The experience of studying slavery “as history” is nothing like the experience of seeing the actual instruments of its execution firsthand.
Ghana is one of many West African countries where the Europeans built castles – fortressed buildings that defended land and property—which were used for and in some cases even BUILT FOR the housing of enslaved people.
Our first stop was Elmina Castle, which was originally constructed by the Portugese to defend their trading routes.. but soon after was perverted into use as a central collection/distribution point for slaves. We stood in the sweltering, dark, cramped rooms where the exploited would remain for up to 3 months, waiting for a transport ship to arrive and to be carried off far from home. The neighboring town of Elmina is a quaint fishing village, where people are making a living in the shadow of this awful past.
Cape Coast Castle
Next we visited the Cape Coast castle… which was built by the British for the explicit purpose of housing and transporting slaves. This castle, grimly, was a stopping point for many many of the slaves who were brought to the US until the British slave trade was abolished in the early 1800s. In 2009 President Obama and Michelle visited this castle, partly to pay their respects to Michelle’s ancestors who likely passed through its “Door of No Return”.
The male and female dungeons are highly intact– even still containing floors coated with the evolved “dirt” of year after year of human waste and suffering. Our most poignant moment occurred here when we entered the “Condemned Cell” where freedom-fighting slaves were placed—en masse—with no light, no food, and no air supply in sweltering heat until they passed on. It was frightening and horrible.
The castles were an effective reminder of human nature’s capacity for destruction… a good education for us and for our kids. If only all students from around the world could experience the REALITY of this, we’d have a more peaceful and tolerant world.