Cape Coast and Central Ghana
We arrived in Cape Coast just before sundown, after taking the three hour van ride from that very busy market in Accra. We were hoping that, after a long day of walking around in Accra followed by several hours of being in transit, we would be able to quickly get to our Airbnb and relax. Unfortunately, as you can probably already tell, that didn’t happen.
On the Airbnb page, there is always a map showing where the apartment or house is located. Using this, I found out pretty much where the house was located. Our host, Freddy, had said to have the taxi driver give him a call when we arrived (we didn’t have a working phone in Ghana). Once we arrived near his home, we found a guest house to give him a call. Turns out that we were nowhere near his place; he had moved and had not updated his place on the map. We also found out that he wanted us to have the taxi driver call him BEFORE going anywhere. Freddy took a taxi out to find out, and we waited somewhat frustrated, wanting just to get to bed. After Freddy got to us, we immediately forgave him for the positivity and energy that he showed to us. He was very excited to have us there and to show us around his area. Even though we had a rocky start, Freddy was one of the kindest and most welcoming hosts I have ever had with Airbnb.
Cape Coast & Elmina
Cape Coast is located in central Ghana and, you guessed it, along the coast. This area was the center of the colonization of Ghana and the exploitation of minerals as well as slaves. Until 1957, this area was named the Gold Coast, the name the Europeans gave it because of the prevalence of gold. This goes along with the bordering country to the west and what the Europeans used to exploit in their land, which is the Ivory Coast.
Today, Cape Coast is a mid-sized city in Ghana, known for its education systems and universities. Many tourists come to Cape Coast to discover the horrible history that took place here, as two of the major slave trade castles are still standing.
Europeans first arrived in the mid-to-late 1400s when the Portuguese landed on the rocky shores of central Ghana. Seeing an opportunity for wealth, they began to build the infrastructure they needed in order to steal the minerals and to also protect themselves from other intruders. This is when they built Elmina Castle, a massive guarded structure where the governor lived and where they would store their goods before shipping. Elmina Castle wasn’t originally built for the transatlantic slave trade; it was built for the exportation of gold, ivory, bauxite, and more. Soon after, however, the Portuguese did begin enslaving people and used Elmina Castle as a place of transit for the Africans before being shipped to other countries like Spain, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States. This was the start of horrific 400 years of slave trade, where Africans were dehumanized into “goods” and were traded as if they were gold. Over the years, parts of the coast changed hands between other European countries. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danish, the Swedes, the French, and more. These countries were there for only one reason, to exploit the land and the people for their own profits.
Elmina is a smaller city of about 50,000 people located just about 6 miles west of Cape Coast. Today, it is known for its fish market, where a few hundred boats bring their early morning catch into the town to sell them to local townspeople and vendors. They sell crabs, tilapia, snails, and more. This market attracts vendors from all over the area; they purchase in Elmina and then sell in their own towns.
When we arrived in Elmina with our host, Freddy, who decided to take us all around for the day, we were overwhelmed with the activity in the fish market. The colorful wooden boats hung flags to tell their customers who they are. The boats lined the canal to sell their catch, and the mass of people we could see at a distance was impressive in itself. Seeing this amount of activity proved the importance of this busy market.
After observing all of this for a moment, we took our first steps into Elmina Castle, the oldest European castle in Ghana, dating back to 1482 and built by the Portuguese. While the Portuguese originally named this Sao Jorge (Saint George) Castle, the Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1637 and renamed this area Elmina, meaning “The Mine” in Dutch. This area was under Dutch control until 1872, when the British seized the land and the castle.
We walked into this ancient castle by stepping onto the draw bridge that leads over the first moat and then the second moat. This is the same entrance that the millions of slaves went through, chained together and beaten and exhausted from the brutal journey from their home villages. At 9AM, the castle seemed to be empty, other than the handful of employees working there. To have an idea of all that happened here, the brutality that took place here as millions of people were beaten so horribly that over ¼ of all people who came through here died here.
The main courtyard area inside the castle is just plain eerie. On one side are the entrances to the male and the female slave dungeons, where the enslaved people were held until forced onto a boat to be shipped across the Atlantic. The other side directly across are individual cells, solitary confinement, for the high-profile prisoners or those who they are afraid will rally others. Directly ahead is a 4-story white washed building, with a balcony towards the top. The top of this building is where the European administrative offices were located, along with the governor’s living room and bedroom. Finally, behind us is the Portuguese Church, a well-kept structure where the Portuguese worshipped, even though it was in this same area where these inhumane activities were being done to fellow people.
As part of the entrance fee, a tour guide is provided to give an in-depth tour of the castle. He took us to the dungeons, where over a hundred people were trapped in this small area with almost no ventilation or light. So many were shoved into a dungeon that, to sleep, they had to lay on top of each other. The ground was made of stones, so sleeping would’ve been tough anyway. There was no such thing is a restroom to the people who were kept enslaved, so the dungeon floors would be covered in human waste. They would be served food twice per day, but not near enough food was ever given. Those who passed away may not have been moved for days. And they did not receive a proper burial, but they their corpses were simply thrown into the Bay of Guinea, since the castle was built right alongside the water.
Our tour guide took us first to the female slave dungeon, then to the male dungeon, the Point of No Return, the governor’s quarters, the Dutch church (which was directly above the female slave dungeon), and finally up to the top guard towers. Walking through a small dark hallway, where we had to duck down to not hit our heads, we were shown the Point of No Return. This heartbreaking corridor was used to lead the enslaved people out the back of the castles and straight onto boats. I cannot imagine the horror and trauma caused to these enslaved people, after being forced into tumultuous conditions, they were finally led (probably beaten most of the way) to this small hallway and onto boats, many times being separated from their families. From these small boats along the shore, they were taken out into the ocean and forced onto a larger ship, the ship that would take them across the Atlantic. In these ships, the enslaved people are locked to the floor of the ships, very close together, and are forced to remain there the entire journey. Because of the horrible sanitary conditions, seasickness, and lack of food, many Africans died on their way across the Atlantic. And once they arrive in the Caribbean or the Americas, they are inhumanely sold and forced to their new living areas, whether it be a plantation picking cotton or sugar cane, working as servants in a house, or of many other jobs.
This is the story that went on for over 350 years. The people who were forced into this were largely west Africans, people of various tribes from what is now Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Burkina Faso, and more. Many of the enslaved people were prisoners of war, victims of tribal wars in west Africa. They would be sold off to the Europeans for a profit for those who were keeping the prisoners. Others were kidnapped, either by other Africans or by Europeans. Houses would be raided at night where men, women, and children would be taken from their houses and forced to walk to the castles while being tortured along the way.
Being able to put pictures together of how these horrible crimes took place, and imagining the amount of suffering by Africans, it pained me to be standing at this spot.
Cape Coast Castle
After the Elmina Castle, we took a taxi back to Cape Coast, walked a bit, and then visited the second castle in the area, the Cape Coast Castle. This area was held by the Swedish, the Dutch, and the Danes, before it was taken over by the British. The Swedes originally built the castle to trade timber and gold, but it was later used for the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, just like Elmina Castle.
The Cape Coast Castle was a highlighted in the news a few years ago when Barack and Michelle Obama took a trip to Ghana and to the Cape Coast Castle. Some of Michelle Obama’s ancestors were forced into slavery and brought through this castle before being forced onto ships across the Atlantic. For the first black US President and First Lady to come to Ghana, this was a huge deal in Ghana. People from all over the country of Ghana came to Cape Coast, as well as many people from other countries, in order to see the President and First Lady.
We arrived to Cape Castle, and we found many Semester at Sea students already there. Whereas we were just two of very few people at Elmina, it was clear that Cape Coast Castle has many more visitors, at least on this day with all of our students in the area.
Like Elmina, our entrance fee included a guided tour. Our tour group this time was with about 30 people, almost all students. And like Elmina, we were shown the male dungeons and the female dungeons, the punishment/torture rooms, the governor’s quarters, and more. This castle was reconstructed by the British in the 1700s, and they redesigned it to be a slave trade castle. This meant that the dungeons were underground, and there was a tunnel underground where the slaves were forced to the Point of No Return without coming to the main level of the castle. On the water side of the castle, there was a battery of cannons looking out over the water. The fact that there were cannons looking out over the water was a strong indicator of who may attack the British; the cannons weren’t looking inland where any Africans would be coming, but the cannons point outwards toward the sea, where other Europeans might attack and attempt to take over the castle.
Our tour guide took us into one of the punishment rooms, all 30 of us, and closed the door for just ten seconds. Within those seconds, we were already starting to become claustrophobic, overheated in the damp and humid air. This is where those who “acted out” could be put for days on end, many of them dying in this very spot. Again, like Elmina, our tour guide took us through the Point of No Return, where so many enslaved people were forced onto boats and taken across the ocean. I heard there was one woman who was forced through this door of no return as a slave, and she was able to come back to Ghana after slavery was abolished. She was the only person who exited the door of no return only to enter it from the other side years later.
Visiting these slave castles and dungeons brought many emotions. I feel absolutely ashamed for mankind that we would put other humans through this horrid treatment for almost 400 years. It’s unbelievable that the Europeans were able to dehumanize the black Africans to the point where they considered them to be goods, cargo, rather than real people. I believe they had this in their mind, they they were real people so they could be tortured and destroyed. It makes me very sad to think that much of the wealth in the United States as well as European countries came directly from this slave trade. Those gorgeous colonial buildings we saw in Valencia, Spain, were funded from the exploitation of Ghana and other countries for their gold, minerals, and through slave trade. Many cities in the United States were built by slaves coming from Africa, including Charleston, South Carolina, and the original Washington DC (the White House and Capitol Building). By forcing real life people into slavery and into these brutal conditions, the British, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Americans, they were able to get rich, and Africans received the brunt of it. There is much more that I would like to say, but I’m having trouble putting it into words. It really is disgusting to think about the white Europeans coming into a country and taking everything they can from the country at absolutely no cost. I know this has happened all over the world, in Latin America, Africa, etc., but when these are the ancestors of most black Americans, it hits home even more.
Walking Around Cape Coast
After these draining visits to the castles, our host, Freddy, and his brother took us all around Cape Coast. We walked through these little markets hidden in these walkways, we tried various foods that we purchased from street vendors, and we had lunch at a spot, essentially a tiny restaurant set up in a family’s yard. Here, we ate fufu, which is a dough made from pounded casaba (a root) which is served in a seafood soup with tilapia. Their tilapia is much different than ours, as it usually comes as the whole fish, and it is much meatier and thicker than the tilapia we have at home. The interesting part with eating fufu is how we ate it all together. Rather than serving it in four bowls (one for each person), we had one large bowl of soup with fufu and fish. No silverware, just hands.
At restaurants in Ghana, there is always a large plastic bowl, a pitcher of water, and a bottle of soap. This is the hand washing process. Where they don’t have restrooms, you simply wash your hands at your table.
Now even though we all washed our hands right there at the table, I still felt a bit uncomfortable eating a soup with my hands with three other people. I did enjoy the experience, however, as the fufu was pretty good, essentially a chewy dough, and the tilapia was very good.
Soon after lunch, we took a van to the city of Takoradi, a few hours southwest, where our ship was now docked. As you can see, Cape Coast and Elmina were overwhelming places to visit, but learning about their histories was an important experience in understanding world history as well as American history.