Date Written: 29 January 2011
St George Castle (Elmina Castle), Elmina, Ghana
Elmina was built by the Portuguese with the permission (and lease agreement) of the local chief in 1482. It is the oldest European building in Sub-Saharan Africa. The castle was first used as a trading hub for gold, ivory and other goods. The rooms housing slaves were originally constructed as simply storage rooms. The Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1637 and took over the castle as well as the trade. However, the slave trade displaced most of those goods by the 17th century until 1814 when the Dutch abolished the trade. The Europeans did not do the actual capturing of slaves but rather relied on the Africans to do this for them in exchange for a variety of goods including guns and powder, rum, tools and horses. One slave could be had for as little as a bottle or two of rum, likely due to the volume of slaves depressing prices. 1871 saw the transfer of the fort to the British, solidifying their hold on their colony, the Gold Coast [roughly present day borders of Ghana] while the Dutch received British forts in Sumatra. Most of the slaves that passed through Elmina went to the Caribbean and South America, particularly Brazil.
This room fit about one hundred and fifty women while they waited for the ships to arrive. While they could use a system of pots through the bars to use the restroom, they were forced to menstruate on the floor, causing an unimaginable stink as well as making them sick. Imagine being stuck in such a room with people who you cannot even communicate with as most of the slaves that passed through Ghana were from away, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and even Cameroon.
The cannonball pictured was used to punish the women who resisted rape. Any such woman would be chained to the ball for an entire day without food and water as an example to the others. As many as four hundred women would cram into this courtyard as there is a walkway above where the governor would pick a woman to spend the night with him. Occasionally, the governor would become fond of that woman and would either set them up as servants, or if she was pregnant when the ships came, he would set her up in town in order to keep his children close by. These mulatto children enjoyed a middle status as they were superior to the Africans but inferior to the Europeans.
Notice the difference between the two doors. Above was the door to the European’s jail cell. If a European chap misbehaved, usually due to copious amounts of alcohol, he would spend a few hours there.
Below is the door to the slave jail cell. Some slaves were freedom fighters and fought the chains with the same passion they fought their most bitter enemies. The slavers could not have such individuals abroad the ships nor could they have them mingling amongst the other slaves. Thus, they were brought here to die of either dehydration or starvation. The holes in the door provide the only light and the only direct fresh air.
This is the infamous door of no return. One at a time, each slave passed through this door and was taken down into boating which would take them about a kilometer offshore to the bigger slaving ships. It was narrow as the slaves were starved enough to fit through or else they might use their strength to resist. Until the jetty was built, the water came right up to the walls of the castle
Overall, it was a very sad experience as to be expected. The guide was essential in explaining what things were as most of the artifacts such as chains, shackles and other items were in other locations. That made it slightly more difficult to truly place oneself in a slave’s shoes and made the tour a bit less emotional. One constant theme was the crash of the waves against the rocks and that helped visualize what had gone on here as the slaves would have heard the same sounds.