Thursday, November 13, 2014


The Elmina slave castle, also known as São Jorge da Mina or St. George of the Mines, has many claims to fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it).
* Built in 1482 by the Portuguese to facilitate their gold trade, it was the first trading 
     post on the Gulf of Guinea.
* It is the oldest existing European building below the Sahara. 
* It was the largest of all the slave castles.
* It was one of the most important of all the slave trading sites.
* Christopher Columbus is said to have visited here as a mate on a ship bringing 
     building supplies in 1482.
* Supposedly Columbus returned in 1492 on his way to "discover the New World" and 
     spent three days at the castle.
* It was the first pre-fabricated building constructed south of the Sahara. All of the 
     materials were sent from Portugal to Elmina on board twelve ships, and many of the 
     parts were prefitted. 
* The Dutch captured it in 1637 and made it the capital of the Dutch Gold Coast (and 
     built Fort Coenraadsburg to protect it, as discussed in my last post).
* Approximately two million slaves went through Elmina during the 350 year period of 
     the slave trade.
* During the Dutch period, Elmina was the rival of nearby Cape Coast Castle, owned by 
* In 1871 the castle was ceded to the British, who held it until Ghana received their 
     independence from British colonialism in 1957.
* For a while it was the Ghana Police Recruits Training Center before it became a 
* The German filmmaker Werner Herzog filmed a movie here in 1987 entitled Cobra 
     Verde. Based on a Bruce Chatwin book entitled The Viceroy of Ouidah, it is the story 
     of a fictional Brazilian slave trader.

As we approached the entrance, we stopped to look at this grand compass built by the Dutch in 1679, an ironic reminder that those brought here would not stay and that they were part of Western Europe's conquest of the seas. Some sources say that ships' captains would come here to reset their compasses using this as their gauge:
I don't know if that story is history or folklore or just pure tourist blather. Another source says it's a sundial.
Built to house up to six hundred men (not counting slaves), the castle is enormous. Like other slave castles and forts, it wraps around a central courtyard where slaves were branded before being imprisoned, where they were later brought in small groups from the dungeons to be "aired out" and washed, and where young women were put on display to be selected as concubines by the officers.
 View from an upper story window:

A grand entrance leads to the private quarters and offices of the Europeans:
 The tower was one of the first parts to be constructed:
The cistern, as in other castles and forts, was located in the courtyard so that water was available for washing slaves:
Stacked arches and geometric designs give some areas an almost mosque-like feel:
What was once a Portuguese church stands at the far end of the courtyard. A church was originally built outside the castle walls, but when it was demolished by a Dutch attack in 1596, it was rebuilt within the castle walls. For forty years Franciscan friars ministered here:

Under Dutch control, the steeply-pitched roof of the church was removed, more room was added to the second story, and the structure was converted into an auction hall:
 In this castle, the dungeons were above ground:
An African proverb engraved on the dungeon wall reminds visitors to consider history from another perspective:
It isn't hard to think of the hunted here.

Slaves were chained up with shackles like the ones below, which were on exhibit in the small museum.

This is the "Death Cell," a room about eight feet square with no window, no cross breeze, and no light other than what came through the lattice on the door through which the guards could check to see whether or not the prisoner was still breathing:
The most rebellious were held here without food or water until they died. Unfortunately, it wasn't the worst way to die.

According to Saidiya Hartman (see book review at the end of this post):
For every slave who had arrived in the Americas, at least one and perhaps as many as five persons died in wars of capture, on the trek to the coast, imprisoned in barracoons, lingering in the belly of a ship, or crossing the Atlantic. Death also awaited them in pesthouses, cane fields, and the quarters. Historians still debate whether twelve milliion or sixty million had been sentenced to death to meet the demands of the transatlantic commerce in black bodies.

One of the doors had this inscription:

Psalm 132 begins with the words, "Lord, remember David and all his afflictions."

For a place that housed so many people, a lot of storage would be needed, and the Portuguese built multiple storage rooms. When the Dutch arrived on the scene, they made those storage rooms into slave dungeons. Hartman states that anywhere from 3 to 15% of the slaves held in the storerooms died there.

We went into one of the dungeons and noted the arched ceiling had an interesting decorative pattern:
 As we got closer, we could see . . .
 . . . that the ceilings were covered with bats:
 Very, very creepy:
I don't think the bats co-habited with the prisoners--it would have been too crowded--but they added another layer of horror to an already wrenching experience.

 It was a relief to get into the breezeway again:
 The upper stories included meeting rooms and housing:
With hardwood floors, lots of ventilation, and painted walls, these rooms made the dungeons seem even darker, danker, and more putrefying in contrast:

The expansive views from the upper levels were exotic, vistas never seen by any held captive below:

Fort Jago/Coenraadsburg could be seen in the distance, ready to protect the castle from any foreign invaders:
We had a good view of the under-construction bridge that spanned the Benya River:
 . . . and of the bustling commerce that has been so characteristic of this place for centuries--although hopefully now of a different sort:

 A moat surrounds the castle. I'm not sure if it was a holding area to protect the castle from the ocean or a barrier to keep invaders out. Today it seems to be a planter for palm trees:

Russ and Bob stand at the entrance to the castle:
 This memorial plaque was given to the castle by native chiefs in 1984:
I don't think the roots they envisioned visitors seeking are the ones we had come here to explore.

I got a completely different view of the Atlantic slave trade from Columbia University professor Saidiya Hartman's recounting of her journey to Ghana to explore her heritage than I have gotten from anything else I've read. Brutally honest, Lose Your Mother discusses the contemporary African attitude towards slavery and sees it more as avoidance and shame than as laissez-faire. 

Starting at Elmina, then moving on to Cape Coast and other slave trade sites, in her attempt to "reclaim her dead" Hartman discovers that she is an outsider in Africa. "A black face didn't make me kin," she writes. She had "lost her mother," her connection to her past.

According to Hartman, ten thousand African-Americans visit Ghana each year, and "none of them fail to visit the slave dungeons. Ghanaians wonder what kind of people boast of slave ancestry." Of course with unemployment at 30%, the locals don't have time to worry about slavery, she points out.

The native African's lack of attention to the slave trade perplexes her. Locals claim that the "African traders didn't know how badly the whites treated the slaves across the water. . . . [The locals] called the Atlantic slave trade the European trade, insisting that the West alone was to blame. It sanitized the whole ugly business and permitted them to believe they were without scars."

Others feel differently, but the result is essentially the same. As one Ghanaian poet told Hartman, "We, as Africans, are ashamed for our participation in the slave trade, and for this reason are unwilling to talk about the very issue that brings most of you here. And on both sides there is ignorance and a failure to understand one another's lives."

A great read to get a new perspective.


  1. Roots are roots, whether black slave trader, black slave or white slave trader. But the perspective of a black woman, progeny of slaves, coming back and running into a wall from the progeny of black slave traders is very intriguing. I'm going to have to read the book.

    We've visited a slave museum in Charleston, various civil rights sites in the South of the U.S., but nothing has brought slavery and the consequences of it home to me like these forts, particularly the underground dungeons at Cape Coast Castle.

  2. I had no idea the death rate was so high--shocking. Sad contrast between the airy, bright lights of the upper rooms and the slave areas.

  3. I remember talking to an older German postdoc student at UCR and there was the same sort of feeling from him regarding WWII and the Jewish question. How long did it take the church to acknowledge their participation at Mountain Meadows? How easy is it for any of us to own up to hideous events in our past? Aside from those thorny questions, were those bats alive? EEEK!

    1. So true, so true. However, I do think Africans have more of a sense of "living in the moment" than we do. We noticed that in other areas of discussion. And YES, the bats were alive. Note that in the third photo, one is just taking off. EEEK! is right.

  4. Nice shots of roundleaf bats (Hipposideros sp). Would you add your bat photos as a citizen-science observation to the AfriBats project on iNaturalist?:

    AfriBats will use your observations to better understand bat distributions and help protect bats in Africa.

    Please locate your picture on the map as precisely as possible to maximise the scientific value of your records.

    Many thanks!