The bulk of the planning for my Benin-Togo-Ghana trip went into the Benin portion, and I figured that I’d play it by ear in Togo and Ghana. Had I done a bit more research ahead of time, I would have realized I’d want two days to explore Elmina, Cape Coast, and Kakum Park. Instead, I tried to cram it all into one very long day trip that started at 6am and ended at 9pm in Accra. There was not a minute of downtime in the itinerary, aside from a lunch that tried to kill me. More on that another time.
Our first stop of the day was in Elmina, at St. George’s Castle, a fort and trading post for the Portuguese from the late 1400s to mid 1600s and for the Dutch from the mid 1600s to the late 1800s. Built in 1482, it was the first of more than 30 historic military structures built along Ghana’s coast.
Both the Portuguese and the Dutch used the site not only as a military barracks but also as a holding area for slaves before they were shipped to the Americas. The conditions and treatment were beyond barbaric.
Men and women were kept in separate chambers. Dark and dank, the cells were filled with bodies and overrun with bodily waste. There was no sanitation, very little food, and brutal punishment for resistance. Women were often made to stand in the courtyard so that the governor could take his pick. After he pointed out the woman he wanted, she was permitted to bathe before being raped and returned to her cell.
In many of the cells of St. George’s and Cape Coast Castle, people from the African diaspora had left bouquets in memoriam to their unknown ancestors and others who suffered and died within these miserable spaces.
One thing that the guides pointed out at both castles is that the soldiers and officers would piously gather for church in a chapel directly above where they deprived their fellow human beings of freedom and tried to rob them of their dignity. A few weeks after my return to Senegal from Ghana, I watched “Of Fathers and Sons,” a brilliant and horrifying documentary about radical jihadists who tenderly pass down their twisted view of God, their objectification of women, and their hatred of anyone not of their religion, to their impressionable and adoring sons. Across time and space, the same sick thinking and brutal violence appears over and over again. Sometimes I feel like we are stuck in a giant game of Whack-a-Mole. Our primal instincts for domination, tribalism and war are never fully rooted out; they’re just periodically stunned into hiding until they find a new opening to pop out of.
Below, the door of no return, from which slaves were loaded onto ships bound for the Americas.
We ended the tour on top of the fort, with views of the surrounding town.
It’s a jarring feeling to appreciate the paradisiacal surroundings while concurrently recognizing that this place was hell on earth for so many.
I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t get more upbeat from here. The next stop was Cape Coast Castle, which can be summed up as: same evil, different perpetrators. This time it was the Swedes who built the castle and the British who eventually took over.
As in St. George’s Castle, the slaves were kept in horrendous dungeons while the soldiers and officers lived above them in relative ease.
Here, when male slaves were punished it meant certain death. They were thrown into a small, sweltering cell with no light and no access to air. The door was locked for ten days to ensure that by the time it was opened again, they would have died of either starvation or asphyxiation. There are still marks on the floors and walls from where men scraped their chains against them.
The “door of no return” in Cape Coast is a misnomer, because the real door from which the slaves were loaded onto ships was apparently walled off long ago.
But this door does lead out to the ocean. To pass from the solemn quiet of the whitewashed fort into the bustle and color of a beach filled with fishing boats was a jarring but welcome reminder that while I was lost in time (and depression and bitterness) inside, Ghanaians were continuing to go about their day to day business outside. It’s important to know your history, but it’s also important not to live in its shadow.
It was that thought that helped me make the fairly awkward transition from somberly visiting slave forts to breathlessly crossing forest canopy walkways. Coming up in the next and last installment of my Benin-Togo-Ghana adventures: Kakum National Park.