It’s been over 20 years since I visited Cape Coast Castle in Ghana but to this day the smell of the female dungeon still haunts me. I can only describe it as a deathly pungency made of salty sea water and human decay.
When I visited as a teenager, the guide told us the ground we were walking on was not the original flooring but the bones and other human remains of the dead. I remember wishing I had those powers to spring from the ground and just hover like they do in the Hollywood action films.
Fast-forward to November 2018 and I got that same horrible feeling of wanting to scale the walls on my return visit when the guide gave us more details. We were actually standing on the faeces, vomit, blood, flesh, urine and bones of those brave individuals who had been captured and imprisoned in this castle. Archaeological work and biochemical analysis of the floor revealed it.
The thickness of the human remains was about 1-2cms and sections had been excavated to reveal the original red bricked floor for the sake of comparison.
Cape Coast is the youngest of these slave castles in Ghana but it’s definitely the most gruesome in my opinion. Built originally as a lodge to trade timber by Hendrik Caerloff for the Swedish Africa Company, the castle took on many different manifestations and owners which included the Dutch and finally the English. According to the Cape Coast tour guide, each male dungeon housed around 200 males in each chamber – and there were many – around five. The number of females held captive was around 150 per chamber and all the chambers had poor to almost no lighting and ventilation except for a square hole that would let in rain when the wind was blowing in a certain direction.
In Elmina, we were told these dungeons were originally built to house items that would be traded and were not meant for people. Just standing in there with some other tourists was claustrophobic, sweltering and scary. I felt like I was gasping for air. So just imagine being one of hundreds of men – or women (they were kept separately) confined in that space, we were told, for anything between two weeks to three months.
If that was not torture enough, Africans that challenged European authority or tried to escape were thrown in cells with no access to light. No ventilation. No food. If more than one of the brave individuals were in the cell and one died, sometimes the others would have to stay in the cell with the rotting corpse until he or she also died.
These heroes would be dead within 48 hours, we were told. We entered into one of these cells in Cape Coast and the air was thick and stifling. The only records that they were inhabited were a series of circles created from the metal chains on their wrists. It was too dark for me to take a photo of it but believe me, it was eerie to look at …. and to think that this was probably their last cry for help. The utter despair they must have felt and here I was centuries later standing where they died with the desperation recorded on the ground.
The inhumanity of humans
Captives came from across Africa so they would not have known each other, or spoken the same language, necessarily. These innocent victims would have already endured being captured – sometimes at gunpoint – beaten, stripped and forced to walk barefoot for weeks even months under duress before being imprisoned in that shit hole.
They were denied sunlight, fresh air, the opportunity to bathe, clean their teeth, access to their families…the list goes on. We were told that wooden buckets were stationed along one side of the dungeons for these heroes to ease themselves but because they were not emptied regularly, they caused unsanitary conditions. Can you imagine how disgusting that would have been in the Ghanaian heat? What made things worse is these men, women and children were chained 24/7 and were weakened mentally and physically so it would have been far easier to ease themselves right where they stood….
As sick as my first visit to Cape Coast got me feeling, this second experience was intense for different reasons. The first time, it was the pungent smell that wouldn’t leave my hair or clothes for days like a memory clinging on to life. But this time, it felt like I was in a reoccurring nightmarish film and I played a lead role. The principle thread running throughout the whole 60-minute tour was just how often the unimaginable suffering was and having that juxtaposed against the relative comfort of the European governor, officers and missionaries was too much to bear, at times.
Missionaries (including the first African reverend Phillip Quarcoo) preached above the slave dungeons and the governors had a bird’s eye view to the women’s dungeons where they could summon up any woman they wanted and subject her to even more torture.
At Elmina Castle, officially named St George after a Portuguese saint and situated some 30 minutes drive from Cape Coast, I learnt that the heroic women who endured rape and subsequent pregnancies were housed in stone homes where they cared for their biracial offspring. It all sounds horrendous but could being a sex slave on home soil or becoming the caretaker of those in bondage where you used to reside, be better than a life of slavery in foreign lands?
We were told that these women became the cooks for those in bondage – instructed to feed them just enough of the maize or rice with palm oil so that they didn’t die….. They were also the ones to wash and prepare the women and probably the girls that would be repeatedly raped for hours by the governor in his bedroom.
We know that for the slave trade to continue for as long as it did, there had to be some complicity from Africans there. This was not explored during the tour but a regular theme that did emerge was that those with the power to change things didn’t because they didn’t know or couldn’t, and that’s a bitter pill to accept. I learnt from wider reading – including such books as the ‘Slave Emporium’ by William St Clair, which is based on official documents and letters from officers that operated in the castle, that this horrific trade didn’t happen in isolation.
Money and morality
The land used to build Cape Coast Castle was rented and the Europeans had to pay rent to the Ohene – suggesting it was a regular source of income, according to details in St Clair’s book. Fantes still owned that land and therefore had the right and the power to end the arrangement if they didn’t like it…..
According to the Elmina Castle guide, the Ohene there sold the land to the Europeans. I was told that the Portuguese never admitted that their intention was to trade in humans and by the time those with power discovered this was the plan, it was too difficult for the Ohene to challenge them because they OWNED the land. Incidentally, both Cape Coast Castle and Elmina are built on the site of religious Fante shrines and it is a wonder how these Europeans managed to convince the Ohenenom to hand over such sacred sites to foreigners.
It didn’t help that the Fantes were fighting the Asantes and instead of forging alliances with each other, chose to partner with the Europeans to overthrow each other. The guide said that when the Ohene realised the Portuguese were trading in human cargo, they partnered with forged alliances with the Dutch (an enemy to the Portuguese at the time) to oust them from Elmina castle. Unfortunately, the Dutch continued with the trade once they took ownership of the castle….
Door of Return
Today, you wouldn’t think that any living thing would want to live in Ghana’s slave castles after such an horrific history but I saw a bird had made its home inside a room at Elmina Castle where Ohemaa Yaa Asantewaa – the Queenmother of Ejisu and last great Asante warrior, was imprisoned. She, along with the Asantehene Prempeh I, had refused to be governed by the British and were locked up instead and eventually sent to the Seychelles. Yaa Asantewaa died there but Prempeh survived and returned to present Ghana.
There is also a colony of bats living in one of the smaller Elmina castle dungeons. The castle guide told me that some people believe they are the reincarnated ancestors returning……..