Friday, April 30, 2010

Cape Coast: The Slave Castle

As the midday wore on we drove to the Slave Castle in Cape Coast. The imposing white fortress rises from a hillside on a peninsula that juts out into the blue waters of the Atlantic. Colorful, decaying colonial buildings mixed with tin-roof shops gather at the foot of the castle, and kids play in the waves between colorful wooden fishing boats. A crowd of hawkers gathered around our bus and followed us in a mad bustle to the arched doorway of the castle’s outer wall, where, probably by agreement with the castle’s operators, they set up camp to wait for our return.

We meandered through aging white courtyards paved with ancient flagstones and patchy concrete. A troop of girls danced in one courtyard to the beat of a drum, while men in sharp collared shirts lounged in front of their shops. We stopped at a bathroom with signs for “Adam” and “Eve” (you never turn down a working bathroom when you encounter it.) We rounded a corner and ran right into a collection of men and women in white shirts and black nametags. It just happened to be a conference of LDS mission presidents in West Africa along with the Area Presidency. We shook hands with couples from Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, DR Congo, and other African countries. I guess Ghana is also part of that small world people always talk about.

We passed under a building and the corridor opened out on a vast courtyard facing the sea, flanked by piles of rusting cannonballs. The fort rose three or four floors on either side, white plaster walls with blue shutters, topped by a windowed tower from which the captain could view the terrain and enjoy the high life. Our tour guide surveyed the picturesque scene above before leading us to a downward-sloping tunnel in one wall: the entrance to the slave dungeons.

The curving tunnel was lined with grimy bricks, worn by countless ages of hands and seawater. The cave brooded with a dark musty smell often emulated in amusement park rides. Naked light bulbs were strung along the ceiling here and there to provide some light. The tunnel curved into the darkness before opening up into a series of rectangular rooms, each ventilated and lit by a few tiny shafts cut into the rock. In these rooms, hundreds of men would be placed for three months, many of which would die from illness or starvation. A waist-high mark on the wall indicated how high the sewage had risen at times. The tour guide turned off the lights for a minute, and I tried to imagine standing in human waste for three months, packed like sardines, in near darkness. I almost wanted to cry.

I am still puzzled by the treatment of the slaves. I studied economics for four years, and it doesn’t make sense to me why people who were seen as a valuable commodity would be treated so harshly. I’ve learned to mistrust numbers I’m presented, but even if the death rates were far less than the 60% I was told, I simply can’t fathom the logic and barbaric inefficiency of the system. I guess they were just thinning out the weaker slaves. Also, why hold them for three months? I know it takes time to cross the ocean and back, but were there only a few ships running the trade route to this specific castle? That seems like an artificially long time period

Throughout the tour my mind kept coming back to the awful arithmetic of the place: If the castle held 2,000 slaves at a time, for three month periods, and 60% of them died, that takes 8,000 people out of Ghana per year and sends 3,200 of them to America. I guess there were about ten slave castles, which if fully operational would drain Ghana of 80,000 people per year and produce 32,000 slaves. How many years did they operate like this? I also thought about the fact that Ghana was called the Gold Coast, not the Slave Coast (which I think was Togo and Benin). How many more slaves came out of other countries?

We visited different rooms, some darker than others, some stifling hot. One was tiny, dark, and air tight; where men were sent to die. You could still see grooves on the floor from the chains, and divots in the rock floor where something violent had happened. We found out that the English built a church right above the room—ironic to say the least. We went to the womens’ chambers as well. The captain would frequently pick out the most attractive women to be taken to his quarters so he could have his way with them. Those refused to comply were locked in a tiny, hot cell for punishment. As in other African and Caribbean countries, a whole race of mulatto children were fathered by the captains and guards, and sent off to live in outlying cities, bringing with them English surnames like Wilson and Morris. In many African and Caribbean countries, these half-black children became the ruling elite.

As we climbed out of the dungeons my mind went back to the Lego blocks I used to play with as a child. I would construct hillside forts and pirate ships, complete with Lego palm trees and cannons. I felt I was walking in a Lego display. We crossed the courtyard and climbed up the stairs to the Captain’s quarters, a large half-circle room with white walls and a wood floor. A row of windows allows the cool ocean breeze to fill the room, and opens out on a vast landscape. We could see the afternoon sun glinting on the waves in the west, watch the fishing boats out at sea, and gaze up the east coast to the colorful houses cluttered between the many fingers of land jutting into the sea. It was a breathtaking view, but I kept thinking back to the misery teeming underneath the paving stones of the courtyard, and the poor women who were brought up to this room.

We concluded the tour of the castle by winding through the mazelike rooms, curving staircases, and balconies of the upper floors. A broad hall that once was used for trade negotiations and entertainment now sits mostly empty, with a small gift shop huddled in the corner. We admired the artwork, t-shirts, and other things before winding our way back to the ground floor.

The girls were still dancing in the courtyard when we got back there. We wandered in and out of the shops for awhile, and I bought Alisha a colorful dress, two beautiful necklaces, and a small African mask, all for about $25 (which was even high-priced for Ghana). When we finally left the castle our throng of new “friends” was still waiting for us.

1 comment:

  1. Somehow I missed this post. Just now, pretty much 2 months later, I've read it for the first time.
    Dave, you have such a way with expressing your experiences in your words that makes your readers truly feel that they are right there, in that darkness, feeling that fear or misery, catching that scent of the musty caves where those poor men were kept.
    You should really be published Babe. Seriously.