I find it very easy to forget that we are in Ghana. I get so immersed in everyday activities and all the fun we are having that I forget where we actually are. But then I see or experience something, and I am instantly reminded. One of these times was when we went to Elmina Castle, one of the remaining castles that was a stop on the Atlantic slave trade. The castle was built by the Portuguese in 1482 and originally began as a trading post for materials, predominantly gold and ivory, before turning to human trade. In 1637, the Dutch seized the castle from the Portuguese and in 1872, the Dutch ceded the castle to the British when the slave trade was abolished.
Walking through the castle and learning about the history behind every structure was a very somber and humbling experience. The female and male slave dungeons were very small considering the hundreds of slaves that were in each dungeon. This caused for close quarters amongst the slaves within the cell, a space where they spent all of their time and where they went to the bathroom. It was also dark and musky – there were no real windows to allow for light or airflow. The dungeons were starkly contrasted with the governor’s quarters, which were expansive, open, and airy, and consisted of a bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room. The disparity of the quality of life between those in charge and those enslaved was very evident. The governor’s quarters were located right above the female slave dungeon. This was so that the governor could choose a woman right from his balcony to come to his bedroom, which was reached by a wooden staircase that led directly to the bedroom from the female slave quarters.
The view from the governor’s balcony down to the female slave dungeons
Two of the most difficult things to see at Elmina Castle were the “door of no return” and the cell where slaves were sent to die. The door of no return was on the seaside of the castle and was a very skinny, very short opening that led out to the waiting boats to take the slaves away to the larger European ships that they would spend the next three months on for a journey called the Middle Passage, a trip in which many slaves died due to very poor conditions that caused diseases and rough weather. To imagine men and women squeezing through such a small doorway, being terrified for they do not know where they are going, is very hard for head and heart to imagine.
When slaves broke the rules or tried to escape, they were sent to a cell to die. The cell was much smaller than the male and female dungeons and had even less openings for airflow and light to enter. We entered this particular cell, and after all of us entered, our tour guide shut the door and we were enveloped in darkness. The few minutes that we spent in that room were very eerie and heartbreaking for the ground we were standing on was same ground that people took their last breaths on and even though it was hundreds of years ago, you could still feel the pain and the fear. The goal of this cell was to further torture and punish the disobedient slaves, while also making an example of them to all the others.
The castle is strikingly beautiful - the tall white walls with contrasting black doors and shutters everywhere are visually very appealing. In all directions around the castle are spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and the fishing community in Elmina. All the beauty surrounding the castle and even within it felt very contrasting to what we were learning and feeling as we went on our tour. It is often very difficult to imagine the horrors of slavery, but walking through Elmina Castle, I could clearly envision the pain and suffering, fear, and unjustness of the castle’s history.
The vibrant fishing community in Elmina
When we were driving away from the castle, we were all pretty quiet. When we got home that night, we discussed how we felt and how the day impacted us as a group. All of us have learned about slavery throughout our educations, but this was different than learning through a textbook and brought up all new emotions. We talked about the guilt we felt for our ancestors’ actions, as well as the guilt we feel personally for some of the privilege we have today being a result of these terrible things that happened in the past. It was a day that required a lot of reflection to understand the inhumanity behind it all and a great way to remind us that even though this tragic event happened in the past, there is inequality and disparity of human rights all over the world that still exists to this day, through racism, modern day slavery, women’s rights, and so much more, and that we should not slack on our advocacy for equality and human rights.
I believe that it was very important for us as a group to go to Elmina Castle. While it was very difficult and hard to see, it was a great learning and enlightening experience for us as human beings, and also because it is a large part of Ghana’s history and was impactful on its culture today. During this trip, we have been working to immerse ourselves into all aspects of Ghanaian culture, and I feel that this is just as important if not more to be learning about to truly understand certain aspects of Ghanaian life.