Visiting Ghana's Elmina Slave Castle

"The Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) at the University of Minnesota (UMN) has an undergraduate Global Issues Honors Consortium (GIHC). The students come from Tougaloo College in Mississippi, UMN Twin Cities campus, and UMN Morris campus, and Dillard from my cohort but not this year. They have undergone over a year of intensive coursework and research training and now are here in Ghana taking part in lectures delivered by Ghanaian professors and traveling. They are expected to build on a research paper they produced over the last year and add an element that includes a Ghanaian perspective (if possible). Some of the topics include; skin bleaching, interracial relationships, HIV/AIDS among women, the impacts of the oil industry on the developing world, religious preservation, governmental medical experiments, and more. Every trip they take a graduate mentor/teaching assistant, and I’m that person!"

I’m looking forward to the memories of right now...

Worse than I could have imagined. Something no one can prepare for. We went to Elmina Castle first in the town of Elmina located in the Cape Coast region of Ghana. Elmina was changed from El mina or ‘the mine’ because there was a lot of gold when the Portuguese first came to Ghana. There was so much gold that Ghana used to be called ‘Gold Coast’, Ivory Coast received its name because it was rich in ivory.

The Portuguese reached Ghana’s coast in 1452 (I think) and originally built Elmina Castle as a trading post. As mentioned in an earlier blog the slave trade picked up immensely after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas. When slavery became profitable intertribal war broke out and Africans would sell tribesmen and women that had been captured from neighboring tribes to whites. We were overwhelmed with facts about the castle and historical information, such as when the Dutch captured the castle and when the British bought it from the Dutch. I would encourage you too look online for such facts. I have a bad memory. But note that when the Dutch captured the castle more slaves were held and sent off than any other time. I hope they lose to Spain. :)

The sight of the castle from the far distance sent chills up my spine. As we drove up the coast you could see it, covered in fog, elevated on a hill. As you attempt to enter the castle the locals try to make friends and sell their goods. You easily get distracted and forget the horror of the upcoming experience. You enter the old structure, most of which has been unchanged. As I journaled about this experience, Kind of Blue played through my headphones. You start in the museum and get the historical facts of the fort that I mentioned earlier.

It begins. The female dungeon first. I wanted to vomit from the smell. 1000 people held at a time in the castle, 600 men, and 400 women. It was dark; the walls were damp, almost no sunlight, no showers for months, one meal per day. Sometimes there was no meal. The only sunlight was when the white governor stood on his balcony overlooking an atrium. All of the women were brought out, naked, and he would pick the woman to satisfy his desires. The ball in my throat grew larger and larger. Breathing became more and more difficult. I thought of my sisters and the women in my life that I hold close to my heart. She was allowed to bathe and sent up a wooden staircase that led straight to the governor’s room. If a woman rebelled she was chained to a heavy ball and forced to stand in the sunlight all day with no water or food. Deep breaths I told myself. But the stench made me want to hold my breath instead. Sweat dripped from my forehead. “Breath Abdul, breath.”

To the dungeon of no return we went. Male slaves that resisted in any way were sent to the dungeon. Locked in. No sunlight and left for death. A small room, we packed in and the curator closed the door. I imagined my brother Omari lying next to where I stood and tears began to flow as they are right now. Just before we entered, Sonny had to confront a German couple for their jolly spirits in the female dungeon. When I exited it was as if someone had breathed life back into my lungs.

Off to the male dungeons, which led to the room of no return. This room also had the famous door of no return. Dark, damp, watch your step, duck so you don’t hit your head as you enter the room. I was last to the see the door of no return and I began to weep upon seeing it. Narrow, and short with beaming sunlight on the other end. You could see sand and water. I knelt down, felt the ground, the walls, attempting to feel what they felt. Tears flowed like a child. They wouldn’t stop.

Upstairs was the next stop. We walked where the soldiers walked and patrolled. The ocean right there. Never has the sound of the ocean been so deafening, the smell of the see has never been so rancid, the sight so blinding and ugly, and the taste of salt grotesque. I located where the small boats would wait outside of the door of no return and grew angry. I wanted to be upset with the elderly white woman on the tour with us. But my upbringing forced me to assist her up a step instead.

The tour took us to the governor’s balcony. I didn’t want to step foot on it. And when I looked down at where the women would stand I began to sob yet again. Something about our women. So loving, caring, beautiful, made me ache at the thought of their pain, more than anything else in the castle. The protective nature we have for women came out. The ball in my throat has returned as I write. They took us to the governor’s bedroom. I waited outside. I couldn’t touch the walls that had witnessed so much pain and rape. But hey, it’s ok because the store accepts all major credit cards according to the sign on the wall just outside of the governor’s room.

I do not know if posting pictures from the castle is appropriate. I don’t know if taking them was appropriate. This experience cannot be captured by words or pictures. This is an experience that EVERYONE should have. No matter your race, class, sex, gender, country of origin, etc.

Before Elmina Castle was built the tribes would gather where the castle is located and have festivities praising the Gods for a good year. This day was the start of the festival. They gather, dance, poor libations, and thank the Gods for a plentiful fishing season (it is a fishing community). We saw the chiefs and queen mothers being carried in the parade and the spiritual healer. They were all dressed in beautiful kente and bright colors. It was cool to see. Ghana is a matrilineal culture. It’s extremely interesting and I’ll try and devote a blog to explaining it (as best I can).

Time for class. I’ll tell you about Slave River another time.

{ feature}
by Abdul Omari

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).