Paola shares her impression of a visit to Cape Coast Castle, in Ghana, her host country.
My linen blouse clung to my back, and I could hardly breathe. Outside, in the bright sunshine, although the temperature was above 30 degrees, a brisk breeze blew in from the ocean, but here, in the dank, dark dungeon, there was hardly any air, and it must have been over 40.
I was sweltering in one of the three dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, squinting in the dark to see the desperate scratch marks left by slaves two hundred years ago.
Cape Coast Castle, a three-hour drive west of the Ghanaian capital, Accra, is a World Heritage Site. It was one of the largest slave-holding sites in the colonial era. It now hosts a museum. The display showing the origins of the slave trade and its progression through a hundred and fifty years is excellent, but it’s when you actually tour the whole castle that you begin to get a feel for what it must have been like. You go from deep in the dark, steaming hot dungeons where slaves were shackled and packed in their hundreds, with no toilet facilities and no ventilation, to the church at ground level where Anglicans went happily to pray on Sundays in full knowledge of what was happening below ground, to the Governor General’s breezy residence on the top floor, with its idyllic view.
Actually, it is not true that you can get an inkling of what it must have been like. It’s unimaginable. The slaves were torn from their families, walked shackled for hundreds of miles, not knowing where they were going, and then ‘stored’ in dungeons. They were from all over the African interior, and didn’t know each other’s languages. The few who survived were sold, then kept in the ‘condemned cell’, and once the boats were ready, they went through the ‘door of no return’ into the bright light, and on to small boats in the wild surf, which took them to bigger boats, where they started their journey into the unknown. Conditions on the boats were worse than in the dungeons.
At the castle, women slaves who refused to perform sexual favours for the slave masters went into a ‘punishment room’ where they were beaten, and kept in an even worse state than their fellow women prisoners.
About eleven million men and women – people with loved ones, with mothers and fathers, with children, with hearts and emotions – were sold in the slave trade, and it is estimated that about half of them – the lucky ones – died before reaching their destinations.
I remember meeting, and working with, descendants of the slave trade when I lived in Uruguay. What struck me the most about them was how it still hurt. They did not know where they came from. They had to reinvent a culture for themselves. And they were poor and marginalised, so probably would never get a chance to come back to their continent to search for their roots.
I constantly hear people trying to justify the slave trade, or at least shift a bit of the blame elsewhere, or muddy the waters. Europeans and North Americans will say: ‘Slavery was a way of life at the time: everyone took part in it. The Africans had been trading slaves since time immemorial. The slaves were bought from Africans.’ And Africans will say: ‘But our form of slavery was different; it was much less brutal. It’s true, slavery was always there. It is still there, on a different scale than in the seventeenth century. But whether it is boatloads of people being enslaved, or one, it is profoundly wrong. We tend to forget.
And that’s why it’s important to visit places like Cape Coast Castle. A sobering place indeed.