Sunday, October 19, 2014


On Thursday, May 29th, we started on our journey back in time to the years of the slave trade. First, however, we had to make our way out of a 21st century city full of cars and people.

One of the things I love about Africa is the way women carry things on their head, and for every one woman we saw doing this in Kenya and Tanzania, we saw a hundred in Ghana.
The traffic is pretty heavy in Accra, and we were often stopped or barely moving. Hundreds of vendors--primarily women but with a few children and men thrown in--walked among the cars with their wares balanced on their heads, not precariously perched at all, but as if they were strapped on. When someone purchased a breadstick, a bag of chips, or a bottle of water, the vendor reached up and pulled a single item from her head, exchanging it for payment without disturbing any of her remaining wares.

I finally figured out that the women first place a ring-shaped pad on their heads, then put the load on top of that. The pad makes a flat surface, helps distribute the weight, and softens the load. You can see a cloth ring in both of the pictures above.
Photo from Slate magazine article
Who are these women? Some are in business for themselves, but others are employed by other people. According to this article in Slate magazine, "Young females from the depressed rural north flock to big cities to labor as head porters, or kayayo, carrying absurdly large loads on their heads for as little as $2 a day."

$2 a day? How do they pay their chiropractors?

The variety of items for sale is astounding. Just about everything we would buy in a Wal-mart can be found on the heads of street hawkers weaving through the congested streets of Accra: food of all kinds (nuts, slices of watermelon, fresh fruits and veggies, breads, etc.), plastic bags of water called "sachets," toys, gum and other candy, cleaning supplies, clothing, fabric, pencils, notebooks, kitchen tools, and so on.
Lots of action, lots of color. Isn't that turquoise dress gorgeous?
Typical road sign
After crawling out of the city, we drove at a good speed for several hours towards our first destination: Fort Amsterdam. We missed the unmarked street that led to the fort and had to backtrack. This was our turn off:

We were looking for this:
Early copper plate engraving of the "Dutch Fort of Amsterdam." Picture from here.
Aha! There it is, overlooking the small village of Abandze (which supposedly means "beneath the castle"):
Note the incongruous satellite dish on the black plastic/palm frond roof.
Originally known as Fort Cormantine, it was erected between 1638 and 1645 and was the very first structure built by the British on the Gold Coast. It served as the first British trading settlement, and at one time was one of the busiest trading posts on the west coast of Africa. The slaves picked up here were transported to Jamaica to work in the sugar industry. As part of the constant struggle for power in West Africa, Fort Cormantine was captured by the Dutch West India Company in 1665 and renamed Fort Amsterdam in honor of its new owners. The Dutch held the Fort until 1868, when it was traded back to the British.

A slave fort, also euphemistically known as a slave castle, had three main uses: 1) as a kind of holding tank for captured slaves until they were transferred to primarily Portuguese, Dutch, and British ships docked off shore, 2) as housing for the "governor" of the fort and his household and minions, and 3) as a means of defense against rival traders and unhappy natives.

Prior to this trip I had never really thought about how slaves were procured in Africa. Were potential slaves lured on board by the Europeans with trinkets and baubles and then imprisoned for transport? Did the Europeans go ashore and capture their own slaves?

The answer surprised me. I learned that most slaves were procured and brought to the slave castles or slave ships by native West African slave traders. Various tribes kept slaves, sometimes kidnapped but mostly captured during battles, and these tribes would sell their slaves to other tribes or to native slave traders. Sometimes a slave passed through several tribes and was moved long distances before finally being sold to a slave trader. These native slave traders would then sell their captives to the governors of the slave castles, who kept them imprisoned in dungeons in the fort until they could be sold to ship captains. Occasionally the native slave traders dealt directly with a ship's captain, bypassing the fort and thereby cutting out the cost of a middleman, but it was slow going to collect slaves this way, so paying an extra premium to gather a large group all at once from a fort was usually worth it.

I had no idea that for the most part, native Africans controlled the slave trade. Granted, without a market this slavery would not have occurred, but the suppliers were a critical part of the process.

We parked at the bottom of the hill and began our trek to the castle by walking up new-looking, nicely maintained stairs that contrasted sharply with the state of the surrounding properties:
Note the rain channels on either side of the steps. This place gets a lot of rain.
We could barely see Fort Amsterdam above us because of the heavy vegetation:
There was no gate, no admission fee, and no guide, but it wasn't long before we were surrounded by a group of giggling, bouncing, touching mini-guides:
They loved having their pictures taken:

. . . and seeing themselves on Shelley's iPad:
This affectionate little boy (girl?) wrapped in a bright green swath of fabric was a delight:
Cousins on an adventure:
Russ shows Bob one of his finds. Yep, these boys are definitely related:
Just in case we couldn't find the fort, one of our guides pointed it out for us:
Still pointing:
A truncated turret on the west end faced the sea and the small village of Abandze:
The moody weather contributed an appropriate sense of oppression:

At the end of the trail, the entrance to the fort lay straight ahead:
A metal plaque posted to the left of the doorway read:

Restoration Fort Amsterdam 1970-72 
Ghana Museums and Monuments Board
With donations from the Netherlands in memory of the historical ties
between Ghana and the Netherlands ["Historical ties?" Another euphemism]
Presented by the municipality of Amsterdam

Battlements topped the eastern wall:
Children guarded the weaponry:
Another incongruity: A Thomas the Train t-shirt? 
Now I know where our Goodwill and Deseret Industries donations go.
This young man, who arrived after we made it to the fort, became our de facto tour guide.
There were no other visitors to Fort Amsterdam while we were there. Only the chatter and laughter of children, our own voices, and the crashing waves broke the silence. 

There were random indications of restoration/attention, such as this identification sign:
. . . and the brown "Cistern" sign above a concrete-framed hole in the ground:
Because of the crumbling condition of the walls and the random labeling at this fort, it was hard to know what various places were used for, but there was the customary central courtyard surrounded by rooms that looked like offices, and windowless rooms that must have been "holding tanks" (dungeons) for slaves.

A stairway, seen here on the left, led to the second floor:
After a while I noticed that Bob was missing. When I looked up, there he was:
Bob's photo of the rest of us from his balcony viewpoint:

We soon followed him upstairs. No safety railings here:
Cannons pointed through the crenelations toward the sea and the village:
The sign on the left wall identified this exposed second floor as the "North East Bastion," but it could have just as easily read "Children's Playground."

As I review my photos, I remind myself that some of these children are likely descendants of those who were not slaves. Perhaps their ancestors, like ours, even had a hand in capturing members of enemy tribes and selling them to the labor-hungry foreigners. Do we share a common shame?
After almost 400 years of weathering Atlantic Ocean storms, I'm surprised Fort Amsterdam is still standing:
Who else has looked out these windows and walked through these doorways, and what did they see?
The view of the coastline probably hasn't changed that much:
A "little sandy bay which is the usual landing place"  is still to the east of the fort:
. . . but the rosy pink and bright green houses beyond the sandy bay and on the western side might be a shock.
These colorful fishing boats have no motors, but one of them is named Mighty Jesus, so maybe they don't need motors.
It was Thursday. Why weren't these children in school?
Clearly, spending time with the visitors is more fun than doing sums:
Just as we started to say good-bye, the misty drizzle began to turn into full-fledged rain:

We made our way back to the car, noting the local "wildlife" grazing nearby:
I'll have to remember that a stainless steel bowl makes a good umbrella in a rainstorm. Too bad I don't have a bowl that large.
At this and other slave castles we visited, I was always just a little uncomfortable. It reminded me of a visit to Hiroshima we made in 2009. What is it like for Ghanaians to live in the shadow of a slave castle? Is it like living in the rebuilt city of Hiroshima must be for the Japanese, or like living next door to a former World War II concentration camp would be for a Jew--a constant reminder of a horrific past?

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, winner of the 1992 Booker Prize (the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in the United States), is an unflinching look into the abominations of the slave trade. This work of historical fiction focuses on the lives of two men, one the heir of a British slave ship owner and the other his cousin who is the doctor on the slave ship.

The focus shifts back and forth between the unmitigated greed of the ship owners in Britain, who push for profit at any cost, and the nightmarish reality of life on the ship, both for those who are hired--or conscripted--to work on it and for the African prisoners who have a high chance of dying before they see land again. Unsworth does not shy away from the worst practices on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and the result is a haunting portrayal of men at their worst during a part of history too often glossed over.


  1. I want to met the person who first said, "I think I'll carry my store on the top of my head instead of on my back or in a wagon." He/she needs his head examined.

    Those pictures of the fort somehow remind me of front area of Melk. Even the weather in Melk was drizzly that day.

  2. Nice to get some perspective on this fort. When we were there, we weren't quite sure what we were looking at. Imagine how wild and untamed these beaches and mountains would have seemed over 200 years ago. The large canoes bring the past current in some ways - that was the way they were getting around back then

  3. Great photos! Your insightful comments always help me look at the commonplace scenes around me with new eyes. I have also been making a list of books to read based on your recommendations.

  4. I was hoping of the usual picture of a Cannon with a cannon (is that coming up?). There is a lot of horrible messy places in history, where man's inhumanity to man is staggering. I think the selling of one tribe by another tribe, and the carting off of people to distant lands by slave traders is a horrific example. But in spite of that, the smiling children's faces were an antidote to the ancient pain, and a reminder that we can survive such episodes.