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Published: March 20th 2015
Cape Coast Castle
Guns faced the sea to defend against other Europeans
(by guest blogger Kit Rawson)
On Sunday morning (15 Mar) Phil drove us in his taxi from Laurel's neighborhood into Accra where we found a trotro in the midst of a chotic mass of trotros, buses, taxis, food vendors, and travelers at one of the city's "stations". After we sat awhile in the heat waiting for the last few seats to fill, we drove several hours west along the shore and soon found ourselves at Cape Coast. Laurel had reserved a hut for us in the low key, but comfortable, Oasis Resort. We were right on a relatively clean beach with swimmable surf, and we were here to enjoy that and also to
see the remains of the two original European outposts in the area.
Until independence on March 5, 1957, most of present day Ghana comprised Great Britain's Gold Coast colony. Direct European influence here started in the 1400s when Portugese explorers established trading outposts at Elmina, west of Accra, and elsewhere. Indirect European contact dated from many years before that via trade on the overland route across the Sahara and the short Mediterranean Sea crossing. In fact, the Portugese started the Age of Exploration, venturing by sea to West Africa, in order to circumvent the trans-Sahara gold trade to get a bigger piece of the action for themselves.
Gold, ivory, spices, and, most notoriously, human beings, were the principal items that Europeans sought in West Africa and exported from here for approximately five centuries. Although the Gold Coast was in British hands when the colonial era finally ended, a number of European countries, competed for influence and power in the area over those centuries. The seacoast fortifications, of which we visited two at Elmina and Cape Coast, were built mainly to fend off rival European powers. Initially, at least, these forts, or "castles", were sited by agreement with the
local African authorities. Trade, including buying and selling of human beings, involved a web of sovereignties and authorities at least as complex on the African side as on the European side, probably more complex on the African side. In fact, the first use of European ocean going ships to carry slaves was a Portugese voyage in the 1400s that carried African slaves, sold by Africans in Benin, to the Gold Coast to be purchased by other Africans.
This is the complex and nuanced background to the sites of some of the worst treatment ever of human beings by other human beings that are preserved here in all their horror. We toured the slave holding and shipping facilities used mainly by the Dutch at St George Castle at Elmina and by the British at Cape Coast Castle. The men's and women's dungeons, where captives were held in the dark at huge densities for up to three months before shipping, the cells for the condemned, where intransigent captives were starved to death because they were deemed to pose too great a flight risk if transported, and the pathways from the dungeons to the "door of no return" through which the captives
The Door of Return at Cape Coast
The man in front is a fisherman mending his net
were forced on the boats to be taken to the ships anchored beyond the surf to transport them (in even more horrible conditions) to the Americas.
It is amazing to tour these places led by skilled, and emotional, African tour guides and in the company of fellow tourists, most of whom are African. These castles, where despicable acts were committed, are located on beautifully scenic seashores where fishermen go offshore for food today in wooden canoes, much as their predecessors have done for at least a few thousand years. Our guide says that "the past is past" and we, each and every one of us, can only try to do better in the future. Ghanians take pride in being a nation of peace where, for one thing, Christians and Moslems coexist without conflict. So, I believe him when he says he holds no ill will today against the people responsible for the crimes of the past he has just finished describing so well.
The seaward side of the Door of No Return at Cape Coast Castle is now labelled "Door of Return". In 1998 the remains of two Africans, kidnapped and taken across the ocean, one to the
West Indies and one to the United States, one male and one female, were brought back to this place and carried through the door from the seashore back onto Africa. There is a sign inside now that says "Akwaaba", or "Welcome," symbolizing that that descendants of those who were taken away are now free to come back for a visit or to settle. A sign at Cape Coast castle commemorates the 2009 visit of President Obama with his wife, daughters, and mother-in-law. Michelle Obama believes that some of her ancestors left West Africa via Cape Coast castle. This seems to be a crucial part of the process of healing the wounds of those horrible events.
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