The shops were proof that despite evident poverty the spirit of enterprise was alive and well but this time led by locals, not foreign invaders. Set between flame trees and ancient crumbling Portuguese buildings the miles of shipping containers and shacks offered services of every kind. The names painted above the shop doors simply begged us to enter: God is Able Hardware, By the Grace Phone Repairs, Love of Jesus Restaurant, Adam Food Joint, Humble Works Furniture and God First Vulcanizing. Even the battered Surely Goodness and Mercy ambulance awaited business by the roadside – not for us I prayed.
Our first stop was Cape Coast Castle where the emotional impact of what the slave trade really meant to the people involved was overwhelming. The massive two-story whitewashed fortress is one of best preserved of what had been 37 strung along a 300 mile section of the African coast where access to the interior was relatively easy. As a consequence Germans, Dutch, Danes, Portuguese, Swedes and the British battled for control, the latter eventually pushing everyone else out. Swedish traders first built a trading post for the export of timber and gold. The Dutch converted the building into a castle in 1637; after which it changed hands between the European powers five times over 13 years until the Brits grabbed it in 1664, holding on until Ghana’s independence in 1957, the first African colony to succeed in ridding themselves of overlords.
We crossed the parade ground to look at the remaining canons that still overlook the coast and to visit the room used as a chapel where the masters gave thanks on Sunday for their profits, as the source of that wealth – the captives – struggled to survive in the slave pens below. These dungeons held up to a thousand men and five hundred women at a time with no light or sanitation for up to twelve weeks as they awaited their walk through the Gate of No Return and shipment to the New World or, more likely, death on board a slave ship. It was beyond horrifying. I could not, did not want to, imagine how anyone could survive in such conditions.
The slave trade was abolished by Great Britain in 1808 although the Royal Navy was intercepting slavers off the African coast until 1860. I wondered what an Englishman who visited in 1835 really saw when he wrote that the castle presented a “handsome appearance…with its high white walls founded on a ledge of granite extending into the sea; and against which the bright green and white surf dashed incessantly with a heavy roar…”
When we walked through the infamous Gate, the same green and white surf was still evident. But instead of slave ships a brilliant scene of red, blue, yellow or green striped fishing boats drawn up on the beach delighted our eyes. Seemingly heedless of the past, fishermen dried and mended their nets and women gathered the catch to take to market.
Despite this attractive scene we were lost in contemplation of the mindless cruelty always present in human existence.
The visit to equally massive St. George’s Castle in Elmina, menacing since 1482 but now brilliant white and looking innocent until we looked closely, only confirmed that human greed is an all-too-common trait and that we need to look in our own hearts on a regular basis to see what is really inside.
Unfortunately it is much easier to look at the colorful fishing boats in the nearby port and the lovely flame trees than it is to examine one’s soul.
Lest we forget.
Drawings of Cape Coast and St. George’s Castles courtesy of hitchock.itc.virginia.edu. Photos by author.