“Good morning, Mama,” hailed the youth as we walked through the pretty fishing village of Elmina towards the castle, one of Ghana’s former slave forts. After ascertaining that I was on my way to visit it, he presented me with his card saying he had a stall within the grounds. “Please, take your time to have a look.” Then after establishing the fact that I lived in London, he asked me my name. “Adwoa Korkoh,” I said, eager to show off my Ghanaian roots. But he didn’t seem interested. “No, what is your English name,” he asked politely. I told him. “Thank you, Angela, I will perhaps see you again.”
When we emerged an hour or so later, he was waiting for me. “I couldn’t find your stall,” I told him truthfully. He only smiled saying, “This is for you,” and he handed me a huge varnished sea shell written all over with bright blue marker pen ‘To my English Mama Angela, from Joe da Costa, Elmina, April 2013’ followed by his email address. Then came the inevitable request for a donation plus my email details, which he wanted me to write in his notebook. I pressed a five cedi note into his hand (worth around $2.5) and bade him a firm goodbye. He was still pursuing me when a small group of American tourists walked by on their way into the castle. With that Joe da Costa was gone.
It was a light hearted end to what had been a grim guided tour of the castle, where tens of thousands of would be slaves were imprisoned before their journey to the Americas. Built by the Portuguese in 1482 and taken over by the Dutch and then the British, its white washed walls stood majestic against the clear blue sky, belying the horrors that took place within it for hundreds of years.
Our guide showed us the once fetid dungeons that together housed up to a thousand slaves for three months at a time, describing the unimaginable horrors they suffered, this after their gruelling journey to the coast and before the dreaded Middle Passage. As if to emphasise their evil, the governor and his staff ate and worshipped directly above.
Then we came to the Door of No Return, the narrow exit through which the captives finally left for an awaiting ship. It cast a shaft of light into the small, gloomy room, where faded wreaths lay against the wall. From the castle’s ramparts we were able to see the beach where the door opened out on to, and the blue stretch of the Atlantic beyond. Tall spindly palm trees swayed in the breeze and fishing boats lay stranded on the fine yellow sands.
It was a beautiful yet unsettling vista. Exposed by the low tide, the anchorage posts for the slave ships jutted out, while in the other direction we could see Cape Coast Castle, another slave fort, standing on a promontory a few kilometres down the coast. In fact, there were once 200 such forts in Ghana alone run variously by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Danes and Germans, the highest concentration in Africa. That is a lot of slaves. They would have been captured not just in what is now modern Ghana but in territories north, east and west of it.
Elmina and Cape Coast castles are now World Heritage Sites and have become major pilgrimage points for those whose ancestors may have passed through them. But while the search for one’s ancestral home can bring about a sense of connection, it has also prompted criticism of the way such shrines, as it were, are used to generate tourism revenue, thereby commodifying black suffering. Having heard of plans a few years back of a slavery ‘theme park’ for Badagry in Nigeria, I can understand where this is coming from, but I saw nothing disrespectful about the particular tour I went on. Even though it was the Easter holidays, there were only a handful of us, so it did not seem to be a great money spinner. In any case, I did not mind the stall holders inside, or even Joe da Costa outside, trying to earn a little bread.
Then there is the feeling that Ghanaians themselves are ambivalent both about the descendants of slavery and their role in the trade. As our tour guide pointed out, even if Africans didn’t perpetrate the slave trade, many connived in it with foreigners for personal gain, a fact officially acknowledged by the government a few years back.
A disconnect between those separated by history in such a brutal way is inevitable. But rather than pick at such a sore, what we really need to be discussing is the nature of humanity, greed and capitalism. Ugly as its past is, Elmina demonstrates the depths that humanity can sink in the quest for riches. “Never again,” said our tour guide. If only this were the case.