As a mother of two young girls, I frequently watch my girls play “princess” pretending to be royalty dressed in fancy gowns with crowns and light up high-heel shoes.
They transform a cardboard box into their castle adorned with ornate designs made from pink crayons and glued on sequins. A castle is a grand place fit for kings and queens, princes and princesses.
Moving to Ghana, I heard repeatedly about how I needed to visit one of the “castles”. Not being well versed in Ghanaian history, I thought they were castles of grandeur like the kind you visit on a European vacation. Instead, I discovered one of the primary locations of the African slave trade where so many people were captured, tortured, and died. What a misplaced use of the term “castle”, I thought to myself.
The History of Ghana’s Elmira Castle
The castle is a massive white fortress at the edge of town next to the water. There is evidence of an old drawbridge and moat, and a large fort built for protection across from it. It is clearly visible from miles outside of town and you quickly see it’s a place rich in history.
When we park our car and walk toward the entrance of the castle, we are greeted like tourists in Ghana. We pass the sellers of paintings and custom bracelets and shells ready for our names to be added to them. The castle has undergone very minor restoration since its construction in the 1400s. Originally built by the Portuguese as a trading post, the large open space inside is lined with stone and massive white walls that prompt a sense of grandeur. Shortly after entering, our guide greets us and shares the history of the castle and how it was originally used for trading local goods.
Over time, the castle became one of the main depots for slaves throughout West Africa. Chiefs of villages sold their own people in exchange for gold and goods, sending them to auction at the Elmina castle. Slaves lived there for 3 months in poor conditions with minimal food and in crowded dungeons filled with their own waste.
Often, many of them would fall ill and were largely neglected. Horrible stories about women being raped and men put into solitary confinement for acting out live in the walls where they were often left to die.
As we toured the female and male dungeons, I was speechless at the “gate of no return” sign posted over a small door that I needed to duck under in order to pass through it.
I learned one in every three slaves that survived here would travel through this door to get to the beach where they were loaded onto slave ships sailing to the Americas. Imagine the victorious feeling these slaves had as they passed through the door having survived to this point and completely unaware that they were going to yet another level of torture.
How to Reconcile the Horror
Throughout the tour, the hair on my arms stood tall while my stomach battled nausea. Even without the castle tour information, my intuition told me that bad things had happened here. The aroma of metal and salt permeated the dungeons, making it difficult to breathe.
Directly above the male and female dungeon was the governor’s quarters, where parties were frequently held. Ironically, you could see the nearby adjacent church. I couldn’t imagine being an official sitting in church knowing people were suffering and dying below.
Entering the top of the castle, I can finally see light and we are outside surrounded by beautiful water views. The air feels good but my heart is uneasy as I spy the cannons scattered throughout the area for protection. The sun shines strong and it is a beautiful day so I welcome the momentary feeling of warmth. But I can’t be distracted from what we’ve experienced.
Leaving the castle, we are again bombarded with vendors now trying to force their goods on us. They are disgusted when we don’t want to buy anything. As we leave, all I can think is how human beings could do this to each other? And why does this continue to happen, in varying degrees, throughout the world?
I wonder if we could all tour this castle and feel the pain endured here, maybe it would help end some of the suffering inflicted in this world. I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I know visiting this castle really shook me.
My husband and I decided not to have our children take this intense tour, but we will bring them here one day to educate them. They must understand the truth and lessons of history: that castles are really not fairy tales.