This was the part of the trip that perhaps resonated most with me. Many have spoken about their experiences with coming to this place as painful and helping them to rediscover their history, and even President Obama said it was moving on his visit. But I was not ready for the way it would readjust my thinking about our journey. Since I had arrived I had been looking for a personal connection to the country, and was not sure when it would occur. When it hit me though, it was like some sentiment or thought I had became clear. There is a profound legacy that lies here, perhaps so disturbing that some people would rather not acknowledge the full impact of it.
The history of Cape Coast is entrenched within the Atlantic Slave trade, and holds great significance in the origins of the African Diaspora. Before we reached the city, there was a village we stopped by that was used to clean the slaves one last time before they were hauled off to the castles. Called Assin Manso, it is an hour drive away from Cape Coast but slaves would have to travel there and onward by foot, which would take weeks or months even. It was also a marketplace where it would be decided where slaves would go, and it was common for families to be split up to impact the way the slaves would work. We were also told once we reached Cape Coast that the houses surrounding the castles were built by slave traders, so the economy and development of the area was at one point centered on the trading of human cargo. While it was a fishing town before the castles were built, and still is, I do wonder how does life in the area continue on with this history.
The two castles we visited, Cape Coast and Elmina, both look like massive structures of a time long ago, and felt unholy as we walked through the historic grounds. They are also called dungeons by many, which is a fitting title since they were pretty much like prisons but perhaps worse. The cells and holding places in the castles were often small in size, but were used to hold dozens or hundreds of people at a time. The mold in some of the rooms made it smell putrid and was unsettling, but it was pointed out that the slaves were forced to pee, vomit and do other unsanitary acts in those same halls and smelled much worse. They were never cleaned when used, and the slaves stayed in the pitch black rooms for months at times, forcing them to stand in knee high levels of their feces and fetuses as they awaited their fates.
The castles also had institutions in them such as schools, churches and libraries that were very much in contrast to the activities going on within them. Just as abhorrent was how people like the soldiers and governor could rape the female slaves kept there, and had secret doors around the castle so they could have access to them at any time. But perhaps what was most eerie during our visit was how the higher floors that were occupied by the officials were the most quiet, with only the sounds of the ocean audible in the distance. A place where someone could easily hear their own thoughts. And as you think about what would transpire there every day, you start to feel disgusted and ashamed of the history. It’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could have lived there and been at ease with what would take place within those walls. One very well may have had to disregarded their humanity to become tolerant of life there.
The thought of what would go on within the two castles is unsettling, but what was also bothersome was the current sense of disregard on the part of the local people as to what historically took place there. From the merchants who had shops inside of the castles, to the events and parties going on at each place, it seemed like there was little that could be considered sacred about the grounds to those seeking a profit. It was to an extent treated like any other tourist attraction, when in reality the history is more in line with something traumatic like the Jewish Holocaust. Maybe it’s like how in America people are so eager to embrace the idea of a society that is post racial. Considering how in one part of the tour there was a section that highlighted the positives of colonialism, there may be a larger disconnect or refusal to accept the damage that had been done through the acts that had transpired there.
If there was one stop during our time in Cape Coast that provided a place of solace and reflection over this tragic history, it was the One Africa healing center on the coast between the two castles. Established by an African-American family that moved there in 1989, they have used the land to build a museum to help put the Diaspora into context, and also serve as a resting place for travelers. After the jarring experiences of the castles, it was a much needed stop. While we did visit other beaches along the coastline, the very nature of the place made it easy to sit at the shoreline with the waves coming inward, and to look out at the ocean and realize the extent of which the trade impacted the Americas, and the world. It made me wonder about my connection to the trade, and what I could learn from this chapter in history.
Thoughts on the overall trip are coming.