Thanksgiving calls to mind the many things for which we are grateful: family, quality of life, community, and the precious freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the USA. On the other hand, in the course of my travels, I have visited places that represent dark and ugly chapters in human history, and at Thanksgiving time, I am exceedingly thankful that these places and what they represent no longer plague the human race. I have traveled to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and to the killing fields in Cambodia. I have witnessed the effects of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and Bosnia. But perhaps no place I have ever visited more forcefully illustrates man’s inhumanity to man than the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, Africa – a site recently in the news because of a visit there by first lady Melania Trump. This place, and many others like it, represents an ugly saga in the pages of the history of Western Civilization, and I believe we need to be most thankful that this chapter has finally been closed.
The Cape Coast Castle grew up and functioned during the height of the slave trade. To visit this awful place I traveled by car for about two hours from Accra eastward through Ghana’s Central Region – one of the country’s 10 administrative regions. The road, which was paved, paralleled the Gulf of Guinea. The Central Region is home to several elite colleges and universities. Its economy is based upon an abundance of industrial minerals as well as tourism. The area is popular with tourists because of its many castles, forts, and sandy beaches. I passed several tiny villages as I rode through the largely flat terrain. The countryside is peaceful, green, and lush. To me, this lovely drive did not square with the horrors that were once carried out at the Cape Coast Castle and other slaves holding/shipping centers just a few miles away.
Cape Coast Castle was but one of scores of these large, commercial forts that were built along the Gold Coast of West Africa by European traders. The Castle I visited was originally built by the Swedes, around 1660, for trading in timber and gold. It was fought over by the Danes and the Dutch before the British finally seized control of it in 1664 during the second Anglo-Dutch war. It was the British who named it “Cape Coast Castle.”
It was only later in its existence that it became involved in the Atlantic slave traffic. It is in this latter role that it stands today as a haunting reminder of the millions of slaves who were captured, imprisoned, and then shipped out of Africa to serve white masters in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Cape Coast Castle was perhaps the most infamous among these “castles” as a holding station where human beings who had been captured were held against their will until they were finally loaded onto ships to be sent to the slave auctions in Europe and the Americas. Because of the horrendous conditions both at Cape Coast Castle and aboard the slave ships, many died before ever arriving in the “new world.” Some have noted ironically that these were the “lucky ones!”
As I approached the Castle I was suddenly surrounded by a pack of “tour guides” offering their services for $2. I pressed on and bought my ticket for three Euros. When I entered the castle I was immediately met by the official guide who began the narrated tour. Later, I rented an audio player and roamed about the castle on my own listening to the narration.
The freshly painted “white” walls of the castle belie the horrid conditions that existed inside where human beings were held in squalid conditions, often for months at a time, before being packed onto cargo ships bound for the new world. They had been uprooted from their families and from their homeland. Virtually every single one would be condemned to live out his or her life serving others in a captivity that involved difficult, manual labor.
The slave trade had been steadily growing since being initiated by the Portuguese in the 15th century. But it was not until the boom during the 17th century due to the rapidly growing number of sugar plantations that the demand for slaves spiked and Cape Coast Castle began truly to flourish.
When human beings became the most valuable commodity to be captured and traded, changes to the castle were undertaken. Among these alterations was the construction of underground dungeons that together could hold as many as a thousand or more slaves awaiting transport to the new world.
The rooms on the upper floors above the dungeons stand in sharp contrast. Not only do these apartments boast a sweeping view of the beach and gulf, but their many windows provide a cooling breeze from the ocean. These rooms are furnished with fine furniture and fabrics from the continent. It was in this part of the Cape Coast Castle that the wealthy Europeans enabling and profiting from the slave trade lived. These aristocrats, however, could not escape the human pain associated with their chosen profession. In the quiet of the evening hours their revery was often interrupted by blood-curdling screams from the dungeons below.
I find it challenging and somewhat painful to write about these cells. For me personally I find that words fail to describe the pain and misery of this place. This filthy basement was often the last memory slaves had of their homeland before being shipped across the Atlantic. These underground dungeons were not only a place of confinement but also a place where terror, death, and darkness were the order of the day. My Ghanaian guide explained how women were dragged from their separate dungeon to be raped by the guards, and sometimes their white masters one floor up would send for them to constitute the evening’s “entertainment.” Standing there in that awful place, I thought for a brief moment I could almost hear their screams of desperation.
Later that day, I stood alone in one of the dark dungeons and tried to imagine all the people crammed inside, forced to stand shackled at the ankles until they collapsed because of malnutrition and the unbearable heat. There were no windows and no toilet facilities of any kind. There was a single opening in the ceiling which offered some limited daylight and an occasional trace of a breeze that provided only limited relief from the sweltering heat. The guide asked me to run my hand along the floor. I remarked how smooth it seemed after all these years. He said it felt that way because of several excavations aimed at removing piles of decayed human bones and feces.
Then he led me across a courtyard to a cell that was marked with a skull and crossbones. It was the cell for the “condemned.” Again, there were no windows, only a single door that, when it was closed, would not reopen until everyone inside had died from starvation or suffocation. The walls were covered with fingernail marks resulting from vane attempts to claw a way to freedom. These individuals were being punished for fighting back against their oppressors in an attempt to escape. I cannot even image what thoughts and feelings may have possessed these individuals as they waited to learn of their destiny. Standing in the dim light I tried – in vain – to imagine the utter sense of desperation and fear that surely gripped these poor souls.
Finally, I walked down a narrow hallway and through the wooden entry known as the “Door of No Return.” This door led from the castle to a walkway down to the beach where the dinghies would be waiting to ferry the slaves out to the larger vessels. This walk would be their last upon the soil of their homeland. I exited and stood on the walkway. There was not a sound except for the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore. In that moment I was overwhelmed with a sense of thankfulness that the horrible days of slavery are no more.
Of course Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1861, but the final abolition of slavery was not realized until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865. At this Thanksgiving I am most thankful for this amendment which for all times closes this dark chapter of our history.
Next time: “The Wolf’s Lair: The Fuhrer’s Bunker”