A tour of Ghana’s slave monument that leaves you spooked, sore and subdued
From: Musa Jibril
If you are visiting Ghana as a tourist, you should not let a visit to the city of Cape Coast, and its famous castle, pass you by. Ghana’s coastline, from the rim of the Volta Region to its western axis of Axim, is dotted with castles and forts. Fifteen of these vestiges of Africa’s slavery past are UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites, including the castles of Cape Coast, Elmina and Fort Christiansborg, which used to be notorious holding prisons for captives.
These standing proofs of the former Gold Coast’s role as the headquarters of the transatlantic slave trade on the West Coast of Africa are worthy of visit.
Cape Coast’s whitewashed slave fortress, an eternal poignant reminder of the city’s dark history, harboured in its bowel touching stories of humanity’s Dark Age. Ancient atrocities perpetrated within its hollow chambers and dungeons, still resonate so much so that a tour can quickly become traumatic for a sensitive tourist. Example: A vicarious association with the agony of the African victims unnerved me.
I was especially unsettled by Sojourner Truth’s citation. Born a slave in New York State as Isabella Von Wagener, freed in the late 1820s due to the gradual manumission laws, which granted freedom to slaves over a certain age after a period of years, Wagner renamed herself Sojourner Truth, spent the rest of her life searching for her eight children born while enslaved, and eventually reunited with four.
Hers is one of the harrowing narratives on display in the closet of the Castle Museum. Sojourner Truth’s heart-rending story was a tip of the iceberg. I found rather unsettling the display of cultural artifacts side by side with slave relics, such as branding tools, iron manacles and chains.
Soon after, I stood on a replica auction platform where once upon a time, over a century ago, Africans were auctioned like commodities. A notice of a public auction, reproduced from an original dated Monday 18th May 1882, detailed the sad life of three Africans, to “Be Sold and Let” as slaves. The notice concludes with a cruel twist––“(also) for sale at Eleven o’clock, fine rice, gram, paddy, books, muslin, needles” ––that speaks volume about the worth of an African life during this nadir of African history.
My solitary exploration of the museum (quite a distressing hors d’oeuvre) set me on edge even before the main tour. We were a small, motley group of tourists, three couples and one, comprising a middle-aged blonde chaperoned by coffee-black, dreadlocked young man, two young lovey-dovey Ghanaian couples and myself.
Our guide, Victor Kumi, knew when to hit home in his narration to stir his listeners’ emotion.
If you have watched such slave films as Roots or 12 Years A Slave, you need not stretch your imagination to get a graphic idea of the ‘Slave Story of the Cape Coast Castle.’ The castle’s atrocious past resonated effortlessly from the tone and tenor of the guide’s narration. We started with the Male Slave Dungeon, a dark, dank and depressive cavern that had you firmly claustrophobic as soon as you step inside it. Designed to harbour 1,000 captives, the dungeon was stretched to the maximum with as many as 3, 000 male slaves piled on top of one another, who for a minimum of 90 days were forced to live in subhuman condition, eating and defecating and sleeping in that death chamber, before being sent across the Atlantic into lifelong slavery.
The condition of the Female Slave Dungeon did not differ. Built for 300, it harboured over a thousand women of all ages, routinely abused sexually by their white captors.
WE ALSO VISITED THE CASTLE’S VERSION OF HADES. Labeled Cell, it is the punitive place for rebellious slaves. In there, they were chained, and starved to death. It was a place I could only describe with harsh adjectives, poignant similes and morbid metaphors: Dark as hell. As suffocating as a grave. A room of death.
There is a cruel irony to this grim cell. A spy-hole above offered a peep directly into the church. I was struck by the starkly cruel contrast. While those above worship God, those below squirmed in the throes of death.
“May their soul rest in peace,” our guide’s well-timed prayer jolted me.
“Amen.” We chorused solemnly.
Palaver Hall was the place to gain further hints of how Africans were bartered for commodities such as cans of gunpowder, sometimes, under an absurd trading term of BOGOF – buy one, get one free.
The tour of the castle’s bowel left my soul jangled with emotional dissonance so much so I was thankful for a gulp of salty, sea-air when we emerged in the courtyard.
Outside in the courtyard, there is no end to the grim business. Dead slaves, we were told, were simply ‘bagged’ and––to use the sailor’s parlance––sent to Davy Jones’ locker. Dumped in the sea.
Four persons were privileged to be buried in the courtyard – George Maclean, Governor of Cape Coast Castle and his wife, Letitia Landon, a well-known British poet and novelist, author of the book of poetry, The Fate of Adelaide. Of the remaining two graves, one belonged to Rev. Philip Quaque, the first African from the Gold Coast to be ordained a priest.
Landon’s death adds a tang to the castle’s grisly tales. Married in early July to Maclean in England, the couple sailed from Britain to Cape Coast, arriving on August 16, 1838. Two months later, the Romance and Reality novelist was found dead on October 15, cradling a bottle of Prussic acid. The vacuum created by lack of official information about the cause of death was filled by rumour of the governor’s wife suicidal act of poisoning herself. By and large, Landon––known for symptoms of Stokes-Adams syndrome for which the dilute acid was the standard remedy––was assumed to have died of fatal convulsion. Our guide told us the local version of the cause of the tragedy. Jealousy. “It was alleged she committed suicide after she caught Maclean in bed with a female slave,” he said.
Away from gloomy stories, we tried to find some silver linings. The cannons and their pools of rusty balls easily caught our fancy. Positioned against the sea, to ward off attacks from the sea and to keep the natives at bay in case they attacked from the mainland, these “metals of death” maintained a solemn line-up on the walls of the castle.
The Governor’s Room and Fort Williams (perched on a hill overlooking the town and the sea like a brooding sentry) have a line-of-sight connection, which provided an early warning system for the wary occupiers of the castle.
After a visit to the governor’s expansive room, which contrasted sharply with the cramped dungeons of the slaves, we rounded off the tour at the Door of No Return, the castle’s exit, where captives commenced their dreary odyssey after surviving three months of subhuman treatment in the dungeon.
Overwhelmed by emotion, I asked our guide: “How do the Whites feel when they tour the castle and you run them through this dark history?”
Kumi forewarned: “If you follow feelings, you will misjudge.”
Certain stocks of Europeans, he said, tend to exhibit hubris. He made exception of the Dutch, Danes and Americans. “By the time they finish the tour, they are always very emotional,” he revealed.
I asked him about his feeling.
“My first few months as a guide were very difficult. I found everything annoying,” Kumi said, “then, I realised it is not just a Ghanaian tale. It is an African story. Black people who passed through the castle to death, or slavery in the Americas were not exclusively Ghanaians. Some were captured from Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ivory Coast.”
He showed me blobs of candle wax on the floor inside the tunnels. “Many African-Americans come here to meditate.”
To tour the castle is to smell the great atrocity of the 19th Century.
Send a hard-hearted soul to the castle and he will come back humanised.
When the American first family made a historic visit to the castle on July 11, 2009, an emotional Barack Obama said the visit “reminded him of the capacity of human beings to commit great evil.”
At the Tantri Bus Station, as I waited patiently for my Accra-bound bus to fill up, I tried to shake off the castle’s-induced melancholy, and instead fix my mind on the city’s present-day attractions.
It tried vainly to find the city’s best character until at last, an epiphany jumped out of the words of Elizabeth Hayden, a 19-year-old German from Hamburg, whom I met on the trip. “In Cape Coast, everybody is welcoming; they make you feel at home, like one of them.”