A stir of hot air at the sole opening to the outside, high on the black wall, brings me back to the present moment, and I notice that my guide has moved on from this appalling dungeon. I’m left alone to confront the grim reality of the place, and I hasten to join my little group.
I’m visiting the fortress at Elmina, on the coast of Ghana, West Africa. This striking 400-year-old structure, along with a similar one at Cape Coast ten kilometers distant, played a pivotal role in the slave trade of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today they are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and stand as grim reminders of, among other things, mans’ inhumanity to man.
These fortresses, and the many others which exist today only as ruins, were not built for the slave trade, but simply as strongholds for claims by colonial European powers to these resource-rich territories. The Portuguese built the fortress at Elmina in 1482, and in the ensuing centuries it changed hands to the Dutch and the British, before Ghana gained its independence in 1957.
The Cape Coast fortress was built by the British in 1653, again to secure what has been variously called the Gold Coast, the Ivory Coast and, alas, the Slave Coast after the different “treasures” originating here. Tempestuous seas of the Atlantic’s Gulf of Guinea have washed these shores for eons, but never has the coast known such a stormy time as during the dark decades of the slave trade.
The dank chamber in which I stand was used to hold female slaves, our guide Isaac explains. Several hundred huddled here for weeks, even months at a time, awaiting shipment across the Atlantic. Isaac’s description of the conditions the slaves endured here – or failed to endure and succumbed – left me numb. The women, and the men held separately in other dungeons, had just enough food for most of them to survive, and had no choice but to exist in their own excrement. There was not enough room for them to lie down; they squatted in the filth.
“This is called ‘the door of no return'”, announces Isaac, indicating with an outstretched hand and a reverent nod the heavy wooden door under the arched ceiling. This door opens to a tunnel which leads to the beach, on the hot sands of which the slaves were assembled and loaded onto the waiting ships. The human cargo was bound for a future that was uncertain at best, with a high probability of misery ending in death by starving, disease, drowning, you name it.
Our little entourage walks through the doorway and down the tunnel path to its crumbling terminus. The harsh equatorial sun blinds me as I step into its glare. In this heightened state of awareness I can easily imagine shackles about my ankles and wrists, slave ships bobbing at anchor, muffled voices of handlers and crew.
Those able to survive the long, horrific journey to the fields of Brazil, or the sugar cane plantations of the Caribbean, or the cotton and tobacco farms of America would face the challenge of making what they could with their meager lot in life.
Within the fortress ramparts again, I’m gazing at a wall covered in flowers and wreaths, including an arrangement placed by the American president and first lady while on a visit here last year. There are sentiments from people all over the world. Isaac points out a special memorial placed by a league of African tribes; lamentations of senseless wars and poorly treated prisoners, many of whom ended up sold or traded into enslavement. This wall of wreaths moves me; the outpouring of compassion, sadness, and sorrow for the victims of the horrible bondage comforts me in the midst of my angst.
The human race is ever flawed, and may well be destined to continue to behave mercilessly at times. However, if we can also continue to see the past for what it offers in historical perspective and lessons, then perhaps the future will be a little brighter for us all.
May the stalwart fortresses of the West African slave coast forever endure to remind us of our frailty of spirit, and endear resolution and hope.
As I board the crowded bus to Kumasi I’m greeted by a young Ghanaian who offers me the seat next to him. The vehicle lumbers off and I catch one more glimpse of the imposing Elmina fortress. I will never forget it.