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Next Stop Slavery - A Visit to an African Holding Pen

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Cape Coast Castle

Blue surf pounds the rocks below the Cape Coast Castle here in Ghana, West Africa, as it always has. These rocks, this surf, this land have seen so much. Things that I, thankfully, will never see. Things that none of us should ever forget. Kavitha and I--accompanied by our Ghanaian friends, Nilboy, Leslie, and Fred--have reached the very heart of the African slave trade.

Slaves have been taken from Ghana since pre-Roman times, first across the Sahara to the Mediterranean and Arabia, then later across the Atlantic to the Americas. Arab merchants had a monopoly on trade to this region (which also supplied gold and ivory), until the Portuguese arrived in the 1400's--before the Europeans even knew that the Americas existed!

This bright white, glittering castle, started by the Portuguese, was greatly enlarged in 1652 by the Swedes. Or, better said, by African slaves owned by the Swedes. It is one of more than 60 European trading centers that dot the Guinea coast from Guinea-Bissau to Ghana, many of which changed hands repeatedly between the different European powers-Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Germany, and France. This castle was the seat of the British administration of their Gold Coast colonies, and the British slave trade, for almost 200 years.

Slavery - learning from the past

As I was leaving, my head spinning from all that I had seen, a tour passed by, and the guide said something about forgiveness and love. "I'm not going to love THEM!" one dread-locked woman yelled in a Caribbean accent, clutching the hand of her daughter. "THEY did THIS! I don't want to see THEM here!" She was obviously directing her comments at me, the only white person around at the moment. Everyone else on the tour was trying to calm her down, and Fred just hurried me on.

I tried not to feel hurt. I know that seeing this horror brings up strong emotions. I wanted to say to her, "Do you think I could be capable of such atrocities?" But I was afraid she'd say "Yes".

I wanted to say to her, "During that time, my family were poor fishermen in Norway, whereas the family of my friend Fred here was capturing people from local tribes to sell to the Europeans, so don't call me 'THEM.'" But I knew that would only seem like I was laying the blame on someone else--blame which no one alive today holds.

I wanted to appeal to her Rastafarian beliefs, and say, "Don't you see, sister, that it's the separating 'us' and 'them' that started this whole thing to begin with? That now we know better. Now we know that there is only 'One Love.' We have to teach that to our children to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again." But I didn't. I just left.

What would you say to that woman? Who do you think is to blame? How is it that humans could ever treat each other in such an inhumane way? Do you think anything like the slave trade could ever happen again? How can we ensure that it doesn't? What effects, if any, does slavery have on our lives today? What can you do, in your communities, to improve race relations?

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Rusting cannons point towards the sea

Shining white in the sun against the blue sea and sky, surrounded by palm trees, the castle seems harmless, even charming. What a contrast from what it really was--a warehouse for human beings, waiting to be shipped out. Fred led us into the courtyard, surrounded by rusting cannons and cannonballs, pointed towards the sea.

"You see those rocks below?" He pointed toward the sea. "That is where my ancestors mined the rock to build this castle." The horror of this place began to sink in.

When the Americas were colonized, this castle became a major center in what is known as the triangular trade route. Merchant ships took from the "New World" raw materials such as sugar cane, cotton, indigo, and tobacco. These came across the Atlantic to Europe, where they were made into finished products. From Europe, the second corner of the triangular trade routes, came capital for the venture and the finished products. Things like cloth, beads, and guns were brought from Europe to what was called the Guinea or Gold Coast here, where they were traded with the local tribes, like the Ashanti, for slaves. The guns were particularly prized. They helped locals capture more slaves from neighboring tribes to trade for more European goods. The Europeans conveniently created a system of debt by giving some tribes more goods than they had yet paid for in slaves. Those tribes were then forced to continue capturing more slaves for the Europeans (some things haven't changed, have they!) From there, the slaves were taken to the Americas at the rate of about 10,000 per year to work the plantations that supplied the cotton, sugar cane, and tobacco, and the cycle started again.

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Fred enters the cell
I read about all this in school, of course, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing this. From the courtyard, Fred led us down a dark corridor into the depths of the castle--the men's dungeon. He led us into a dark, damp room, lit by a single light bulb, probably about the size of your classroom or a little smaller. The floors were wet dirt, the walls solid rock, the air stale and lifeless.

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This room would hold up to 500 men for as many as two months
"Here they would keep as many as 500 men, chained to each other, for up to two months, waiting to be shipped out. There was no light then. Only those two small windows." Fred explained, pointing up.

A tear ran down my cheek as I looked in horror at what misery humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. "I have been here at least a hundred times." Fred told me. "And at least fifty of them I've cried."

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Behind this memorial is the sealed-off passage where the slaves were led to the ships
The next two rooms were the same, but the furthest one had a small shrine set up by a fat wall that seemed out of place. "The English outlawed slavery in 1807. The governor who put an end to the slave trade here sealed off the passages to the door of no return, which led to the slave ships. He wanted to ensure that it never started up again. This wall used to be where the men were taken out."

I was thankful to emerge up into the fresh air and sunlight--something those slaves didn't see for months. Above the door that led down into the men's dungeon was a small building. "That was the Church of England." Fred explained. "There, the first native Ghanaian archbishop worshipped and started a school for the locals."

"During the slave trade?!" I asked. Fred nodded.

That brought home to me how very "normal" this all was to those who were dealing in humans. They didn't see a problem in building their church right on top of the heart of their evil. It also pointed out to me that not all Africans were being made into slaves--some were being made into archbishops! What difference did they see between Ghanaian Archbishop Philip Quaque and his students and the thousands of Africans they treated as merchandise?

And how could this Archbishop work and pray when his fellow Africans were chained below? I realized that, for some Africans, the slave trade was accepted, too. They were even a part of the trading, since they supplied the slaves to the Europeans. I was overwhelmed with just how deep the roots of the evil ran, and how the situation was not as "black and white" as it seemed to me in the past.

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The women were kept in this cell
From there, we crossed the courtyard to the women's cells, which were equally horrifying--small, dark, and damp. "The European men would come here and rape the women, then throw them back in," Fred told us. Running under the castle, there was a long passageway from the men's chamber to the women's, next to the door of no return. The men would be forced through that way, then out to the waiting ships, where they would be chained down for the long voyage across the sea. Now it is sealed off on this end, too.

The slave trade didn't fully end until the 1870's, when Brazil and Cuba finally made it illegal. No one really knows how many Africans were taken from this continent over the 400 years of this inhumane practice, but estimates range from 15 to 50 million. Most came from West Africa, Angola, and the Congo. One third of those went to Brazil, and another third to the Caribbean islands. The last third ended up in different parts of Europe and America. About 1.5-2 million slaves were brought into North America.

We silently toured the museum, examining guns and gold, and pictures of how the slaves were crammed into ships during the "middle passage" from Africa to the Americas. Then we checked out the rooms and banquet halls upstairs, where the Europeans lived. They seemed so normal, so simple, not like an evil dragon's lair or a lion's den. These were church-going Christians with parents and children they loved. I don't understand how human beings could ever do the things that were done here. I sat, looking silently at the sea, trying to comprehend, trying to relate. I couldn't.

The slave trade only ended a little more than 100 years ago. Its scars still run deep in our minds and our culture. Remember. Discuss this part of our history. Teach it, so that it can never happen again.


The Team - Let's go to Cameroon, NOT!
Jasmine - A San Francisco Treat
Kavitha - Accra...or Brooklyn? The African Diaspora
Kevin - It's a Hard Day's Night
Monica - The People On the Bus Go Up and Down...To Ghana and Burkina Faso

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