Stanley C. Lartey
Today, Elmina Castle is a tourist attraction and World Heritage Monument in Cape Coast, Ghana. This hasn’t always been the case. Looking at the castle from the outside, nothing can ever prepare the unsuspecting visitor or tourist emotionally to hear about the tales of horror and atrocities that went on beyond those walls.
The Portuguese built the castle in 1482, originally established as a trading post for goods bartered for local gold and valuable gem. However, as the demand for slaves increased in the Americas and Caribbean, the castle became strategic in the perpetuation of this abhorrent human cargo trade. The storerooms of the castle were converted into dungeons, and the ownership of the castle changed hands several times, eventually ending up being seized by the British in 1872. By this time, slavery had been abolished. The British didn't use Elmina to house slaves; they used Cape Coast Castle for that.
Elmina Castle, known then as the slave castle, is one of over twenty castles built along the shoreline of the Gold Coast (now known as Ghana). The Gold Coast was one of the richest markets for slave traders during the peak of the slave trade. Hundreds of thousands of captives passed through the dungeons of Elmina Castle, and were shipped off, like commodities into the Americas and Caribbean against their wishes. This illicit human trade carried on for close to 300 years.
Slaves were captured through civil wars, and out-and-out attacks on villages. In some cases, social deviants were alleged to have been sold into slavery. Other times also, slaves were simply captured by slave hunters, like Kunta Kinte was in the Gambia. They were shackled and made to march gruelling journeys, which could last hundreds of miles at times. It could be days or weeks before the slaves reached Elmina Castle and other castles and forts along the coast. Half of all captives did not even make it.
Not knowing what awaited them on the slave ships, those who made it to the coast were held captives in the castle’s dungeons. They were subjected to all sorts of indignities, intimidation and torture. They were shackled in the damp and dark dungeons. It is said that up to three hundred captives were packed into each dungeon, without room to even lift an arm or move around. Food was scarce and disease was rampant.
The unsanitary conditions under which the captives lived were unbelievable. Without room to breathe properly in those dungeons, the captives had to defecate there. The sick were often not attended to, and many of them died while held captives there. Air quality wasn’t a priority. The stench in those dungeons must have been nauseating. Even today, the dungeons still reek.
A visit to Elmina leaves one with an eerie feeling of ghostly hallucinations. As the tour guide is talking, it is easy to visualize hundreds of captives in the dungeons, screaming out their agonies, just pleading to be returned home. But alas, we know that didn’t happen. Countless number of them died under these atrocious conditions. Those who survived the dungeons had to endure further indignities of being shackled together, tightly packed like cattle, on those slave ships. As we all know, when they died, they were simply tossed over-board into the sea, and their names were forgotten.
Throughout the slave trade period, at different times, thousands of captured slaves were chained to cannonballs at the castle, and made to stand in the blazing sun. Women, when their capturers were not raping them, could be made to lift heavy cannonballs in the blistering sun as punishment. Other so-called rebellious captives were either murdered outright, or placed in solitary confinement in an airtight, dark holding ‘facility’ in the courtyard, and could be left there to starve to death. Yet, while all these atrocities were going on, the castle also served as a missionary sanctuary and housed a church. The slave traders held church services there.
Perhaps the most significant memory from Elmina Castle is ‘The Door of No Return’. This was where hundreds of thousands of our ancestors passed during the slave trade era to awaiting slave ships to be transported across the Atlantic to the so-called New World. This is where the ancestors of many African descendants in the diaspora, namely in the Americas, Canada and the Caribbean, passed to their doom. Those who survived were introduced to racism, and forced to loose their African language, identity and culture. They had to assimilate to a new culture or bear the consequences of being punished. Remember Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s Roots? Look at what happened to him when he refused to respond to his assimilated name – Toby.
There is a plaque next to the condemned dungeon door at Elmina. It reads:
“In Everlasting Memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”
This article avoided assigning blame to any particular party, for what happened during the slave trade era. It however recognizes the need to make sure that what happened, never happens again.