Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Door of no return

Cape Coast Castle, located on the Gulf of Guinea two hours east of Accra, was a major transit point for slaves until the early 1800s. Millions of Africans were captured by their countrymen and sold to the British, who held them here before they were shipped out to slave-owners in the Americas.

We visited the castle on Saturday. Usually, I remain interested but emotionally detached when visiting tourist sites, even ones that are centered on tragic events and circumstances. I couldn’t do this here. Among the things we saw and heard:

- Rebellious slaves were thrown into a dark cell with stone floors and walls. They put about 200 of them in there at a time, chained to the floor and walls. The only light came from three small windows 20-30 feet from the floor. The slaves ate there, vomited there, urinated and shat there. To clean the cell and the men, the guards would occasionally hose them down with water; the feces, rotting food, urine and vomit would be carried out in trenches along the floor. Twenty of us spent a few minutes down there, and the cell quickly heated up. I can’t imagine what it was like for those men. They often stayed there for up to two months.

- The really rebellious slaves were thrown into a cramped, windowless cell. They weren’t given food or water. They were placed there to starve to death. I was claustrophobic within seconds of entering the cell. It was terrifying to think of being left there to die.

- The women were held in a separate cell, and regularly raped by their British captors. If a woman resisted, she was thrown into a detention cell, which was no bigger than a big walk-in closet.

- The slaves boarded ships after passing through the “door of no return.” We walked through it and were treated to a beautiful view of the Ghanaian coastline. Africans who walked through it more than 200 years ago saw ships that would transport them across the sea to lives of torture and enslavement. Some preferred to drown themselves by jumping off the canoes that carried them to the ships.

- Some of the women who were raped by their British captors became pregnant. If they were discovered to be pregnant on the ships, they were tied up and tossed overboard alive.

A month ago, the governor-general visited Cape Castle and one of the pictures released to the media showed her crying at the door of no return. I rolled my eyes at the time, cynically thinking that she was being theatrical, putting on a show for the cameras. I had tears in my eyes at the same point, though, and at other moments on the tour.

I was initially surprised when a Ghanaian man poured the remains of a beer on the grave of a British officer buried at the fort. Looking back on it now, I can empathize with this gesture of disrespect and disgust.

One positive sign: when you re-enter the castle through the “door of no return” it has a sign that reads the “door of return” – a symbol of the fact that the ancestors of former slaves are now free to return to their homelands and rediscover their roots.

- Mark


Peter Smit said...

Hi Janet and Mark,
Just reading up on your experiences and adventures in Ghana. Facinating! Great to see that you also have time to visit the local wine bars:)
Your blog on the "doors of no return" reminded me again of how cruel a species we are. Sad, however, it may be even more sad to notice that we have not made too much progress since...
Getting all down here, forgetting the wonderful 50th birthday of Ghana just a few days ago!
regards and much love,
Peter Smit

Anonymous said...

Hi Janet and Mark,
I can't even imagine th e blog you just wrote about. It must have been so difficult to be there and to think of how awful it must have been for these people. It makes us realise how fortunate we have been. Take care of yourselves.
Love, Mummy and Daddy

Janet & Mark in Ghana said...

Hi Peter, mom and dad,

It was actually a difficult post to write. I felt more emotion - mostly anger- than I probably conveyed. The Africans took part in the slave trade, but it was our ancestors - both in North America and Europe - that were mostly responsible. It made me angry to be there and realize the brutality of people who had come before us. And to think they were all so pround of the "democracies" they building at the time. Democracies, as it turned, just for the white immigrants from Europe. There I go again, Janet would say, with another poltical rant! Enough for now...thanks for the comments.

:) Mark

Richard from Canada said...

Well written, Mark.

Gold coast slave ships represented a sad era for us here in North America. Yet, sad to say, Africans from across the continent helped facilitate the trade. Slavery has never been choosy about borders.

Anonymous said...

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I wish you more of these experience and look forward to read them.
Thank you and take good care.
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wow wow wow wow wow. men oh lord of lords. its hard when you dont understand a culture. im born and bread in ghana before cominfg to the states. he poured the beer on the grave as libation look the word up. libation . it means rest in peace, love forgiveness. that u have not forgotten their struggle that u respect them. anything but disgust or hate. its the equivalent of greeks spitting on the bride at a wedding its not what it looks like

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