Thursday, October 23, 2014


Our next destination, Cape Coast, was about sixteen miles west of Fort Amsterdam on the Ghanaian coast. A city of about 170,000 people today, Cape Coast was once the capital of what was known as the Gold Coast, but after the British consolidated their power in the region, the capital was moved to Accra in 1877. 

The slave castle in Cape Coast is one of Ghana's most visited tourist sites. Before we entered the castle, however, we stopped at a little batik fabric dying place run by a church member that Shelley knows.  It was an inauspicious location:
. . . for a place that can turn out the likes of this:
Unfortunately, the storm of the previous day had flooded the place, and the owner was busy cleaning up. I would have liked to see her at work making her gorgeous wares. Shelley said she sells her fabric to top children's clothing lines all over the world. It is interesting to think that her beautiful work, made in a hut next to a slave castle, is turned into expensive clothing bought and worn by the children of wealthy first-world families.
I wonder who is happier, the one who makes the cloth, or the one who buys the clothing? This woman was welcoming, cheerfully dealing with the mess made by the storm, and proud of her work. I'm sure she would not be able to relate to some of our first-world angst. On the other hand, I am not so naive as to think I would want to trade places with her.

Her building was right next door to one of the largest of the thirty slave castles on Ghana's coast: Cape Coast Castle. This site and Ghana's other coastal forts/castles merit a position on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The UNESCO site notes: 
The castles and forts of Ghana shaped not only Ghana's history but that of the world over four centuries as the focus of first the gold trade and then the slave trade. They are a significant and emotive symbol of European-African encounters and of the starting point of the African Diaspora.
A metallic bas relief adorns the west end of the castle. (Can you see in in the picture above?) I wish I knew more about this beautiful work of art, which must be of relatively recent vintage.
The tide was out and we started to walk the shoreline in front of the castle, but we were stopped by a boy who told us it wasn't safe for us to go there, implying that the danger was not from unexpected waves but from unpredictable men in the area:

Slave ships used to drop anchor some distance from the shore, sending canoes to shore to deliver trade items like clothing, spices, sugar, and silk, and to collect "goods" in return, including slaves, gold, and other resources. One of those ships was captained by Bob's great-great-great grandfather, who traded at this castle at least once.
Cape Coast Castle is quite large--three stories plus an underground dungeon--and has been well-preserved and carefully renovated twice, once in 1920 by the British Public Works Department, and then in the 1990s by the Ghanaian government using funds from the United Nations Development Program, USAID, the Smithsonian, and other NGOs. 

At one of the castles/forts, a guide told us that because of the buffetings of the ocean, the constant rain, and the high humidity, the buildings have to be whitewashed every year. This one looks like its year is up:
Originally built by the Swedish Africa Company in 1653 for trade in timber and gold, this site was seized by the Danish in 1663, then taken over by the increasingly powerful British the following year.
Every time I look at this photo, I think that cannon next to the red brick wall is a little Mexican in a sombrero taking a siesta:
We paid our fee and joined a tour group with a young, eloquent, soft-spoken Ghanaian as a guide. He looked very professional in his white shirt and dark pants, and, judging by his knowledge, he must have been college educated. His speech was marked by the long vowels, unique syllable accents, and sing-song nature of English-speaking Africans, and we had to pay close attention to interpret his narration.
The rooms above ground were used as offices and housing for the governor and his staff.

An aerial view shows how large the castle is:
Photo from here
Traces of rain helped cool things down--just a bit. It was still incredibly hot and muggy.
This place had lots of Cannons and cannons:

We were having a ball:

I think this is the Ghanaian equivalent of "George Washington slept here" signs in the United States:
It seems a bit bizarre to unveil a plaque that was made before you were present to celebrate your presence.
Lots of dark-suited secret service dudes. Picture from here
President Obama strolls across the courtyard. Picture from here
This video of Anderson Cooper's interview with President Obama as they walked around Cape Coast Castle is a little long, but it has some excellent shots of different parts of the castle. (It's also fun to watch the secret service men hovering inconspicuously--and not so inconspicuously--around the President.)

It was possible to believe we were visiting a regular fort as we strolled around the buildings, but once we went down into the dungeons, which are as deep as ten feet underground, the illusion ended. As many as 500 women and 1,000 men were kept in these tiny, dark, airless rooms at any given time. Slaves could be locked up for as long as twelve weeks, waiting to be sold to the next slave ship captain. Bodies were packed in rooms like this so tightly that there was not room to lie down. With no toilet facilities, feces and urine were theoretically carried away down the channel in the center of the room but in reality covered the floor. Obviously, many Africans died here before even beginning the "Middle Passage" across the Atlantic.
A room this size, with no ventilation, held as many as 200 prisoners at a time. There would have been no room to lie down. It was airless and claustrophobic, and I could hardly wait to get out.
From what we saw and heard from our tour guides, the British were a little more humane in the treatment of slaves than the Portuguese and the Dutch, the two other countries who figured prominently in the slave trade, but it is hard to believe these dungeons could be any more humane than others at similar sites.

Slaves were occasionally taken up to the courtyard to be hosed down, especially before they were examined by ships' doctors prior to purchase or when one of the "gentlemen" upstairs requested a woman. Otherwise, their only opportunity to leave the dungeons was when they walked through this exit that led directly to the canoes waiting to take them to the slave ships. It is called the "Door of No Return":

The Obama family standing on the ocean side of the Door of No Return. Picture from here
A few floors up, of course, it was a totally different scene:
The rooms upstairs are spacious, have hardwood floors, and take advantage of cross-ventilation. defines "palaver" as "a long parley, especially one between primitive natives and European traders, explorers, colonial officials, etc." Palaver Hall was the room where the prices for men, women, and children were negotiated:
Several other upper-level rooms comprised the castle's museum:
Yet more cannons were pointed ominously towards the open sea from the battlement walkways:

That same upper walkway provided interesting views of the little craft market at one end of the castle:
. . . and of the town of Cape Coast at the other end:
We watched these boys for several minutes. Soccer is played in any open spot in Ghana, even on the wet sand where the incoming tide might snatch the ball away:
Making our way back down to ocean level, we got a good look at the work that needs to be done to maintain this place:
Substantial work could be used outside the castle walls as well. Surrounding homes are little more than lean-tos:
Turning away from the poverty, we chose a more picturesque background for our photo shoot:

As our tour group stood outside the Door of No Return  for some final words from our tour guide . . .
. . . our eyes were drawn to the colors and activities surrounding the castle:
  Great bundles of aquamarine-colored nylon fishing nets were heaped everywhere.
Someone with deft fingers and great patience must spend hours preparing them for use:
The brilliant colors of boats, nets, and people made a wonderful kaleidoscope:
The canoes were so tightly packed one against another that I couldn't help but think of the slaves crowded into the dungeons. However, this teeming industry, noise, and luminosity was an invigorating contrast to those rooms:
What I want most to remember from this visit are two groups of people who joined us on our tour. One group was that man in the tan suit and pink tie and his two lovely daughters in their beautiful white dresses. By the end of the tour the man's pants were drenched with muddy water almost to his knees. The girls were wearing what we used to call "Sunday socks"--the kind with frilly lace around the ankle. However, in my journal I noted that while the socks were white, the lace was black and looked strangely like manacles. What brought them to this place in those clothes? They were quietly respectful throughout the tour. I wish I knew more of their story.
The other interesting people in our group were this older woman from London and what must have been her daughter (shown below in front of the Door of No Return). Throughout the tour the woman kept interjecting comments and stridently raising the issue of the need for more memorials for the slaves--maybe some statues or monuments placed at the castles and forts. Certainly there should be some grand tribute or commemoration of what they went through. Our guide would listen and nod with a polite smile, but then continue on with his prepared narration.
I think he was waiting until the end of the tour to address her comments. Although he was not what I would normally consider a strong orator, in a humble voice he gave a masterful, articulate, and poignant speech about the need to focus not on the past, but rather to join together to end modern forms of slavery, including sex trafficking, child labor, diseases such as HIV/AIDS, the withholding of basic rights, drug addiction, poverty, racism, and oppression of all kinds. 

In another setting, such as in front of a microphone in a great hall, his speech may not have had much punch, but on the grounds of Cape Coast Castle, it was magnificent. I'm not sure the Woman with the Rainbow Umbrella was moved, but I was.


  1. My favorite part: the story at the end. Too bad more of us don't subscribe to that insight.

    Really interesting post. I can't imagine the fear and misery of the dungeons, or the cavalier trading going on upstairs. The colorful scenery surrounding the castle is amazing.

  2. Look how nice and white-washed the Castle was when President Obama visited. I'm sure they painted it right before he came. My favorite thing in Ghana was the canoes outside the castles - colorful, packed and so reminiscent of the slave trade hundreds of years ago.

  3. I remember Obama's visit and that photo by the Door of No Return. Interesting that you should visit it some years later (and take all of us readers with you on our armchair travels). I loved the pictures of the boats and the nets/floats--such color and variety of shapes. And yes, Zion Prayers is a great name for a boat!