In Washington, DC I grew accustomed to memorials to fallen heroes, innocent victims, and admirable leaders. Their prevalence, however, has yet to minimize the impact of first seeing a museum or memorial to honor truly horrific events.
Enter scene: the slave trade.
Cape Coast Castle was not the first slave trade fort, nor the largest, but it was the final stopping place for thousands from all over West Africa. The name is an English bastardization of ‘Cabo Corso,’ Portuguese for ‘Short Cape.’
European occupation of the site varied as different strongmen journeyed to the southwestern African coast to stake their country’s claim. The Portuguese were the first to the Gold Cost, constructing the nearby Elmina Castle in the 15th century. They were eventually usurped from Cabo Corso by the Swedes, who began construction of the fort in 1653. Over time, the Dutch drove out the Swedes; the Danes drove out the Dutch; and finally, the Brits drove out the Danes, holding power until Ghana reclaimed its independence and converted Cape Coast Castle to a monument honoring its shackled and deported countrymen.
The castle is beautiful – built in a distinctly European style, the archways and ornamentation would certainly make for pleasant accommodations…for the governor, that is. Not to mention, Cape Coast itself is quite lovely.
In contrast to the dark dungeons where thousands of slaves were kept, the governor enjoyed a bedroom and salon all to himself with a total of eleven windows.
Perhaps most impressive is the aptly named ‘Door of No Return’ through which passed every man and woman branded for the Americas. A haunting tunnel leads to the creaky wooden door; slave ships waiting just beyond.
A female holding cell to the left of the door kept the pregnant women (ineligible for sale). After giving birth, the half-white child was taken and enrolled in the school attached to the castle. Slave castles ran the first schools in Ghana, for European children only. The mother returned to the dungeons to await her eventual sale or death.
Today the Door of No Return has been rebranded. Once in a while, diaspora families arrive searching for their link to the continent, an emotionally jarring experience, and the Castle welcomes them.
An old fishing village, modern Cape Coasters continue the trade. They ship out into the Gulf of Guinea and net enough to stock the markets and restaurants for locals and tourists alike. I arrived in late afternoon, in time to see the boats all returned and the men mending their nets.
I am unsure how to process the few hours I spent in the castle. I know, though, that I am certainly glad I went.