Ghana’s Slave Castles and Western “Civilization”

“In Ghana, civilization started in Cape Coast.” – Cape Coast Slave Castle Tour Guide

Ghana’s coastline is dotted with about 30 slave castles; old fortresses and fortified dungeons built by various European powers as the first wave of European colonists made their way down Africa’s west coast. As the name suggests, slave castles were used for a host of various and contradictory activities. Most slave castles were built as fortresses by Portuguese, British, or Dutch colonists seeking to control new territory. While many of them maintained that purpose, they all transitioned to also serving the purpose of warehousing enslaved Africans as they awaited ships to take them to the New World. Ironically (read: tellingly) while black slaves suffered in subterranean dungeons, white elites used the upper levels of the slave castles to house some of West Africa’s first Western-style churches, schools, and government administrations. The Elmina and Cape Coast castles have both housed governors and the Cape Coast Castle served as the British colonial seat of government until 1877 when government offices were moved to the Osu Slave Castle in Accra.

These slave castles were hell. Upwards of 1,000 slaves chained together and crammed into hot, dark, poorly ventilated dungeons. Slaves were purposely underfed to keep them weak (to reduce the likelihood of rebellion), small (so that more could be crammed into slave ships), and divided as they fought over scraps. Women were raped; those that resisted were punished brutally and publicly. Men who rebelled were locked in even darker, hotter, and poorer ventilated isolation cells where they were left until they died. Slaves were not bathed (with the occasional exception of female slaves who were bathed before being raped by soldiers, administrators, or the governor) and with no type of toilet facilities in the dungeons, slaves ate, slept, and lived in their own excrement, blood, vomit, and, in the case of women, menstrual fluid. Many slaves died in the castles. The conditions encouraged death; a strategy on the part of traders that ensured that they were more likely to purchase the strongest as only the strongest could survive. When Asante leaders King Prempeh I and Yaa Asantewaa dared to organize military resistance to British attempts to capture the Golden Stool, the royal throne of the Asante kingdom and a symbol of African sovereignty, they were detained in the Elmina Slave Castle before being exiled to the Seychelles.

On a recent visit to the Cape Coast Slave Castle, I asked the tour guide what became of children who were born in the dungeons and the women who birthed them. The tour guide informed us that the women’s fates varied. Some (probably those who were impregnated by African men before arriving in the castle) were taken out of the dungeons, gave birth, and then thrown back into the dungeons; never seeing their children again. Other women  who were impregnated by Europeans in the castles (though not all of them) were freed and some of them even married the white fathers of their children. The children were born free. Those whose mothers were freed were able to live with them. Those whose mothers were re-imprisoned and shipped out were taken in by families in the surrounding towns. But for both the mulatto offspring of freed slaves and the Africans orphaned by the slave trade, the issue of what to do with these children arose. In both Cape Coast and nearby Elmina, the solution was education.

The first Western style schools in Ghana were opened in the Elmina and Cape Coast slave castles. Their purpose was to train and educate the children of slaves born and/or conceived in the castles. Many of these children, especially the mulattoes, went on to become merchants; African-born and European-educated, they filled a unique niche in the slave trade; serving as intermediaries between Africans trafficking enslaved Africans from the interior and European traders.

Our tour guide informed us that as the first Western-style churches, government administrations, and, most importantly, schools were founded in the Elmina and Cape Coast castles (about 13 kilometers away from each other), many Ghanaians say that “In Ghana, civilization started in Cape Coast.”

Fortresses of war and domination. Dungeons of unspoken agony, misery, and death. Prisons of political repression and subjugation. Institutions of colonial brainwashing where Africans were trained to facilitate the enslavement of other Africans. The beginnings of “civilization” in Ghana…

Civilization existed in this land a long time before any European fortresses, dungeons, churches, or schools were built here. A civilization that was much more civilized than the technologically superior but morally inferior Western civilization that first sank its fangs into West Africa in the 1400s. But as colonialism did and does its work here in Ghana, that preexisting African civilization has been forgotten and re-cast as something ahistorical, unworthy, and less than what it was. Despite its hypocrisy and contradictions, the only style of life that is considered civilized is a Western one.

The slave castles are still used for a variety of ironic and contradictory purposes. Many are shells that have succumbed to time and have been allowed to crumble and fall into disrepair and disuse. Others, like the ones in Cape Coast and Elmina, are designated historical sites which host mainly Western tourists visiting Ghana. One which I often pass in Senya Beraku holds a small convenience store and serves as a hostel. Perhaps most tellingly and tragically, the Osu Castle in Accra is still the seat of government; Ghana’s White House.

Ghana won its independence from Britain in 1957. As Africa’s first colony to win formal independence from Western powers, Ghana’s independence was a major blow to colonialism as a system. But the systems of Western colonial domination were not completely deconstructed and many still thrive today, albeit in different forms. Today, black, Ghanaian elites rule from a pristine, white slave castle from which white, colonial elites ruled 55 years ago. And the colonial mindset, that anything black or African cannot be civilized and that white or Western behaviors, no matter how hypocritical and problematic, represent progress and civilization, persists.

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