The journey through Elmina Castle is spine-chilling that even the devil himself can breakdown in grief, writes Stephen Nuwagira.
With a set of ugly-looking canons strategically positioned at four different points on the massive castle’s balcony, an uninitiated visitor would think it is an army garrison. This gigantic centuries-old structure looks like an island in an ocean which, it ironically borders.
However, the algae that covers the building, turning its originally white colour into a blend of white, brown and green, betrays its magnificence and imposing stature – this eye-sore welcomes you to Ghana’s Elmina Castle on the coastal fishing village of Elmina in western Ghana.
Built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a trading post, the castle, which is four hours away from Accra by taxi, was the biggest slave detention facility in Africa.
Humid and heavy air, roam inside this monument of the worst form of human abuse. Additionally, it is a gothic site synonymous with near-decaying walls with peeling-off paint.
Yes, thousands of souls were lost and millions of men and women detained here, before getting herded on ships to slave markets across the world.
A narrow passageway ushers you to the castle’s tired-looking worn-out courtyard which, like the outer part of the building, is algae covered, emphasising suffering and wails of those unfortunate to have gone through it centuries ago.
Like captives desperately praying for a miracle to rescue them, the building sort of cries out for a fresh coat of paint to liven it up.
However, keeping it in its current state enables visitors to relive the sad memories and suffering the captives underwent.
I had heard horrifying stories about Senegal’s Goree Island slave detention facility and Ghana’s Cape Coast and other two slave castles, but the tales from our guide, Koffi, instigated deeper feelings in me.
Some other tourists would clench and unclench their palms, seething anger as the tales unfolded.
The Castle of Shame
The tour of the ‘Castle of Shame’ takes you through its three courtyards, including a governor’s chamber on the first floor, which has the main, the inner and the service courtyards.
Notably, on the ground floor on the right are two cells: one was for jailing European offenders while the other was for slave ‘trouble-makers’.
The cell for slaves, with a picture of a human skull and crossbones above the door, was the condemned section for captives who fought for their freedom.
With a twinge of sadness in his voice, Koffi says the ringleaders of mutinous slaves would be shackled and confined in the pitch-dark cell and starved to death.
As our guide narrates the nerve-wrecking story, a few people who had asked to be locked in the cell to have a feel of it quickly ask to be let out.
“Open for us please, we can’t see. It’s horrifying. Please open,” they chorus.
Interestingly, Europeans who raped African women were jailed a mere four hours.
Koffi says the women slaves who misbehaved were punished by tying a 25kg iron metal ball around their waists for hours.
“What? Oh my God! These people were monsters. How could they torture a woman like that…,” some of the ladies exclaim.
Most slaves were raided from Nigeria, Ghana, Niger, Benin, Ivory Coast and Mali. Others were war prisoners sold to slavers by the local chiefs.
Not for the faint-hearted
Warning us to stay calm, Koffi leads us to a musty place that betrays its age with heavy algae. Even before he explains how the captives were abused, the walls and the general atmosphere of the men’s holding area tell the story better – it felt like a place haunted by evil spirits.
Judging from his trembling voice, Koffi tells the story with difficulty. A few of us shed a tear or two, others hit the floor in bitterness.
“Brutes, brutes,” others murmur. It is not that we are weak, but the 30-minute or so journey through the Castle of Shame is spine-chilling that even the devil himself can breakdown in grief.
If you cannot be broken by the tale of how those who fought for freedom were treated, then the manner in which some slaves were killed or punished will do.
The courtyard accommodated 400 females and the other side 600 men. While here, the women were given tags, the men were branded and put in a transit dungeon, Koffi explains.
Door of no return
The stay in the dungeons lasted up to three months as the slave traders waited for cargo ships.
“The slaves were chained and made to pass through a tiny iron gate, the ‘door of no return’ as they started the journey to the New World,” Koffi explains. The door is accessed through the ‘room of no return’.
“It was at this stage that the male and female slaves would meet for the first time since their capture. Sometimes relatives would recognise each other,” he adds.
Before we enter the “door of no return” Koffi instructs us to count our steps as the passageway is pitch-dark with an uneven floor and a short door.
Bent-over and counting one, two…five, we enter the infamous ‘room of no return’. It is all like going through a dark tunnel, haunted by ghosts. The movements resonate in one’s ears like one is entering an empty building, making it worse with the ensuing silence, perhaps in reflection of what the slaves were thinking while making the same journey.
One must count their steps and bend while entering the room to avoid being hit by the top of the doorpost or miss a step and stumble. Did the slaves have such ‘luxury’ before they took the passage?
The silence is broken by one mischievous lady who laughs, wondering why we are suddenly dumbstruck. This, however, earns her a reprimand from Tanzanian civil and environmental lawyer, Rugemeleza Nsala.
“Some of you are laughing! Slave trade is attributed to all of us and we have to atone for this crime – it is not something to look at lightly,” he states.
Although we went through the “door of no return”, we were lucky to have returned and lived to tell the story.
Over 3 million people are believed to have passed through Elmina Castle on their way to slave markets in Java, the Americas, Europe and the Caribbean. Slavery started in 1500 in Africa and continued for over 400 years. During this period, over 6 million Africans were sold.
The only place where God lives
Ironically, the castle housed the first Catholic Church in Africa, which was built by the Portuguese and a Dutch church. Cynical as it may seem, the Dutch ‘believed’ it was the only place where God was.
Quoting Psalms 132, an epitaph by the Dutch Redeemed Church claims that God lived only in the Castle of Shame. “God lives here and nowhere else,” it proclaims.
Betrayal as the Dutch throw Portuguese out of the castle
The Portuguese’s stay at Elmina was cut short by the Dutch who had fought and defeated them in 1637 with the help of locals. The local residents had thought that by helping the Dutch, they would stop slave trade. On taking over Elmina Castle, the Dutch extended the dungeons and continued with slave trade.
When the Portuguese traders arrived in Ghana in 1471, they were welcomed by the sixth chief of the fishing village, Nana Kwamena Kweiyga Ansah. The Portuguese traders needed a place to rest and store merchandise during trade missions, so they asked the Nana Ansah, who gave them a piece of land near the Atlantic Ocean.
Under the leadership of Don Diego d’Azambuja, they built a fort, which eventually became the castle. The castle was built within five years with the help of 6,000 Portuguese soldiers and 200 million stones on the foundation, explaining its relatively good current state.
The Dutch stayed at the castle for 235 years, from 1637-1872, while the Portuguese occupied it for 155 years, from 1482-1637. The British used it for 85 years, between 1872 and 1957.
‘We are sorry’
In 1957, Ghana took over the 530-year-old castle after it attained independence. Slave castles in Ghana include Elmina and Cape Coast (Western Ghana), all of which are UNESCO heritage sites.
In 1984, chiefs issued a public apology to Africans in the Diaspora, regretting the role played by their forefathers in slave trade.