Karl’s Chronicles Article 3 The Door of No Return
The Castle stood white as skimmed milk on its small rocky ledge. The mood of the Atlantic came in powerful angled waves, slamming against the rocks but having little influence over the mighty walls and the line of rusty canons at its head. Climbing further up the rocks one could see across the ramparts and the large central block behind. Though the evening light cast a soft amber glow over the castle it could only diffuse its look but not its history. For this was the formidable Cape Coast Castle, one of many slave forts constructed along the coastline of Ghana from Fort Apollonia close to The Ivory Coast in the west to Senya Beraku in the east.
After Accra the capital, the route headed west. Paralleling the ocean though always out of sight until the salt air dried your tongue as you swung back down to the sea and the bustling midway town of Cape Coast. Rising and falling like the waves, the layout of the town has spread across a succession of small hills. Giving wonderful peeks across crumbling yellow colonial buildings, flat tin roof houses and the cramped fishing communities further out. An array of churches built during British times now accord a wealth of different branches of Christianity. Pentecostal, Methodist, Evangelical, Anglican, and Presbyterian with a defiant green and white mosque in the centre. However, religion aside it is the Cape Castle, a white fortress on the southern side of town, looking out across the sea that holds the most commanding role here. A stark reminder to its bleak past but one now here to educate both the foreign and native visitor alike. Many arrive out of curiosity, to see the compelling evidence that strikes a shocking chord of what our white forefathers were capable off, often in the name of God. While others, African Americans from across the seas come to find explanations, trace their family roots and try and make sense of the senseless.
As you enter the white corridor, buy your ticket and stray out into the large courtyard you form a small group and become part of a tour. The guide leads you down to the male holding cells. The forts construction incorporated a hierarchy both on a human and a religious position. African slaves, strangers to white man’s God were savages of the lowest order whilst the whites lived in the domains high above. Affording them closer contact to heaven. The holding cells, five in all were all joined to form a single line. Each held up to two hundred men which barely afforded room to stand. Three small openings close to the ceiling offered miniscule light and ventilation. Captives were held here twenty fours a day, seven days a week, until the ships were ready to sail. It wasn’t unusual for several months to elapse. There were no facilities for sanitation aside from a narrow channel around the cells edge. Slaves were forced to go where they were. There was only silence and a rising burden of humidity in the cell just then. Just that fact alone sullied the air. All eyes scampered around the wall and floor in a nervous exercise to avoid eye contact. The guide let the moment linger. A professional not needing to pass criticism or judgement. Gradually your eyes adjusted to the light and the rhythmic pounding of the surf literally metres away. From these cells and others established only for women, the slaves were lead down through a corridor to a single small room at the end. In the wall stood ‘The Door of No Return’ where they met the toiling ocean and the waiting ships that would take them on the middle passage to the Americas. On the reverse side of the door hangs a small black sign announcing a signal of hope. ‘The Door of Return’, marking the episode where freed slaves after emancipation did return back to Africa. Finding a new life either in Sierra Leone or Liberia. Though it was still far from home proper it offered a new start in on African soil.
Along the fort wall on the opposite side from where I had viewed the evening before, stood nearly two dozen canon. Behind, piled up like giant chocolate eggs were scores of canon balls. They could reach a distance of one kilometre when fired against the challenge of a foreign take over. Beneath the fort the tide was out and several fishermen were seizing the time to haul in the nets. Over the exposed rocks crouched further men washing the catch in plastic buckets. Their colour and energy had distracted most of the visitors away from the heavy history lesson up here.
As the group ascended the wooden staircase the living standards improved. Wooden floors against large glass windows constantly cleansed with fresh sea air. Large spaces where the soldiers would take their meals. The officers would dine in even better surroundings with the governor. Located up a further flight of stairs into the governors own residence. Benefiting from a spacious lounge, bathroom, bedroom and dressing area. The tour, almost to end, shuffled into one final room, a large splendid hall where many slaves were washed, fed, oiled and massaged to look their best. Brought to auction where again their lives changed hands. Becoming official property of a master. Illegal kidnapping, illegal detention for the ocean voyage and illegal ownership that were all legal within the colonial duplicity of law. Their fate, future, misery, lay in a single person’s hands who dealt his fancies and cruelties (both the same to many) in a pivoting manner between emotional and arbitrary.
Thousands of miles away in the smoky streets of London, a momentum against the slave trade was gradually taking form. Public opinion swayed by the passionate speeches and actions of William Wilberforce, Granville Sharpe and Thomas Clarkson. A deck plan of a slave ship showed the cramped head to toe conditions of 600 slaves over two decks. Partially shackled to their neighbour for the entire duration of the voyage. It became a great anti-slavery tool for pushing Abolition just like Joshua Wedgewood’s design of a black man in chains, underscored with ‘Am I not a man and a brother’. People began to boycott sugar in protest to the exploitation on the sugar plantations. The government, long apathetic due to many politicians possessing financial stakes in the plantations finally relented bringing abolition into legal effect. Once passed as law, Britain pursued its new course with authoritarian effect. Not just freeing her own slaves but patrolling the high seas to capture other vessels as well.
In the forts small museum, attached to a background of slate grey boards were the brief stories of three former slaves. Barely heard of in today’s world but incredible and inspirational for their determined beliefs and actions. I wanted to finish this article honouring them. Ending on a positive note to a subject that sadly exists today in more varied forms. It appears humanity is constantly under threat where one life is deemed worthless by another. Travel brings you frequently into the past with modern implications. It is one of the many many variations that conspire to make travel so rich on the human experience.
Sojourner Truth – (1797 -1883)
Born as a slave in New york state as Isabella Von Wagener. Freed in the 1820’s from ‘manumission’ laws which granted freedom over a certain age and after a period of years. Truth lived to see the end of slavery, changing her name to Sojourner Truth to cement her belief in the sacred call of God. Tirelessly agitating for abolition and the rights of women. She spent many years searching for her eight children and was eventually reunited with four of them. She penned much of her memoirs to help support herself.
Harriet Tubman (1821 – 1913)
In 1846, Harriet and her two brothers planned to escape from slavery. She alone managed in escaping to the North. Becoming the conductor of the Underground Railroad, completing 19 missions to the South to bring freedom to other slaves. Known as the ‘Moses of her people’, she led more than 300 people out of bondage. Tubman was soon taking people to Canada to overt new laws placed on the capture of escaped slaves. As she declared ‘ I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people any longer, but brought them all clear off to Canada.’ She even had a bounty of $40,000 on her head but continued the fight to support the cause for freedom.
Frederick Douglass – (1817 – 1895)
Born a slave in Maryland, with his father as his owner. Self taught to read he escaped in 1838 with a freed black woman, Anna Murray who became his wife. Douglass went on to become a great orator, newspaper founder and activist. Agitating for the end of slavery and civil rights and rights for women. After the American Civil War he became the Minister to Haiti. Douglass lived to see the end of slavery but never gave up fighting for greater rights. When asked what young people could do to help he replied ‘Agitate, agitate, agitate.’
Cape Coast lays roughly three hours West from Accra and can be reached by coach, chartered taxi and public minivans knows as tro-tro’s from around Kwame Circle and Kaneshie Motor Park in Accra.
Oasis Beach Resort – www.oasisbeach-ghana.com ( 024 5128322) (0243022594) has private rooms starting at 140cd per night, a four bed bedroom from 200 cd per night and self contained bungalow with AC for 270cd, as well as dormitories (45cd ). A large beach side bar and restaurant serving home made wood fired pizzas, grilled meats and fish. Perfect location right by the Atlantic with sea breezes keeping the place cool. Friendly staff and popular with both foreigners and Ghanaians. Note that Oasis Resort does not accept Credit cards. Payment is in cash but they will also take dollars, euros and pounds.
Baobab Lodge – www.baobab-children-foundation.de ( 054-0436130) Commercial Street. Small rooms available ( 50cd/60cd/70cd) with a great little cafe downstairs. Offering organic vegetarian foods, home made juices and cakes, breakfasts and healthy snacks and a shop with locally made textiles, aromatherapy medicines, morina, honey, oils, baobab powder. Profits go to help fund the Baobab Children Foundation for disadvantaged and disaffected kids.
Daytrips – Elmina ( The Mine – after gold was found in the area). 18km further west can be reached by shared taxi from the Cape Coast taking less than an hour. The great white fort of St. George (40cd) is seen as you enter the small town. Operates tours similar to Cape Castle about its own slave history. Has a very lively fishing port, the small hill fort of St. Jago and various posubans – Asafo military company shrines.
Kakum National Park – I shall cover this place in the next article.