From the moment I learned that our trip included visiting Ghana, I knew that I had to see the slave castles/dungeons. (It feels so odd to call something a ‘castle’ when there is nothing majestic in nature about this topic- so I am going to use the term ‘dungeon’ to name the impact of this history, and this experience in general). I felt really uneasy that I ‘wanted’ to see these monuments, and I felt even more uneasy about taking pictures. In one way, it felt inappropriately voyeuristic, and in another, it brought to life in a deeply human way the magnitude of the slave trade.
The first site we visited, Cape Coast Dungeon-Castle, was originally build by the Swedes, and later acquired by the British. Although it was used as a place for other trade, by the time the British acquired this space, it was primarily used as a distribution center for the Triangular Trade route. When we first walked in, I could smell the salt water air of the ocean. It was an overcast day, and since we arrived in the morning, there were no scents of vehicles, or food, or anything other than the general ocean spray air. Our guide first contexualized the tour for us in a way that really made the trip even more meaningful, allowing me to feel comfort with the discomfort I was already feeling. He said to us that the reasons Ghana opened these dungeons and wanted people to see them and take tours, were the following: 1) to understand the magnitude of the slave trade and its impact on African countries; 2) to invite people of the African diaspora to come back and personally heal from the impact of this history, and to heal the spirits of their ancestors by returning to their motherland; and 3) to remind all of us about this horrific history, not for purposes of assigning blame, but for purposes of making sure that we all play our part to never let something like this happen again.
I really appreciated our guide’s perspective. I had a queasy physiological reaction to this visit- it is so amazing how these dungeons have been standing for over 500 years (in the case of Elmina Dungeon/Castle), and yet in the spaces now, you can still smell the combination of human waste and decaying bodies. On the ground in Cape Coast Dungeon/Castle, you could see grooves in the ground from shackles that had carved out these indentations as a result of captured African people doing anything to pass time. Keep in mind, the only light came from one tiny window in each room (perhaps 6in x 6in) at the top of each room for ventilation, with each room holding anywhere from 300-500 people (16ft x 16ft). On the ground, there was a central trench that gathered biological waste, and it was cleaned maybe once a day. So, the makeup of the ground that we were walking on was a combination of compacted fecal waste, blood, and dirt. As I stopped to process this thought, along with what I was actually walking on, tears just started streaming down my face. I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was just so overwhelmed with feelings I couldn’t even sift from each other. In the holding spaces for women, the set up was the same, and again, fecal waste, urine, menses- all maybe cleaned once a day, and people would not have access to showers/water for days on end.
We walked through both dungeons (Cape Coast, build by the Swedes, and occupied by the Danes and British; Elmina, built and occupied by the Portuguese, and later occupied by the Dutch), and while there were some differences, the basic structure was the same. The ‘Door of No Return’ was the door through which captured African people would board ships headed through the Atlantic passage to the New World, and it was the last time that many would set foot on their homeland ever again. In Elmina Dungeon/Castle, that door was so tiny (I barely fit through it), so as to allow only one person to exit at a time, to ensure precise counting of people as they boarded ships.
We had some interesting conversation and debate about the participation of the African people in the slave trade. The common misunderstanding, is that African people participated in slavery even before European contact. This statement needs to be contextualized, and is not true. African people did participate in the capturing of other Africans, meaning if two tribes were engaged in political conflict, the outcome of such conflict might be the absorbing of the losing tribe’s people, making the losing tribe a lower caste that might serve the winning tribe’s people. This kind of slavery was common around the world, and cannot be equated to the deliberate and violent capture of people for economic profit. While some tribes did participate in the capture of other Africans for the European slave trade, it was not in the way that some people might portray. Ghanaian historians have done profound amounts of research on the development of the slave trade, and I really hope that we rely on their research to correct the incorrect assumptions we have been taught in our own classrooms in the US.
I am so grateful for this experience, and this particular visit because it really forced me to think about other patterns in our world right now that are heading in this direction. The main thing that comes to mind is the human/sex trafficking of children/girls around the world, and how helpless human beings are being used for profit. I made a promise to do my part to make sure something like this could never happen again. I have not done that. As we continue on this journey I need to figure out how I play my part… how will you play yours?