Ghana’s Forts played a role dur­ing the era of the At­lantic Slave trade.

Daily Trust - - FEATURE - By Em­i­lie Filou

As they sat fin­ish­ing their meal in the shadow of St Ge­orge’s Cas­tle in the city of Elmina, Pat and Beverly, two Lon­don­ers hol­i­day­ing in Ghana, were chat­ting about the af­ter­noon ahead. A waiter sud­denly ap­peared with a large bag of su­gar cane. “Oh I’ve been wait­ing for this for ages!” Pat said ex­cit­edly. “Thank you so much!” She pulled out a long stalk and started chew­ing greed­ily.

Pat was born and grew up in Lon­don but her fam­ily was orig­i­nally from Ghana. “We used to have these as treats when we were lit­tle,” she said, munch­ing away. The rea­son Pat has come to Ghana isn’t to in­dulge in her guilty plea­sure how­ever. It is some­thing of a pil­grim­age.

“My great-grand­fa­ther came from a vil­lage that was one of the last to be freed of slav­ery,” she ex­plained. “From an early age we were told where we came from - slav­ery wasn’t taught in school, so as an adult I was de­ter­mined to find out for my­self.”

St Ge­orge’s Cas­tle is one of the 30-odd “slave forts” con­cen­trated along Ghana’s coast. These for­ti­fied trad­ing posts were built be­tween 1482 and 1786 by the nu­mer­ous traders - Por­tuguese, Swedish, English, Dan­ish, Dutch - that plied this ac­ces­si­ble coast­line, ini­tially in search of gold, then heav­ily in­volved in the slave trade. St Ge­orge’s is the old­est of the coastal forts - and at four storeys high, one of the most im­pos­ing. Built in 1482 by Por­tuguese traders, it was for­ti­fied and ex­tended by the Dutch as slaves grad­u­ally be­came the main ob­ject of com­merce on the coast.

Ex­act fig­ures are hard to come by, but it is gen­er­ally es­ti­mated that around 12 mil­lion Africans, from Sene­gal to An­gola, were shipped to the Amer­i­cas over a pe­riod of 500 years. Around one mil­lion are thought to have per­ished dur­ing the jour­ney; many more died in the forts’ dun­geons while they waited for the ships. The slave trade reached its peak in the 18th Century, dur­ing the so-called “tri­an­gu­lar trade” when Euro­peans traded African slaves for weapons and man­u­fac­tured goods from Europe, then shipped the slaves to work on their colonies in the Amer­i­cas, from where they reaped raw ma­te­ri­als such as cot­ton, su­gar and tobacco.

The days of the slave trade may be long gone, but the in­te­rior of the cas­tle is still haunt­ing. The dark, air­less dun­geons in the base­ments are op­pres­sive with just a cou­ple of tiny win­dows. Traders crammed more than 1,000 slaves - with no wa­ter or san­i­ta­tion - in a space that should have fit around 200. Pris­on­ers some­times had to spend up to three months in these con­di­tions be­fore be­ing shipped across the At­lantic. The only bath­room in the fort was re­served for the fort’s gar­ri­son - and the slaves they reg­u­larly raped. Up­stairs, the of­fi­cers’ quar­ters are light and spa­cious, with par­quet floors, gor­geous views and sea breezes; it is un­bear­able to imag­ine the life of com­fort they led while thou­sands lan­guished be­neath their feet.

When asked how she felt about be­ing here, right in front of the fort, Pat’s jovi­al­ity evap­o­rated; she kept chew­ing on her su­gar cane and, af­ter a while, man­aged a small: “It’s very hard.”

Beverly, whose fam­ily is of Ja­maican her­itage, joined in. “It was emo­tional just see­ing the cas­tle as we drove here. I haven’t been in­side yet - that’s prob­a­bly go­ing to be my ner­vous break­down point,” she laughed sadly.

Beverly and Pat are not alone in their quest for an­swers, be­long­ing and roots. The dun­geons of St Ge­orge’s Cas­tle and Cape Coast Cas­tle, an­other flag­ship fort on Ghana’s coast, are full of wreaths left by African-Amer­i­cans, AfroCaribbean and Bri­tish-Caribbean vis­i­tors who have come to hon­our their an­ces­tors. “It’s about meet­ing your his­tory,” Beverly said, “be­ing able to touch it and see it”.

Se­bas­tian Kwanema Tettey, a guide at Cape Coast Cas­tle, said that many vis­i­tors break down dur­ing the tours, stricken with an an­cient, dor­mant grief. There were no tears the day I vis­ited, but when he shut us all in the con­fine­ment cell - a dank, small, pitch-black space where re­bel­lious slaves were kept - for just a few sec­onds, you could feel the panic rise among the group.

Ghana­ians too are start­ing to show greater in­ter­est in this episode of their his­tory and its her­itage, mak­ing up 70% of the fort’s vis­i­tors, up from just 40% a decade or so ago, Tettey said.

Abra­ham Sakey and Em­manuel Ha­gan, two mu­sic stu­dents from Ac­cra, Ghana’s cap­i­tal, sat on the fort’s steps at the end of their tour, qui­etly re­flect­ing, one pick­ing out a melan­cholic tune on a gui­tar. “I’ve read about slav­ery in books, I’ve watched films, but here I was in the dun­geons, I saw the shack­les, it was real,” Sakey said.

Many Ghana­ians are su­per­sti­tious. In Fort Wil­liam in the town of Anomabu, the fort keeper Philip, has tried to turn the old of­fi­cers’ quar­ters into a li­brary for lo­cal school chil­dren. “But they just won’t come,” he said. “People are too scared of the ghosts.” This old slave fort was used as a prison from 1962 to 2000 and is now in poor state of re­pair. Philip, who lives in­side the fort and knows ev­ery nook and cranny of the build­ing, said he would love to see it ren­o­vated and given more promi­nence.

We walked past the dun­geons, down a small al­ley­way and through a small door - the “Door of No Re­turn”, through which slaves left the fort and boarded the ship that took them to their new lives. Dark­ness gave way to the sight of daz­zling sun­shine, the ocean surf and fish­er­men work­ing on their nets and pirogues. For many slaves, this was their last im­age of home.


‘The days of the slave trade may be long gone, but the in­te­rior of the cas­tle is still haunt­ing.’

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