When traveling to Africa, it is inevitable and necessary to reflect on the continent’s slave history. This weekend, my fellow study abroad students and I visited Elmina Castle on Cape Coast. The castle, a former slave dungeon operated by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British, is located on the central coast of Ghana on the Gulf of Guinea. It was truly a somber experience as our guide explained in gruesome detail the incredibly inhumane conditions millions of enslaved Africans experienced.
Formerly considered the Gold Coast due to its rich gold deposits, Ghana had attracted many European colonists. In 1471, the Portuguese arrived and constructed Elmina Castle. Initially, the castle served as a fort and trading center for the Portuguese, and most of their trade revolved around goods, such as textiles and beads. However, by the seventeenth century, the Atlantic Slave Trade had consumed West Africa, transforming Elmina Castle into a complete slave dungeon.
Our guide led us into every part of the castle, including the female and male slave holding cells, the Governor’s quarters, and the “Door of No Return”. When initially stepping into the dank female slave holding cell, I couldn’t help but cover my nose. The stale air made it hard to breathe. Although there were only about thirty of us in the narrow cell, we were all visibly uncomfortable. However, we were astounded to learn that at least a hundred women were packed into this small space. With bodies piled up on each other and unable to move, people would vomit and excrete waste on the hard stone floor. In the female cell, women also had to deal with menstrual blood. Equally awful, the Governor of Elmina Castle would periodically choose a female slave to call up to his living quarters for his own sexual pleasure. The guards of the castle would also take turns raping the women as well.
These horrid images seem unimaginable and inappropriate, but it is unjust to simply ignore the ugly aspects of history. Standing in the cells where millions of enslaved people were tortured was painful and utterly surreal. Even though we learned about slavery from our textbooks, we would never be able to fully comprehend the extreme dehumanization these enslaved people experienced. As we moved up into the Governor’s spacious rooms, its stark contrast with the suffocating holding cells evoked disbelief and frustration. Furthering our disgust was the Dutch church that had been built right above the female holding cell to signify that the white Europeans were “above” the Africans. At this time, our guide emphasized that nothing in the Bible or in Christianity could serve as a rationale for slavery. Nothing can excuse the slave trade.
We finally reached the “Door of No Return”. Once a slave reached this door, there was no hope of returning back to their home. From this door, they would board a cramped ship with equally disgusting conditions as the holding cells, and head for the Americas. We took a moment of silence to honor all those who had died or lived through the horrendous centuries-long slave trade. I stared off through the door and contemplated how one could survive the mental degradation of slavery. An emotional moment this was as several of my African-American friends wept. The weight of slavery and its role in their identities as African-Americans cannot be minimized. Furthermore, the continued racial discrimination of black Americans in the US adds even more pain to the systemic dehumanization their ancestors went through.
I cannot fully understand what they must be feeling, but I do know that we must all individually work to subvert the lasting effects of slavery in today’s society. As our guide explained, slavery was a centuries-long institution that left profound emotional and mental scars on Africans today. He encouraged us to actively fight on an individual level against racial injustice, discrimination, and institutionalized racism. Although we may call slavery “evil” or “monstrous”, it is important to realize that slavery was enabled by the actions of individual human beings. Thus, we also have the power to undo and rectify the injustices in our world.