Elmina had not really been touted as a destination in and of itself by the Dragoman Itinerary or trip description. In fact, almost nothing was mentioned of its stunning harbor that dramatically juxtaposed alongside its famed Slave Castle that I had read about when I was a teenager in high school.
It turned out to be the highlight of the trip so far.
That morning, all that had been organized for the group was a visit to 3 schools that had been built by a charity that Dragoman supports. The visit left me with very mixed feelings – in the first school, the conditions were ideal and the school’s facilities were superior to what I was lucky enough to experience in primary school in the UK. The kids were all clean, healthy, well-dressed with new shoes and new backpacks. When asked what the criteria was for kids to be able to come to this school, we were told that it was purely based on geography and whether parents could bring their kids to school. To me, just looking at the children told me that this wasn’t the case and that this was a group of kids from the elite upper-class persons of Elmina – who obviously deserved a good education – but why was a western supported charity helping kids who came from families that could already afford to support themselves?
The next school was far more moderate and struggled with class sizes of over 70 or 80 kids. It felt like we were diverting the children’s attention from their classwork, and so the visit didn’t sit well with me at all. In addition, these kids were some of the most aggressively “friendly” of any crowds of kids I’ve come across on this continent. When trying to leave, they practically clawed, scratched and grabbed at me to get physical hold of me, along with pulling off my hat and grabbing my hair. I didn’t appreciate that at all.
One highlight of the visit, however, was that this school itself sat on Elmina beach where a local team of fishermen just happened to be pulling in the day’s catch when we were there. It was a spectacle to witness as the men sang songs and clapped in time to create the unity and coordination necessary to pull in the thousands of tiny fish in their nets ashore. I managed to get a good video of the event which I will include here.
Once the visits were over (and they’d gone way overtime) we were hungry for some food and were dropped off downtown to get lunch and take a walk around Elmina.
Once we’d eaten, it became quickly obvious that there was so much here to see and do and the photographic opportunities in Elmina’s gloriously colorful harbor full of life, locals, and fishing boats coming in and out of the harbor demanded that the rest of the day be spent here.
I was also very keen to visit Elmina castle despite the fact that we were visiting the Slave Castle at Cape Coast the next day. Elmina castle is additionally historic because it wasn’t built specifically for the slave trade, but rather as a trading post for other goods’/commodities by the Portuguese in 1482 – 10 years before Columbus supposedly “found” Hispaniola.
I managed to convince Mike and “Precise” Peter (aka Pipi Lou Lou) to come along with me for the $9 tour of the castle and we further planned to make our own way walking all the way back to the beach that housed Stumble Inn and our accommodation for the night.
I could write a book about what visiting Elmina castle was like, but I will attempt to summarize my feelings/thoughts for you here in a more concise manner. Much like visiting Aushwitz/Birkenau, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, or the Genocide Museum in Kigali – you cannot quite prepare yourself for the horror you feel when you can actually see a place that housed such a shocking testament to the cruelty, sadism and torture of living humans that other humans are capable of inflicting upon another group of people. And doing so without a sense of remorse or conscience. For me, it stirred up a lot of very heavy emotions and made me look at the history of my own nation with a new set of eyes.
Our guide was incredible, thorough and managed to infuse just the right amount of humor when it was needed so as to not detract from the serious nature of our visit. He did a wonderful job of giving us the preliminary world history that set the stage for the slave trade to begin in the first place – namely the decimation of Native Populations in the Americas due to European-introduced diseases, the noteworthy observation of the physical strength and working characteristics of the African people and a backdrop of inter-tribal warfare that set the stage for the creation of the slave trade, which was, in large part started by Africans enslaving other Africans in exchange for weapons to fight.
The Americas needed to build infrastructure and gather resources from their newly acquired lands. The Africans were warring with one another over land and resources in West Africa. The Europeans saw the opportunity for obtaining vast quantities of cheap, and subsequently “free” labor, by rewarding tribal leaders with weapons, and goods in exchange for their “enslaving” their enemy tribal members and bringing them, in chains, to Elmina and other slave castles along the West African coast to be shipped by the thousands to Brazil, South America, the Caribbean and only about 1/3 going to the continental United States.
For almost 400 years – men, women, and children were brought here against their will, separated, thrown in dungeons where a process of elimination would begin and only those “surviving” these harshest of environments would then be subjected to the grueling and inconceivably inhumane Atlantic crossing to their eternal servitude.
We visited both the male and the female dungeons at Elmina where up to a 1000 persons would be crammed, chained to another person at the wrist, feet, or neck for up to 3 months with little to no food, water, or chance to toilet/menstruate or wash. The ventilation was next to nothing with only tiny windows built into the rock, and these people were forced to live like this in almost total darkness.
What really hit me the most is when our guide showed us a section of the “floor” in the male dungeon that had actually been “cleaned/excavated” to show the original brick flooring. It was a good ½ foot lower than the rest of the floor, and he explained that we were literally standing on compressed faeces, urine, and human flesh.
A drainage system had been built into the floor but it was obviously not adequate to eliminate all waste. The stench must have been beyond imagining. In addition, the guide explained that if you wanted to sit or lie down, you would have to get the agreement of whomever you were chained to – and often this person didn’t speak the same language as you and moreover – he might have been from an enemy tribe. Sometimes, your chained partner would die and they would have to wait for a guard to find that person dead before removing him and throwing him into the ocean.
Once a ship was in the harbor ready to set sail for the “New World” – the slaves would be marched through dark tunnels to the “Door of No Return” where they would be stockpiled and chained like sardines end to end until the ship was full, totally unaware of the horrors that awaited them, and still separated from their families.
Our guide explained that it was sometimes during the rush and panic of getting the men and women onto the ships from these passages that families might be reunited for mere moments before being separated again on female or male only decks.
Even more chilling, if you didn’t see or meet up with your loved ones in the tunnels leading to the beach, then you would know that he/she didn’t make it out alive.
The Portuguese were replaced by the Dutch who were then replaced by the British who did the heavy lifting during the slave trade at Elmina. It made me sick to my stomach when after visiting the dungeons we visited the floor directly above the dungeons where the British soldiers had built a church directly over the heads of the persons they were enslaving and torturing. How a person could sing a hymn in praise of Christ with that misery below is beyond my comprehension and it filled me with rage.
If not more upsetting, above the church was the stunning floor that was the Governor’s quarters – palatial and airy with an incredible 365 degree view over Elmina harbor, the beach and the blue ocean – the color of which most of the slaves marched here never even set eyes upon.
The visit left me somber, but as I always feel when visiting important historical sites such as this – it is our duty as human beings on this planet to be informed of our bloody and barbaric history if only in order that it not be repeated. Unfortunately, given what is going on in Libya and in the global sex trade at this moment in time, it appears that slavery has not had its end, making such a site an even bigger duty to visit and ponder.
Once we left the castle – we were literally blown away by further exploration of the bustling life that was to be observed and photographed in the harbor and along the busy main street that marked our path back to the Inn.
Re-caffeinated albeit with slightly warm soft drinks, we three happily walked along smiling and chatting with the locals, high-fiving with the countless little children, and photographing the busy markets overflowing with fish and produce.
As the sun started to glow a little lower on the horizon, we took a daring early turn to the beach hoping against hope that we might be able to take advantage of the beach “wall” that had been created that year to help prevent shore erosion, but that also happened to provide a rather unique way to walk along the beach back to our accommodation.
The bet paid off and I had what turned out to be an incredibly memorable walk back along the beach as the sun turned a golden red and we got back to camp just as it set below the horizon.
I felt especially full and joyous from the day’s learning, and experiences. I would highly recommend Elmina to anyone visiting Ghana – just make sure you have longer than the one day we had!