It is incomprehensible for me to imagine that at one point the color of my skin was the only criteria used to determine my future. If I were writing this 200 years ago I would be chattel, little more than a beast of burden; I can’t even imagine. I have visited various sites in North America that are leftover vestiges from the days of slavery, but wasn’t struck by any grand emotion. I have heard all of the stories before and I guess we are all somewhat dispassionate about the familiar. But being in Africa was the first and only time that I stared slavery in the face outside of the US and saw myself. It was unsettling…
Let me start by saying Elmina Castle is beautiful, it sits atop a hill, surrounded by the teeming city on one side and the ocean on the other. I watched men building ships from the ramparts and saw the most beautiful view of the Atlantic Ocean that I have ever seen to date.
The castle itself has such presence, and I can imagine all of the people that came and went through the courtyards. It was erected as a trading post by the Portuguese in the late 15th century, and is one of the oldest European buildings in Sub-Saharan Africa. It didn’t initially include the trade in human livestock, but it of course, became the center of slave trade in the region.
As I toured Elmina I had several unexpected thoughts and emotions. I was in a small group of people visiting the castle, there were Africans, Europeans, and my friend, the Worldly Traveler and I. We were the only African American people in the group, and I was struck by the fact that we were probably the most far removed from Africa, but the most closely linked to the experience of the people that were “processed” at Elmina. I wasn’t just viewing an African historical site; I was standing in the birthplace of the African American experience. This was how we began, and it was such an unexpected turn of events to find these origins not in America, but a half a world away in Africa.
Inner Courtyard where women were kept and chosen to be the nightly entertainment
I was expecting to hear how warring chiefs brought prisoners of war from the interior to Elmina and then how the “slaves” were put on a ship to arrive in Europe or the Americas. But what I heard was a story about destroying a persons mind, so that the new masters could bend their will and use their body. The newly minted slaves were kept in purposefully deplorable conditions for months in Elmina so that by the time they were shipped off to the their final destinations they were weak and fully broken. I can’t share the details, at some point my mind didn’t want to know or even imagine the experience. I just don’t remember them all…but I do remember that cruelty was encouraged and rewarded, how else do you destroy a soul? When the mind of the Africans were broken they were forced onto ships bound for the colonies (in the Americas) and Europe. For many of them this was the first time that they had ever even seen the ocean.
The Atlantic Ocean as seen from Elmina Castle
The door of no return was the final view of anything on African soil that the slaves would see. It was barely 4 feet tall and required that all who went through it stooped to pass. It was the last lesson to be taught by Elmina. Remember your place, you were no longer a person that could walk tall, but a thing that is meant to cower for the remainder of your days, if you survived the voyage. It is estimated that anywhere from 15% to 30% of those taken from their native coast died en route through the middle passage. I can’t imagine being able to accept such loss, but I guess there were many more where these people came from, wasted life was an acceptable circumstance.
The Door of No Return
Canon at Elmina
Outer Courtyard of Elmina
I am an American, but in a way I felt that going to Africa was like a return home. Anyone who can trace any part of their ancestry to the North American slave trade came from some part of Africa, and ...
"Travel is like adultery: one is always tempted to be unfaithful to one's own country. To have imagination is inevitably to be dissatisfied with where you live...in our wanderlust, we are lovers looki...