After the “1000+ OB-Gyns” conference ended, Helen and I stayed on in Accra for a couple of days, visiting Drs. Anyetei and Demi Lassey. On Saturday, we got a car and driver and set out in the morning for Elmina, a small city on the Atlantic coast about 2.5 or 3 hours (depending on the traffic!) west of Accra.
Elmina is a rather picturesque place. The most important part of the economy here is fishing. The “Big Cheese” in Elmina is the Chief Fisherman, as you can tell.
Elmina has a rather shallow bay with a jetty, through which a huge number of highly decorated fishing canoes pass out into the Atlantic Ocean. This is always a good spot for a photographer.
The real significance of Elmina is not fishing, however; its real importance lies in its historical involvement with other forms of trade.
The Castle of St. George was established by the Portuguese in 1482 as a depot for the West African gold trade. Before it gained independence in 1957, Ghana was actually known as “The Gold Coast.” Elmina—“the mine”— was where the Portuguese went to get their gold–and they did. But yellow gold was soon replaced by an even more lucrative form of black gold: the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the 15th Century the Portuguese started exporting slaves from West Africa to Europe and the Americas. Soon other European powers–the Danes, Dutch, English, French, Germans and Swedes– all joined in. The slave trade lasted over 200 years and exported thousands of slaves from West Africa to agricultural plantations and mines in the Americas and the Caribbean. During the period of Dutch control (1637-1872) African soldiers were also recruited at Elmina and sent to other Dutch colonies such as Indonesia as part of the Dutch army.
This was my fourth visit to Elmina in the past 20 years, and I never cease to be moved by the experience. Helen had never been, so I was particularly keen for her to see it.
When you get up close to Elmina, it is a shiny whitewashed edifice right on the coast. The fishing boats and Elmina town are behind it and there is a large hill upon which another fort was constructed to guard the approach to the castle from the landward side.
You enter Elmina castle over a drawbridge which spans a moat, now dry but originally water-filled, and enter a large courtyard.
To your right is the original church, which later served as a commercial center (the Portuguese were Catholics and the Dutch, being Protestants, refused to use the church and built a new one free from contaminating Romish influence when they took over Elmina). To the left are the administrative quarters and the Governor’s rooms. On both sides are slave dungeons.
We were shown around the castle on the trip by an articulate and educated young Ghanaian tour guide named Kojo (meaning, “Born on a Monday”). His Christian name was Nicholas, but Kojo seems better. Of the four tours I have taken of Elmina, this was the best.
Elmina housed about 1,000 slaves at any given time: 400 females and 600 males. They were brought to the castle with the help and assistance of local chiefs. Many of those enslaved were prisoners of war captured in tribal battles further inland. Many of them were also ne’er-do-wells, criminals, political rivals or individuals unfortunate enough to have made enemies of powerful chiefs who decided that they should “take a Caribbean vacation,” courtesy of the European slavers. Interestingly, the fact of local African involvement is directly–and poignantly–noted at Elmina by a “plaque of apology” that was placed on the castle wall just as you enter the main courtyard by the Ghanaian National Council of Chiefs several years ago.
The plaque reads: “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”
The female slave quarters are entered through a tunnel which debouches into a courtyard next to the governor’s quarters, which were upstairs. These dingy communal dungeons held 400 women at any given time (slave mortality was always high at Elmina, but higher still once they were loaded onto ships).
The female slave courtyard was overlooked by a two-sided balcony from which the Governor could peer down.
If the Governor happened to like what he saw, there was a stairway which led to the slave courtyard which could be used to escort his chosen one to his quarters for his indulgence. If a female slave was “lucky” enough to become pregnant, she would be released, and a community of mulatto slaves–the offspring of these involuntary untons–grew up in Elmina. Many of these individuals became useful intermediaries between the European settlement and the local African chiefs.
The male slave quarters were even more densely packed and more depressing.
Off the main courtyard were two small cells, quite different from one another. One was used to discipline European troops who misbehaved. It was ventilated and had some light and you wouldn’t have had to have been inside for more than a day or two before you would repent of your misdeeds and rejoin your fellow Europeans. For slaves who misbehaved, however–such as by trying to escape or run away–the other cell, next door, was their lot. This was The Condemned Cell. It had no windows, no ventilation and once you were inside, there was no exit. You would receive neither food nor water and you would only leave once you had expired and your body was carted away to be dumped in the Atlantic Ocean.
About every 3 months a ship would come to carry off the slave cargo. Slaves were herded, single-file, down a dark interior corridor to the exterior wall of the castle. They would then be forced through The Door of No Return—one slave at a time (to prevent collusion, mischief, or attempted escapes)— to the ship waiting offshore. Usually slaves were put in in a small boat for transport to the larger ship, and after transfer you would begin your awful journey to the New World.
The rest of the castle is far more cheerful. The upper quarters for troops and officers were much more spacious and better lighted.
If you exit the upper quarters towards the outside, you come out on a nice terrace with a lovely view of the Atlantic Ocean, the fishing fleet of Elmina, and also of the fort that was built on the hill to protect the landward approach to the castle proper. The terrace is adorned with several old rusty cannons, which give it a picturesque air.
St. George’s Castle, Elmina, Ghana: A picturesque place of tropical beauty immersed in a history of unmitigated horror. A trip to be remembered.