Beneath Our Feet

The History of Slavery in Ghana

Before visiting Elmina for the first time, I had spent several weeks in a common neighbourhood in Accra, between cramped houses and shacks, vending stalls, and crowded streets. Then one day I stood in front of Elmina Castle, erected by the Portuguese in the 16th century as São Jorge da Mina and conquered by the Dutch in 1637. As St. George’s Castle it was then owned by the British from 1872 until Ghana’s independence. Today, Elmina Castle is considered as one of Ghana’s tourist attractions.

The first impression: a well-proportioned building, tall white walls, structured by an impressive tower, round arches, and an open gallery in front of an airy veranda, allvaulted by the vast blue sky – a captivating example of European building culture, and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 1979. Inside the castle, this impression persists: facades decoratively structured by yellow and red bricks, elegant balustrades, and balcony rails forged in an artistic manner.

Slave Castles as Sites of Horror

Then, however, in one of the courtyards, the guide begins to talk about captive African women who once had to stand here in the sun until they collapsed, with their feet chained to two large canon balls, because they were not ready to succumb to the governor’s sexual desires. We are guided into an adjacent windowless dungeon, where the women were “kept” until they were shipped to America. The dungeon was so cramped that they could hardly escape the excrements and diseases of their fellow captives. The malodour still seems to emanate from the walls as a foul smell.

We then feel our way through several pitch-dark cellars. When a sailing vessel anchored off the Elmina coast to take slaves on board, they were driven from the dungeons through these cellars in large numbers, into a small room with very little light coming in through a very small door in the outer wall – the “Gate of no return“. It was built so narrow on purpose, so that the slaves were able to pass only one at a time. Any last minute joint attempt to escape was thus prevented. One by one, the slaves were pushed by guards through the exit into canoes waiting below which took them to the ship for the next and often last part of their enslavement – a journey of no return which either took them to an unknown continent or already cost them their lives on the way.

Return to the “Gate of no return“

Almost in the dark, in front of the ”Gate of no return“, we see wreaths and plastic bouquets on the floor. Cards and inscriptions on ribbons try to penetrate the darkness: “In everlasting memory of our ancestors“, “We have returned to where you came from“. In this way, Afro-American visitors express their connectedness with their African ancestors and their respect for their suffering, but also a sense of pride, as even under slavery life had been passed on, so that they were now able to return to the “Gate of no return“.

For me as a European, there is no such consolatory encouragement. I do not only experience slave castles like Elmina Castle as “sites of horror“, but also as places associated with a historical guilt I am most obviously confronted with – comparable to what I felt as a German during a guided visit to the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany.

Here in Ghana, the “never again“ is also emphasized – though with a slightly different accentuation: A marble plate located at the exit of the large courtyard links the remembrance of the ancestors and their suffering to the wish “May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity“, deriving from it a commitment for us all, not only the white colonialists and their ancestors: “We the living vow to uphold this“.

Historical Guilt and Current Responsibility

Indeed, during a guided visit of this “site of horror“, European visitors are not explicitly put in the dock. The epitaph on the grave of a Dutch governor, which describes him as a good, God-fearing man, is read out by the Ghanaian guides with a critical undertone and reference to his role in the slave trade. Explicit and dramatic assignments of guilt, however, are avoided.

In fact, the active involvement of Africans themselves is not addressed either – their involvement as slave traders who captured their human “merchandise“ in warlike raids and drove the sufferers to the coast in long marches, or as chiefs of traditional tribal communities who not only tolerated the slave treks through their territories, but also sold undesirable subjects and prisoners of war. Coming to terms with this past is not yet perceived as a collective task in Ghana.

In a large, bright room at Elmina Castle, the guide critically points to the inscription quoting from the Bible: “How awesome is this place? It is none other, but even the house of God and the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). The Dutch officers worshipped here, without thinking of the slaves suffering in the cellar two stories below, beneath their feet.

People visiting the fort today are certainly more sensitive. In our Ghanaian tourism project KASAPA Centre our guests often feel the need to talk about their impressions and pain – especially if it was only when visiting Elmina Castle that they became aware of the degree to which European countries had historically and economically been involved in the slave trade. At times we also discuss contemporary concerns related to modern forms of slavery, for example, how to deal with the fact that Asian factory workers at “sites of horror“ today produce cheap products for our consumption.

Susanne Stemann-Acheampong and her husband Kofi B. Acheampong run the tourism project KASAPA Centre in Ghana, promoting sustainable, socially integrated tourism. The project was awarded with the TO DO 2000 Award Socially Responsible Tourism.

English translation: Christina Kamp