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.
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.
A grand entrance leads to the private quarters and offices of the Europeans:
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:
It isn't hard to think of the hunted here.
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:
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:
. . . that the ceilings were covered with bats:
It was a relief to get into the breezeway again:
With hardwood floors, lots of ventilation, and painted walls, these rooms made the dungeons seem even darker, danker, and more putrefying in contrast:
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.