Looming over the fishing village of Elmina, along Ghana’s Cape Coast, is a fortress of mottled whitewashed stone.
If you are a Black American, your life story, and that of every Black American you know, runs through these walls.
Welcome to Elmina Castle.
CRADLE OF SLAVERY
Here, African men and women were crammed together in lightless and nearly airless dungeons, eventually to board the ships that would take them on the dangerous crossing into a life of servitude in the Americas. The vast majority would end up in Brazil, but captive Africans from Elmina eventually found themselves throughout the Americas, including in what is now the United States.
Once, there were as many as 50 such castlesalong the West African coast. Now, perhaps 17 remain. Some abandoned, some used as government buildings — and some, like this one, kept as museums and memorials.
But if you can only see one in your lifetime, it should be Elmina Castle, because the whole terrible business — and the viciousness with which it was run — began inside these walls. For Black Americans, that makes this perhaps the most important of Africa’s 135 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Elmina opened for business in 1482, a decade before Columbus became famous for getting lost on his way to India. Built by the Portuguese, seized by the Dutch and ultimately claimed by the British. The Portuguese and Dutch may have come originally for gold, but they stayed for slaves.
A lot of the castles in Old Europe, built in medieval times, have a romantic, almost fairytale flair about them. Not Elmina. Its architectural style befits its purpose — practical, utilitarian, grim.
The castle could hold 1,000 African captives at a time — 600 men, 400 women. You’ll see the separate dungeons for both. No water to drink, to bathe.
You’ll also see the governor’s spacious, airy quarters upstairs, open to the cooling Atlantic breeze.
THE GOVERNOR’S PLAYTHINGS
There’s also the interior courtyard in the governor’s mansion where the women were paraded beneath the governor’s balcony for his “selection.” The chosen one would be allowed to bathe from a cistern in the courtyard before being brought up to the governor…who then raped her. Repeatedly.
When he was done with her, she would be sent back down to the dungeon, but not before being raped again by soldiers on the way down.
You’ll also see the punishment cell set aside for Africans who tried to fight back. It’s unclear how many were thrown in there. What is known is that none emerged alive.
Elmina’s status as a one-way funnel for captive humanity ended in 1814, when the Dutch abolished slavery.
On the outer walls, you’ll notice the old iron cannons used for the castle defense. The Europeans told the local people that this was for their protection against foreign invaders. Indeed, Elmina’s Portuguese garrison twice had to fend off assaults from Dutch fleets.
Funny thing about those cannons, though. Almost as many of them seemed to have been trained on the residents of Elmina as were aimed out to sea.
By the time Britain took over Elmina in 1872, Europe had been out of the slave business for nearly 30 years and the trans-Atlantic slave trade already had been abolished. But it would be another 16 years before slavery was finally stopped in Brazil, the final destination for the majority of the captives shipped from Elmina.
One of the things you will learn here was that a lot of people had a hand in this business — Europeans, Arabs, local African tribespeople. One of the last things you’ll see inside the castle is a marble plaque. It reads in part:
“In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. ”
That last line refers to you.
IF YOU GO
Elmina is about 110 miles west of Accra, Ghana’s capital city, on highway N1. It’s a 2 1/2-hour trip by car or bus over paved two-lane highway. Along the way, you’ll pass through Kasoa, where you’ll witness hundreds of street vendors selling everything from food and drink to clothes and shoes, toilet paper and engine parts. You’ll also pass through the small village of Abandze, which claims to be the ancestral home of jazz great Louis Armstrong.
Admission to Elmina Castle is US$10 for foreign adult visitors, $7 for foreign students with ID, $2 for foreign children. Admission includes a guide who explains the history of the castle and its various sections, as well as other nearby forts and castles built after Elmina. As of this writing, those installations are not open to visitors.
For those who would rather not make the grind all the way back to Accra, Elmina offers ore than a dozen hotels and guesthouses, including the Coconut Grove Beach Resort, whose air-conditioned rooms are but a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s said to be a favorite of Ghanaian diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan.