This past weekend we traveled about a hundred miles west to Cape Coast to participate in a Coordinating Council with an Area Seventy, a mission president, several stake and district presidents and our Assistant Area Auditor over that region. The Cape Coast region is one of Ghana’s top tourist attractions, with some nice clean beaches, gorgeous palm trees, the best pineapple in the world and a few resort hotels. We drove in the day before our meetings because the traffic along the coastal highway is horrendous on weekends. It also gave some time on Friday afternoon to do a bit of sightseeing. In particular, we stopped in to visit Elmina Castle, which is located on a point on the shoreline about ten miles down from Cape Coast.
Elmina Castle is a large, three story stone structure that is the earliest and largest European structure built in sub-Saharan Africa. The Portuguese originally built it in 1483 as a coastal fortress to protect their flourishing gold and ivory trade. However, within about a decade a new opportunity reared its ugly head and the gold and ivory were quickly forgotten as Elmira was converted into the largest holding facility and debarkation point in West Africa for human slaves. There were ebbs and flows, but from the late 1400s and for every year until 1814, Elmira became a living hell and the last glimpse of their native land for up to 30,000 West Africans who were processed through here annually. Most estimates are that during that period, nearly 13 million slaves were exported from all of Africa, 10-15 percent did not survive the trip. The vast majority were taken from the West African coast and delivered to Brazil and the Caribbean; only about 500,000 were sold into what is now the United States.
Michelle and I spent an afternoon touring the fortress out on the point of the bay and harbor and the dungeons within where up to 400 female and 600 male slaves were kept in conditions designed to barely keep them alive for the one to three months until the next ship headed to the New World arrived. I vividly remember watching Alex Haley’s Roots miniseries back in the 1970s and reading the book, but, to me, literally standing where this atrocity of enslavement and forced expatriation of this magnitude continued over a period of several centuries was much more visceral than reading or watching a historical fiction.
Our tour guide was a delightful, well-informed local university student, who was gave very objective and insightful explanations, taking pains to note that African slavery had long predated the arrival of the Europeans and it was primarily the dominant coastal African tribes who raided and captured inland tribal members and sold them to the Europeans for transport overseas. This local complicity in no way absolves or diminishes the role of the presumably enlightened Europeans and Americans who completely objectified the African nation, viewing its occupants as sub-human beasts of burden to be used at their own whims as a low-cost means of production, with no concern for their families, their dignity or their humanity.
Both of the dungeons were subterranean, accessible by a single entrance located in the inner courtyard. They had very limited light or ventilation, no room for the occupants to lie down, so they mostly waited and dreaded, crammed together in their own waste and vomit. On the floor of the women’s dungeon, there are several depressions in the floor where women who refused the sexual advances of the captors were chained to cannonballs until they relented or died. A separate completely windowless room off the inner courtyard was used for holding rebellious male slaves. They were simply thrown in there and ignored until they starved to death.
The inner courtyard also housed a chapel, originally built by the Catholic Portuguese, allowing the regiment members to continue their religious devotions as they financed, enabled and wreaked carnage across the African continent. When the Protestant Dutch conquered many of the stronghold forts along the West African coast to take over the lucrative slave trade, they quickly converted Elmina’s Catholic chapel into a more lucrative slave auction marketplace.
As though a few meters in elevation would keep them separate and absolved from the horrors below, the upper two floors of the castle housed the regimented troops in relative comfort, with the top floor providing lavish, bright and airy quarters where the commanding officer had unparalleled views of the stunningly peaceful waters of bay, the harbor, and the gently swaying palm trees that surrounded him.
We traced the path that millions of native Africans took from their dungeons, through the passageway, and into the room known as the Room of No Return. The builders conveniently designed this room with no windows and the exit door in the corner, so that as the room was filled with a crush of slaves being deported, they were inexorably forced into through the door and into the final hallway that led to the “Door of No Return.”
This final door leading from the castle to the bay was originally built wide to facilitate quick unloading of cargo to waiting ships. As the inanimate cargo business gave way to human cargo, the door was redesigned into a narrow passageway that could accommodate a single slave, tethered to the person ahead of and behind him, to shuffle sideways and down to a small boats that ferried them out the waiting slave ships, where they were jam-packed into the below-board holds.
If the deported Africans were lucky enough to survive the deplorable conditions in the prison and then again on the rough ocean voyage, they and their children and their children’s children had a lifetime of forced, often brutal slavery to look forward to.
It has been said that the most important word in the English language is “remember.”
After touring Elmina, I really can’t disagree.