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Published: February 23rd 2012
Words can’t describe day three in Ghana. Others that had made this pilgrimage in the first two days in country came back looking shell-shocked so we all knew what was coming. Unlike the rest of our car rides, this one is virtually silent. We arrive at the first of two stops: Cape Coast Castle. A large, white washed complex accented with black shutters on the windows and black cannons standing guard for a threat long forgotten. There is an eerie silence to this place despite the bustling fishing community outside its doors.
Our guide takes us first to the Male Dungeon, a complex of 5 rooms in near darkness. He leads us into the first chamber, closes the door behind us and turns out the modern light that has been added for the convenience and comfort of the tourists. We are in virtual darkness only briefly, all the while knowing that we are visitors here who get to leave the room at will. And yet, a chill runs down my spine as I take a deep breath in the dark, damp room. There are only 6 of us; the room feels large, the humidity and heat are oppressive. The only
source of light and air is a small square whole in the wall, close to the ceiling. I find myself counting the seconds until our guide restores the light and opens the dungeon door, allowing the ocean breeze to provide only slight relief. At any given time during the span of 300 years of human trafficking in which this castle was used, there were 500-600 men living in these rooms. Unfathomable.
At the far end of the series of chambers is an altar. As we approach it our guide explains that the altar covers the entrance to the tunnel that led to the slave ships. A man sits on the altar in contemplation. His station is to offer up prayers on this hallowed ground where ancestors of his tribe were forced to pass out of this dungeon into the tunnel that led to the next unbearable stage of their captivity – the middle passage. We give a small offering, obscenely miniscule in comparison to the sacrifices that have come before us in this room. He recites a prayer in the tradition of his people; I can’t help but cry.
The Female Dungeon is similar, though much smaller, with
one notable difference: it has an additional room where the officers and guards can look down from above, selecting the slaves they will rape. The room has an area where these women will be washed before being brought through the doors that led to the private rooms of their captors. This dungeon leads to the same tunnel as the men’s, at the end of which is the “door of no return."
There are 36 such castles in Ghana (not to mention those in other parts of West Africa). Cape Coast Castle was run primarily by the British, who took it from the Portuguese. The second castle we visit that day is Elmina, similarly it was first established by the Portuguese but then was taken over by the Dutch. Extremely similar in its architecture and brutality, this castle has a church in the middle of its courtyard. Once the castle was converted from a goods trading post to a slave trading post, the church was split in half – the one half continued as a church the other was used as an auction room for the sale of the captives. Directly below the church floor is the main dungeon.
And all this during the “Age of Reason.”
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