christian insignia throughout the castle, drawn there by the same hands that were holding people as captives below their feet.
This is where the male slaves were kept, usually 600 to one room.
When the castle was built, the ocean water lapped at the base of this door. Slaves would exit the castle onto the gangplank of the slave ships that would take them to Jamaica, America, and parts of Europe. This room is named, ‘The Room of No Return.’
There were hundreds of small, barred rooms like this scattered throughout the castle. Many of them were filled with bats, but most of them sat empty. I wondered if slaves, captured by the Portuguese, were also forced to build the fortress themselves, and in doing so, what they must have thought while putting bars over so many of the entrance ways of the castle.
Two thoughts in particular stayed with me as we walked around the castle buttresses and through its dark dungeons. I thought about the castle as a tangible, symbolic reminder of past crimes of humanity, whereas other crimes, such as drought or hunger, never leave a trace once it’s gone. Do physical reminders of crimes past make it easier to never commit again?
A friend with me also wondered what future generations will look back on as horrifying and medieval – what present-day structures will our grandchildren tour and puzzle about the nature of humanity today?
We stayed at the Stumble Inn in Elmina, highly recommended by a friend and vouched for by me. I could have basked in their organic, hospitable welcome and comfy bamboo cushions for weeks.