As persons deprived of memory become disoriented and lost, not knowing where they have been and where they are going, so a nation denied a conception of the past will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future. – Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
It has been hundreds of years since the abolishment of slavery in the United States. Although the story has begun to lose its importance in our collective memory, many Americans still hold a part of it deep in their hearts. We try hard not to forget the lessons learned by those who died so many generations before, yet we find it’s easy to let it slip into the category of trivia. Very few people ever get to make a real connection to their culture’s history. To many, history consists of merely pages in a book and sentences in paragraphs, to be memorized and repeated for tests and exams. Few of us are lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit a piece of the past. But those pieces are still there, still standing, and still refusing to be forgotten.
Elmina Castle rests calmly on the central coast of the West African country of Ghana, near the city of Cape Coast – a mighty citadel, overlooking a sleepy old fishing town. The walls of the castle glow white in the sunlight, contrasting with the glittering tans of the sand, the greens of the palm trees, the blues of the sky, and the white foam of the waves. A soft sea breeze continually blows through the village, creating an idyllic and tranquil setting. Along the coast, fisherman sit in boats, casting their nets out into the ocean in hopes of catching enough fish to support their families for the day. Children play carefree along the shores, following their mothers as they make their way to the nearby market, carrying their wares and produce in large metal basins balanced on their heads. I have always enjoyed the beauty of Africa, and at that moment, nothing was more beautiful than watching people going about their daily lives – a snapshot, timeless and enduring.
“You have to go to Elmina,” my friend, Maggie, had told me earlier, “it’s going to make you cry.”
I am not one to be affected by historical spaces. Not usually. Maybe it’s the presentation, or the distance in history, or simply a lack of desire to delve deeper. Most sites or museums I visit hold a momentary interest for me, but simply remain that, an interesting place. There is no connection, no kind of exchange. I am just a visitor passing through.
“When you go,” Maggie continued, “ask for Kwame as your guide. He’s really good.”
We arrive in Elmina Castle early in the afternoon. Our white Mercedes pulls into the parking lot, and as the members of our traveling group, my friend, Max, his parents, my boyfriend and me spill out of the car, we are immediately accosted by groups of teenage boys selling souvenir sea shells and bracelets. Christoph, our driver and Max’s friend, stands to the side and watches, slightly amused.
“Hello, how are you?” the boys say, fighting each other to get to us first, “I want to be your friend. Give me your address.”
We hurry quickly through the entrance of the castle, where they can’t reach us.
“The next tour will start in a few minutes,” the man at the counter says, “please, have a look at our books that we have for sale.”
Elmina Castle is one of many castles that stand along the coast formerly known as the Slave Coast. It was originally created by the Portuguese as a place to store goods for trade. As time passed and European countries learned of the profit in human trade, the castle became one of many collecting points for slaves captured in West Africa. Men and women, taken from places as far away as Mali and as close as Togo, were forced to make the long journey to these fortresses by foot, where they would await the ships that would carry them to the Americas. Elmina Castle was the last stop, the last connection they had to their homeland. There are many such places along the coast of West Africa.
The tour begins with an introduction and history of the castle. True to what Maggie had claimed, Kwame is a good guide and continually demands questions from members of the tour group. There are about fifteen of us taking the tour, including the six people in my traveling group, plus Christoph. I glance around at the other faces. Many are tourists, like me, who have come to explore a bit of history. There is an American couple and two twenty-something American men. Two young Ghanaian women and a couple more visitors from other countries finish off the group. We follow Kwame as he takes us through the different chambers and passageways.
“This is the female slave yard,” he says, stopping at an open courtyard bordered by a large chamber, “over there is where the women were kept.”
He points to the chamber, a space approximately 30 feet in length and 15 feet wide. He said that in there, about 150 or more women were held at a time. Crammed in shoulder to shoulder, with no place to relieve themselves, except for the pots permanently placed in the corners and the floor. The men’s accommodations were of similar, if not harsher conditions.
Kwame points to a balcony overlooking the courtyard.
“That is the governor’s residence,” he explains, “from time to time, the governor would call the women out into the courtyard, look down on them and pick out those he wanted for the night. Those women were then led up a back staircase to be bathed, fed a meal, and taken into the governor’s bedroom where he could have his way with them.”
Those women were the lucky ones, according to Kwame. Many of the soldiers who guarded the castle had less refined ways to release their sexual desires.
“We will continue on to the men’s slave yard,” Kwame says, as he leads us into the next chamber.
I am ill with the thought of so many women being denied their basic right to their own bodies. How can humanity be so cruel? What creates this disconnect that allows someone to see another as a completely different and somehow inferior species – as a servant – as an object – as something to be used and thrown away rather than respected and revered.
So much of the injustices throughout history and in the present stem from this disconnect. I think of the Holocaust. I think of the massacres of Native Americans. I think of ethno-political conflicts in the Middle East. I think of the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. It starts from a detachment from one another, and from our history, from the inaccurate belief that this is somehow different than before, a refusal to learn from past lessons.
Kwame brings us to the “Door of No Return". It is a narrow passageway looking out into the ocean, less than a foot and a half wide and covered by steel horizontal and vertical bars. I peer through the bars and see the waves in the distance, the palm trees swaying in the breeze and the sound of sea gulls squawking up above. Lively voices echo from the nearby village.
“The passageway is this narrow on purpose,” Kwame explains, “because they are meant to let only one person out at a time onto the boats.”
By the time the boats arrived to bring the slaves to the Americas, which was often every three or four months, many of the captives were so starved and weak they could easily pass through the space.
Christoph stands next to the “Door of No Return” and looks out onto the beach. He is an African man of average build, probably about five feet ten, with shoulders wider than the width of the passageway. He has a government job and lives comfortably with his wife and children. It is his Mercedes that we have taken for this trip. I try and imagine what is going through his head at that moment, looking out through the passageway that had taken so many of his ancestors away. He told me later that in school in his native Togo, they didn't spend much time studying slavery. He never even knew such castles still existed in Africa. I was slightly surprised and slightly not. Forgetting is an easy thing to do.
Kwame takes us to the last spot on our tour, the isolation chamber. It is a tiny cell with no windows and a small four-inch wide hole for ventilation that leads into another chamber. The door to the isolation chamber is solid wood, stone carvings of a skull and crossbones hang above the entrance. Slaves who dared to rebel were sent here, locked up and left alone with no food or water. Many went crazy, many died. There are bloody imprints on the walls where slaves tried to scrape their way through the stone. On a white marble slab on the wall next to the isolation chamber are engraved these words:
In everlasting memory/ of the anguish of our ancestors/ may those who died rest in peace/ may those who return find their roots/ may humanity never again perpetrate/ such injustice against humanity/ we the living vow to uphold this
Nowhere has a place touched me more than Elmina Castle. The walls of the fortress exude a cooling sadness, as if the ghosts of those who had died within those walls are still wandering the grounds, wondering when they would be returned their freedom.
What saddened me more was a subtle dissonance between the relationship of a culture's history to the present and the future, by descendents of both the oppressor and the oppressed. We forget where we have been. And by forgetting, we are thus unable to move forward in a way that will allow us to grow. Instead, we simply run in circles, making the same mistakes over and over. Our histories repeat themselves, in various forms and various contexts. Nothing is ever truly original, they are only variations. Hopefully, someday we will figure it out. Only then can we truly move forward.
Our tour ends and I follow the group into the gift shop. I thank Kwame for an amazing tour. He smiles and says to me, “Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Can I have your address?”