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Published: July 26th 2008
The Cape Coast Castle. Better known as the major slave trading fort on the Ghanaian Coast (and African Coast, for that matter.)
I wasn't sure if i was going to be disappointed like I was in Mole last week. Matter of fact, the emotional and historic weight of this "tourism" trip meant I didn't know at all how I would feel after. The result, somewhere in the middle between an average tour and total emotional release. If that sounds vague, as it covers most any emotional possibility, it's meant to be, as I can't really wrap my head around all I've been thinking the past few hours.
Walking through the underground dungeons in near darkness--even at 3 in the afternoon--the place felt empty, and it's hard to believe that a single dungeon room, about 30' x 20, could be packed with up to 1,000 people. Africa people, dying in hordes from illness, the rest waiting to be sent upstairs, across the fort's yard, behind the walls and cannon turrets, and through the "Door of No Return," where small boats awaited on the dock to shuttle them to the large slave ships awaiting offshore. For them it was the last steps on African soil, for me I walked through the door, bought a souvenir on the dock, watched some fishermen mend their nets, and turned back into the fort, stopping to smile at the sign over the outside of the door that says "Door of Return," and was put there when a few years ago, in a symbolic gesture, some black Americans were brought back via ships onto the shore and through the door, back into Africa.
This connection was strengthened while we toured the dungeons, and I stood dumbstruck contemplating a hole in the stone wall where shackles and chains had been attached. I looked down to the floor and saw below the hole a bouquet of flowrs that had been left, with a yellow ribbon that said "North Carolina Central University, Durham, North Carolina," and the dungeon all of a sudden made me think of home, of the way race is ever-present in America, of my grandfather's stories of his dad's immigration, how a lot of people I know don't get to have those family immigrant stories, as they were brought against their will, and even I thought of the election this year, and where does that fit in all of this, if it even does at this stage in history?
But it isn't as simple as race, as black/white, African/European. Most of the Europeans at Cape Coast stayed at the fort, as they often died on inland journeys from illnesses they were not adapted to. The Ashanti (and others), the greatest kingdom in Ghana, were often the ones bringing them the slaves. So this is not about what one race does to another, it is about what one person does to another in the name of profit, of greed.
And that's what made this so different, this felt like genocide, but it also felt like greed. I've walked killing fields in Cambodia, crawled through the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam, and had a Chilean torture survivor walk me through the exact spots where the Pinochet government tortured him decades before. All of these experiences felt tragic, but in the way a crash scene does. They felt fleeting, temporary, like looking at the crater of a meteor that crashed one day long ago. But the slave trade at Cape Coast it survived for centuries, sending millions in and out like an assembly line of injustice and indignity, with complicity from all who could profit from it, across kingdoms, countries and continents.
Out of the dungeons and back into the courtyard, the guide pointed to one of three tombs buried in the stone floor of the castle--clearly a great honor to whoever it was bestowed upon. The tomb we hovered around was for a Ghanaian, the first native to become an Anglican Priest, and whose father had helped the British build their slave trade. The guide then motion across the courtyard, to the church within the castle where the priest practiced, and it sat right above the dungeons where the slaves were held by the thousands at a time. As we continued on the tour, I couldn't stop thinking to myself "3 or 4 centuries they did this, over and over again," and I was mad at everyone. I was mad at the ships, the guards, the slave traders, the damn priest, no one's hands were clean here, there was too much done here to escape free of it even if you didn't push the people through the door of no return with your own hands.
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