Greetings folks: The next two blog posts will culminate my experiences on my trip to Ghana and our tours of two slave castle dungeons. It will be followed by a final post – sharing my thoughts and reflections on this trip (which was truly life-changing for me). I encourage you – my readers – to join the blog via WordPress or email and/or also share your thoughts, feelings, wonderings, ideas and questions that came up for you while reading this blog – because I want to learn from and with you, and provide a means for my readers to “come along and travel with me”– and experience some of my journeys vicariously through my lens – and converse about it. I also want to be able to inspire others to step out, travel and see the world while visiting new lands, creating new experiences and engaging with diverse people.
After spending several days in Accra and surrounding areas visiting various historical, cultural and artistic sites, we packed our bags to begin the two and a half hour trip to Cape Coast, the former capital of the British colonial administration and embark on tours of both the Elmina and Cape Coast Castles/Dungeons. I was eager to see another geographical area of Ghana, and to fulfill a many decades desire to visit the slave castles/dungeons, which I knew was a necessary part on my journey to connect with my ancestral roots. I had read about the castle/dungeons through historical books and reference materials, documented accounts, realistic fiction and novels. I had viewed movies, documentaries and photos of others’ trips to the castle/dungeons on the coast of West Africa. I knew the painful history (to a point) and felt fairly knowledgeable and prepared to embark on this tour. As we drove through the countryside we passed miles of beautiful natural landscape – a kaleidoscope of trees and grasses – dotted with huge ant hills towering 10 to 20 feet in the air, small villages and storefront shops offering goods and services, and finally a densely populated fishing village with lots of people, business, and traffic on the street.
As we rode through bends and turns in the road – this huge white castle emerged in the distance up on the hill – overlooking the village and villagers. I immediately felt chills run up and down my body. As we embarked from the bus – an eery feeling came over me and I almost felt nauseated. Everyday was a different adventure in Africa and I was open to new experiences, but this was a completely negative feeling – it felt like a dark cloud was hovering above. My senses were on heightened alert as we walked our way across a small bridge, through the wide gates and into the courtyard of Cape Coast Slave Castle/Dungeon to meet our tour guide. We were standing before a towering castle – with a roof top fortress surrounded with cannons – evoking images of castles from childhood story-books, yet in those childhood story-books there was always a prince or princess in those castles. This castle felt like a dark, dreary place with a deadly history. It reeked of the foul smell of death; and the feeling of generational despair hung heavily in the air.
Cape Coast Castle/Dungeon was first constructed as a fort by the Portuguese in 1653, then taken over by the British and developed it into the status of a castle in 1665. It changed hands several times between the Swedish, Dutch, and British. The Cape Coast Castle/dungeon remained controlled by the British until July 1, 1960 when Ghana became a Republic, with Kwame Nkrumah (my fellow Lincoln University alumni) as its first President. In the entrance way was a plaque that stood out prominently – and as I read it I became completely overcome with emotion. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable explaining to us the initial building of the castle/dungeon and the various groups that occupied and controlled it over the years.
Means of Capture: We learned from our knowledgeable tour guide of the various ways and approaches that Africans were captured. There were several methods used to acquire African captives for the purpose of enslaving them. There were ongoing kidnapping and raiding of villages by Europeans who had far more powerful and sophisticated weapons in the form of guns, compared to the bows and arrows of the Africans. They would often set fire to a village and capture those who survived and ran at gun point. There were forced captures used for trade in the Caribbean. Later on Europeans influenced some of the powerful African leaders with gifts to capture and trade some of their own. It is important to point out that before the European invasion into Africa there was a system of “bartering” that existed in Africa – called pawning – in which Africans acquired people of different ethnic groups through tributes, warfare and wars of expansion. Sometimes the people were considered security for money borrowed, or a debt owed and they typically worked until the debt was paid off. In other cases as a result of warfare they remained in servitude.
However, the concept of slavery in African society was entirely different from the European concept of slavery, which was implemented for hundreds of years through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In the African concept of pawning – the individual was somewhat of an indentured servant – who could work, build a home, marry, have a family and attain status among their so-called enslavers. Therefore, when people mention that Africans were directly involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade – clearly those who did participate, at least in the early generations of slavery, had no idea of the multi-generational horrors they were subjecting their people to with the deception of Europeans bringing gifts. Enslaved Africans, regardless of how they were captured, did not go to the slave castles or get on the slave ships and return to tell their people of their experiences. So, in general Africans participated in what they thought was a somewhat familiar practice with unknown, unfamiliar, dire consequences that changed the face of Africa and the world forever.
I felt the spirit, energy and pain of all my ancestors who suffered in this here place for hundreds of years – yes hundreds of years. I was saddened, broken-hearted, and deeply wounded as our guide continued walking us deeper into the interior of this structure! At the same time, I felt angry and enraged over knowing European people did this to MY people! I kept thinking how could ANYONE do this to another human!! My mission and purpose became further clarified in that very moment. I was given the charge to tell the stories of my family and my people… to document the rich history, to use poetic language to express their experiences, to creatively show images that reveal their journey, to dig deep and uncover the lessons in their stories, and to share their determination and perseverance so that the next generation of youth, young people and adults will be strengthened and fortified recognizing the shoulders that they stand on. Moving onward with the tour guide and our group of 11 women I was even more focused, knowing this tour was more than just a guided tour of a historical site. This was a return to a true hell-hole, yet sacred land – where my ancestors suffered and died for centuries.
Our tour guide described the life of the original slavers on the top of the castle, followed by the other European occupiers of the castle over the hundreds of years. We saw well-appointed sleeping quarters, large dining quarters, kitchen facilities, meeting rooms, and even a church area and prayer rooms for the Europeans. I can’t imagine what god or religion anyone could profess to believe in that engaged in this type of dehumanizing torture, abuse and systematic destruction to a people!
Then we began our descent into the pits of hell…Nothing can describe the smell, feel, sound and aura of the slave castle/dungeons. The air was cold and clammy as we walked down hallways pitched towards the lower levels, or the bowels of the building. There was a foul, damp smell of filth, decay and mildew, with the pungent stench of death permeating the air! It was absolutely horrible as we were walking into these deep dark underground dungeons. I was consciously aware that I was walking on the same concrete surfaces that my ancestors walked on… dirty, hungry, naked and shackled to other Africans from their village and from all over the western and interior part of the continent. I was walking on that same ground they walked on, following the same path into the belly of the beast, not knowing what to expect next. I was walking on this land some 500 years later – and I had returned. Yes…I was blessed to return! So through me, my ancestors live!!! All praises due to the Most High!
The dungeons were deep caverns with very high ceilings and one small window at the top for light and ventilation. The male dungeons held 600 males and the female dungeons held 400 females at one time. Children were not counted and often died from disease and the horrid, unsanitary conditions. The enslaved and naked Africans had no choice but to release their waste – urine, feces, vomit and blood (for the women) on the concrete floor where they were forced to lay – for months at a time….year after year…century after century. The “floor” of one male dungeon was excavated 3 years ago, and 18 inches of solidified human waste was chiseled away, and they found the original drainage ditches in the floors, which had been covered up with human waste for centuries. One in four Africans died in the dungeons. The survivors would be sold and put on a slave ship, which would make room for another 1000 enslaved Africans in the dungeons. As bad as the conditions were in the dungeons, it was far worse on the slave ships – where only 2 in 4 Africans survived. Yet, ironically, as long as 1 in 4 Africans survived the slavers still made a profit on their “cargo” of enslaved Africans.
As our group went into different rooms, following our guide and hearing more tragic accounts of life in the slave/castle dungeons, I lingered behind in one of the Female Dungeons. I needed to have a moment alone in these death holes. These dungeons were also sacred chambers where my ancestors had to somehow draw strength and faith to carry on for the possibility of a better world! I laid my head against the concrete walls and began praying to the Creator for strength and guidance. I said to my ancestors in a low whisper that I felt their pain and suffering and I would never forget them, their strength and suffering, and that I would always tell their stories. Suddenly, a spiritual force overpowered me, engulfed me and kind of consumed me... I felt the energy of hundreds of grandmothers surrounding me, crying to me, begging to me and pleading with me to help them. I saw their faces – covered in dirt, dust, ash and tears…with the look of helplessness burned in their eyes – I saw and felt the anguish of young girls lying in fetal positions dying on the cold filthy floors…I was transported back in time and I was one with my ancestors. I was shaking from head to toe and crying and sobbing uncontrollably.
Despite what people say – about death being the end – I personally know differently. I know death is another level or stage of life… we have the unborn, the living and the ancestors and we are all spiritually linked and connected! I have been open to spiritual connections since my childhood, and recognize that people who are spiritually open – sometimes have more out-of-body experiences and/or connections to those who are no longer here on the physical plane. I also know that spirits can attach themselves to you – and all spirits do not carry good energy. So I gave thanks to the ancestors for making their presence known to me. I recognized I was going to need to do a spiritual cleansing (bath, candles, offering) to not carry the spiritual presence or energy intertwined with any darkness that could negatively or adversely affect me. I knew the ancestral energy was present in the castle/dungeons, and it was strong and it was real. So I began taking deep breaths to not lose all focus. Then a slight panic set in. By now the others in our group had went ahead, and a flash came across my mind of being lost and left behind in here – so I hurried out of the room to find our tour guide and group.
In several of the dungeons there was an art installation “In Memorian of the Middle Passage” by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo consisting of hundreds of sculptured heads. The features and hairstyles on the faces of the sculptures was designed to reflect the diverse ethnic groups that were captured and enslaved at Cape Coast castle/dungeon. Some of the heads had blinders over their eyes (showing the conditions we were subjected to were beyond what any human should ever see), and facial expressions that depicted the horrors and anguish on the captives faces…
Our tour guide showed us some of the particularities of this place…
A windowless and airless room next to one room in the dungeon where rebellious Africans were put to suffocate to death.
There was a well for washing the African women who were chosen by the Swedish, Dutch, or British rulers as their latest sexual victim. The ruling officers stood on a ledge overlooking a courtyard outside the female dungeon, and African women would be dragged out of the dungeon and put on display. The officer would choose the African woman or women they wanted to rape. The woman would be scrubbed down with water from this large well, then forcibly taken upstairs, raped and then thrown back into the dungeon when he was finished with her. The rebellious ones were chained to a ball and chain in an open courtyard with extreme sun bearing down on them and would be left there until thirst, hunger or extreme heat forced submission, or death overtook them.
Again, and again the anger was burning inside of me, the pain was radiating through my chest, the tears were flowing down my face as I shuddered in agony, envisioning my ancestors – my long ago grandma’s and grandpa’s suffering at the hands of these captors. The depth of the emotion that was brought to the surface in me needs to be expressed over and over in a myriad of art and literary forms to acknowledge the ancestors, release the pain, transform the energy, and poignantly tell the story that must be told and retold until each generation is connected to it and strengthened from it.
The Door of No Return – This is the door that enslaved Africans were forced through into the hulls of slave ships – leaving behind their country, families, language, religion and everything they had even known. They were transported to unknown lands with foreign people traveling on a journey known as the Middle Passage. This trip took months, and they suffered unrelenting torture, abuse, inhumane conditions, and 2 out of 4 enslaved Africans died on the ships from disease and sickness… those who survived were subjected to generational enslavement…
An altar was set up to honor the spirits and ancestors who lived, suffered, perished and survived in this castle… and to ensure that we their descendants carry on their legacy to ensure the story continues and that we can all be strengthened and fortified from it. I left an offering at the altar along with a prayer, and filled a small bottle with some of the remains on the floor – sand, dirt and graveyard dust to represent the connection between me and those who walked through these doors and chambers many generations ago.
My ancestors were taken from this dungeon on these shores and put in ships with the thought that they would never return again – but I their daughter, sister, and descendant returned in the year 2017. As I stood in front of “The Door of Return” with 10 other Black sisters who hail from different cities in the United States, I knew I had indeed returned… after generations of separation from Africa and I still have much work to do.Stay tuned to journey with me through Ghana’s Slave Castle/Dungeon…