No Castles Here

Our little bus bounced into Elmina late afternoon on Wednesday. The vibrant fishing community lies just west of Cape Coast and is home to the largest fishing port in the country. After a long stuffy bus ride through the forested hills between Kumasi and the coast, stretching our legs in the sand was a welcome reprieve.

Dungeons of Elmina & Cape Coast

Thursday and Friday the class received guided tours of the Elmina and Cape Coast “castles”. Elmina is the namesake of the small town neighboring Cape Coast, and the first European trade fort erected on the Gold Coast. Built by the Portuguese in 1482 it served as a base for their regional commercial operations, later taken over by the Dutch, and then British. Cape Coast "castle" sits just on the other side of the bay from Elmina, only a few miles away. Both stand as constant reminders to the surrounding communities of the colonial motives that began to develop this coastal region.

Beneath the castle walls, small, unventilated stone cells held thousands of human beings at a time as captives. By the time these captive Africans reached the dungeons they had already been bought by European trade organizations. They were often kept in the dungeons for as long as three months, the brick floor serving as their bed, their kitchen table, and their bathroom before they were led through the “Door of No Return”, and loaded on to ships most often bound for the Americas. Our tours were well rehearsed, and generally informative. We stood in the dungeons, walked along the castle walls, through the chapels and schools built directly above the cells, the tomb of African captives.

Those places still whisper with cries from the tortured souls of the enslaved. The dungeons, thick with the stagnant salty air, are still choked by the countless atrocities carried out by the Gold Coast’s white destroyers.

An American Alternative

Thursday night, after our visit to Elmina, the class had an opportunity to share a meal and some dialogue with a small group of African American’s who have, for various reasons,  permanently relocated to Ghana. The evening was full to the brim with thoughtful conversation, and valuable insight from individuals who sought alternatives to the experience of blackness in the United States, finding new homes here in Africa. The group was in part brought together by Rabbi Kohain Nathanyah Halevi, executive secretary for the Pan African Festival Historical Theatre Project (PANAFEST). One of the comments made by Halevi, in reference to the “castles” briefly discussed above, seems particularly relevant here.

He expressed that, while they are often referred to as “castles”, this particular rhetorical choice is dangerous and damaging. These edifices were first and foremost dungeons, used for centuries to ruthlessly dehumanize and commodify human beings, Africans, for European and American profits. The word “castle” would imply something romantic and royal, something perhaps conjured in the minds of those operating on those walls and chapels, but not in any way an accurate historical depiction. Words have power, and that power should be acknowledged here. 

With only a few days left here in Ghana, the class is having some really meaningful discussion and beginning to construct a more accurate picture of both colonial, and modern Ghanaian society. Learning every day!

We’ll do our best to share again before departure.



Clement and our little bus
The southern wall and courtyard above the Cape Coast dungeons
Female Dungeon at Elmina
The class explores the fortifications of Elmina
Student Tyler DesRochers at the "Door of No Return" in Elmina